Yoga Teachers and Mental Health

Photo by Tara Lengyel

Photo by Tara Lengyel

Words by Ellen Mqueen

“To teach a yoga class well, the teacher must hold back nothing. The teacher’s heart must be entirely open,” Rolf Gates writes in his book Meditations from the Mat.

It is, in effect, a taxing job, and when I began teaching yoga there were certain challenges that caught me by surprise. I hadn’t expected, for example, to be so energetically depleted by one hour’s worth of work. As a student with a job in New York City, I became used to managing twelve-hour days of non-stop obligation, sparing enough ardour at the end for a drink before dinner. As a yoga instructor teaching one or two hours at lunch then another one or two in the evening, I was thrilled to be faced with this newfound resource of time. It became evident, though, that the time would have to be dedicated to restoring and reanimating, utilised for preparing physically, mentally and emotionally for the next class. Because, while teaching yoga is an incredible honour and blessing that I wouldn’t change for the world, its demands on these physical, mental and emotional energies should not be underestimated.

It’s embarrassing to admit that I’d believed the mere act of earning a teacher-training diploma would somehow cure my chaotic mind; a mind prone to severe anxiety, bouts of depression and (as most minds are) prolonged tantrums of existential crisis. While the experience of a teacher training was by all means a strengthening one, it did not, as I’d hoped, turn me into some kind of yogic guru bursting with wisdom and tranquillity. I did not, to my disappointment, suddenly possess the secrets of the Sutras that could stabilise the twisting and turning and rushing river of my life. But, as I’ve observed my fellow yoga teachers navigating their own rivers of mistakes and fears and insecurities, it’s become clear that a teacher-training certificate is not a one-way ticket to enlightenment.

It’s easy and comforting to believe that our instructors do in fact hold the secrets. That they have some kind of authority over focusing on the breath, stretching out the body, managing anxiety, or whatever the reasons are that we’re desperate to get to yoga class. And while yes, they’re certainly trained and knowledgeable on these subjects, “the best teachers have also gone through their own shit,” as Kim McNeil states in her podcast “Yoga Teachers’ Mental Health: Yoga’s Not So Dirty Secret.” We’re drawn to yoga for all different reasons, but the reason is rarely because one’s life is going exactly as planned, the picture of security and serenity.  

Yoga teachers began as yoga students, and they arrived for the first time to their mats as many of us do; seeking skills to fortify the body, becalm the mind, balance the emotions. They, more often than not, have gone through their fair share of trials and tribulations. But isn’t that what we want from a teacher? Someone who looks at you knowingly and nods encouragingly when you break into tears during a deep hip opener? Someone who can relate when you begin ranting about how tired you are, how overworked or overstressed or scared or lonely or any of those things we all endure here in this human experience? Someone who perhaps identifies exactly with what it’s like to be in the midst of a panic attack, someone who does in fact appreciate how hard it is to regain control of one’s breath, let alone stay focused on it?

At the risk of over generalising, your yoga instructor has probably been through some serious shit, exigent emotional upheavals, endured those curveballs life loves to throw. And, as I do, he or she probably loves teaching yoga partly because of the support it provides to yogis who may be battling with similar struggles of life and mental health. But do not expect that your instructor has entirely suppressed his or her own struggles. Part of the job is holding space, establishing a peaceful and joyful energy in the studio for, at the very least, the duration of class. And part of the job is learning to do this even on black cloud days.

Welcoming each yogi to class with genuine enthusiasm even though insomnia has kept you up for a week straight.

Establishing an intention for class of focusing on the breath because you woke this morning to a hyperventilating panic attack.

Sequencing an organised and enjoyable flow despite obsessive thoughts about the fight you just had with your partner, about the fear you won’t make rent, about the guilt you’ve been harbouring for those things you said a few days ago, when the anger took over, when you should’ve been yogic but instead had been human.

It’s not different from other jobs, really. Be prepared, be knowledgeable, be passionate, but know that some days you will have to be fake it ‘till you make it. Show up, show what you’re made of, but remember some days you’ll have to put on a show. Teaching, no matter what the subject, is a profession that demands exorbitant care for the well-being and growth of the students. As a yoga teacher you must genuinely want to create an environment that will nurture the advancement, physically, mentally and emotionally, of the yogis who’ve entrusted you as their guide.

You don’t have to be Patanjali, you don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to be the picture of thriving mental health. But remember it’s your job to inspire the path to stable health, to encourage tenacity, to guide eager and willing souls as they explore the depth of their own strength.  

So, to my fellow yogis, do please admire your teachers, heed their advice, listen carefully. But remember that they are human, remember that they once stood in your place, hoping to find refuge and foresight in this beautiful practice we enjoy together.  Don’t be surprised if every class is not the same level of total zen, maybe some days the smile won’t be quite as big as the instructor greets you. But trust that your teachers know the ropes, that they want to provide the most enriching experience because of what they have already struggled through on their own.  

And to my fellow yoga teachers, let this be a reminder that you are not expected, that it is not possible, to be “yogic” one hundred percent of the time. Some days you will not feel like teaching, some days you will feel like strangling the student that is late for the third time this week. Some days you’ll need to grant yourself a five-minute-freak-out before yogis begin arriving, some days you’ll need to cry after class. While teaching yoga is in itself an energising and fulfilling experience, accept that it can also be draining, stressful, sometimes even overwhelming. Listen to your own advice. Be kind to yourself, be kind to your body, there’s no need to push too far. One cannot expect his or her heart to be entirely open every hour of every day.

Take care of your mental health so that when it is time to teach, you can give it everything you’ve got, hold back nothing.     

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Ellen is an American writer and yoga instructor currently living in Paris. In 2015 she graduated from New York University with a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing, and since has had the opportunity to pursue her passion for traveling. She hopes to continue teaching yoga to the local and ex-pat community of Paris, and you can stay updated on her class schedule at mcqueenyoga.com or follow her on Instagram @mcqueenyoga.

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