Teaching Yoga and the Pitfalls of Being Nice
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | October 27, 2023
Yoga teachers are some of the nicest people in the world. But being too nice sometimes comes at a price.
Recently, I was approached by a lovely person. Although she maintains that she’s not independently wealthy, she spends many hours offering yoga without compensation in the service of others. She asked me to come to a city (pretty far away) and teach for her event.
But then she told me, “I’m sorry but I can’t pay you.”
“What about airfare and accommodations?” I asked.
“No, I’m sorry you’ll have to cover that too.”
After I scraped my jaw up off of the floor, I asked why she doesn’t compensate presenters – or cover their expenses. She told me that she loves having small, personal events. That they are really fun and successful. And that she can’t afford to pay the teachers, and in fact, she barely breaks even. So, yes, you read that right – she does not make a profit, nor does she pay the presenters, and she spends a lot of time and effort creating events.
Unfortunately, this is not an unfamiliar tale in the yoga world – many teachers have conflicting feelings about money. And this and similar stories are often harbingers of the beast of burnout breaking down the back door.
I told her that I’m an advocate for yoga and yoga therapy, and that I write about and work with several organizations to try and increase the perceived value of the yoga profession, and to attempt to integrate yoga into the health care system – primarily because I want yoga teachers to be able to make a living doing what they love, and for yoga to be good, people have to be able to afford to learn to teach it well.
“As an advocate for the profession of yoga,” I said. “I would not be modeling my beliefs about our professional value if I was to spend time and money to fly somewhere to teach. It would devalue what I do, and the profession in general.”
The question of teaching for free comes up frequently in the yoga world – but this was not about teaching for free, this was about paying to teach. There are plenty of times that I do things pro bono – typically for non-profits and usually online. And sure, I’m happy to offer that kind of seva from time to time when I believe in the mission of the organization and I have the time to fit it into my schedule.
But this ask went far beyond those parameters.
As a comparison, what would most people think if, for example, I was a male physician who taught other physicians? What if I was asked to come to speak at an event, and to pay to do so. And not be compensated for my expenses. How would that go over? Would that seem like a normal ask?
It’s not that her work isn’t valuable – in fact, I think it’s much more valuable than she perhaps realizes or admits to herself – and in a culture that cares little for those who live outside the monetary system, it may be seriously harmful, both personally and professionally, to devalue the teachings of yoga to that extent.
Dr. Gabor Mate links being too nice and putting everyone else’s need before your own to the development of many chronic diseases.
“No one wakes up in the morning and decides, ‘Today, I’ll put the needs of the whole world foremost, disregarding my own,’” he said. But we, especially women, are often acculturated to do exactly that. We often put our need for attachment – to feel loved and validated – before our need for self-care, or even survival. We say “Yes” often, even when it hurts us to do so. And we may pay the price for it with resulting health issues.
I believe that yoga is for everyone and everyone should have access to it. I value the spiritual teachings of yoga including seva and karma yoga – deeply. I believe that everyone is entitled to set up their yoga teaching however they’d like to.
But then again, it’s worthwhile examining these two, intersecting issues:
- Women’s perceived value – both in who they are and what they do; both in how they see themselves and how other see them; and
- Yoga’s value as a profession.
In many western countries, teaching yoga is largely a woman’s business. Which is great. I love that about yoga, there are so many wonderful women providing an important service and helping so many people. Some of these people are also business-minded and make a living teaching yoga – but others really struggle to make ends meet and often feel guilty about taking money from people for yoga – which may relate back to either not believing in yourself and/or not believing in the value of what you teach.
Reaching out to a female expert in any field and asking her not only to not be compensated, but also to spend her time and money in order to deliver her expertise is a blinding reflection of some seriously dysfunctional thinking about the value of women. Reaching out and asking any yoga expert to do the same is a blinding reflection of some seriously dysfunctional thinking about the value of yoga teaching.
I have fought long and hard against the cultural messages I internalized as a child that told me that whatever I do is worth less because of my gender. And, in my adult life, I’ve fought hard against the mainstream messages that assert that teaching yoga is easy, not terribly important, and something that anyone with a pair of tights and stretchy hamstrings can do, and so it carries very little value.
But good yoga teaching can be life changing. Yet most yoga teachers, despite their training, expertise, experience, and the tremendous value of their work, are severely undercompensated for their skills.
I wonder how often health experts like Andrew Huberman, Jon Kabat Zinn, Andrew Weil, and Peter Atia are asked to spend their income and time to travel somewhere and teach for free?
(I looked it up – Peter Atia’s speaking fee for a live engagement starts at $200,000. Jus’ sayin’).
It’s 2023, it’s time to bury this valueless perception of both women and yoga. It’s time to promote the value of both who you are and what you do. It’s time to be appropriately compensated. It’s time to ask for what you’re worth.
Iceland’s badass women went on strike to protest pay inequity – yoga teachers outta take a page from their playbook.
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