Being a yoga teacher is an absolute dream job. But teaching about calm and balanced wellness doesn’t always guarantee it for the teacher! I learned this the hard way, many times. It’s why I developed the Yogi Rules (for all teachers) to Live by.
I’ve been leading yoga retreats every year since 2011. At one point I led 7 or 8 myself while hosting 20-25 for other international yoga teachers, all in the span of 12 months. Oh, and I taught 24 yoga classes every single week.
There was once a 3-month sprint of 11 retreats, meaning 3 straight months of nonstop yoga. Not just yoga, but airport pick-ups, check-ins, group meals, excursions, sunset sails, hikes, wine tastings, horseback riding, jeep tours, snorkeling, diving, bowling, trips to the pharmacy, trips to the grocery store, trips to the hardware store—pretty much 150 people on vacation, with all of their ups and downs, all put together in a few months.
Now I see how nuts it was to work that much, but at the time I was so in love with it all that nothing would slow me down. Through that madness (it was beautiful, but it was still madness), I realized I needed to set some ground rules for myself, and my health:
The Three Yogi Rules to Live by:
1. Listen to your body.
2. Practice every day.
3. Love is always the most important thing.
It wasn’t until I led a yoga class with what felt like a broken back that I discovered Yogi Rule Number Four, the rule that makes all the other rules possible. But we'll get to that.
Teaching yoga and leading retreats is, in a word, amazing.
It’s also hectic (for me, that is).
A perfect example is a retreat I led in Colombia in 2012. I taught for 3 hours every day, then I took care of a group of crazy yogis from dusk to dawn. All that can take its toll, no matter how fun the group. And it was a fun group indeed! We went out dancing almost every night, which meant coming home late — and we practiced every morning, which meant getting up early. These yogis knew how to salsa!
After 3 very busy days, I started feeling a little under the weather, but I decided to ignore it. I still had a lot of classes left to teach, and we had one more excursion to go. After that, I had two flights to get back to Aruba. So this was definitely not the time to get sick (because there is such a thing as a right time to get sick… Ha!).
Even though what I probably needed the most were some extra zzz’s, I pushed through. I completely ignored my own Yogi Rule Number One:
Listen to your body.
This is one of the profound connections people make when they begin a yoga practice — self-awareness through the body. It’s life changing! Your body is incredibly intelligent; it responds to your environment like a crystal ball, if you only took the time to notice.
But this retreat was so busy that I also decided to skip Yogi Rule Number Two:
Practice every day.
Every teacher should habitually practice what they teach. Yet the most common advice senior yoga teachers give newbies is, “Don’t lose your home practice. Keep it going strong, every day.” It takes discipline to keep up your own practice after you start spending those practice hours guiding others on their own mats. Don’t lose your own practice!
During the retreat in Colombia, I let my own practice slip. There was simply no time for me to practice before class (I was going to bed much too late) or after class (we were always on our way to the next fun adventure). I do not believe in should have’s, but I know if I’d scheduled in time for my own practice, I would have been much been much more in tune with my body, thus noticing and acting on Yogi Rule Number One.
These rules are all connected.
Yogi Rules One and Two should be a cake walk if we practice Yogi Rule Number Three:
Love is always the most important thing.
I never forget Rule Number Three. Ever. But that’s the thing, sometimes it’s hard to balance it with Numbers One and Two.
I love teaching. Absolutely love it. I love it so much, I sometimes do it too much (like when I taught 24 set classes every single week). I even wrote an article about teaching in moderation. Right after that published, I ignored my own advice and taught 5, sometimes 6 classes a day. Then I spent years on tour, teaching 200-900 people in one go, sometimes back to back. Most recently, I opened a brick-and-mortar yoga studio where I lead multiple yoga teacher trainings and retreats every year. Sometimes it still feels like I just don't have an off button!
It so happened that I had to relearn my lessons, and my own rules, the hard way.
Yogi Rule Number One: Listen to your body.
Around the time I was teaching 24 classes a week and leading or hosting a dozen retreats each month, I started feeling a little under the weather. Then, the nightly back pain hit — two car accidents and scoliosis put my spine in a real mess. If I’m ever out of balance, my back is where I feel it first.
My body was telling me to slow down, but I refused to listen.
I kept going, teaching triple SUP Yoga classes (7 back-to-back hours in the sun) and going along 100% with every retreat group, hosting and participating in every class. I felt like every single person in the world that had ever thought of coming to yoga class needed to experience it, and it was my responsibility to make it happen (delusion of grandeur, hello?!).
Then one morning, 18 happy yogis sat down in the yoga pavilion waiting for me to begin class. I bent over to pick up a pen and snap! I felt like something had physically broken in my back, like a 90-year-old lady. I couldn’t sit down, I couldn’t stand up straight, I could hardly move. And here I was, in front of 18 yogis all waiting patiently for morning class to begin. What was a poor, tired yogi to do? Teach, of course!
To this day, I do not know how I made it through that class. But I did. I didn’t demonstrate a single pose or adjust a single person, but I made it through.
Looking back, in the world of should have’s, I probably should have called it a day and gone home. Well, I didn’t.
This is where Yogi Rule Number Three gets tricky for me: when your love for teaching starts to interfere with your love for yourself, you get into real trouble.
After class, I called my husband Dennis. He had to carry me from the yoga shala to the car. As he struggled to avoid the many potholes on the way to the chiropractor, he said, “Love, I think you need to slow down.”
It finally clicked — I mean, I teach health! Balance! Calm! And here I was in pain, feeling stressed and overworked — not following any of my own Yogi Rules at all.
I started cutting classes and learned how to do my work well without getting too involved — sometimes, saying no is the most valuable thing you can do for your health and your career. I quickly learned the number of classes per week that made me happiest without getting overworked — I found my balance.
I still want every person in the world to find and love yoga the way I do, but I know that all people that share this path with me will eventually start walking down it. All in good time. My home practice became solid again, and my back pain nearly vanished (until the Instagram-fame frenzy began, and I had to learn my lessons once again).
I realized the reason why it was so slippery to follow my Three Yogi Rules was because my list was missing one more rule:
Balance is key.
It’s as simple as that. Balance is what makes the other rules possible and holds it all together. We have a wonderful word in Swedish for this kind of balance: lagom. In a sense, it means just enough; just the right amount; everything in moderation.
This might be the most challenging rule for me yet, which means it’s the most important rule to work on.
This I know: I need to be in balance to teach a good class or run a productive meeting—and I also need to focus on my love for teaching and practicing yoga to be in balance. But love always comes first. The more love I give myself, the more love I can give my students, my team and my family. It’s a self-supporting circle.
These rules are all woven together like a beautiful dreamcatcher. But break one string, and the whole thing unravels. The blessing of those broken strings? Each time I relearn my lesson, I feel the dreamcatcher getting stronger and stronger.
Listen to your body.
Practice every day.
Love is always the most important thing.
Balance is key. Lagom.
Yoga teacher or not, what rules do you live by to keep you on track in health and happiness? Share below!