Dan SchwartzmanWriter, Yogi, Cyclist
I've practiced at a lot of studios — probably hundreds. For all the painted Ganesh images on the wall, a great studio is built on a foundation of excellent people and attention to detail, particularly when it comes to the basics.
- The Teachers. First thing’s first. There is no class without a teacher. Even in Bikram Yoga – where the postures and even the words are the same – the teacher can be the difference thing between a poor class and an excellent one. This does not necessarily mean an experienced teacher. Everyone starts out somewhere (teachers and students). Often it is just the teacher's attitude that it comes down to.
- Cleanliness. A good studio should be cleaned daily — sometimes even more regularly. Clean bathrooms. Clean towels. Clean yoga room. Sure, sometimes a cleaner may miss a shift or the studio is out of something but if the studio is not being cleaned, you can tell.
- Lighting. I’ve practiced under bright lights and, if the class was engaging, I was working hard, the lights were something in the background. But staring up at the ceiling in sevasana, a bright fluorescent can really harsh the vibe.
- Air flow. For me, this is a must. In order to create physical health, the space in which you are practicing must be a healthy aerobic environment. A space with sealed windows, doors and no ventilation means you are breathing other people’s CO2 all class. Anything they got, you’re gonna get if the space is anaerobic.
- Welcome. This one may seem a bit intangible. But think about it. When you step into the space. Does it feel like a space that is full of love, warmth and positivity? How are you treated? How do the students treat you? The teachers? The owners?
What is vital for you that makes a studio great?
I recently started receiving a magazine called Mindful Studio. On the cover are a handsome couple of Californians, who casually discuss their empire of yoga studios as though their studios' successes were as sure as the California sunrise. The article made it seem like cash grew on the limbs of the trees that adorned their studio's walls and earning it was a cakewalk.
The reality of owning a yoga studio is far from this sun-dappled story.
Here is the reality of owning a yoga studio:
Low Pay. If you think teaching is a poor paying job, try owning a studio! Some teachers are paid hourly, others by the class and some by the number of students attending. As a teacher, if you can lock in a gig or several gigs with a steady pay rate, you have it made in the shade.
Weird hours. 6 am class not staffed? Wake up at 4:45 am! Can’t find anyone to teach Friday night? That’s you! Christmas morning? On it!
High Stress. This job – like all jobs – comes with its stresses. Managing people. Customer service. Overseeing vendors and contractors. Making payroll.
Competition. You're not the only one who wants to quit their day job and move to the beach.
For 4 years I taught yoga part time and spent the remainder of mine time pursuing my interests – reading, surfing, cooking. You know, relaxing! For the past two years as a studio owner I've made less and worked waaaaaaayyyyyy more.
Sure, there are some perks (discount coconut water, Tuesday afternoons off, etc) but any studio owner who is really going after it to try to make a studio work knows it means working hard – like any other small business owner.
What advice would you give to someone seeking to become a yoga studio owner?
How can I be a hot yoga studio owner and an environmentally minded person? How can I reconcile burning fossil fuels to heat the room with my passion for combating climate change?
After 5 years teaching and a decade of practice, hot yoga may very well end up being my life’s work. And to think that my life’s work is/was a net contributor to the wrong side of things (contributing to climate change)…. that’s a tough pill to swallow. So for the most part I choose not to speak about the dissonance I feel.
When I started hot yoga 10 years ago, climate change was irrefutable. But the interceding 10 years of news media and science has added to it’s immediacy.
I noticed one studio bought carbon credits to offset their usage. But even this act does not offset the fact that the hot room requires — demands — the burning of carbon. And so often this means coal, oil or frickin’ fracked gas.
It’s ironic that yoga studio owners — the leaders of communities supposedly striving towards a higher consciousness — could also silently partake in the hot practice without considering the effect of heating the room on the environment. For me, the pleasant feeling (and perhaps the good I can do in the world from myself and others feeling good) potentially offsets the fossil fuels it took burning in order to practice hot yoga.
For me, the path of the yogi bends towards enlightenment or at least elucidation of that which is true and important.
For me, it’s true and important that climate change is THE NUMBER ONE THREAT TO EVERYONE AND IS THE PROBLEM OF OUR LIFETIME. And, to be working day-In and day-out in an environment that doesn’t acknowledge that (let alone do anything about that and actually worsens the problem) feels bad and wrong.
If all students felt this way, then we would be out of business (or we’d just need to turn the heat down.)
I think that someone passionate enough about combating climate change would probably simply stop coming to hot yoga.
But (virtually) everyone drives everywhere here on Cape Cod. Almost everyone flies everywhere to travel. Certainly all these activities contribute to climate change in a major way.
So, here I am running this small town shop and what am I supposed to do in the face of this climate crisis?
How can you reconcile being a hot yoga practitioner and an environmentally minded person?
Feet. Sweat. Grime. Bacteria. This is the reality of the yoga mat you own and practice on everyday. As for the random yoga mat you get out of the bin at the airport’s “meditation room” or at the Library? Fungus. Herpes. You name it… These mats are NEVER CLEANED!
This is not an ad for mat spray. This is just what it is.
Honestly, when is the last time you cleaned your mat?
Yoga has a perception of clean white linens and breezy models flowing through warrior poses on clouds of lavender.
Funk that. Yoga is funky. Yoga is stinky. Those zephyrs are farts. This is NORMAL. Yes, it is gross. Reality is a little funky.
Ok, so here’s where I tell you to do this thing or buy this other thing. Look, I went through 5 mats in 5 years of practice. One mat was so stinky I kept it in the basement of the apartment complex I lived in and neighbors complained that they thought something had died down there.
Advice? What to do?
Clean your mat. Use a quality mat. And reuse your mat!
Here are some ideas on how to reuse old yoga mats.
- Yoga mats are perfect for painting.
- Cushion stuff. We have yoga mats in some of the areas of our garage — underneath surfboards and lining the walls.
- Insulate. I just thought of this one. Insulation is such toxic crap… think of houses (or at least sheds) insulated with old yoga mats!
- Surf Rack pads. I actually tried to turn old yoga mats into a surf rack pad. Why spend $25 bucks for some crappy pieces of foam in a poorly sewn canvas bag?
- Supposedly the yoga mats from the teacher training I attended were donated for pets in some way. I'm not sure the use … perhaps you do?
How do you reuse your mat?
I remember when a teacher in San Francisco added this line of dialogue to the half moon posture: “Look Snooty at Yourself in the Mirror.” At first it was kinda cute and got accross the idea of lifting up one’s chin — by lifting up one’s nose.
Then the strangest thing happened. I started hearing it all over town. And I thought to myself, San Francisco already has enough snooty people. We don’t need anymore. We need students to lift up their chin. The line of dialogue that accomplishes this is: “Chin up.”
(For all my San Franciscans, I love you and I’m just jealous that you get to live in SF and I no longer do.)
I’m no purist. (Well maybe I am;) I think teachers should teach their class and, after a few hundred classes, the dialogue can just be one of many tools a teacher can use to lead the class. It is particularly a valuable tool when teaching beginners.
Especially as a new teacher, I’ve noticed the tendency to add unnecessary stuff to the dialogue.
Instead of adding to the dialogue, I encourage new teachers to look closely at the dialogue and stick with it. It’s not important to say every word in every set. Instead, try to start connecting the words with the people and their bodies around you. Sooner or later you'll start to have thoughts and you'll be able to think on your feet even as your saying the dialogue. Form these thoughts into what you want to say and your first corrections will form. Then return to the dialogue again.
Over time your class will change and evolve. That’s natural and there comes a time when the dialogue is just one of many tools you can use to teach the class.
A new teacher is a lot like a new student. And, as a teacher, you will know the most important tool to use is the breath. Be sure as a teacher to breathe through your nose as much as you can. Having good posture and smiling will also help you!
If you feel the need to add something to make the class your own, add your ATTITUDE and ENERGY. When it comes to the words, often times as a new teacher you will run out of time just trying to say them all. You will have to rush just to say most of them. Instead, say some of the words in one set and some in the second set or on the left sides.
What advice do you give to new teachers and what helped you when you were new?
I was recently chatting with a local who regally drops by a nearby coffee shop. He told me how — in the summer — the yoga studio opens and there is a throng of students careening into the parking lot at the last minute to catch class. In addition to parking up all the spots, the students would often do lots of other things without (seemingly) any regard for anyone else.
It got me thinking about some of the ironies of how “yoga people” are perceived by non practitioners.
Here are some of the ways that I suspect yoga people come across:
Self obsessed (Egotistical)
In a rush
Of course these qualities are THE EXACT OPPOSITE of the way a yogi really would like to be.
Certainly we all have rough days. But, in general, I would say there is a lot of truth to these perceptions. (They are mine, after all!)
How do you think non yoga students perceive practitioners and how do you try to change the negative parts of this perception?
Does your body hurt during or after teaching class?
I’ve heard of new teachers locking their knees for 90 minutes while standing on the podium. I remember after teaching some of my first classes how the muscles of my neck and jaw were exhausted from talking for an hour-and-a-half straight. Recently, I’ve noticed teachers extend one foot in front of the other and kind of rock from hip to hip.
Just like a student, a teacher must maintain proper posture and cultivate good form in order to maintain health and well being.
Teaching is exhausting and to replenish your teaching energy, here are some helpful practices.
- Stand on a yoga mat. Just as the students do, standing on a yoga mat can provide some cushion from the hard floor. Bend your knees a bit from time to time can also help.
- Walk. As long as you do so in a way that is not distracting for the students, it can be very helpful to keep you from locking up and creating tension.
- Sit down. Some studios prohibit sitting. Certainly sitting can cause the energy level to drop. So, perhaps just at sevasana or maybe longer if necessary as long as you can keep your energy and connection with the students and their struggle. Bonus: sitting in a hip opening stretches like cow face or lotus can be very helpful to open the hips.
- Keep you chest up and shoulders back and down. This instruction comes regularly throughout the class for the students and should be practiced by the teacher as well. A lifted chest can create space for you to…
- Breathe! Teachers stress how important it is for students to breathe. For a teacher, this goes double! Both to help you and to model to students. As a new teacher, if you are struggling, try breathing in deeply whenever you say “inhale.” Especially if you feel pain, try to breathe and relax into that space.
As a teacher, it’s important to move your body in class and to maintain good posture and practices. Of course the class is about — and for — the students. So be sure to move in a way that does not distract students or make it about you.
What do you do in class that helps you?
Anybody can plunk down 3 grand in Fiji, eat quinoa twice a day and drink fresh coconuts for three weeks and be declared: presto chang-o A YOGA TEACHER!
Before you react and take this personally, I’ll be the first to say I did this too. For many people — most — transitioning from a ‘traditional’ lifestyle or continuing on a ‘non traditional' trajectory, Immersive Teacher Training is a great first step to becoming a teacher. (As a side note, In 2020 everyone will graduate Liberal Arts college as a 200 hr certified yoga teacher and yoga will be so pervasive that it will be the subject of feature length movies and several long running television shows. It’s already dominating fashion.)
Being a yoga teacher is the hardest job I’ve ever had. It requires all of my skills and aptitudes applied in real time. I have to be present for 90 minutes in the room plus 30 minutes before and after. My old job where I sat at a desk and raked in the pay check and benefits? I think I was present there for less than 6 minutes a day. In fact I was checked out altogether, which was really the only way to make peace with the soulless drone that is most corporate jobs.
Recently I learned from a friend that the teacher training he is attending is less than adequate. This is a huge disappointment and personal embarrassment since I recommended the training! I don’t even recommend a book unless I’ve read it. In the case of this training, I did not attend and therefore I cannot vouch for it with my personal experience but I had heard good things and read many of the teachers writings, which led me to believe it would be of quality.
Right now in the “Bikram” world there are a lot of alternative trainings popping up. In the absence of Bikram, who has traditionally led the trainings, a vacuum needs to be filled as there is a labor shortage of new teachers to teach and an excess of people who want to be trained. Naturally this has led to a market, which some teachers/studios are capitalizing on.
But how do you know the training you're attending is a “real” training? After all, for the thousands of people who attended Bikram’s “training” there may be a variety of perspectives but very few of those perspectives would avow that the training was accredited (it wasn’t) or highly informational (Bikram’s lectures were the rambles of a XXXXX (fill in the blank). Certainly accreditation (200 hour, 500 hour) seems to be a good standard.
In my opinion, it doesn’t really matter who led your 200 or 500 hour training. Certainly not all trainings are of the same quality just like all teachers (and prospective teachers for that matter) are not of the same quality or integrity. Ultimately, only time will tell whose trainings are of value and whose are not. As for the aspiring teachers, after 6 years on the job, here are a few observations that may be of help in the quest to determine how to be a teacher and what makes a real teacher.
This is a learn on the job kind of job. Regardless of who led your training, you have access to become the teacher you want to be by … TEACHING.
There is a very high attrition rate of yoga teachers. Among many reasons why teachers drop out, perhaps one of the most obvious is because yoga teaching is one of the only jobs that costs more than it pays! Haha!
Once you choose to become a teacher, it will change your practice and the way you experience “going to yoga.” For many, it becomes a job and they drop out before they ever establish themselves as a teacher and – furthermore – they lose the love of the practice, which is a huge loss. Be patient! You can become a teacher whenever you like. Do not rush!
Don’t make your yoga teaching your primary source of income. As a teacher who did this, it was a big mistake. The most successful teachers (with the exception of like Rodney Yee) have successful careers and their yoga teaching is a second job.
Teachers take on new ideas and practices in order to remain connected to what it feels like to be a beginner : the bravery it takes to try something new will keep you connected to how it feels for a new students to walk into the yoga studio and try yoga. A teacher of mine recently started learning the ukulele!
The best teachers are the best students. No matter what, keep learning. And learn EVERYWHERE and from EVERYONE.
If you want to be a “real” teacher, take yoga teaching on as a job that will last the rest of your life. Teach in the way you are in the world.
Lastly, a final word on the intensive teacher training. The immersion is a great first step. Good Luck!
What advice do you have for prospective teachers?
As a prospective teacher, one of the perks of going to training — and a way that it made financial sense to me looked like this: I spent over $1,000 on yoga each year. Training was $10K — so if I practiced for 10 years, training would pay for itself, since practicing wherever I go would be free!
Now as a studio owner (and as a teacher in the hot room all the time) I look at things differently.
We regularly have visiting teachers come to the studio, particularly in the summer since the Cape is such a destination location. Currently we provide class for free to these visiting teacher as a kind of professional courtesy.
But should class for visiting teachers be free?
A teacher should teach through her/his practice and, by embodying these ideas (and others), a teacher “earns” his/her free class and provides value for the students and studio.
- Discipline. One of the main tenants of the yoga is self control. ABOVE ALL, a teacher should show students HOW TO PRACTICE.
- Inspire. I’ve had students come up to me after class and say how they were tired or struggling and that I lifted them up through my practice. As a visiting teacher, you can encourage struggling students either by sitting down and showing a struggling student it is OK to sit down or by being strong for a student when she/he needs some encouragement.
- Depth. Some teachers (not all) have the depth of the postures that many students can only conceive of as some kind of magic. Really, what this is for most teachers is the product of years of hard work. These teachers can show students what is possible through the practice. Furthermore, by sharing with the students how they got to where they are in the practice, it can provide a road map for a student to do the same in her/his practice.
- Karma yoga. A visiting teacher should offer to help. There’s always towels to fold, floors or mirrors to wipe. As a visitor who enjoyed a free class, look around and — if you see an opening — just start helping or offer to help.
It’s been 20 years since Bikram started training teachers. Say what you will about the quality of the teachers (in a separate post)! It does’t really matter WHEN you trained — much more important is HOW you trained and how you carry yourself at the studio (it seems a new monkey wrench in this subject will be WHERE you trained since Bikram training is going away and many new teachers are coming up through other training)
Ultimately what it comes down to for me is whether a teacher GIVES back to the studio and the students or TAKES and does nothing for the studio or the students.
What do you think: should visiting teachers get free/complimentary classes when they visit studios?
There is this idea in Bikram Yoga that there is ONE and only ONE RIGHT WAY to do the posture. This outlook can be myopic and potentially misleading. Additionally, with different teachers and their differing understanding and advice, the matter of how to do it right can be further complicated.
Consider this broader interpretation: instead of just one ‘right way' each practitioner can be on a continuum of ‘right' ways to express a posture as the student’s body changes.
As a practitioner, you may find the way you express the postures is getting deeper. On the other hand, you may have an injury — or just plain ol’ aging — and find the way you express a posture (while still correct) is getting less deep. As long as you stay along the spectrum of ‘the right way' for your flexibility and strength on any given day, you WILL get the benefits.
Be forewarned, along the continuum of ‘right ways'; a lot of students get stuck. At this point, they stop being reachable and teachable. And, once you disconnect or get stuck, that is when you may no longer receive the benefits — could potentially hurt yourself — and are likely no longer practicing yoga.
So how do you know you’re doing it THE RIGHT WAY?
Try the best you can on each day you practice to be present to your body’s physical state and try to stay mentally present. Remain open to change in the expression of the postures (regardless of the direction that change may be deeper/shallower).
What do you think it means to try the right way?