On May 30, 2020, I taught my last ever yoga asana class via Zoom. For more than a year I had anticipated transitioning into full time writing; the pandemic fast-tracked this change. My husband was required to physically go in to work as a frontline worker. With no childcare options available and a lack in consistency from the studio I taught at, I found myself scrambling to teach classes independently at times that were convenient for our family’s new schedule. Within weeks I was completely burnt out from this new hustle in an already hustle-heavy field of work.
While I was ready for this dramatic pivot, I hadn’t expected the immediate unknown I found myself drifting through in the weeks that followed that final class. For years, I had entwined my entire identity around being a yogi. I learned Sanskrit, studied yoga asana and philosophy, and absorbed myself in bhakti practices.
But slowly, the capitalistic processes that go hand-in-hand with being a yoga teacher in the West—promoting classes, workshops, and trainings online, hustling to teach 15–20 classes per week, and doing mini yoga photoshoots on vacation to rack up Instagram likes—had made a negative impact on my daily life. They had transformed my personal yoga practice into something I barely recognized. I realized that the attachment that I had made wasn’t to yoga, it was to a false perception of what I had come to believe yoga was.
Still, making the change from being a yoga teacher to a writer disemboweled my very being.
It took me a little while to figure out why that was. Eventually I realized that although I had been publicly preaching and teaching the yogic principle aparigraha—non-attachment—I hadn’t been privately practicing it or even pondering it.
I had been completely attached to a career and industry that not only no longer served me, but had also never belonged to me. My self-worth was attached to whether or not people signed up for my classes. I had fallen into the trap of believing that I was my job. My inability to have constant success and happiness within that narrow definition made me feel wholly invalid as a person.
Ditching a career I had put all of myself into brought feelings of failure, worthlessness, and even imposter syndrome. I felt like I had lost who I was as a person. That made me really nervous for the person I was trying to become and the life I was hoping to create; one where I was aware of all aspects of the world around me and where my boundaries were respected. A life in which I was living yoga instead of worrying about my image inside of the yoga industry.
What’s more: My mindset was harmful to a tradition whose roots I deeply respected.
By stepping away from teaching, I dove into the reconciliation process and soul work necessary to detach myself from the idealistic and abusive patterns I had confused as both a passion and a practice.
I stopped obsessing over work, and instead took a three-month hiatus from everything, including yoga asana. In that time I designed, landscaped, and built an outdoor oasis in my side yard with my own bare hands. I learned how to garden. I healed my relationship with sleep by creating a bedtime routine for myself, the same way I had for my son. I stopped feeling pressured to achieve the maximum amount in a given timeframe. I let myself relish in the freedom of focusing on one thing at a time. I connected with people intentionally via FaceTime, as well as in-person (socially distanced), instead of obsessively checking my text messages, emails, and answering every phone call: I let my voicemail get full.
I did whatever the heck felt right for me, and somewhere along the way, I started feeling like I was living my own life, and not some hectic version of the life I thought everyone expected me to live.
The past year has brought about so many shifts and changes for the collective to process.
For those of us who teach yoga, it’s no different. Adapting and reinventing our lives to something that feels dystopian and unsettling has forced many of us to untangle systems within ourselves and within society that are both complex and unwholesome.
Pre-pandemic, I was always reaching for the next best thing. I was striving for success while running on fumes, and I considered it completely normal—even gratifying. When the world shut down, I noticed many of my peers both in the yoga industry and within my broader circle, begin to talk about the normalized burnout of an entire generation—a mindset based on the persistence of one’s hustle and “work-ethic” that so often sacrificed one’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
The conversations soon evolved into people setting and creating boundaries for themselves, uncovering unconscious biases, and demanding justice. By recognizing that so many of us were being overworked, underpaid, and—for BIPOC individuals specifically—brutalized for the success of the few, we began to draw a clear distinction between our work and our worth; detaching the latter from the former, intentionally.
In late September of 2020, I finally stepped back onto the mat to reinvent my personal yoga practice.
It was the two-year anniversary of my brother’s death, and I was itching to soothe my grief through slow, intentional movement. As I took my first breath in Child’s Pose, I reminded myself that I am not yoga. While I may practice all eight limbs, I should never confuse being a yogi for an innate essence of my being. I reawakened to the understanding that if I was going to frequently visit this tradition as a spiritual practice, I must tread mindfully and not mistake the ground I walk on as my own land of origin.
After months of practicing non-attachment from the things that I do for work, play, and self-care, I have gotten comfortable with the idea that I am multifaceted enough to be uniquely myself. I don’t need to form an unhealthy attachment to an ideal yogi persona to be worthy of all the gifts of yoga. By separating the Self from the practice, I have learned how to live yoga in ways that support, promote, and uplift marginalized communities with actual identities and ancestral ties to yoga. By surrendering the coveted title of “yoga teacher,” I became the student I had always wanted to be.
Stepping Away From Teaching Helped Me Reconnect With Yoga is written by tmiddleton for www.yogajournal.com