Camp Utopia Teacher Burnout

Befriending The Shadow: Long Term Strategies for Teacher Burn Out

By: Helen Stutchbury

Director of Camp Utopia Yoga School

Some days I find myself pausing for a moment somewhere in the middle of the first few breaths of class, wondering which way to go, and stuck, simply because I can’t think of a single pose I’m not sick of teaching.

After 12 years of teaching yoga full time (8 – 14 classes a week) and thousands of hours training teachers, “teacher burn out” is as close and constant as my shadow. When the sun is bright and high overhead, and all is right with my world, the shadow is tiny, hardly noticeable between my toes when I lift and spread them to ground my feet. And sometimes the sun is low, and so am I, and the shadow looms oppressively over my shoulder, dragging my energy down, or shambles out in front of me with legs and arms a mile long, and my classes feel awkward and sloppy and strange.

Yet, there is really nothing scary about shadows, and I’ve learned to befriend mine, box with them, and play.

In every job, there are things we don’t like doing, days we don’t want to show up, weeks where our personal stuff overwhelms our enthusiasm for the day to day drudgery of going to work. Even in yoga, the best job in the world.

I’ve had a lot of jobs, with a lot of variety. And I’ve learned that if I’ve got my mind on the things about my job that aren’t great, I’ve generally hated my job. Even though there may have been plenty of tasks and responsibilities that I loved. If I raced off to find the next job, I would find the same things I didn’t like, and maybe some new ones too.

So I do this, first and foremost: Look at the BIG picture.

Who, what, where, why, how and when am I doing this yoga thing? What does it mean to me to live this way, to follow this path and pass it on? What do I want my life to look and feel like, and what are the steps I’ve decided to take to get me there?

These are not simple things to answer. It requires a lot of deep thinking about what you want to give to the world with yoga, how you want to leave your mark. But you only have to do that work once, and the rewards of it are huge. When you know your BIG picture, the trivial aches and pains and daily boredom become one small part of the job that we don’t like, and a shadow we wear more comfortably, because it is coming with us where we want to go, like it or not.

I teach yoga to my elders because they have a better day when I do. It enhances the quality of their lives. So even on my most burned out days, I can shut up and do my job. It’s not about me.

Second, I remember yoga works.

In meditation, we learn that all emotions pass. We can sit and breathe, and look at our feelings, and in the looking, we will feel them fading, and passing. You have to keep feeding your feelings to keep them alive. The shadow of burn out moves and changes like that – you don’t notice it if you aren’t looking.

In asana class, yoga works with grounding and breathing and moving the body. Ten minutes into the class, I’ve usually forgotten my lack of inspiration, or it simply no longer matters. I stand and ground and breathe with my class. I open my chest; I create and contain the group energy, and I move them through poses that work the body head to toe, side to side, front to back.

I may be bored out of my skull again the next day, but in the moment, I get and stay pretty present, pretty quickly. In every possible way there is, that beats a desk job.

The delightful thing about yoga is that it never ends – there is always an experience waiting to surprise us, a deepening and enriching of the practice, space to grow; and on going study usually refills the well. I add what I’m learning constantly. Even if it only lasts a class or two, I take something I’ve learned, read, watched, or explored and teach it. I add variety with mudras and different pranayama techniques, bringing focus to bandhas, chakras, pranas; adding to asana in simple ways keeps my students intrigued and my expertise growing. Mudras for throat chakra? It’s only a Google search away.

Third, I remember that after all these years, I’m comfortable and skillful enough to be playful.

A yoga sequence is just a puzzle, and when we are in a rut, we put the pieces together the same way, over and over and over. Yet this puzzle is infinitely diverse.

“Gaming” your sequence as a newer teacher begins with simple challenges like choosing a peak pose, or building a progressive sequence, starting from a different position, or developing themes for classes. After a few years, I started to make the game more challenging for myself. Often I don’t decide what I’m doing until I’m watching which students show up. I am usually the only person who notices the intricacies of the challenge I create, but I’m also the only person who notices I’m burned out. It’s MY ego, telling me I’m bored. The more I keep it engaged in the game, the less I notice the shadow.

Here are a bunch of challenging sequence themes you can work on to keep your sun shining bright and the shadow of burn out at bay:

  1. Spine Strengthening class with no back bends
  2. Neck and shoulders + sciatica
  3. No forward folds, no down dogs, no knees on the ground
  4. Head and shoulders, knees and toes, eyes, ears, mouth and nose
  5. Choose one song in the playlist to synchronize or choreograph with movement. Challenge yourself to meet that moment perfectly and differently every time you use that playlist.
  6. 47 minutes of standing poses in a 60 minute class
  7. Before and After LOTUS pose challenge
  8. Rib cage
  9. Front of the back
  10. Arm pits
  11. Strong brains
  12. Connective Tissue
  13. Backwards breathing
  14. Building the body map
  15. Gate pose, knee down side plank/leg lift, triangle, half moon – these are all basic variations of the same external rotation of the hip. Workshop 60: In one hour, teach beginners to explore them all.
  16. Half Lift, Pyramid, Warrior 3 are also variations of an alignment. Use them as your key players in a shoulder class
  17. Yoga for cavemen
  18. The 5 pranas