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What’s the difference between a yoga teacher and a yoga instructor? The two terms are used interchangeably in the yoga business these days. Now, it may seem like nit-picking, but I think there’s a big difference between the two.


I once heard US based teacher Robert Birnberg describe the work of teaching yoga as ‘Chiro/Respiratory/Re-parenting.’ I LOVE that description – as yoga teachers, I believe our work is to support students as they create positive transformation in their bodies, breath and minds.


The term ‘yoga instructor’, on the other hand, makes me think of the classes I’ve attended where the teachers are mainly concerned with instructing students how to shape their bodies into asanas. As one of the eight limbs of yoga, asana is helpful, but practiced in isolation, it’s benefits are limited.


When I think of my relationship with my students, I don’t identify with the word ‘instructor’. It’s not my job to instruct people how to do things. As a yoga teacher, my role is that of a facilitator, offering tools and encouragement to help students grow and learn. It’s a lot like my role as a parent (but without the mess).


As yoga becomes increasingly popular, and quickie teacher training courses proliferate, the rise of the yoga ‘instructor’ seems inexorable. Thanks to social media, yoga-lebrities are everywhere. Selfies on the beach, modeling contracts for multi national clothing companies, books and DVDs instructing fans on how to use yoga to lose weight, stay young, get sexy and live their best lives.


So what about the camera shy yogis? What if you are committed to serving your students but are uncomfortable with the demands of social media and the popularity contest that seems to define the careers of many modern instructors? How do you survive as a yoga teacher if your career ambitions don’t include headlining at festivals or gathering thousands of fans by posting artful images of your super-bendy body?


If your passion is for supporting students on their journey through the 8 Limbs of yoga rather than forging a high profile career, you may have wondered if the rise of the yoga-lebrity will lead to the death of the traditional yoga teacher. Can you thrive (and financially survive) outside of the new ‘mainstream’? I don’t have all the answers, but I can tell you a little about my own journey.


After more than a decade as a student of yoga, I founded Adore Yoga in 2002 and dedicated my studio to teaching small group, therapeutic yoga. That’s the way I learned yoga myself and, when I tried classes in large studios, I found I didn’t get the same benefits from ‘group fitness’ style classes as I did from personalised classes with experienced teachers in small and home studios.


So, despite economic pressures, Adore Yoga stayed small. Today, we only teach 8 students per class and our professional yoga teacher trainings and mentoring programs take a wildly commercial 15 students. When I run international retreats, I cap the number of students at 16 and take two assistant teachers with me to ensure that students who need extra support are properly looked after.


How have I maintained and grown a thriving yoga business over 13 years while keeping it small, personalised and close to the classical hatha tradition that I cherish? And Adore Yoga isn’t a hobby business  - I have a young family to support.


I’ve done many things to build my business with integrity over the years (and a lot of it didn’t work!) I’ve distilled some of the things that have worked for me into 5 key principles that have made it possible to follow my passion for teaching yoga without compromising my values.


1. Be Yourself

For a while, I thought I had to pretend to be bigger, better and more important than I was. But then I realized my students actually preferred the home-spun feel to Adore Yoga and, rather then try to be slicker than I actually was, I embraced my rough edges and occasional stuff-ups as part of my professional life.


2. Keep it personal

I thought that if I automated all my communications, used fancy email templates and produced professional marketing materials my students would be impressed. As it turned out, they weren’t. Although good marketing materials can help you attract new students, my core, faithful students didn’t like the ‘generic’ corporate-type materials. They preferred a hand written ‘thank you’ note to a funky app. Before you go ‘professionalizing’ your yoga business, remember that big businesses spend millions of dollars trying to recreate the personalised communications that smaller businesses excel at.

3. Blog

And then blog some more. And keep it real when you blog. You might not want to post images of yourself doing Hanumanasana on a mountain in India, but social media can be a powerful tool for reaching students who need what you have to offer. But you need to say something meaningful. When you write something genuinely interesting and true, you’re generating conversations that reach way beyond the pages of your blog. Social media isn’t a tool for evil (or good). It’s a communication channel and if you’ve got something worth communicating, say it on your blog and then share it across the social media platforms. It’s one of the most effective ways I’ve found of finding, keeping and serving my students over the years.

4.  Enough is enough

 I’m not promising unlimited income and a lucrative career if you choose to teach yoga. I’m sure there are a few teachers out there who make a lot of money, but for most of us the challenge is to simply make enough. What is enough? That depends. If you’re single and are happiest living in a shared household where you grow and cook your own food, enough might not be very much at all. If you have lots of dependents and live in a capital city, ‘enough’ might be a small fortune. Do a budget and work out how much you need to meet all your basic needs. And then plan out the work you do over the next 12 months in a way that allows you to meet those needs. Understanding what you need, and how you can get it, will give you the fundamental security and road map to keep you on track.

5. Follow your heart – but do the maths 

Following your heart is always a better strategy than doing what other people advise. Nobody knows you, your skills and your strengths as well as you do. Listen very carefully to your heart and never do anything that smothers its song. But don’t follow its every whim either. In the 13 years Adore Yoga has been in Mosman, we’ve seen countless yoga studios come and go. Not one of the studios that were established in our suburb when we started teaching there is still open today. Sure, there are lots of newer studios, but plenty of those have folded over time too. Your heart may long for a beautiful space to share yoga with your students. But if your budget doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, find another way to express your heart’s desires. Always, always, do the maths.

Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. She's passionate about inspiring yoga teachers and the wider community to create healing, joy and purpose. Join her for Yoga Therapy Teacher Training and Yoga retreats in 2015. Got a question about yoga or ayurveda? Ask Nikola here.  

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