Spiritually Bankrupt: How I Went Broke Trying To Teach Yoga

by Jessica Pishko

I came to yoga, like most people, because I hated my job and going to yoga class was easier than finding another career. I was a well-paid corporate lawyer and, as I watched the gentle office dust drift through the filtered New York City sunlight, I dreamed of being anywhere else.

At first, it started with one or two classes a week, but soon, like an addict, I was there as often as I could skip out of work early. The yoga teacher was an escapee from the world of public relations. She had luscious dark, wavy hair, milky skin and sturdy thighs. At the end of every class, she turned off the lights, and we students lay there in the dark underneath musty, scratchy blankets.

“You deserve good things!” she intoned in a throaty voice.

I wept silently. I desperately wanted to deserve good things.

Over time, I needed that positive affirmation more and more. I needed a teacher, a spiritual guide, someone to tell me that I was worth loving, that my body was fine just the way it was, and that, somehow, the universe knew what it was doing. I decided that the most efficient way to do this was to become a yoga teacher myself.

Yoga teacher training isn’t cheap. A class consisting of six months of weekend-long training classes cost nearly $3,000 over five years ago; now it’s more. My first yoga teacher training class had about twenty people in it: several actors and dancers, a special-education teacher, a nutritionist, and a woman whose husband had celiac disease. We met all day Saturday and Sunday, as well as Wednesday nights. My tuition allowed me to go to unlimited yoga classes and to learn the difference between internal and external rotation. I learned how to avoid rotator cuff injuries and finally achieved a handstand. I hoped that by becoming a yoga teacher, I would have better hair, better abs, and better self-esteem. Now, I was the one telling people that they were worthwhile, so I had to believe it for myself.

In the midst of all this bliss, I got fired from my job. It was 2008.

But, I’d gotten paid three months severance, which felt like a lot, so I decided to take the plunge and continue my yoga teacher training. The next level was called the 300-hour teacher training, which, added to the 200 hours I’d already completed, would total 500 hours of teacher training. I would then be able to register with the Yoga Alliance — a national organization that costs $55 a month — as a 500-hour certified teacher. (Yoga Alliance standards, incidentally, are non-binding and considered potentially inadequate.) I paid an additional $3,000 dollars for more training (in installments this time) and continued to attend yoga classes. I was so blissed out, I could ignore my expiring bank account. I figured the universe would send me a sign.

As part of the advanced teacher training, I assisted a teacher during one class a week: picking up props, doling out blankets, and learning how to pull on people’s hips in down dog without making them cringe. I helped light candles; I was basically a glorified personal assistant. I also got to teach a real yoga class once a week — without getting paid, of course. Up to this point, I’d made zero dollars teaching yoga. The teachers encouraged us to teach for free, to teach anyone, in fact, who would take their shoes off and stumble through a few poses listening to you ramble on how the hips hold deep-seeded feelings of guilt and resentment. Only by giving my skills away would I get something in return.

Only by giving my skills away would I get something in return.

I did get something out of teaching the free class. I was no longer embarrassed to bellow “OM” into a quiet room. I could chant in semi-melodious tones while my students closed their eyes in corpse pose. I blasted Rasa while my students filed into class and placed their expensive-looking handbags along the side of the wall. One time, I opened a window in the perennially stuffy studio and a woman’s white athletic sock fell out onto the street below. The sock’s owner was focused on tree pose and didn’t see. (I told her, of course, but am ashamed to admit I thought about pretending like it didn’t happen.)

Luckily, the money I wasn’t making was money I saved by becoming a vegan. I eliminated all dairy and meat from my diet. When I engaged in deep meditation practice (also part of being a yoga teacher), I saw a hamburger on the inside of my eyelids, and my eyes watered. My meditation teacher walked by and told me, “This path is not easy.”

After the completion of my 500 hours of yoga teacher training, I was entitled to sub at the yoga studio for $25 a class, minus taxes. Most of the classes were early in the morning and late at night, so I sprinted across town from dawn to dark. I stalked pregnant yoga teachers, waiting for them to go on maternity leave.

The real money, I heard, was in private clients, who allegedly paid up to $200 per class. One experienced teacher gave me a private client, a dentist, whom I taught weekly for credits for teeth cleanings. I hoped my polished enamel would compensate for the lack of heath insurance. I got a coveted private client — a middle-aged executive with a tennis injury — whom I met at 5:30 A.M. twice a week. On my way to see him, more than once I encountered people having sex behind a bar, still intoxicated from the night before. I rode the subway with whole classes of people who inhabit the city before the white-collar workers roll into their offices carrying cups of Starbucks: people who serve food and clean floors and take care of children. I went to a family member’s elaborate and costly bar mitzvah — complete with acrobats and someone swallowing fire — and wished that I was working the party, rather than attending it.

Chasing after yoga classes was demeaning and brutal on the body. There was no sick pay, so I worked through the flu and food poisoning from a particularly nasty “health” salad. I picked up a class at 6 A.M. when a teacher left for graduate school and hoped it would turn into a regular gig. Sadly, after a few months, I was replaced with another young yoga teacher, no more experienced than I, but possibly less desperate.

I decided that some professional pictures of me wearing black spandex, contorting my limbs into impressive poses, were necessary for a website to attract private clients, so I shelled out $300 for a photography student to come and take pictures of me. There’s a great photo of me aligned with some mahogany walls, toes pointed in the air. I was able to balance long enough for the photo. But I never got the promised private clients. I stopped paying for the web host. I put the photo on Facebook and received many likes, so it wasn’t a total waste.

I asked my yoga teachers for advice, feeling that they owed me something. As part of the training, I was assigned a “mentor” who was supposed to shepherd me through the painful process of going from mortal to guru. Mine was an incredibly toned woman with tan limbs who yelled at me to straighten my legs in class. I liked her no-nonsense approach. When I asked her for help finding classes, she asked, “How bad do you want it?”

“Um, well, bad,” I said.

“You have to give things up and wait for your time. The universe will guide you,” she said. I wondered what she meant. I couldn’t always afford food for my dog and gave him half of mine. I asked my parents for more money, convinced that I would break into the business soon.

“Why don’t you just start back on your antidepressants and get a real job?” my mom asked.

Desperate for money and longing to be around luxury even if I couldn’t afford it, I took a job in retail. My phone rang constantly with the calls of credit card companies. I turned off the ringer permanently. I put all those envelopes I couldn’t pay in a drawer.

At my retail job, I soothed myself by folding sweaters and making neat piles, smalls on top, larges on the bottom. I rearranged the knick-knacks that made the store look like a cozy home rather than a place of capitalist domination. A lawyer I used to work with came in one day to shop.

“You work here?” she asked in marvel.

I explained my situation.

“That’s incredible,” she said. “I wish I could be like you.”

Just then, my supervisor pulled me to the side. Someone had stolen several pairs of earrings during my shift as dressing room attendant. A guard patted me down and checked the folds of my sweater and the cuffs of my jeans for stolen goods.

I began to attach myself to another yoga teacher in the meantime, reasoning that the toned one was simply not my true teacher. “When the student is ready, the teacher comes,” I was told a yogi once said. I thought this woman would be my true teacher. She had a round, open face, liquid dark eyes, and a perfectly proportioned body, softly round yet strong. While my old teacher’s moves were athletic and muscular, like a speed skater, my new teacher was fluid, popping into a handstand without seeming to flex a muscle. She wore hoop earrings and wrapped a beaded mala around her wrist.

One afternoon, I accompanied her as she went shopping in the West Village. We entered a boutique that specialized in drapey silk tunics with delicate embroidery, plush ethnic scarves, and soft cotton t-shirts that are sheer and just right for wearing over a Beyond Yoga support tank ($71). She fingered a turquoise wrap shirt.

“What do you think?” she asked.

I told her that I needed a job. I wasn’t making enough money to pay my rent. I was thinking about moving back in with my parents.

She bought the shirt without trying it on and proposed getting a tea. We sat in a café, and I continued talking. I cried and begged her for help, any kind of help, any kind of job. “I can’t make it as a yoga teacher,” I said.

She offered to put me in touch with someone who needed cater waiters. “It pays well,” she said. “It’s just for a few nights. I’ll send you his email. In the meantime, you should write down what you want on a piece of paper and set the proper intention. If you don’t set the intention, if you don’t really want it, it won’t happen for you.”

“Washing dishes is like yoga,” she said. “You have to do it mindfully.”

“I do want it to happen,” I said, wiping my nose on my sleeve.

I sent my teacher an email about the catering gig once, then twice, and waited for a response that never came.

Finally, one weekend scraping kale and farro off of a plate as a dishwasher at a yoga retreat in upstate New York (discounted price, $300), I decided that I had had enough. My fellow new yoga teacher/ dishwasher kept looking at my handiwork critically.

“Washing dishes is like yoga,” she said. “You have to do it mindfully.” She pointed to some congealed sauce I’d missed on a fork.

After that weekend, I filed for bankruptcy and ended the calls from creditors. I interviewed for a job with benefits and health insurance so that I could start back on antidepressants. I had to work in an office, but at least I could afford a beer after work.

I continued to teach yoga occasionally after that, but I no longer had the heart. It was wrong to tell people to “relax” and “let it go.” I was merely posing as someone who had a sculpted butt and inner peace. There was nothing on that other side, and I couldn’t look into their earnest, searching eyes and pretend otherwise.

Jessica Pishko is a writer living in San Francisco. She has a JD from Harvard Law School and an MFA from Columbia.