In the past few months, I’ve struggled mightily with a series of respiratory infections, ranging from pneumonia to just a simple sinus infection and seemingly everything in between. As my asthma kicked in, I made jokes about the yoga teacher that couldn’t breathe. But truthfully, it has been hard to manage. I always want to teach because I love yoga and I love teaching. But how sick is too sick to teach?
Here are some things to consider when you’re scheduled to teach but not feeling well:
Are you allowed to teach?
If you’re teaching in a studio or in a gym or other public place, you may have guidelines that make the decision for you. You should know these and adhere to them. Be sure to have contact information for your fellow teachers so you can find a substitute quickly.
Are you contagious?
If you know you are contagious, it would certainly violate ahimsa to teach. First and foremost we take the seat of the teacher to do no harm. We instruct students not to do something if they know better, so obviously we should do the same. After all, no one wants your conjunctivitis.
Can you adequately demo?
This applies not only to illness but to injury, as well. While you can’t give your sore ankle to someone, taking students into a pose you can’t fully demonstrate for whatever reason could be risky – for your students. Visual learners, in particular, rely on our demonstrations to learn, then find the poses for themselves.
One option for teaching when you’re not feeling your best is to adjust what you have planned to teach. Take a more mellow approach. Focus on something you feel comfortable doing. If you’ve got a migraine, it might not be the day to focus on sirsasana. A twisting or heart opening practice might be easier to teach – and could even help you feel better.
Will your illness be a distraction?
A sniffle, scratchy throat, or minor cough is not likely to disturb, or even distract, your students. But if they are unable to understand or hear you or if you can’t stop coughing long enough to speak basic cues, it might be best to find a substitute. If you’ve got a stomach bug, running to the bathroom during savasana is uncomfortable for you and can keep your students from indulging in those last minutes of peace and quiet in a practice. Be honest with yourself about how you will affect others.
Will teaching compromise your own healing?
We have all done it. We knew we should have stayed home and didn’t. And sometimes maybe you really can’t find a sub, and the gym owner isn’t too keen on cancellations. But take yourself seriously and honor where you are. If you belong in a hot bath or under the covers, go there. In some ways, the worst-case scenario is to still be sick the following week. Then you’re compromising yourself and your students twice.
When you’re well, it’s wise to be generous to your fellow teachers. If someone needs a substitute, try to fill the need. You’ll want these folks to be there for you when you’re under the weather. Studios rely on teachers to step up and sub so that classes don’t have to be cancelled. You might endear yourself to a studio owner just by making yourself available to sub. Whether you’re new to teaching or been around awhile, subbing can be great for your growth. Teaching a new group can be refreshing and inspiring. You’ll meet new students and maybe they’ll become your regulars.
In my trials and tribulations these last few months, I’ve tried to find teachable moments in my illnesses. When my body needed rest and nourishment, I’ve turned to restorative poses and practices and shared these with my students. When my breath has been out of whack, I’ve turned to pranayama and made this a focus. And most of the time, I’ve asked for a sub when I’ve needed it. Let’s face it: being sick is a hassle, and it’s magnified when you’ve got the responsibility of teaching hanging over your head. When you’re not at your best, develop a practice that works for you as you are and show your students that this is the true way to honor yourself in practice.
Isn’t that the real yoga?
Elizabeth Gallo studies and teaches yoga in Maplewood, New Jersey, where she lives with her husband and two young daughters. A graduate of the ShaktiBody yoga teacher training program, Elizabeth also earned certifications in prenatal and baby and me yoga through Kelli DeFlora of Starseed Yoga. In addition to teaching public yoga classes, Elizabeth also volunteers with Newark Yoga Movement, an organization that provides yoga instruction to the students in Newark Public Schools. You can read more of Elizabeth’s journey on her blog and follow her on Twitter @elizabethgallo.