Hello – I am a yoga teacher, a yogi and probably none of the other things you think I am.
In the past few months since I’ve become more comfortable at labelling myself as a yoga teacher, I’ve picked up on some vibes. At first, I was not really sure what to make of them, but with time and as my confidence in being a teacher has grown, I have become more sensitive to these hints.
Close your eyes and think of a yoga teacher.
What do you see?
It is likely to be one of two scenarios::
Scenario A – a slim, model-like beautiful 20-something woman, wearing colourful leggings, holding a green juice, wearing jewellery in the shape of the lotus flower, practicing handstands and taking yoga selfies.
Scenario B – an Indian guru, living in an ashram in the Himalayas, with a long beard, who meditates in lotus pose all day long. He is also barefoot and is a man of few words.
Am I right?
If you went for scenario A, you are likely to have practiced a bit of yoga, or have spent enough time around yogis to have a Western yogi image slotted in your mind’s eye. If you visualised something along the lines of scenario B, you have probably never practiced yoga in a modern studio and have probably also never been to an ashram in India.
Either way, I am convinced the vast majority of the thousands of yoga teachers in your city will support me in fighting the yogi stereotype. And unfortunately, the irony is that although I am not the first to oppose the prejudice, I am also not immune to it. I remember when my older sister decided to apply for a job in the reception of one of London’s biggest yoga studios. She was so excited about the prospect of being there and getting discounted classes (and I was excited for the family discount). As she was talking about how amazing it is going to be, I asked her: how do you think they will take it when you have to go out every 30 minutes for a cigarette break? You see to me, working for a yoga studio, being surrounded by modern, pop definitions of health, spirituality and wellbeing, and more so if you are wearing their staff t-shirt, meant that you need to be a perfect representation of that culture. And a smoking yogi did not fit this definition for me. (Little did I know that not only would she fit in perfectly well, but also a few months later she would be giving me all the dirt on the super healthy teachers that smoke and drink and behave like teenagers.)
In my own journey as a yogi and a teacher, I have pushed through a whirlpool of assumptions and preconceptions about the world of yoga and what tests you need to pass in order to get a pass into the VIP yoga community. It turns out it’s just like any other club. Yes, there are certain visual traits that can be misinterpreted as core requirements. Yes, there are some yogic clubs that are more exclusive and stricter than others, and have initiation processes that newbies need to go through to prove they are “serious” about their practice. Yes, there are certain trends in clothes, sequences, catch phrases, studios, vegetables, nutrition choices, holiday destinations and brand of coconut water that seem to overtake yogis worldwide like tornadoes. Do these a yogi make, I ask?
From New Age weirdness to pop psychology, yoga has evolved and grown exponentially over the years and has been embraced by the masses. I am THRILLED this has happened, even if it has meant that marketing and media have taken some of the soul out of the practice. If being cool is more equal to going to a yoga class and drinking smoothies than it is to smoking in the toilets at school, I’ll take that. If more drained, exhausted, machine-like career junkies enter a yoga class and learn to breathe more effectively because they like the leggings they think they should wear, well that’s progress to me. Small, but significant.
But as a teacher, I have found myself obeying and then resisting fitting in the yogic box. What was in the box for me? Vegetarianism, daily strict practice, hot yoga, nutrition, detoxes, raw food, inversions. How can I teach yoga if I can’t hold a handstand in the middle of the room? What kind of teacher am I if I don’t practice in the advanced classes? The trouble with the box is it contains really beautiful stages of development, changes that happen as a result of years of practice, conscious and unconscious shifts of perspective and life philosophy. On the outside you can force yourself to fit into these brackets by absorbing a culture that might not be yours, hoping that one day it won’t feel restrictive. Thankfully, that is really not the point and gratefully I have now come to see more clearly. What yoga has taught me is that real, significant change is internal. Goals and visions are excellent, but the work that needs to be done happens from the inside out. I do not believe you need to force yourself to fit in a culture that does not resonate with you. In the same way that your body will resist a posture you are not ready to go into and force will inevitably lead to injury, your soul will suffer if you impose rules that are not aligned with who you are at this point in time.
So if you are finding yourself trying to fit in (high school anxiety all over again), try taking a step back. Ask yourself::
//What am I trying to achieve?
//What need/internal desire is pulling me to make this rule for myself?
//What do these shoulds+musts represent for me?
//How can I translate them into something that supports my core, my whole being?
As a new teacher, I found myself comparing my teaching (and my body) to teachers whose classes I never went to. The reason I was never drawn to them is because I believe that you are pulled towards certain people and you stick to those teachers that speak to you on a level that is much deeper than the sequences they teach. Why would I compare myself to someone that I don’t aspire to? What happens when you lose touch with your internal compass is that you also lose sight of what is most important to you.
So in light of these shifts, and as I am all for public shedding of layers that no longer serve us, here I am letting go of definitions I no longer wish to hold.
Confessions of a yoga teacher::
I am a yoga teacher and I am always, ALWAYS learning. If you’ve been to my class, YOU are my teacher. YOU have taught ME and I am grateful. I am a student and my work in progress is inviting a beginner’s attitude in everything I do.
I do NOT have all my shit together. Quite the opposite. I may look organised to the naked eye, but I am not.
I do not always plan my classes well in advance. I aim to, but sometimes I have to scribble my ideas half an hour before class.
I eat meat and fish and chocolate and other crap and drink alcohol. Not at the same time and not all the time. But occasionally I do. When I follow a diet that is nutritious to my body + soul, I do not need to fill myself up with crap. It is then when having a glass of red with a friend over heartfelt conversation is the perfect treat. And I do not only eat raw because it hurts the crap out of my poor stomach!
I do not walk around in my yoga leggings all day, unless I am teaching and attending workshops. Yes they are comfortable, but I also love my other clothes.
I do not start my yoga classes by chanting OM. Maybe I will someday, but it has not felt right for me yet. But I love chanting as a student.
I have not yet been to an ashram, but it is a definite plan in my immediate future.
I judge, argue + get annoyed. A lot. Like a normal person. I am not Zen all the time – that would be boring. (But I am working on the judgement part as that stuff is not good for my soul health!)
I do not practice on my mat every day. Say what??? Yes, I know – massive confession. I intend to, but it does not always happen. I am working on not being so hard on myself when I don’t.
I can be incredibly lazy. (See above point.) There we go, I said it. My man has told me off for not cleaning…
I wear all sorts of jewellery, but what I am pulled towards are old, meaningful pieces with a story. Handmade, imperfect, with soul. A tiny lotus flower and tree of life hang off my neck on a daily basis along with a pendant that my grandfather gave my grandmother to mark their 50 year anniversary. All together they symbolise what is sacred to me: connection, love, grounding and the cycle of life.
I have several Buddha and Ganesha statues, I use crystals and burn incense and essential oils to help me connect to my inner world. I do not view these as essentials and would quite happily meditate on the bus journey home without any props.
I do not consider myself religious, but I am exploring what spirituality means to me. I view myself as a spiritual being and I’m working on feeding this (rather starved) part of my wellbeing.
I do not have a yoga body (whatever that is). I have a body that does yoga and lots of other things.
I will not teach you how to lose weight through yoga; that is not my calling.
I will not try to convince you about how amazing yoga is. But I will try to make you join me in class to judge for yourself.
WOW! That feels so good. Just to let it all out, shake it all off.
Pure release. Surrender.
Thank you for holding space for me to do this.
If this has inspired you to do some shedding of layers yourself, have a go in the comments below (or pop me an email if you don’t wish to share in public). Or take out your journal, a piece of scrap paper and rant away. It is so worth it.
With immense love x
p.s. This post has come out of reflecting on a new project for this blog which I’ll share with you next month. I’ve been wanting to demystify yoga and share its transformative power in a non threatening way. So watch this space for some super exciting interviews coming up!