What do you think a yoga teacher should look like?
Diversity in yoga is fundamentally important, now more than ever.
Today is the start of Black History Month and I have decided to share a blog that I wrote a few weeks ago for Yoga on the Lane about my experiences of telling people that I taught yoga. This is one of several hats I wear; yet somehow, teaching yoga seemed to be the one thing people were compelled to comment on, because in their view I didn’t look like yoga teacher. So far nobody has told me that I don’t look ‘right’ for all the other things I do. Yet, somehow, a system based on a thousand years of experiential learning and knowledge, rooted in an exploration of the connection between body and mind, now seems to require a certain appearance.
After Yoga on the Lane posted up my article and shared it on social media, the internet went mad for a while. But as far as diversity is concerned, has anything changed? I would say, no. Not yet. At least, we are having this conversation, but I for one, would like to see things changing, in our studios, in our funding system, in those who believe these practices can help them. Most of all I would like people to really start listening. It is time for listening deeply to each other’s stories and experiences and to recognise people for who they are, for what they are, and for what they have to offer.
Read on for the original article
“You don’t look like a yoga teacher”. I must have looked stunned at this comment, but the truth is, I was confused by the statement, not offended. You see, I’m not really sure what a yoga teacher should look like. Should a yoga teacher be an older man, Indian and in a loincloth? I don’t think I could really rock a loincloth, though my great grandfather did look handsome in an Indian dhoti; jogging bottoms are more my style. I’m also female, so I must score ok on that count: the majority of yoga teachers these days are women. So I’m a woman who looks Indian but I’m in my forties, so maybe that was the problem. Or was it because I’m not the size 10 that seems to be favoured by the much-maligned Instagram instant-yogi? What is it that a yoga teacher should look like? And actually, by extension, what should a yoga student look like?
A few weeks ago, I found myself in a room full of young men in their very early twenties, being led in a theatre workshop by a woman exploring male ally-ship in the post #MeToo era. There was a little tiptoeing around and a sense that everyone was being polite and maybe walking on eggshells, until the facilitator turned to the wall and asked everyone, everyone mind, including those observing to close their eyes and take part in a somatic, movement-based exercise where the attention turned inwards. The discomfort switched from a breathy kind of anxiety to a deeply-felt embodied exploration and discussion of those places which can be tender but need to be voiced. The conversation that followed was more profound and more insightful than I had expected and in the midst of it all, I found myself re-committing to my belief that diversity in yoga is fundamentally important, now more than ever.
Authenticity and appropriation
It is 2019, and we seem to be preoccupied with labels and what we think of as authentic. I grew up watching my sari-clad grandmother greeting the sun daily, lighting cotton-wool wicks soaked in ghee and making deeply, heart-felt offerings. She spent her last few years writing out mantras in exercise books in a meditative act of devotion. As a child I would accompany her to the temple where we would pray to Shiva and I had my own mala beads and my own awakening relationship with spirit. Does this make me better at teaching yoga or somehow more authentic? Well, no, not really. For a start there is no good nor bad in yoga, no better nor worse. Going to the temple then doesn’t mean I have Ganesha on speed-dial now, obligingly removing obstacles from my path. I understand the symbolism, certainly. I don’t get weirded out by chanting Om; but then saying Amen never really bothered me either. I took up modern, postural yoga as I turned twenty at university, and that’s also where I began my meditation practice. My knowledge of ‘yoga’ and of how I teach it, is reflective of my own experience and of my journey of exploration through long study. It is for me a life-long inner path which brings joy but demands commitment.
What matters to me is finding a way to deepen my relationship with myself and with others. I want an experience of understanding my connection with those around me. My teaching, like my worldview are no doubt deeply rooted in those long ago visits to the temple (which incidentally took place in Africa, not India); but they are also rooted in the English and Spanish degree I studied for at Oxford University and the two decades I spent running an arts educational charity in East London.
Orthodoxy disguised as individuality
So doesn’t it break your heart that there are those that don’t feel that yoga is for them? In a world that is full of disconnection and division surely yoga offers a refuge and a path? The truth is that yoga studios can feel intimidating and whilst we may delight in the beautiful light-filled oasis of calm they offer us, they can also be deeply scary when you don’t understand the norms under which they operate. How much worse, if you also feel too young or too old or too fat or too thin or too whatever it might be, to find a tool that will help you to connect your breath and body and accept yourself and live with freedom. The media have cottoned onto yoga. Whilst this means, yoga seems more acceptable, it is just foisting more orthodoxy onto us. Worse still, the burgeoning ‘yoga industry’ now means that many are priced out. £100 yoga leggings worn at a studio charging almost double the minimum wage risks turning yoga into an indulgence of the rich and pampered playing at being spiritual.
Yoga should be for everybody and every body but until I see more representation of people that look like me not just the insta-yogis, slim, young, blonde, bendy and beautiful I think it will be hard to persuade ‘everybody’ into yoga spaces. I want to teach West-Indian grandmothers and surly teenagers. I want to teach businessmen in suits and braying politicians. I want to practice beside women in scarves and women in their eighties. When will this happen? Probably when we begin to see more diverse bodies teaching yoga and sharing yoga. And really, this needs to happen from the bottom up as well as the top down. Currently, I don’t see see the diversity that we need represented in our studios. Do you practice diversity? It can be a conscious choice to do so and until we see and celebrate more diversity and more brave souls trying something that seems at first not to be for them; we won’t change the narrative and yoga in the 21st Century will remain in the grip of an ad-man’s vision of the beautiful.