by Dianne Bondy
[Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from the new book “Yoga and Body Image.”]
You Teach Yoga?
I’m always nervous when I head into a new venue to teach yoga. There was a time when I was also a little bit scared of being an imposter because I didn’t fit the yoga stereotype. When I enter a space, I am often met with the same reaction: “You teach yoga?” I usually get a once-over, and the judgment in their eyes is palpable.
I recently hosted a retreat at a beautiful yoga resort in Aruba. It just so happened that the owner of that spectacular retreat space was down for the week on his monthly visit to inspect the property. I was introduced to him, and I recognized “the look” right away when he asked twice if I was teaching the retreat. I noticed it again when it came time to teach and he began closely observing me. My teaching skills seemed to surprise him, and he praised my abilities. Why is it so shocking that a big person could be a halfway decent yoga teacher?
How do we shake up the yoga stereotypes and allow people to see yoga as it really is? We are not all white, able-bodied, super-flexible, thin, heterosexual beings. We are diverse in every way and it’s this diversity that makes life interesting.
We can change the misperception of what yoga looks like by encouraging people to become stewards of their own wellness. They don’t need external validation—they can find what they are looking for within themselves. And yoga can help them find it. They shouldn’t feel like they need permission to practice. Yoga is a vehicle to wellness; it’s about the mind-body-spirit connection. We don’t need to fit into these narrow yoga stereotypes to practice yoga. We must encourage people who feel marginalized and who are different that we need their uniqueness and experiences. We need to develop a conscious culture committed to social justice and equality for every body.
Yoga is all about the breath, quieting the mind, and tuning into your true nature. The asana (or yoga pose) portion of yoga is discussed as the third limb in Patanjali’s sutras, which leads me to believe that it isn’t the most important part of the practice, but one of many equally important parts.
When we fail to offer modifications to struggling students, we create an exclusive club of the cans and cannots. The cans may have the unfair advantages or privileges, namely genetics and sometimes even a gymnastics background. The cannots may be (note: this doesn’t fit with the theme of body modifications) older, tighter, or bigger-bodied. Unfortunately, most yoga studios today don’t include the cannots, and here lies the problem. It already occurs in everyday society, and now we’ve allowed this to steep into our spiritual and wellness practices. Yoga is about what you can do, not what you cannot do.
How do you make your teacher trainings, workshops, and events accessible for everyone involved? You learn how to teach inclusively. My motto is “No Yogi Left Behind.” There is a place for everyone on the mat; we just have to change our mindset.
The key to bringing diversity to yoga is to have a diversity of teachers. Inclusion on the yoga mat means everyone is welcome—to teach and practice. How do you get bigger people to go to yoga classes? Have more bigger-bodied teachers. How do you get a more culturally diverse yoga class? You train culturally diverse yoga teachers to teach. We need to learn how to teach progressively so that students of varying abilities and experience levels can practice in the same room safely and comfortably.
We also need to be more inclusive and sensitive in how we speak. Language is powerful. When we hear the term “diversity,” most of us automatically think of people of color. But diversity exists on many levels. We are diverse within our cultures, our bodies, and our beliefs. Diversity refers to different socioeconomic classes, ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, and sizes. And yoga should be accessible to everyone in this diversity. In fact, it should be celebrated in all yoga classes.
Yoga studio owners and teachers need to offer classes that are truly accessible to every body—no matter that body’s size, age, level of flexibility, strength, or ability.
Every asana has a modification, and teachers should offer those modifications to their students. Teachers should make students aware that the person who is concentrating on their breathing, listening to their body, finding the version of the pose that they need, or taking breaks is “doing” yoga perfectly. And that they shouldn’t compare themselves to the person who is in the most advanced version of the pose. Completing an advanced version of a pose doesn’t make that person a better yogi. There is no better or worse in yoga.
Those of us who are different need to find, connect with, and support each other. We need to set aside the idea that we can’t just show up to the mat as ourselves. The people who are going to judge us based on our size, color, gender, or physical challenges are not truly practicing yoga.
My challenge to you is to change the culture, change the language, and change the idea of what yoga teachers and yoga students look like. Be a trailblazer. Share your uniqueness, your challenges, and your practice.
You have something powerful to offer the world.
Dianne is an E-RYT 500 with Yoga Alliance, the founder of Yogasteya.com, has had extensive yoga therapy training, is a columnist for the Elephant Journal, owns a studio, runs yoga retreats, trains yoga teachers, has a devoted husband, two small boys and not enough sleep. Dianne is big, black, bold and loves all things yoga. Try to keep up with Dianne on Facebook, Twitter, and DianneBondyYoga.com or download one of her FREE podcast on iTunes.