I completed my 200-hour yoga teacher training in November 2015. Here’s some of my very honest thoughts…
Yoga is the practice of quieting the mind. That is according to Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. Patanjali then goes on to outline a pathway toward enlightenment, or samadhi. It has eight limbs. Asana (posture) is one of the limbs. The others include ethics and meditation.
As a teenager, the thing that drew me to yoga was that it helped me quiet the mind. The mind of teenage me was overwhelming. It was filled with unresolved trauma, sadness, self-loathing, Lady Gaga lyrics, and what seemed like unattainable desires. Yoga introduced me to a new way of being; simply by stripping my ruminations.
For a long time, I was taking Level I classes. I wasn’t interested in sweating or nailing a pose, I just craved the quietness my mental health so desperately needed.
When I did my teacher training, I was interested in the spiritual element of yoga. I knew that it was good for my mind and my body. But I wanted to learn what the point of yoga was and practice that. I wanted to help people quiet their minds and live “better.”
I was naïve. After I finished my training and looked into sharing yoga, I was both surprised and disappointed.
Yoga = asana
I quickly learned during my teacher training that quieting the mind wasn’t a priority to the yoga industry.
Quieting the mind, or finding some spiritual element, is usually a secondary part of yoga. The primary part was the moving and stretching, and the sort of glamorization that comes with being in the yoga club.
I’ve heard plenty of times that perhaps by getting people to downward dog and chataranga, it could open doors for them explore themselves and become more curious about other aspects of yoga. And yes, it happens!
But why shouldn’t it happen by being truthful about how you present yoga? Why does it often only happen by treating yoga as solely a fitness regime or a health thing?
One thing I quickly learned after my training was that a yoga teacher doesn't usually teach yoga as a spiritual endeavor; a yoga teacher is most likely just an asana teacher.
You do not get hired as a teacher because you strive to practice the yamas and meditation, you get hired because you are well versed in telling people how to move their bodies. If you can tell people how to move fast and breathe, a la vinyasa, even better.
You are a type of aerobics teacher – who may or may not care about anything else in the world of yoga. Maybe posture is the beginning and the end in your offerings, and that’s fine to some extent.
Having posture be the only part that people share as yoga is frustrating because it makes yoga seem trivial and watered down.
I have no problem with yoga teachers teaching posture – whether it’s Level I or advanced in a heated room. It’s when they do those things and withhold meditation and yoga philosophy from the majority of the students that irritates me.
When you go to a yoga class, it’s usually 60 or 75 minutes. 90 percent of the class is posture. Maybe the teacher shares a pranayama (breathing technique) practice. If you’re really lucky, the teacher will share a quote that may pertain to yoga philosophy and/or teach meditation.
This norm in yoga could be fine, but it irritates me because it results into denying what yoga really is; and leads to inventing nonsense.
What happens is that teachers are offering yoga as mostly asana. And so students are knowing yoga as mostly asana. When you’re only aware of asana, and the physical effects it has on you, it can be fun to add more things to it.
Instead of teaching posture along with the yoga sutras or other yogic texts and an honest attempt at spiritual exploration; you have teachers offering yoga and X, or yoga and Y... Yoga and something totally irrelevant.
In short, you have gimmicks. What comes to mind for me is goat yoga and yoga and beer events. So now have a misrepresented view of yoga.
But who can blame teachers for trying to make trends and profit from them? It’s a capitalistic society after all. (Yoga meets capitalism is its own issue. I will mention the problem with financially benefiting from yoga a bit later.)
Yoga studios can be expensive and inaccessible.
Yoga studios are a blessing and a curse. They can be a great way to introduce people to the practice of yoga – or to alienate people.
At their best, they create community and make money for the owners and a bit for the teachers. At their worst, they are the prime example of upholding the supremacy of dominant groups and excluding marginalized groups.
First off, I want to say that I believe most people who own studios have the best intentions in mind. Truly, I am not upset at any studio owner personally. Nor does any of my feedback take away the good that has happened inside yoga studios and communities.
At the same time, I also feel this way: Intentions don’t matter as much as impact. Sometimes what fine intentions results into is subtle racism and classism in your very own studio. Yes, in between a poster of the Om symbol, flyers of your upcoming retreats, and a display of mats for sale -- something stinks – and it isn’t because of the sweat-inducing hot yoga.
Yoga studios – unless they are intentional in their messaging and business model – often attract wealthy (or at least those with disposable income), white, cis-gendered, fit folks. Maybe that’s not a problem for some studio leaderships. But I’m challenging you, reader, to think about why it might be problematic.
Often times, yoga studios are a reflection of their teachers.
And that’s not wrong in of itself. But it’s not necessarily right either. If you’re a studio owner and you want to make a profit, why should you consider any group outside of what I listed above? Why should you consider offering yoga to people who may not have the means to make you profitable?
Yoga can be amazing. It has a variety of benefits. Today, we are still learning about how yoga can improve our lives spiritually, mentally, and physically. In my opinion, it’s very concerning to only make it accessible for some.
I cannot imagine how different I’d be if it weren’t for being introduced to yoga. It literally led me down the path of self-inquiry and eventually to much needed healing in my late teens/early 20s.
But I was fortunate. I was able to practice yoga when a teacher came to volunteer after school. After that, I began practicing at the studio down the street from my school. I was able to go to the studio because I was a student so I had time, I had money from a part-time job at school, and I had access to a car.
Sadly, not everyone has the same opportunities as me. And not everyone may feel welcomed even if they could afford to visit a studio... including me.
When I first started looking to teach yoga at a studio, to be considered the “expert” in front of the classroom, it was startling to see how exclusive it really was! I was way too naïve and self-involved in my issues before to see this when I was just a student.
Almost every studio I went to had white owners and 90 to 100 percent of their teachers and staff were white. It seems a number of these folks were able to pursue yoga because they had partners making enough full-time income. Others had a full-time job, and taught yoga as a hobby. Many teachers have also invested in additional trainings.
It was intimidating for me as a 19-year-old Asian-American woman who wanted to share the goodness of yoga I discovered in my personal journey and get paid for it. I mean, I was someone who was already “in” the yoga club since I had my 200-hour training under my belt. Somehow, I still did not feel like I belonged in most yoga spaces.
If I felt this way and I’m a teacher, how does someone else with less yoga knowledge and experience than me feel about visiting a yoga studio?
It’s frustrating to think about how exclusive yoga studios can be. It disheartens me. If I’m working at a typical yoga studio, it feels like I’m just working to maintain their status quo. If I’m not able to reach different kinds of people who could benefit from yoga then there is an element of inequity that troubles me deeply.
To be honest, I don’t know if I could’ve gotten to where I am if it weren’t for an unusual opportunity.
When I was a new teacher, I completed a 6-week mentorship on a scholarship. I was able to do this because I was attending a non-profit yoga studio that made it their mission to make yoga accessible. I also collaborated with another studio owner. I helped the studio with social media in exchange for mentorship.
To break into the teaching scene will usually cost money or connections, and definitely time. It’s not necessarily easy for people without financial stability. It’s not necessarily going to feel welcoming for people of color either.
Yoga studios can be expensive and inaccessible. There can be an insidious racism and classism that’s integrated to how they do business, even if it wasn’t intended. To be clear, the racism and classism I mention here is usually not overt, it’s covert. It’s a systematic issue, not a personal attack on white yoga teachers or white studio owners.
Cultural appropriation is acceptable in yoga today.
Cultural appropriation is taking a culture’s practice out of context, and as if that wasn’t disrespectful enough, benefiting from it.
Portraying yoga = asana is harmful because it denies the context of yoga. It’s cultural appropriation at its worst. Furthermore, doing so usually benefits the teachers and studios financially.
Students who partake in culturally appropriated yoga are also benefiting their own personal development.
It’s an unfair and troubling practice in modern yoga.
Cultural appropriation is one of the most disrespectful and yet common things I see in the yoga industry today.
I have seen statues and symbols and chants taken out of context and turned into accessories for a modern yoga student or studio.
I have seen the word “yoga” used to describe anything vaguely spiritual or asana-based.
It aggravates me to no end.
The worst part about yoga being culturally appropriated is that it weirdly gives permission for other practices to be culturally appropriated alongside yoga, oftentimes in the yoga studio.
And there’s no perfect solution. At least, not from me. Look into Susanna Barkataki’s work for more ideas and perspectives on decolonizing yoga.
I think there may be ways to minimize harm and share yoga with some more integrity, but the harm is being done over and over again every time the message yoga = asana is fed to the masses. And it’s fed to us a lot.
It would take some time and some hardcore self-inquiry and collective inquiry to unlearn the distorted messaging from the yoga industry.
To say cultural appropriation in yoga is unacceptable and mean it, would be to take a hard look at yourself and dig deep. It’s uncomfortable and not everyone in the yoga world is ready for it.
Those three reasons are why I want to give up yoga. It’s tough trying to navigate all this. But keep reading and I will share the reasons why I haven’t given up.
Some yoga is better than none.
As much as I hate how basic yoga has become with its gimmicks and lack of substantial philosophical teachings, it’s not all bad.
Having some yoga being shared in the world is better than having none.
Even though it’s disrespectful to water down yoga and turn it into a hobby or remedy for mostly affluent white folks, it’s good to have some yoga exist.
It’s good to have some yoga exist so openly. It’s good to have some yoga as a tool for well-being or healing. It's good to have some yoga help transform people’s lives. It's good to have some yoga create community and fulfillment.
What do I mean by some yoga? I mean whatever aspect of yoga is being shared and learned by folks.
If posture is being shared, and people are eating it up, great! They’re using yoga to get a nice stretch and boost endorphins.
If breathing techniques are being shared, people are learning how to control their energy. They may use it for more energy, or more balance, or more relaxation.
If meditation is being shared, people will be learning how to befriend their minds and embrace themselves and their lives. Meditation is a powerful practice, it will show you, you.
If yoga philosophy is being shared, people will be able to contemplate life and their own behaviors.
How could I possibly not advocate for these potential results?
Of course, I do!
I love when people discover their affinity for yoga. I love when people find their communities. I love when people gather together in order to support each other. I love when people discover something about themselves through yoga.
I have experienced all of these, myself.
Just earlier today, I was teaching yoga to a group of men at an addiction treatment center. I’m not the first to offer yoga there. It was lovely to practice yoga with them and I know they are able to find tools from yoga to help in their recovery journey.
And because of that, I continue to work on holding space for others to experience the same goodness I have received from yoga.
It can’t get better unless I stay engaged.
I saw a quote the other day. I’m paraphrasing here... If all the disgusted people leave, then only the disgusting ones are left.
If I say fuck it and give up yoga, I won’t be contributing to the problems in the industry. But I also won’t be contributing to the solutions/minimization of the problems.
I want to make it clear that I do not at all blame those who went from yoga teacher to former yoga teacher. It's frustrating, and you usually do not make a lot of money.
I have realized that there is a lot of emotional labor that may be placed on you if you are a person of color in the yoga industry. Microaggressions are inevitable. And it's important to pick your battles and make sure your needs are met.
At this point in my life, I’m still in it. (Ask me in 1, 5, 10 years.) I’m not married. I don’t have kids. My family is doing alright. I’m healthy. I don’t have any external circumstances that would make it harder for me to stay engaged right now.
I'm not super idealistic, there’s a lot of bullshit in yoga world, but I haven’t succumbed to pessimism either.
I realized that I had two choices. I could either feel resentment toward the yoga industry and feel defeated. Or, I could try to speak up and collaborate. I could try to be part of the change I so badly want to see. I'm trying out the latter right now.
Despite everything, and I mean everything, (I'm writing this in late 2018. It’s a shitshow, just turn on the news) I believe in the goodness of people.
There’s a lot of progress that’s already being made. Important conversations are being had in the yoga industry, some around race, some around offering trauma-informed practices, body positivity, etc. Shout out to everyone who’s leading the way to make yoga more accessible and inclusive... I believe in you. Please, please keep going.
We may not be able to fix everything wrong in yoga world today, but we could help the future generation experience yoga a bit better – more holistically, more accessible, more inclusive, more respectful.
Teaching is a calling.
I don’t know how else to say this.
I feel called to lead through teaching.
Yes, I chose to teach yoga. Yes, I still could choose to teach other things. Who knows? I very well might become a teacher of another subject one day.
But I knew very soon after my introduction yoga, like three classes in soon, that I wanted to learn it and teach it.
It was one thing about my life that I felt sure about. I felt sure that I wanted to teach yoga.
This certainty wavers whenever I discuss the issues I listed above. But at my very core, I want to teach yoga.
It is curious to me, how my life led me to where I am. It’s also interesting to remember how comfortable I was deciding teaching yoga was for me before I could appreciate how vast it was.
But because of that, and the other reasons above, I haven’t given up yoga.