This year I nearly quit teaching yoga.
Not because I don’t love the nourishment I receive from my practice, or the privilege of teaching others. But because of what yoga has now become, and the way yoga teachers behave, and how yoga is marketed. Yoga burnt me out.
I have been practicing now for 21 years, and teaching a lot of that time also. When I was 19 yoga felt like something deep, something real, a refuge, an actual spiritual practice. It has always been that way for me, yoga is a meditative practice in which I come home to myself. My beliefs and ideas have evolved over time, but the essence of yoga to me is the cultivation of love and coming into a deeper into relationship with yourself and the world around you.
But something changed in how yoga is seen and understood.
And I think it has a lot to do with the advent of social media. Social media has assisted in transforming a spiritual practice into a yoga based fitness industry. Physical prowess is applauded, daily asana challenges are encouraged, product placement is rife and the over representation of white, middle class, childless women with low BMI is clear.
Yoga has become primarily about the body. Or at least that is what is being fed to us through social media feeds by prominent yoga teachers. Or perhaps for some people it always was and now we are simply seeing this? In a world based on how you look and what you are wearing, the experience of generations of teachers might be lost, indeed they can’t compete and aren’t part of the new yoga #tribe or #community in which the artifice is tied to age, skin colour, weight and physical ability.
Yoga has become the circus Pattabhi Jois hoped it wouldn’t become. Not just metaphorically, but quite literally – Insta yogis have actual real life circus trainers helping them refine their asanas (don’t get me wrong if I had the time and money I think having my own circus trainer would be super fun – but it’s not yoga).
Social media has also given voice to the faux community that yoga entails. Yoga is emotive, deeply personal and idiosyncratic. It can engender a zeal in people which makes it difficult for them to see outside their own understanding of their own practice, teaching or lineage. People get very protective of their school, ‘their’ student’s, their brand. Often being new to teaching these teachers don’t yet realise that student’s come and go, schools evolve and change over time, and essentially with yoga, you are your own brand – so personal ethics (yamas + niyamas) become essential. Communities based on zeal will eventually crash and burn, as there will inevitably be a crisis of power and an ideological clash and egos not willing to compromise or be humble.
While there are some genuine online communities out there, it seems the bitching and backstabbing in the yoga community is no different to what you might find in any competitive sport. This year after seeing my name and the words ‘yoga narcissitists and c***ts’ in the same sentence I wasn’t so much hurt, but more just shocked by the vulgarity and lack of kindness encapsulated in such a small remark. To me it simply epitomised what yoga has become to some people: a total ethical free for all lacking in introspection and restraint. These days, anything goes when it comes to yoga, talking about yoga, or talking about other people who do yoga. This free for all attitude is something I am not personally celebrating.
In renavigating my relationship with being a ‘Yoga Teacher’ I shut my personal Facebook profile. Primarily because I don’t really want to talk about yoga or hear other people talk about yoga too much. Why? Because yoga for me private.
To me yoga has always been a private ritual, a daily mental cleansing and resetting. It is what allows me to be me in the fullest sense, more open, more loving, less worried. In essence the intensity of committing to the regimen of daily practice has paradoxically given me freedom.
But I at times feel the pull that the current representations of yoga have created. Every now and then while struggling with toddler induced exhaustion and injuries from teaching (and pregnancies) I sometimes hear internal judgement about the way my practice might look from the outside. After 21 years I am not completely immune from being impacted by the (mis)representations we now find of yoga.
It is strange because this outside looking in gaze wasn’t part of my practice in the first 10 years. But now at 40, not often, but sometimes, I see the seeds of doubt popping up in my mind as I find ways to steady and soften in my post-natal body. I have been practicing just as long, if not longer than many a yogalebrity, but the response of my body is not the same. Yoga asana isn’t a meritocracy, and we would be foolish to think so.
I am relieved though that those thoughts are fleeting and this gaze has not been internalised. I feel often settled and peaceful in my practice. Besides the personal suffering such internalisation would create, I would be heart broken if my teaching perpetuated such a limited body-focused version of yoga. What I realised through considering quitting yoga teaching, is that teaching yoga is something I LOVE.
I want to actually teach yoga. I don’t want to teach what we find on social media, I want to teach diverse students at different stages of their life. Further, to my mind yoga in many ways can’t be taught, we can simply provide the context and tools for people to discover themselves. It sounds trite but yoga is a journey, and as a teacher I simply wish to walk that path with people, bear witness to their changes, and help them to embrace what is, whether that appears from the outside as aligning with current representations of yoga or not.
For me yoga allows you to enter into loving and kind relationships, beginning with yourself and then the world. It is essential that relationship isn’t mediated by the internet, or even other people. It is unhelpful to have other people’s ideas and representations of how yoga should be practiced in your head. For many years after practicing with an Australian teacher his voice was always in my head telling me to do this or that, and mainly saying it wasn’t good enough.
These days there is no one’s voice in my head as I practice, but generally I feel the kind of cosmic presence of Guruji and Sharath, a warmth and support which isn’t chastising, or pushing me to do more or be more. These days I know to be on my mat is enough. My practice is enough, the way I am teaching is enough. I know if it is not enough for some people, they will find a teacher who provides them with what they need for this moment in their life.
Besides it being something I love, I feel like contemplating quitting yoga teaching has clarified why I still will teach. I want there to be an alternative to what is being spruiked and sold as yoga in the media. I want there to be teachers with decades of experience teaching and I will even play the game and have a social media presence through our school(s) to further that goal of providing an alternative. My hope is to for as long as I can navigate the modern representations of yoga with my experiences of yoga to continue in whatever way possible to provide the space that a Mysore room holds to be revelatory and healing.*
*And this can’t be done alone, so thankyou to The Yoga Space teachers who have begun to hold this space with me, and those who have been doing so for many years.