‘Oh, are you the yoga teacher?’, said with a quizzical look and tone of surprise.
‘I’m here for yoga, where is the teacher?’, said with a glance that moved beyond me.
These are genuine comments I have received just before I’ve been about to teach a yoga class. When new students arrive, I understand that I may cause a few curious looks up and down and I suspect a few internal judgments may be cast my way. I have come to expect them but I have also had to let them go.
I know I don’t look like a typical yoga teacher. I’m not tall or skinny or have perfect skin. I’m short and curvy and carry a bit more weight than I’d like to. But I have had to learn that this does not make me a bad yoga teacher, in fact, I think it may even have helped me. You see, every time, and I mean every time, I step up to teach a class I feel vulnerable and at risk of judgment. I feel on edge, and because of this edge I think I can relate to students who don’t feel comfortable in their own skin, or who don’t think they are strong enough or flexible enough to even begin. I know this because I’ve been one of them.
If you told me even a few years ago that I would using my body as a teaching tool, and that people would be looking to my limbs (and curves) for instruction, I would have laughed in disbelief and shuddered at the thought. But yoga, I have experienced, does something to you- it helps you to connect with, and even love, your body from the inside out. So I may have a belly, but I have learned to love the feeling of moving into a headstand unaided, holding it for minutes and minutes. I may not look like a typical yogi (or at least what the yoga industry continue to promote on their glossy magazine covers), but I love being able to move into deeper consciousness and awareness of my body, sensing into my organs and even feeling the difference between my right lung and my left, feeling the changing pulse of my heart and the shape of my pelvis. And I may not have perfectly sculpted muscles, but I love that I can hop up into crow pose and balance all my weight on my hands. Most of all, I love that it has been a journey of discipline and a hell of a lot of hours of practice to get me there. It did not start that way. It started with feeling unworthy but it was the practice, more practice and the wonderful support from my own teachers that helped me along my own path.
I remember the week before I decided to train as a teacher. I had a coaching session with my good friend Mari Kennedy and we sat down and faced the fear. I really could not see myself getting to the point where I’d be able to get up in front of a class of people and have them look at my body, curves and all, for instruction. But while the fear spoke loudly, Mari helped me to hear beyond it. Behind the foreboding I discovered deep vulnerability. Something clicked. I realized that the vulnerability was the gold. It was the key to connecting with others. This is what would make me a teacher, not being two stone lighter or six inches taller, but the ability to connect with another person’s journey, wherever they are along it.
A while ago a new student arrived into my class, looking very nervous. She told me that a previous teacher had said to her not to come to class any more because she was overweight and would not be able to do all the poses. My heart sank as I heard this, and annoyance flared- I wanted to have a word with that teacher and highlight some of the damage that had been done. Yoga is for everyone- tall, thin, male, female, young or old. It is not about being flexible or strong (these are just some of the by-products), but it is about the journey inwards, to the home of the infinite within. Yoga offers a promise- not necessarily that you will fall in love with your body from the inside out, but that it will offer you the chance to. It is a doorway to experience the inward self, the authentic self, the real and the actual self. It is breath and depth and beauty and grace. This is the journey. It starts with vulnerability and from there it moves to possibility. Along the way it is peppered with imperfection, doubt, challenge and change.
So over the years, as the hours on the mat have clocked in, I have learned to connect and constantly reconnect with my body from the center to the periphery. It is a continual journey. There are still days that I do not like what I see in front of the mirror but yoga has taught me to look beyond the skin and instead to experience the truth of my body.
So this is the real invitation and it is open to all; curves, fears and vulnerability included. Mine are no exception, thankfully.
Recently I listened to two wonderful podcasts from On Being, a US radio show taking about yoga.
The first with Matthew Sanford, a yoga teacher who has been paraplegic since the age of 13. He speaks wonderfully about the essence of yoga, irrespective of the body which it works through. You can listen here.
The second was with Besel Van Der Kolk, a psychiatrist on trauma treatment and the role of body awareness, including yoga, in recovery. Here