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What Does a Yoga teacher look like?

Quick story: I teach a weekly class in one of the government building in downtown Charlotte for the city/county employees. I go through security - which consists on a metal detector and a quick look through my belongings. Recently, when I walked through a random passerby made comments about not needing to search me because I obviously was the Yoga teacher. We were on the elevator where he continued to talk about how I looked like a Yoga teacher, and that my “Bohemian style was a giveaway.”

I inwardly cringed as I was outwardly friendly. “Way to type-cast me. But yeah…I’m the yoga teacher.” Our 60 second ride to the basement didn’t feel like the time to educate him - so I’ve taken to writing these words instead.

Go ahead and google “yoga teacher” and check out the images. No seriously, google it, and then come back…

Sure, google is smart and knows where we live so there’s some localization - and the general consensus is that yoga teachers look like mostly white women who are thin and able-bodied.

So yeah, sounds like me but also let’s zoom out and remember the bigger story.

Yoga has a complicated, and often contested, history with roots in India (and Africa). The story begins 5000-ish years ago (but also maybe longer) but the way modern yoga looks is really only about 100-ish years old and influenced by gymnastics, calisthenics, and colonialism.

Fun fact: Yoga’s beginning is often proven by the discovery of the Pashupati seal in the Indus Valley - “maybe” depicts Shiva ~ 2350-2000 BCE

With any historical retelling one should also be curious about whose stories are being told, and whose stories are being erased.

A few different perspectives on how old is yoga:

7000, 3500, or 150 years?

7000 years old - as marked by the Rigveda (9000-5000 BCE) which represents the history of humanity’s earliest religion. Controversial statement: these can be attributed to happening either inside (or maybe outside) India. This may differ based on the historian and is rooted in the findings of the National Geographic Gene Mapping Project of human history and migration.

“The history surrounding the Vedic invasion (migration) of India is controversial and complex, in part because of the various Hindu fundamentalist group who claim, against scientific evidence, the Vedic people are Indigenous to India and represent “the best” of Indian culture. Genetic evidence show, however that all modern peoples of the world originated from Africa, including those who settled India in successive periods (Austrics, Dravidyans, Vedics).”

Ramesh Bjonnes

OR 3500 years old - as marked by the Upanishads (1500 BCE) and the rise of nondualism (Pre-classical Yoga). This includes The Bhagavad Gita.

OR 150 years with Krishnamacharya who lived 1888-1989. He was hired by a local king in the 1930’s (colonial period of India’s history) to develop asanas to give Indians a sense of pride/strength.

Krishnamachraya is said to be the grandfather of modern yoga and he trained many of the folks given extra credit in today’s world including: B.K.S. Iyengar (Light on Yoga - 1966), T.K.V. Desikachar (Heart of Yoga - 1995), Indra Devi (Forever Young, Forever Healthy - 1953) and Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute - 1948).

There’s also a whole history of erasure of culture by the British Empire from 1858-1914 and separation.

Homework: google “The Great Partition” or the creation of the Pakistan/India border.

This extends to who has been uplifted in the yoga world, and leads to harm, microaggressions and exclusion for folks who don’t match the google search for “yoga teacher”.

Example: Indra Devi is often called the “mother of modern Yoga” and is credited with being one of the few women yoga practitioners. The story I heard is that she was turned down by Krishnamacharya and then wouldn’t give up her desire to learn from this master teacher. She was painted as heroic and this version has inspired many. In the last few years, I learned that not only is NOT the first/only woman practitioner but she also basically went and complained to the manager (the king) to get her way. (see below for Godmothers of Yoga resource)

The turnabout to Yoga being popularized in today’s world is disrespectful, at best - given the ways in which “we” demonized these same practices not too long ago.

And sure - call me the pot, talking to the kettle.

I am not immune to my own criticisms. There are many times I’ve wanted to walk away, that I feel I don’t have a role in the yoga world, and am only contributing to the problem - and also recognizing that escape is my favorite defense mechanism.

I know that if I am to leave this yoga world - that others will fill my space.

Will these others do their own work to understand their personal biases?

Will these others create opportunities and accessibility for others to gain tools and knowledge?

Will these others continue to sit with their own roles within these systems of inequality and harm?

The history of Yoga extends wayyy longer than my lifetime. These issues began before me, and may continue after me. And while I have the privilege of living this magical moment - it doesn’t exclude me from doing my own work to dismantle these systems of oppression. Any system I may find myself in going forward will continue to present these issues. These are NOT unique to the yoga world - it’s simply a microcosm of the larger macrocosm of the world.

And while some Yoga practitioners choose to use their practices to bypass the current situations for “higher” vibes of love and light - I choose to use these practices to create a more just and equitable system.

So a more powerful solution is to sit with some of my discomfort.

To let my assumed role of yoga teacher be leveraged to educate others - and yeah a 60-second elevator ride IS enough time to flip someone’s perspective on what a yoga teacher looks like…lesson learned.


Readings: Yoga: Technology of Ecstacy by Georg Feurenstein, Yoga Body by Mark Singleton, Original Godmothers of Yoga by Yoga is Dead hosts Tejal Patel and Jesal Parikh

Listenings: Yoga is Dead Podcast hosts Tejal Patel and Jesal Parikh


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