students at my Wednesday morning class

#RealYogaTeachers Part 2

YBIC Instagram image of a practitioner in a complex hand balance, aided by props, with the words: ‘Make the yoga work for you, don’t worry about making your body fit some image of yoga’ – Sarah Lyons

I was checking out a brutally honest and incisive article today by Kimberley Dark – read it here – on how fat yoga teachers just aren’t as employable as ones that fit the social media-happy mould of bright eyed, bubbly, thin and white, enthusiastic and bendy practitioners.

But I’d go further. Older teachers don’t get much love either. I’ve been teaching for just a decade, hardly any time at all, really. And I know how much I’ve learned in that time. Putting aside the doctoral research for a moment, I believed then without question everything that I’d been taught. I really believed that yoga made everyone a better person eventually, that the most commercially diluted asana offerings naturally led to deeper practices, that the ‘right’ alignment I’d been taught was a uniquely elegant synthesis of biomechanics and esoteric anatomy and was applicable to all bodies, at all times.

yoga teachers and practitioners at the Yoga Studies Summer School in Krakow

I’m quite nostalgic for that certainty even as I know that none of those things are true, and I watch as a seemingly endless supply of new yoga teachers bounce up on social media with all the same illusions I had. I’m trying not to be cynical – after all, no matter how newly qualified, I’ve never yet met a yoga teacher who wasn’t hungry to learn more. But I’m also aware that the depth of knowledge and understanding that can only come from experience (and possibly from at least one major disillusionment) doesn’t, interestingly, bring a mass of students to my door. Quite the opposite. It’s always easier to sell simple answers – a 6 week course to fix your lower back pain – than to sell a long term practice of self-enquiry and inter-relationship with no guaranteed outcomes but lots of common miracles along the way.

So sadly, it’s not easy to sell yourself as a yoga teacher if you don’t fit the look and you can’t guarantee fast outcomes, no matter how amazing and authentic your offerings, no matter the length of your practice, or the depth of your insights. And most of the amazing teachers I know don’t bother. They teach quietly, in relative obscurity, to handfuls of students that can’t quite imagine that they get this kind of access. And the more unusual their personal situation and the more chronic their sufferings, the more students value the quality of this deeper approach. The really innovative work is happening in accessible yoga classes of all kinds, but also in general, open to all, community spaces with diverse groups of people that will never look right on the cover of Yoga Journal.

Debbie Farrar - yoga teacher

But still, you can take a workshop or a retreat with Angela Farmer and Victor van Kooten easily because so few people know who they are. They have 100 years of teaching experience between them, and were into non-linear, deeply somatic movement decades before it became popular. She also invented the modern yoga mat.

You can take classes with Pete Yates or Ellen Lee of the IYN anytime you like. They have been at the forefront of British resistance to the standardisation and corporatisation of yoga practice for decades. And if you’ve never had Pete explain yoga philosophy to you, honestly, you’re missing out on a mind-expanding experience, no matter how much you’ve studied.

Early morning dance at Sundara with Chelsea Canovas

I’ve been in classes with John Stirk where half an hour into trying to imagine what it’s like to develop lungs, washed up on the primordial beach, he stopped and said ‘You can’t teach this, you know, people just want to do trikonasana’. Half the cool yoga teachers I know are experimenting with infant movement. Last time I saw him, John was teaching foetal movement. As Pete Blackaby said, he’s always got to be one step ahead.

I’m aware that all of these people are British, and happen to be white – they’re only the ones I know about precisely because it’s so hard to find them unless you have a really robust peer network that knows how to value experienced teachers. I do. And that’s lucky. But what all of these people have in common is that despite their vitality and full schedules, they won’t be around forever. And when they’re gone, they won’t have left behind mega-brands and international schools and established lineages to carry on their work.

Jaqueline Hargreaves, Jason Birch and scholar friends at a conference in Vienna

If yoga culture isn’t careful, we’ll lose all that wisdom, and we’ll lose all those small local classes and studios that do incredible work with whoever needs it most. And we’ll be left with young teachers burning out trying to teach dozens of classes a week in a futile search for ‘abundance’, and every week will bring another Instagram trend, churned out by some really well meaning and dedicated but inexperienced teacher who’s just trying to stay ahead of the social media curve.

Meanwhile, across the world, younger teachers who also don’t fit the common mould do whatever they can to get by and keep up the day job, because they can’t get the work or the students to survive otherwise. Sometimes that’s for good reason. My friend Jacqueline Hargreaves is hard to pin down because she travels the world with the Hatha Yoga Project, investigating the real history of asana, but you can catch a workshop with her here and there and learn awesome practices from forgotten and crumbling scrolls.

puja with the Babaji community

And my friend Trishula wouldn’t take money for what she does anyway, she just continues to work tirelessly to combine social justice and devotion at kirtan events like the Beltane Bhakti Gathering with only the reward of sharing her guru’s love as far as possible.

But you can take classes with my friend Tiffany Rose if you’re in Alberta, and help keep her community-centred, entirely trauma-sensitive studio open. And you can take classes with my friend Justine in Minneapolis if you think geeks of all shapes, sizes and genders should have yoga too.

Still, I’m bored with the same old arguments on social media about whether or not it’s appropriate to criticise someone else’s marketing strategy if it contributes to the shaming of diverse bodies, or the commodification of practice, or makes uncomfortable compromises with the latest trends. (It is, by the way. It really is. Judgement and discernment isn’t non-yogic, it’s entirely consistent with centuries of philosophical tradition. We have to keep trying to find common ground, and that doesn’t mean anything goes.)

students in my Wednesday morning class in Rowde Village Hall

Instead, I’ve started saying not: ‘this isn’t yoga’, and more ‘this isn’t my yoga, it may be yours’. And that’s got me thinking about how we can all help celebrate our yoga. The teachers who inspire us who don’t get a lot of easy attention. So my challenge to you is this:

Find a yoga teacher you love who doesn’t fit the common mould and as a result has unique wisdom to share. I’m not talking about people in major brands, or trading on lineages with a lot of respect, or easy on the eye on social media. Those people get a lot of love already. Find me the teachers who are doing risky things, or who have unique perspectives, or who’ve been quietly teaching for at least as long as I have – preferably over a decade. Bonus points if they’ve been around for over thirty years. Send me a paragraph telling me about them, about why they would fit in this list, and a photo, and a link to some way to find them.

yoga student with profound and multiple disabilities

I’ll share them all on social media, because despite the fact that I only have time these days to teach a few people a week, I do have, interestingly, a bit of a reach online. Mostly for ranting to a purpose, and talking about my research, but also, I think, for sharing the kinds of stories we all want to hear about.

And when I’ve got time, I’ll take the ones I love most and put them in another blog post – yoga teachers we love. And let’s start pushing back against that tide, shall we?

Watch Kimberley Dark lay out some of the issues beautifully here.

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