practice what you preach: the yoga teacher as an example for self-love
*This article originally appeared on YogaInternational.com
We seem to be in the midst of a revolution. Well, at least I hope we are. My usual social media feed has been infiltrated with more and more posts proclaiming self-love, diverse bodies, and positive motivational exclamations. It's encouraging. It's exciting. But it's also not enough.
With the yoga world looking more and more like the fitness industry each day, it should be no surprise that we are where we are. The Western yoga world is a confusing, conflicting, and often duplicitous mess of lovely, powerful, potentially life-altering ideals that tend to come with a side order of more chaturangas and a sprinkle of body shaming. I know that I should be ecstatic about the increasing conversation calling out the bullshit we’ve been (and are still being) served up. We are making progress. It’s a conversation, and that's huge. But I want more.
I want more than a proclamation of “Love yourself!” I want more than “Stop being so mean to yourself. You're great! Think positive!” I want more than super-sweaty vinyasa classes to detox from Thanksgiving. And I want more than photos of sunsets with inspirational Rumi quotes. I want us to practice what we preach. As teachers, as mothers, husbands, friends—hell, as general people in life—we can’t just talk about it, we need to be about it.
As yoga instructors, we wield more power than we probably realize (or probably want). And as Uncle Ben tells us, with great power comes great responsibility. Telling me to see the beauty in my body with a #selflove hashtag and a size 2 handstand on the beach may make you feel better, but it probably doesn't do too much for me. Speaking of taking breaks when you need them and honoring your body during a class that is labeled “Calorie Scorching Yoga” isn’t necessarily helpful—it's confusing. Good intentions are, well, they're good, and they’re a start, but if we truly want to make an impact then there is still much more to be done.
As yoga instructors, we wield more power than we probably realize (or probably want). How can we give our students (and ourselves) the tools and support to cultivate deeper self-love rather than just telling them to do it? We all need help, and even if you are struggling yourself (I sure am), there are little, and big, ways to lead by example to instigate change.
Be picky about what kinds of classes you choose to teach.
Classes can be hard to come by in this currently saturated profession, but that doesn't mean you have to sell your soul for a 12 p.m. Hour of Power. If you don’t agree with the expectations of the studio (hotter, faster, harder) or the class title sends up a red flag, then set your boundaries. I would love to teach Vinyasa 2, but I won’t teach Booty Lift Yoga Burn with dubstep and disco lights. Just because you love to teach doesn't mean you have to love to teach everything and anything.
Find mindful, inclusive language and descriptors to use in class, and then actually use them.
It’s oh so easy to regurgitate the same language we’ve heard over and over. Creating a safer space for all students to feel supported and seen can be achieved with our language choices and speaking to inclusivity, out loud. As a larger-chested lady, I would have loved to hear a teacher mention that it was normal to find halasana and shoulderstand constricting, a.k.a., that my boobs were going to try to suffocate me. Early in my practice I had no idea there were alternatives, all I knew was that I was embarrassed that I seemed to be simply too big for the posture.
The same goes for fitness, goal-oriented speech.
Holding chair longer to get ready for summer shorts season? Nope, not okay. One extra wheel for every drink you plan to have on Friday night? How about 10 more navasanas for every piece of candy you chomp on Halloween? We are all better teachers than that, and motivating our students with shame or guilt is frankly unacceptable. And, as students, we absolutely should not accept it.
For students to feel that their bodies are included, we need to actually speak to the physical bodies in the room, in front of us, at that very moment.
Like everything, staying aware of the crap that comes out of our mouths during a long day of teaching takes practice. It also takes actually talking to individual students throughout each class. It means seeing them, and their bodies, and tailoring our instructions to match our real-live students. It means that sometimes that awesome cue you heard in class the other day or read in a blog won’t work for this group. As teachers we are tasked with taking complicated concepts and making them simple for our students to understand and interpret in their own bodies. For students to feel that their bodies are included, we need to actually speak to the physical bodies in the room, in front of us, at that very moment.
The compliments we give.
Believe it or not, there are other compliments out there besides “You look great! Did you lose weight?” or “You look so pretty!” Little boys are more than tough. Little girls are more than sweet, or adorable, or cute. Most of us have been conditioned from day one to tie our self-worth to our physical bodies. And it’s a connection that is not easily severed. At the risk of being overly cautious, it's simply impossible to know what someone might be struggling with. At the height of my struggle with bulimia and Adderall abuse during and after college, the unknowing compliments on my weight changes, while well-intentioned, only served to fuel the fire that what I was doing was working. That three hours at the gym per day while on stimulants, plus binging and purging, was making me look “great.” I looked "so skinny! What had I been doing to get so healthy?” Well, I developed an eating disorder and, based on the comments of my peers and family, it seemed to be working quite well.
If we mean to tell someone that they look blissful and happier than ever, then our work is to tell them just that. If we are captivated by a student's grace or by a teacher's wit, a daughter's energy or a man's compassion, then why not be specific, intentional, and truly impactful with our chosen words?
Don’t bash yourself out loud.
This should really read "Don’t bash yourself. Period." But that's another one of those easier-said-than-done examples. Most of us have some sort of loop playing in our head that hammers on our self-worth in some way. We’ve all got our somethings and there's no good in berating ourselves. However, we can make very real strides by not letting these narratives become part of our everyday conversations. This may include finding a different way to respond to a compliment on your new leggings that doesn’t include, “I ate so much last night, I can’t believe these even fit!” Generally, “Thanks!” works pretty well instead. There is a difference between quirky self-deprecating humor and creating common ground with your students (“I hate this pose too. Its very hard for me. You’re not alone.”), and just plain self-deprecating for no reason.
The images we choose to share with the world.
The fact of the matter is that we all need to pay rent. We have mortgages, and kids, and sick parents, and organic grapes to be bought. For many yoga teachers in today’s world that means getting people into our classes and booking our privates. And having people generally interested in us and what we teach is paramount. Whether we like it or not, if we want to make a living teaching yoga, if we pay taxes teaching yoga, then yoga is very much a business for us. Marketing ourselves and our services is part of the job. And it can make a difference. But with all the tools at our disposal now, we have the ability to carefully craft our images for better or for worse. How do teachers find the fine line between impressive and unapproachable when sharing the physical practice? The difference between honesty and exaggeration, or even desperation, in our 140 characters? When do our yoga selfies stop being authentic expressions of ourselves and our love for asana and start turning into overly crafted cries for more likes. Our students and our communities are not blind. It’s not just about not posting what you want, it's about taking a moment to consider what the impact you’re actually looking for is.
With the work of our yoga practices, meditation, mindfulness, and healthy relationships, we can make progress, and we can help others make progress too. Wading through the messy world of body dysmorphia and the media that pushes it is tricky business, which is why it requires more than just good intentions. It requires awareness. It requires empathy. And it requires action. Stop telling me what to do and start helping me do it.