It's been a weird 16 months.
Last year, I shared an Instagram post during Mental Health Awareness week about how my mental health led me on a path of discovering yoga. At the time I began practicing, I was drawn to fast paced, playful classes. Sixty minutes of distraction. Sixty minutes free from worry, stress and sadness. As the years went by, yoga was an integral part of my life. I needed it for my sanity and I loved the challenge of pushing my body where I didn’t think it could go.
Since my yoga training, the yoga industry has boomed and I have tried to navigate where I fit into it all. A spectrum, at one end, those who have dived deep into yogic philosophy and turned their back on ‘normal life’; and at the other is the commercial world, yoga marketed to ‘yummy mummies’ as a trendy form of exercise. With social platforms depicting people in idyllic backdrops doing gravity defying poses, westernised yoga has left me feeling very uncomfortable. I feel disconnected and have an apprehension around how I show up in an industry that holds so much expectation on my ability to make certain shapes with my body.
Yoga is more than asana
The longer I practice yoga, the more I understand that asana practices are not the be all and end all. Yoga is a way of life, a lifestyle choice that is not defined by physical movement.
As tantalising as it seems, yoga is not about looking like an acrobat. What your body does or doesn't do on your mat really doesn't matter. Yoga is about connection. Connection between body and breath, between nature and self.
Practicing yoga everyday and using it as a crutch, can be more detrimental than good. Years after practicing for many hours a day, my body was not in harmony, it was strained, tired and in pain. Ultimately, doing anything to an extreme is unhealthy, it really is about balance.
I have found practicing yoga more beneficial when I use it as a tonic - a special moment of reconnection when I am in need of self-care and love, and I now prescribe this method to others. I completely admire the determination and discipline of those that have a daily practice, but I do question if people question why they practice every day.
My current philosophy is incorporating yoga as a part of a holistic lifestyle that aims to create balance in my body and mind.
Yoga in a modern world
I have the most utmost respect for all yoga teachers and the gifts they share to their students, but #yogisofig is an illusion. As consumers, what we tend to brush over is that many of the amazing yoga profiles and practitioners we come across are ex-gymnasts, climbers, acrobats, ballet students and dancers. As a yoga participant, this creates unrealistic expectations of what it is to be good at yoga and what is necessary to be ‘successful’ in the industry.
Being a full-time yoga teacher is complicated. The work/life balance is very blurred and the effort and energy put into each class along with the prep, travel, conversations and support is exhausting.
I’m really proud of where I have got to, and for every penny I have earnt off my own back, but, there is a correlation between hours of teaching, earnings and burnout. When I first began teaching, I had around 10 classes a week and had just enough money to pay my bills. Now, after the industry wide boom of digital classes, there is no way I can compete with free offerings or the low-rate memberships of practitioners who already had a strong following pre-covid.
The Yoga Teachers Union conducted a survey in July 2020 finding that the average rate for teaching a yoga class was £27.54. For each class taught, there was on average an additional two hours of prep which included class planning, admin, marketing and student support. The finding did not include the time to travel to and from the venue but if this was 30 minutes to an hour then this would be below the national minimum wage. If this doesn't scream that our labour is undervalued then I don't know what will.
Representing the unrepresented
Yoga is exclusive and disconnected. It doesn't hide that its intended audience is white middle class women. More times than not I have been the only non-white person in the room and although at times it has made me feel weary, it has never stopped me practicing and wanting to teach. I didn't go into teaching to represent a niche or to tick a box, but over time this exclusiveness has led to a strong disinclination towards what yoga represents in the West.
After the events of May 2020 and the push for all industries, including fitness, to become more inclusive, I’d quite frankly had enough. It hurt me to see acts of performative activism and the thought of people of colour being used as a pawn for businesses to be at the forefront of this movement. We should be inclusive because diversity is what our society reflects, not because businesses feel obliged to show up and compete to be inclusive for the wrong reasons.
The whole thing makes me very uncomfortable.
I am also hyper aware that I am misrepresenting a complex science and culture, and that it is not my place to be sharing it. It makes me uncomfortable that people, especially black people, may be unaware of the rich spirituality that is woven into their own cultures and how ultimately, no matter where you are from, all ancient teachings go back to the same basic notions of connection, balance, union and community. I recommend this insightful podcast episode that dives deep into the subject. The whole series is actually worth a listen!
So, have I really turned my back on yoga?
Yes and no. The important thing I've learnt is that things are cyclical. They have beginnings, middles and ends and I have ended a cycle of believing yoga is definitive. A yoga that is white, detached, physical, exhausting and unattainable.
So what now?
I've gone back to basics, practicing yoga for myself. Not for Instagram or for personal gain, but for me and my wellbeing. It is something that I've wanted to make more and more private for a long time.
In the discomfort of potentially misrepresenting the roots of yoga, I have to reduce my focus to its essence, uniting with myself and the natural world around me - the seasons, the lunar cycle, my own cycle and how this creates harmony within. Maybe I am wrong in doing this, but for now, I feel a lot more comfortable not exploiting and whitewashing a complex network of ideologies.
In terms of teaching, I'm more mindful of how and what I share. I still love teaching and am grateful to have wonderful people continue to support me as I make the shift to this new cycle. Those who choose me as their practitioner should expect to connect, align and honour their needs, and create space to understand the natural cycles of life whether it be seasonal, lunar or menstrual. This is what feels right.
What does yoga mean to you?
I'd love to hear your thoughts on westernised yoga and what currently aligns with you. Leave a comment below or send me a message!
Thank you for reading,