CONFESSIONS FROM AN EX-YOGA TEACHER
The first evidence of yoga, my teachers told me, was a cave painting in Pakistan — a figure sitting in lotus position. Today I Googled ‘yoga’ to find an image for this article and was swamped by photos of svelte young women (mainly) doing poses that most people can’t, in places they were never intended to be done.
Don’t get me wrong, I love yoga. It was such a lifeline for me during a very long stint of post-natal depression, that even my son would wave me off to class saying: “Yoga! Go, yoga!”, presumably because he noticed I was a much nicer mum when I returned.
I loved it so much, was so passionate about its value, I trained to become a teacher even as I was knee-deep in cloth nappies. This was 1995. Before yoga was available on mobile phones. Before everyone had mobile phones…
Becoming a yoga teacher was never on my ‘to do’ list. The idea of wearing tight clothes and doing physical activity in front of large groups of people was so repugnant to me that I shook with terror in every class until the passion (and endorphins) kicked in.
But I left my journalism career, convinced that spreading the good word about yoga would make the world a better place more effectively than anything I could do as a writer. I started a business to take yoga into workplaces. My cold-calls to businesses and government departments was mostly met with ‘What’s yoga?’ Hard to believe now, right?
I’m sharing my thoughts at this end of my yoga journey (post-teaching), because I can see now that it was part of the bigger journey of yoga…one that started some 5000 years ago. And while yoga has been hugely commodified, it has also had a profound effect on our collective psyche.
Most emphatically, I want people to understand that what modern yoga has become is not all that yoga is. There is much that has been lost in translation from East to West, and even from the 1970s to now. If all I’d seen were svelte young women doing advanced poses on beaches and rocky outcrops, I would not have started yoga at all. The courage it takes to be human, to be yourself, as a student or a teacher on the yoga mat is immense.
I’m more experienced and better trained than some yoga teachers. Less experienced, less educated than others. My training took two years. I taught more than 3600 classes over about ten years. There are many who would judge my two years of teacher training as inadequate. Why didn’t I go to India and study with a master for ten years? Fair call. Maybe I should have. It’s a huge field of knowledge and tradition. Two years of training barely scratched the surface — and I found that out the moment I started teaching. Now yoga is taught in gyms by people who train for a matter of weeks. That terrifies me.
Also, did you know that for a long time yoga was primarily used as a maintenance exercise for young adolescent boys? Where does that leave everyone else: older, stronger, female, pregnant, menopausal, overweight, rehabilitating students…?
My yoga training included descriptions of benefits and contraindications for every pose. Being the stubborn student that I am, I tested every one of them before I taught them. Turns out most of the information was true. If a pose is not recommended for women who are menstruating, for example, there is good reason to avoid it. Chances are it will make you bleed a lot, or stop you bleeding and make you feel hideous.
With recently diagnosed hip issues, I’m also beginning to wonder if women need to rethink their yoga practice altogether. The day I had my hip x-ray the radiographer told me I was the third yoga teacher she’d seen in a week. (I realise this is a very small sample group, and arguing by anecdote…but still, the question is valid.)
I love that yoga is accessible now. I have a couple of teachers that I follow online. Even with all my experience, I sometimes overdo my practice. The teacher can’t see me or hear me. There is no one there to watch my adjustments or unconscious ‘overworking’. How do inexperienced students manage?
I love that ‘chakras’, ‘dog pose’, ‘corpse pose’, and ‘breath of fire’, are almost common knowledge, but I want you to know there is context and depth and philosophy and history to yoga, beyond what you see on Instagram and at the gym.
Inhale deeply. Exhale completely…and relax.
I’ll be back.