What Does a Yoga Teacher Look Like?

Via Kimberly Lo
on Sep 20, 2013
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There is a popular meme going around on Facebook that reads, “If you say pumpkin spice latte three times in a mirror, a white girl in yoga pants will appear.”

I, and many others I know, had a good laugh at that.

Despite the fact that yoga originated in India, the stereotype of most yoga practitioners—in the West at least—is that they are all young, white and female.

That same stereotype also applies to yoga teachers.

Despite the fact that I have been taught by teachers of all sizes, shapes and colors, many seem to have an idea of what a yoga teacher “should” look like. I became aware of this years ago when I overheard a conversation in a regular yoga class I attended.

Two women seated near me remarked how wonderful the teacher was, but noted that she did not look like a “typical” instructor. Intrigued, I couldn’t help but ask what they meant by that. “Oh, you know. She’s just doesn’t have that ‘look’.”

It was true. Compared to the other instructors at the studio who were overwhelmingly young and twig-like and clad head to tow in Lululemon, she didn’t look a lot like them.

In fact, she kind of looked like me, in non-descriptive workout clothing and a messy ponytail.

The idea of what a yoga instructor “should” look like came up again when I did my teacher training. Not only was I the only person of color in my group, but I failed to master “the look.” Try as I might, I could not maintain a sleek ponytail or keep a consistently serene look on my face to save my life.

Plus, all the Lululemon in the world couldn’t change the fact that in a world of sleek, willowly instructors I was short and stumpy looking.

At first, the mere idea that I was obsessing so much over how I looked was mortifying to me. It just seemed so shallow, so anti-yoga. Also, the irony that I wanted my classes to welcome the sort of students that usually were not stereotypical of yoga-i.e., those that were out-of-shape, those that were plus-sized, etc.-was not lost on me.

However, whether it was merely my own projection or overly sensitive feelings on the matter, I did notice some comments in those first years of teaching.

On more than a few occasions, new students expressed genuine surprise that I was the instructor.

On another, a student came up to me after class and remarked that while he had enjoyed the class, it would have been nice had a smiled a bit more. (Apparently, I was sufferer of Bitchy Resting Face Syndrome and just did not know it at the time.)

All joking aside, I had to admit that sometimes it frustrated me. Teaching was and should have been my main focus. All this other stuff about looking a certain way was too much. How did they expect me to do that?

Then it hit me. Who was “they”? Was the Yoga Alliance threatening to revoke my membership? Had I ever been fired from a studio because my hair was frizzy?

The short answer was no.

Like so many, I had bought into the idea that yoga teachers were supposed to look a certain way. I hated it, but at the same I was contributing to it.

Also, I was guilty of saying one thing and doing another: I was constantly telling my students who were overweight, out-of-shape, etc. that it did not matter what they looked like, but worried about how I looked to them.

I would like to say that after this, I never obsessed about my appearance again and focused completely on my teaching and practice, but that would be lying.

I still notice at times that I don’t look like I really belong, but then I remember that it doesn’t matter. Just by being here, I do belong.

As someone pointed out in a recent post here, no one owns yoga. Just because a few clever companies have attempted to brand it and created a stereotype that many associate with yoga does not mean that they can claim it.

In some ways, I think the fact that I don’t look like the “typical” instructor makes me more relatable to my students.

My appearance mirrors who I am: I don’t live a “perfect” life. I don’t have loads of money or a jet-setting lifestyle.

Instead, I consider myself a working mother who often struggles to find enough time to do all the essentials and still have time to pursue things like a yoga practice.

Plus, in my experience, most of my students don’t notice what I look like. Indeed, they shouldn’t.

After all, the focus of their practice should be about them and not what their yoga instructor looks like. If they leave feeling better than when they entered, then I have done my job.

Perfect ponytail be damned.


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Ed: Bryonie Wise


About Kimberly Lo

Kimberly Lo is a yoga instructor and freelance editor & writer based in Charlottesville, VA. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework, travel, and photography. Connect with her on Facebook.


10 Responses to “What Does a Yoga Teacher Look Like?”

  1. Bindia says:

    Great courage in sharing this. Thank you. I have experienced similar thoughts as a yoga teacher.

  2. Drew says:

    Thanks for the post! I have considered taking teacher training but haven't because I'm overweight. I literally have seen no plus size yoga teachers except the few that teach yoga for larger students. I cringe at the thought being 'the only one' in a training or have students not accept me as a teacher.

  3. karinella says:

    Thank you for this one!
    I can relate. As a teacher I wear cheap workout pants and funny t-shirts on purpose. I allow my hair to go all over the place. Because I want people to feel that the yoga room is a place where you can come as you are.

  4. Donna says:

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE this article and am so relating to you. At my YTT I had only one 'good' yoga out fit, the rest were a combo of baggy pants and skull t-shirts. I'm not thin or tall or bendy but I like to think I have a lot to offer people as a teacher and I just decided upfront that my niche would be yoga for regular people – its possible to relatable and inspirational at the same time. But yes I have my moments like in a recent TT workshop where I was definitely the stumpiest looking girl there. You go Kimberly, people out there need teachers that don't fit the stereotype because very few of the students fit it either!

  5. knittinginnc says:

    Good article and can totally relate. Thought I would share this article from the Babarazzi with you. I have never studied with Mr. Busia before, but the people who have all say the same thing: he is amazing. And since he is a black, older man who teaches in socks and sweaters (gasp), he could not be further away from the stereotypical yoga teacher (well, maybe if he were over weight).

  6. daniela olds says:

    One word – Ahimsa. I think everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I really disregard opinions that slate or look down upon others. I myself am a yoga teacher, and yes I am white, tall and slim (I was born that way) I do feel that I should be able to express myself. I always try to apply ahimsa in my life, and while this article is expression of an opinion, I also think *each to their own*
    Regular or non-regular, bendy or non-bendy, trendy or old-fashioned, everyone chooses the way they live, practise and express themselves. And while I do like to have a good quality yoga pants (i have selection of lululemon, sweattybetty and tk maxx..) that dry within 5 minutes after teaching hot class, it does not make me shallow or need to fit the stereotypical yoga teacher. At the end of the day, let us all enjoy and share what we all have in common and that is amazing practise with connection to the breath, intention and union of mind, body and spirit. namaste

  7. Lankyogi says:

    There was a larger girl in my teacher training group of a dozen & it was great that she could shed some light on modifications for chesty women and larger bodies. I think she had a long way to come in loving her body, but don’t we all?

    Teacher training will change your life whether you choose to teach or not- I recommend it to anybody! Don’t let your body hold you back! It’s only a vessel for your being anyways 🙂

  8. guillaume yoga says:

    Just take your teacher training and you'll help people + make things change !
    Regrets are worse than cringing, aren't they ? 🙂

  9. Kai says:

    Thank you for this. I typically…okay almost always do not look like most of the others in my yoga class. Black woman, shapely with wild curly hair. Most of the time I do not give it a second thought, but there are some moments when I lose focus and think "man I am the only person with curly hair in this class!" Hah! or something like that. I love your honesty and it will keep me and my wild curls going back again and again.

  10. Helen says:

    Drew, please reconsider. Being overweight should not and does not matter. If you love yoga and learn how to teach it, they will come. <3