The Ego-less way to Define a Yoga Teacher & Student.
I was always a “no” person.
I fell into an incredibly awkward, messy modelling career in my late teens and early 20s. My chosen profession at the time—a band photographer—wasn’t earning enough of a living. One of the photography studios that employed me occasionally asked me to model (unpaid) for clients with high-value accounts, which often left me feeling used, uncomfortable, and uneasy.
I’ve never liked having my picture taken, which is admittedly not the best foundation for a model. However, one of the fashion photographers who took my photos showed them to an agent who asked to meet for a chat.
This chat led to quite a few years working as a half-hearted model. I’d never enjoyed modelling, already insecure about my body and the way I looked. This being the “heroin chic” time of the 90s, I was constantly told to lose weight, even at three to four dress sizes smaller than I am now. I was regularly told I had an editorial face and a commercial body, which I summarised as having a gaunt face and fat arse.
Whenever an agent would call me for a job (you could have more than one agent outside of London), I would habitually say “no.”
“No, I can’t make that casting as I’m booked on another job,” or, “No I have a casting that day.” The truth was, the criticism, demoralisation, and erosion of my self-worth was getting a little hard to take. To be judged purely on your appearance was a bitter pill to swallow. Every phone call made me panic—what were they going to ask me to do? Am I going to have to show flesh, or smile, or “walk?”
I turned down half of the castings offered, barely scraping together the income I needed to change my so-called career: I’d been practising yoga for about four years at this point and had decided to take the plunge.
Signing up for my yoga teacher training worried me—it was an expensive step to take. In the back of my mind, throughout my first intensive two-month course, was a little voice saying, “You’ll never teach, you’ll just say no.” I needed to at least recoup the cost of the program, but feared I’d stay in my yoga student comfort zone for the rest of my yogi days. I really couldn’t bear the thought of standing at the front of a class with all eyes ready to scrutinize me.
On my return, certificate in hand, I figured I needed to strike whilst the danda was hot. I called a few studios and gyms and asked if they’d put me on their cover list, not quite feeling confident enough to ask to run my own class. Content with myself for at least making a little effort, I recoiled back into my “student” mode for a while, hoping never to get that call.
You can guess what happened next. The call came—and someone else had clearly taken occupancy of my mind and body because what I wanted to say was “No, sorry, I’m busy that day,” but instead, the words, “Yes, what time?” fell out.
Teaching didn’t come that easy.
I knew the moves, the anatomy, and the philosophy—at least I thought I did. I’d planned diligently, surprising myself about how much I’d taken in, but standing at the front of the class was debilitating.
It took me years to feel truly comfortable teaching. It was a process. However, as my hours spent teaching increased, so did my confidence. I learned, class by class, how to instruct, how to have empathy for those in my class, and how some people felt just as self-conscious as me.
I didn’t consider myself as a “great” teacher and often informed my class attendees that although I held a certificate, I had not yet learnt to teach. I understood that finding my yoga mojo would take time and dedication—my ego was at zero, which was necessary in order for me to appreciate the journey. I felt I was still a student instructing other students—and this mindset helped to settle my self-conscious thoughts. “Please lower any expectations of me, and then anything you enjoy or learn will be a bonus” was my mantra.
Once I got my head around my superficial silliness, I began to hone my teaching skills. My classes got busier and busier. I taught mainly power yoga, which appealed to the masses in the city gym venues I taught in. Sometimes 40 to 50 people per class would arrive, which required a microphone and a battery pack. My teacher training hadn’t included the art of “jump throughs” with these odd contraptions strapped to my leggings, or how to teach in a ludicrously busy (and, quite frankly, dangerous) environment.
Each class brought something new, and often, my teaching plan flew out the window with the different array of bodies and ailments that lay in front of me, mat to mat. After each class, I’d find myself researching a number of conditions and other health requirements people had, and frequently feeling out of my depth.
Some groups held a serious and intimating vibe, but I quickly realized they were just there to learn, to practice, and to focus. Other classes were chatty and fun—I knew I could get away with slipping in a few bad jokes, and they wouldn’t mind a few tongue-tied asana cues. My anxious shoulders dropped into a more relaxed state with each class.
I was still very much a student of yoga and a student of instructing, but slowly and surely, I learned the intricacies of how to be a teacher. I quickly came to understand that one of the most important aspects of teaching wasn’t whether I was flexible or strong, but whether I would notice someone having a bad day. Or, if they were injured, wanted to progress in their practice, or were looking for peace and quiet. Perhaps they just wanted to learn a particular pose or how to modify. So much went into teaching yoga—no wonder I didn’t feel qualified when I’d begun teaching. I had the certificate, but I wasn’t—not yet.
The superficial nonsense had gone full circle too. I really stopped caring whether people were thinking how big my bum looked and I quite enjoyed the double takes at my long, gangly toes.
Adhikara means “to make oneself ready,” “qualifications,” or “authority,” and is used to describe a “level of competence, integrity, and commitment to one’s studies or vocation. Additionally, it refers to a person’s qualifications to engage in a particular body of work.”
What is a yoga “student?”
Is a student someone who embarks on a teacher training course, undertaking hours of study and physical practice, or is a student anyone who attends a yoga class, who studies under their own interpretation of “yoga?” What gives a yoga teacher the right to refer to those in his/her class their “students?”
So, here’s a hypothetical scenario:
A 50-year-old yoga practitioner—let’s call her Mary—has regularly attended yoga classes for the best part of 30 years. She’s tried many styles and disciplines, and she’s researched and found the teachers who have inspired her for years. She’s a stalwart of yoga, taking in workshop after workshop, anatomy courses for her own gain, and a diet of philosophy that would put Osho to shame.
Mary has never had the desire or inclination to sign up for a teacher training course. She’s content in her routine—she wants to learn, not teach. She attends new classes purely based on her convenience and want, and she trusts that each teacher will lead her through her practice mindfully. I like Mary.
Mary attended a new class this week, and the teacher—let’s call her Brittany—was a young girl who’d “found” yoga 10 months ago. Brittany fell in love with yoga after she gained spiritual enlightenment—which was shortly after her first attempt at a handstand, followed by a kundalini awakening after a backbend, a savasana sob, and an almond matcha. Within a month she had found her calling, and she headed to Ibiza to complete a 200-hour yoga teacher training. She’s a nice girl, slightly giddy, talks super fast, gives many of the wrong cues, and names most the asanas after any animal that springs to mind, making each phrase “Sanskrit-y” by adding “ana” at the end.
Brittany refers to Mary as her “student.” Hold on! Back up, there, Missy.
So what defines a yoga student?
Of course, Mary is a yoga student. I am a yoga student, and always will be. As I said in my previous article, the teacher doesn’t make yoga, the eternal student does—meaning anyone who chooses to learn the many aspects of yoga defines a student, regardless of whether a teacher stands at the front of the class.
Does a 200-hour certificate propel a student of yoga into teacher-hood? I’ve seen this assumption made many times. Maybe the terminology should change: a 200-hour course creates an instructor, and over time, a teacher is created—because surely we have to earn our yoga stripes.
The yoga ego is something we’ll always struggle with, whether it’s the Instagram show-off vying for attention, the Brittanys of this world who have barely taught for five minutes but still has “students,” or the teacher who assumes the role of a guru.
We should never teach yoga for adoration or to validate our self-worth. I see many teachers of all ages and levels experience putting themselves on a pedestal, simply because they’ve gained a piece of paper. Surely, this contradicts every reason for practising yoga, let alone teaching it.
However, there are teachers who have indeed earned their stripes. They’ve walked the yoga walk and talked the yoga talk. Are they gurus? No, but they certainly cut the mustard as experienced teachers.
A good friend of mine recently attended an Elena Brower workshop and was profoundly inspired by Elena’s intelligent, realistic, and blunt approach to yoga. I haven’t personally attended one of her classes, but I love her honest view of this industry. (Yes, it’s sad but true—yoga is indeed a multi-billion dollar industry.) During the three-day workshop, she held in-depth Q&A sessions.
My friend relayed to me many of the subjects discussed. When my favourite love/hate subject of yoga teachers on Instagram came up, it sounded like Elena has very much the same opinion as me.
On the subject of the “yoga story,” where yogis reveal all of their vulnerabilities—these posts sometimes go too far; some things should be kept only for close family and friends. So what does this have to do with defining a yoga student? Everything. There’s a fundamental problem with egotistical teachers. A teacher is someone who guides and listens to you, not one who uses their teaching platform to talk about their problems. If this were the case, in my classes, no one would ever be able to leave. Most of the people I teach know very little about me—they’re there to be students of yoga, not to learn the ins and outs of my life’s woes.
I love Adriene Mishler for that very reason. She doesn’t put herself on a pedestal. Having worked with her, I know she’s a very real, decent human being. Despite having a vast following, she sees herself as part of the broader team within that following, not the leader, and she encourages everyone to lead themselves. There’s no ego and no patronising guru status, just a fellow student of yoga.
Yoga teacher training should incorporate lessons in how to be humble, to be selfless, and to show integrity. Slow down once you’ve received your certificate, and learn how to be a teacher first.
About the author:
Julia Rose is a mother of two amazing boys, yoga teacher, writer, blogger, and music lover. With a realistic approach to yoga, teaching since 2003, Julia has been featured in and contributed to numerous publications, including Yoga Magazine, Draze Magazine, and The Guardian. Julia now holds regular classes at many beautiful Cotswolds locations and teaches workshops in and around the U.K. Connect with Julia via her website and on Instagram.Browse Front PageShare Your Idea