I’ve been privileged to work as a yoga teacher trainerfor more than 12 years. It’s rewarding work that is both challenging and exhilarating and I’ve met some extraordinary people along the way.
However, about 3 years ago I started to notice something different about the students signing up for the trainings. The broad diversity of ages and body types that I had encountered in the early days of my teacher-training career had almost disappeared. The people signing up now were overwhelmingly young, bendy and body-conscious.
To be fair, the vast majority of trainees have always been female. But within that population, there were people of different sizes, ages, backgrounds and experience. In recent years, that profile has changed.Not only have trainees been getting younger and more fitness-oriented, they have also become less diverse in their experience of yoga. Ten years ago, I regularly trained students from a variety of yoga backgrounds, including Iyengar, Ashtanga, Dru, Kundalini, Hatha, Satyananda and more. Today, just about every new teacher trainee simply answers ‘vinyasa’ when asked about their yoga experience.
This reflects the changing face of yoga in Australia. A decade ago, yoga was not practiced as widely as it is today. Yoga students had to seek out teachers in community halls, private homes and traditional studios. Teachers often underwent extended apprenticeships before taking on students and taught according to the long-practiced traditions of their own teacher.
Today, yoga is available in every gym, street corner and office building in the city. With the rise of the Yoga Alliance RYT200 certification, teachers are now undertaking training for as little as 12 days at newly minted studios that are not affiliated with any particular yoga tradition. New yoga styles have emerged that place greater emphasis on physical conditioning, appealing widely to the clientele of gyms and health clubs where many people get their first introduction to yoga.
After more than a decade of the popularization of athletic yoga styles and the portrayal of yoga in the media as something practiced by young, thin, white, bendy people, the students coming into teacher training often reflect the strong bias towards fitness-related vinyasa styles in the wider community.
And that worries me. Not because young, bendy people can’t be good yoga teachers. Of course they can. I’m concerned that people who would make wonderful yoga teachers aren’t signing up for the training because they don’t feel they fit the mould.
My good friend Vikki is a social worker and, as a dedicated yoga student, often talks about how yoga would benefit many of her clients. When I suggested she train as a yoga teacher, she laughed and said “Look at me! I’m 52 and weigh 75kgs. How could I be a yoga teacher?” I was stunned. Vikki has practiced yoga for over 10 years and knows very well that yoga is for all ages and body types. But the thought of training to be a yoga teacher seemed unattainable to her because she felt she didn’t fit the young, thin and bendy stereotype. And the yoga world is a poorer place because people like Vikki, who have so much to give as experienced yogis with valuable life experience, are not teaching others.
I often write about body image and encourage the yoga industry to include more diversity in the imagery used to represent yoga. When most images of yoga practitioners in the public domain depict young, glowing and physically idealised people, it sends a clear message to those of us who don’t identify with that image – yoga isn’t for you. If we want to make yoga accessible to people of all ages and sizes, potential students need to see themselves reflected in the teachers who lead and inspire them. And if we want to encourage diversity in the yoga teaching community, we need to explicitly welcome students of all body types when we recruit teacher trainees.
From personal experience, I know that some of the best yoga teachers around are neither young nor thin. Many of them have injuries or physical issues that prevent them from executing the perfect pose. The teachers who lift my heart and inspire me are the ones with rich life experience, who understand and express compassion for the human failings of their students. These are the teachers who reach out to students of all backgrounds and show them how yoga is relevant and transformational for everybody.
It’s time to introduce more diversity to the yoga industry and encourage people of all ages, body types and backgrounds to become teachers. Only then will students see their own experience mirrored in their teachers.
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Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. She conducts regular trainings that help people of all ages, shapes and abilities enjoy the benefits of yoga and meditation, including Meditation Facilitator Certificate Trainings; Level 1 200hr Teacher Training and Post Graduate Yoga Teacher Training in Mental Health, Adaptive Asana and the Foundations of Yoga Therapy and a highly regarded professional 650hr Graduate Certificate of Yoga Therapy.