I am not the image most people have of a yoga instructor. Think of one now— real or of your own invention— what do you see? Some sort of tanned and smiling woman, contorted in front of a beautiful backdrop (be it a fancy studio or some sort of natural wonder, like a waterfall) wearing tight-fitted and colorful clothing exposing a seriously chiseled six-pack, captioned with something like “Be the change you wish to see in the world”, or “Every little thing is gonna be alright” and finished with a slew of earnest hashtags promoting everything from health to happiness to love to acceptance to fitness fad. For all intents and purposes, this instagrammable image of a yoga instructor appears to have reached the closest pinnacle to nirvana in the physical realm. Who else smiles that sweetly whilst in a headstand and drinking something cute-looking and (obviously) unbelievably healthy? And this image doesn’t stay online, either. Walk into any boutique studio, or even gym classes and see these fitness-model-looking ladies discussing things like feeding their children all organic and raw vegetables, and how amazing it is to be up at 5 each morning to practice in the dawn’s early light.
There is nothing wrong with these women, these instructors. In fact, I am amazed by them. It is an awesome thing, indeed, to devote yourself so wholeheartedly toward something, and the modern yoga-woman life is no less worthy cause. That being said, the zealous and devoted may mean only well, but have created a trap both for themselves and other yoga instructors and practitioners in the field: we no longer allow ourselves to be anything else. There is serious pressure now, whether we outwardly acknowledge it or not, to be this “modern yogic ideal”. Are you a yoga instructor? Better not be caught yelling at the slow-moving vehicle in front of you. Do you try to live your life positively and without judgement? Woe betide you who are sighted in the act of the slightest judgement against yourself or others. We police each other with a thoroughness that is judgmental in and of itself. We have trapped ourselves in this visage of peace and happiness, and often sacrifice our genuine self in the process.
I do not look like a yoga instructor. I am a college student, aptly disheveled, with a naturally unhealthy-paleness to my face and a resting face that looks less-than-serene. Most importantly, though, I am a person who is living with depression. I am doing OK, really, I have found a medication that is helping me and am working with a therapist to manage the black moods and anxiety. I am trying to get it together. But I will be the first to admit I have my shortcomings: an often dark sense of humor, I am prone to melancholy, and certainly fatalistic. This isn’t to say that I don’t try to be positive, that I don’t admire the people who can without question and doubt adopt this projected lifestyle, but it simply isn’t who I am. If I were to present myself always as the “instagram yoga instructor”, I would be very unhappy indeed. That all being said, I love yoga. It has been something I have seriously practiced since my early teens, it has been hugely beneficial in helping me with my depression and keeping me balanced, and that’s why I eventually decided to become a certified instructor— I wanted to help people like me, who were struggling, but trying really, really hard not to be.
When I first began to teach, I felt this unspoken pressure to be what the people in my classes were clearly expecting— this image of happiness and incandescence, like I already had it figured out, sprinkled with light humor, and some sage words of wisdom, giving each class and meaning beyond a physical and mental exercise. I adopted the image, dressing in pastel-colored tank tops with phrases on them like “Namaste in Bed!” and rainbow yoga pants inexplicably expensive and made from recycled who-knows-what, a full-face of makeup to cover any sallowness or imperfection. I practiced a yoga teacher voice and a serene-looking smile, completely unlike my natural-resting Wednesday Addams look, or my natural goofy grin. Whenever I had a class, I would lay awake the night before panicking, worried that students would “see through” my act. I tortured myself attempting to extract some vein of positivity from my frantic train of thought leading up to class, and would always leave feeling the same cheap, embarrassed way: I felt like a fraud. Eventually, I picked up less and less classes, practicing more on my own, feeling, in a room full of practicing yogis in neon and spandex the only unhappy person.
As I worked more on myself, finding a medication that works for me, beginning to develop mental strategies for handling myself, I began to think about returning to the mat as a teacher. I knew I would never be happy unless I returned my way, and so I returned with changes: for my first class returning as an instructor, I did not wear the “uniform” usually ascribed to yoga instructors. I did not play the usual playlist of the same few Bon Iver and Beatles songs. I did not practice my voice or my smile, and most importantly: I did not plan what I was going to say. I was terrified. It wasn’t a packed class by any means, but there were a few hopeful students to witness my return, and I felt their expectation in their hushed conversations over branded re-usable water bottles and matching costumes. I looked like shit. I wore no makeup, my skin wasn’t great and my under-eyes bore their seemingly-indelible purple streaks. My leggings came from Old Navy and my t shirt was oversized and advertised a skate company with a flame-rounded logo I found amusing; both were black. I sat down before my students and began to speak, cautiously at first, about how I was having a truly shitty day. In fact, my whole week had been terrible. I made a few jokes about not being very yoga-like (which, thankfully, landed), but unlike my other classes, with the artificial quotes and promotion of neglecting all negative feelings in favor of blinding positivity, I felt myself speaking truthfully. I guided the class with an ease I had never before known myself but which other, more practiced instructors had described to me. I did not think about sequencing poses, where we would end, what the class-takers were thinking. I just taught.
I have been teaching again more regularly for some time now, and though I do not blatantly espouse the things I fret over when my depression or anxiety takes over, nor do I ever judge the people in my class, I always stay true to myself, unabashedly. I am often sad, often angry, I have no six-pack to speak of, I’m terrified of getting into handstand, and I can’t stand neon workout-wear. And that’s perfectly fine. I have come to accept that it’s just who I am, and just how I am going to teach, from my first returning class to however many follow. In this acceptance I have found more peace than any numerous attempts and constant happiness have ever gotten me. And maybe that's just yoga after all. Through this great lesson, at the conclusion of my returning class I was able to come to a close with a message that was not only honest, but not previously contrived:
“People think yoga is all about being happy all the time,” I said, “But it’s not” my students looked at me curiously, “It’s about being unhappy, or angry, or sad, or plain miserable and accepting it, and trying again”. And I do mean to keep trying.
(Want more? check out my blog www.antisadnessleague.wordpress.com )
Published by Annabel Lamb