The Yoga Teacher Body

The stories we tell ourselves as human beings hold us back from being who we truly want to be. And the stories we tell ourselves as yoga teachers counter the very clarity we seek to share with students. Gwen Soffer, co-founder of Enso studio in Media, tells us what it takes to get untangled in this thoughtful blog. 

In my 48 years, my weight has been up and my weight has been down many times. When I first started teaching yoga, I was on the downside of this roller coaster. At age 38, I was more fit than I had been at 18. How did I do it? Obsessive (under) eating, compulsive (over) exercising and massive amounts of (too much) yoga. I fit into any yoga outfit I randomly picked up off of the shelf, and I felt like I “represented” as a yoga teacher.

Here I am ten years later, with ten years more teaching (and life) experience, and thirty pounds heavier. How did I do it? Letting go of my need to be perfect, addressing my issues with alcohol abuse and depression (which were driving my need to be skinny), and trusting that my skill as a yoga teacher came from somewhere much deeper than my appearance.

I remember thinking back then, “Real yoga teachers are slim and super toned. Don’t get fat or nobody will listen to you. After all, who wants to be skinnier than their teacher?” A shift happened in me, however, as I became more experienced as a teacher and was able to find a voice that was meaningful to me and to my students. With this new confidence of expression came a commitment to being a teacher not a stereotype of one. The result of this self-acceptance was that I became a kinder and more compassionate teacher (and person). Instead of teaching a class almost like it was a performance, and I was the star, I really paid attention to my students, the words that I was saying, and the experience I was offering them. It wasn’t about me anymore. It was about them — and it didn’t matter what I looked like.

In a conversation with Erica Mather, yoga and body image positivity teacher, she reiterated what I had discovered: “Students really want to have a particular kind of experience in your class, and that doesn’t depend on what you look like or what your practice looks like. It depends on how you teach and what kind of experience you create.” This is so true. The best moments I have had as a teacher are when I see that a student feels safe enough in class to let go of some of their baggage just like I have. Having this shared experience is powerful, real, and lasting.

I am a pretty secure person in most regards, but the insecurity of weight and appearance goes deep for most of us, especially if you work in the health and wellness world. Adding media pressure, it is no surprise so many people feel the same way.  It used to make me angry to see yoga turning into just another fad of how to get skinny, but now it makes me sad. It saddens me to see the healing practice that I consider my safe haven looking a lot like so many other things that make us feel out of place in our own bodies.

Amanda Stuermer, director of World Muse, shared her experience with me: “As a middle-aged yogini, I am learning to practice greater self-compassion for my body. I sometimes spend savasana wishing I were thinner, stronger and more flexible, or looked cuter in yoga pants. And then, I return to my practice of self-compassion again.  This practice never ends – it just evolves. Slowly the compassion turns to acceptance, the acceptance to gratitude, the gratitude to love.”

Learning self-compassion and acceptance is a process, or more accurately, a practice. We may never completely lose our insecurities and negative inner voice, but we can learn how to recognize it and manage it. I found that the more I understood these old habits, the more I was able to separate myself from them. Almost like a nagging back injury that pops up here and there, instead of charging through and ignoring the pain, I feel it, acknowledge it and compassionately take care of myself. With the continued practice of seeing my younger insecurities in this way, I am more able to understand where they come from and override them with my 48-year-old confidence.

Of course, the world of yoga is just a microcosm of our bigger world, but I expect more from it. I believe in the power of yoga and the community it can foster, but that is not enough. In the last few years several yoga-based companies have come under scrutiny for fueling this old stereotypical fire. They have come to represent exclusion and a false ideal and are counter to the self-acceptance and inclusion that so many of us preach. The truth is, however, that these companies would not survive without us believing the same and purchasing their products. Their advertising works because it taps into our deepest insecurities. It is important that we purchase carefully and that we are aware of what companies do and say so that we are not supporting this obsolete method of manipulation.

I am proud to be on the advisory board of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, which is a community of yoga teachers, practitioners, experts, educators, activists, writers, artists and non-profit organizations and advocates whose mission is to “inform, educate, and work with companies and organizations that are ready to shift the current media paradigm to one that is more inclusive, equitable and just.” What is most exciting about seeing the movement develop is that after launching only a few weeks ago, the response has been immense. People want to be part of this change, and it is time.

As Roseanne Harvey writes in her blog: “My yoga practice is my space to rest and reconnect – not control my body.” These words resonate with me so much because I consider yoga a practice of healing and self-acceptance, and when I am committed to creating a space on my mat that truly honors that, is when I am able to take that same attitude off of my mat. Like anything, it all starts with how we treat ourselves. I have learned that I have to continue to commit to self-understanding if I want to be a teacher that makes a difference for my students.  This means keeping myself in compassionate check when I question being anything other than who I am.

Gwen Soffer E-RYT is co-founder of Enso in Media, Pa. and co-founder of Trauma-Informed Lens Yoga (TILY). She is an MSW and trauma certificate candidate at Widener University, and in addition to her public classes, facilitates trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive yoga for groups and in agency settings. For more information about TILY’s Trauma-Informed Lens Certificate program, go to traumainformedlensyoga.com and for more information about Teaching Gentle Chair Yoga in Agency and Community Settings workshop, go to www.experienceenso.com.

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