Becoming a (Fat, Old) Yoga Teacher is The Best Thing Ever

I don’t know why I haven’t written about it more. Becoming a yoga teacher has been a moving, empowering, meaningful part of my healing work.

What?!?! you say with surprise. Ha, you didn’t even realize I was a yoga teacher, did you?

Well, that’s understandable. I’m not the kind of person most people think of when they think “yoga instructor:” the young, white, skinny, super flexible model tucking her legs behind her neck on Instagram in a peaceful, luxurious setting. I’m white, yes, but otherwise, I don’t fit that profile at all. I so emphatically don’t fit it that I wondered if I’d lost my mind when I started my yoga teacher training back in the fall of 2017.

But it’s okay, I told myself back then. I don’t have to actually teach. I can just do the training to deepen my understanding and appreciation of yoga. No pressure.

There were 20 of us in the teacher training, and in my early 50s, I was either the oldest or second oldest person in the class. Although there were others who weren’t super skinny, I was on the heavier side and not as strong as many (most?) others. On top of that, I was still recovering from an intense gallstone attack a couple of days before. Halfway through the first weekend intensive, I thought I’d made a terrible mistake. I don’t belong here!

Fortunately, there was a relaxed, accepting atmosphere, and I went ahead and articulated that thought at some point on that second or third day. And the teacher responded right away, with absolute certainty, that whatever challenges I was encountered in no way disqualified me from becoming a yoga teacher.

“On the contrary,” she said. “There are so many people who are afraid to try yoga because they think they aren’t the right body type or haven’t been a gymnast or dancer or struggle with flexibility. If you can understand how they feel, you can welcome them and serve them that much better.”

She gave me permission, I think, to start to see myself as a potential teacher.

I chose to do a “yoga and social justice” teacher training, which meant that after the instruction was over, I needed to teach at least 10 classes as a volunteer in a non-studio setting. I ended up being the substitute teacher as a women’s residential substance use treatment center. I was insanely nervous during the first class, less so the second class, and by the third class, I was hooked. When one of the regular teachers quit, I took over the Monday morning class, and two and a half years later, I’m still teaching it.

At the treatment center, I would estimate that at least half the women are under 30, but there are plenty of older women as well. Some are thin, some are heavy. Some have tried yoga before, while others don’t know a single pose. A few are pregnant. I’ve had the opportunity to teach an enormous range of women. Of course some classes are better than others, but I always leave the class feeling good about having taught.

It’s not just that I am giving them something. Maybe I am, to some of them. Some of them only come to the yoga class because otherwise they have to go for a walk, and it’s raining outside, so what the heck, yoga. They don’t necessarily try hard. They need gentle reminders to turn their phones off, little nudges to let their side conversations go. Some are so agitated that they can’t relax and focus on the yoga. That’s okay though. I figure for all of those women, maybe I’m planting a seed. Maybe there will be a time later in their lives when they want something peaceful and centered in their lives, and they remember, “Hm, seems like some of the others got a benefit from that yoga thing. Maybe I should try it again.”

And then there are others who are really into it now, who say, “yoga is my church,” or “this is my favorite part of being here.” It’s such a pleasure to give them something sweet at a difficult time in their lives.

So I’m not the kind of teacher who teaches in a yoga studio, although I have substitute taught for a couple of friends a few time. I’m the type of teacher who has an entirely different career (as a researcher) but feels like the hours she volunteer teaches are some of the sweetest hours of each week.

Then, just to make it even richer and more complex, this past fall I started volunteering to help with a yoga teacher training, a very special training. What’s different about this YTT is that it takes place in a medium-security women’s prison. Every Friday afternoon, I go with one to three other volunteers and help teach seven women to become yoga teachers who will work with other women in custody who are in the mental health unit. They are learning not only about asana (physical poses), pranayama (breath), and yoga philosophy, but also about how trauma, mental illness and developmental disability affect the mind and body. They are choosing to develop skills to benefit others, as part of their own work to craft different kinds of lives for themselves.

It’s hard to find words to convey how much darker prison is than you imagine, emotionally speaking. I mean, of course we know that prison is not a nice place. But until I had been going regularly, I did not understand the layers upon layers of loss that incarcerated individuals experience.

I’ll need to write more, another time, about all the thinking I’ve had to do about what it means to have committed a terrible crime. I’ve grappled with ideas of redemption, forgiveness, and the inherent value in all human beings. It’s been a big, big deal in my life these last four months.

But what I want to say right now is that my original teacher was right when she said that coming to yoga as someone who was old(er), not super fit, round(er), and pulling a cartload of trauma baggage behind me. Several of the women in the prison class have gained a lot of weight in prison. Two of them are in their 50s and have wondered if they were “too old” to learn to be a yoga teacher.

No! I can say. You are most certainly not too old. You are just the perfect age, the perfect size, the perfect being to give the gift of yoga and mindfulness to others.

We all experience such a lot of suffering in this life. It’s shocking sometimes, even after all the stories I’ve heard. But we also carry the ability to comfort one another, to share strategies and techniques and beautiful, ancient teachings that allow us to touch the peace that life can sometimes offer us. I feel so grateful to have found a way to share some of that peace.

8 comments

    • That’s a very sweet thing to say, thank you. I still have so much to learn! At least I think I am warmly welcoming to people who don’t traditionally see themselves as yogis. But I have a lot to learn in terms of consistently offering a really good yoga class and especially being able to accommodate people’s different physical needs. I notice at the rehab center, in particular, that there are a lot of women with injuries from car accidents or assaults or unhealthy jobs (like one woman told me her knees were wrecked from working as an exotic dancer for 20 years). I’d love to know more about how to modify poses to keep them safe but still give them the benefit of the pose.

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      • The fact you are willing to learn and want to make it inclusive is great. From my own personal experience as a sufferer of rheumatoid arthritis I had a great teacher for awhile while who would use blocks and bricks and blankets to support me/prop me up and lessen the strain. Those women are surely lucky to have you x

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  1. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the layers you’ve discovered with women in prison, if you do decide to post on it.
    I totally get what you’re saying about needing to be the right kind of model; I went to a yoga class once and they were all very advanced, I was a complete and utter novice so stood right out. It didn’t help they all knew each other – I picked the worst kind of group for an absolute beginner! No surprise that I never returned. By the way, am loving the dog in the picture, looks like they really want to get involved. Now THAT’S my kind of yoga class 😂

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    • It’s hard, isn’t it, to find the right kind of yoga class? Even when you know the terminology and can more or less figure out the right level, still you don’t know the teacher’s style and whether the class is welcoming to newcomers… everything can vary so much. I hope you won’t give up on yoga completely. I think it has a ton to offer most everyone, if you just find the right fit for you.

      Dogs are so funny when you start practicing yoga. They always think it’s some kind of game. Half the time if my face gets closer to the floor, they think it’s an invitation to start giving me kisses. Or I’ll be doing a reclined pose and they come sit on me, or they walk over my mat with muddy paws. Good thing I adore dogs!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Slantgirl! It’s so meaningful to me, at multiple levels. I feel so grateful that I was crazy enough to sign up for a yoga teacher training.

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