What Does a Yoga Teacher “Look” Like?

This is something that has been on my mind for a while now.

When I first started my training in September, I encountered an older Black woman who had just begun teaching a meditation class at Bonda; let’s call her Anna. She also trained with Laurie, and we chatted for a bit one evening while waiting for Laurie to arrive for class.  She told me that she’d had an interview scheduled at a popular gym earlier that day.  But when she arrived, the woman interviewing her refused to make eye contact with her and barely asked her any questions.

Anna said, “The moment I stood up and introduced myself to her, she became disconnected.  I knew I wouldn’t get the job.  She couldn’t see me as a yoga teacher, teaching  at that fancy club.”

I asked her what she meant and she replied, “I teach at a local library.  On the first day of class, five out the seven people who showed up asked if I was the teacher. And they were totally shocked when I said yes.  No one expects a woman who looks like me to be in front of the class.  They barely expect me to be in the class.”

Anna is in her late fifties, with smooth skin the color of unshelled Brazil nuts. She  is  five feet eleven inches tall; curvy, with broad shoulders, full breasts and hips, and large hands.  She has a gravelly voice which softens to a hoarse whisper when she teaches. And she is a really great teacher.

I thought about my own teachers, and what they look like:

Rei is short like me, always tan, with thick eyebrows and a bushel of shiny black curls perpetually tied in a topknot.  She is slim, but we wear the same–very large–bra size.  She laughs loudly and jokes about having to move the flesh out of the way so that her sit bones can connect to the earth.  She is fun.

Laurie is also short, pear-shaped with impeccably dyed red hair and expressive brown eyes. She is more quiet than Rei, and softer.  She is older, too, and more self-deprecating. She is honest about her body image issues.  She says it took her a long time to accept her generous hips and bottom.

I can’t say I looked at either one of them and thought that they didn’t look like yoga teachers.  But sometimes I wonder if my future students will react to me in shock and think: What’s she doing here?

Because when I asked Anna what she thought her students had been expecting she said, “You know. Someone in their 20s. White. Thin.”

And I am none of those things.

So what do you think?  If any of you practice yoga, did you have any expectations as to what your teacher would, or should, look like?  Do you think it even matters?

I’m inclined to believe it doesn’t matter.  But I do know that lots of people are drawn into yoga by photographs like this:

eka pada koundinyasana


They want to be bendy and do cool poses like Eka Pada Koundinyasana, and they want their teachers to inspire them. So what happens if a teacher doesn’t fit a student’s physical expectations? Are they any less inspirational?


6 thoughts on “What Does a Yoga Teacher “Look” Like?

  1. It’s a good question. My first yoga teacher was a slim white woman in her 40’s, my second was a podgy greying Indian guy. And my last yoga class experience was with a curvy older black woman, who was amazing (I need to go back to her!). I have never thought about what my yoga teacher should look like but it makes sense that most people would have an image of “yoga teacher” in their minds given pictures of yoga like the one you used. I only care that the teacher will help me move beyond my body’s limitations – I have had issues with yoga teachers not knowing what to do with the chubby girl who can’t find her balance – this sort of experience actually turned me off from yoga classes for quite some time. I could assume that the curvy black woman would be better at this than the slim white woman but both those teachers excelled at connecting with me during the class…and that’s all that matters. I imagine that even if your soon-to-be students think you don’t look like what their yoga teacher should look like, that will fall away once you begin teaching. And if it doesn’t, they aren’t meant to be your students. Did Anna share with you her students’ responses after she taught them?

    This post reminds me of a great site I found recently, if you aren’t already familiar check out

    • Keisha says:

      Anna never mentioned her students’ responses, but I’ve taken her class on three different occasions and I think most people, like me, really enjoyed it. She is challenging yet supportive, and she gives great adjustments/assists.

      I’ve heard about Curvy Yoga– I follow its founder, Anna Guest-Jelley, on Twitter. I actually considered taking her training but I’m skeptical of yoga teacher trainings that are offered only online. She’s doing a combined 200 hr/Curvy Yoga training in Nashville this year…hopefully she’ll be able to train people in other cities soon.

  2. ubiquityyoga says:

    Good post. I get annoyed when I see those pictures such as what you posted because it does turn some people off about trying yoga. I’m shocked at the behavior of the woman at the fancy gym who was interviewing for a yoga teacher. It is really annoying that she could not look someone in the eye or give them a audition. It says a lot about her character.

    • Keisha says:

      Thank you, Marjorie! I was really appalled by Anna’s story, too, and I became very upset for her. But she reminded me of exactly what you said– that woman’s behavior definitely reflects poorly on her character, and why would anyone want to work for someone like that, anyway??? It would be a totally miserable experience.

      The crazy thing about those pictures– they’re all over. Nearly every cover of Yoga Journal is some iteration of a young woman in an arm balance/inversion, or super deep heart or hip-opener. It’s definitely discouraging because your average person sees photos like these and thinks: There’s no WAY I can do that pose! But yoga is so much more than that.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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