I Am "Just" A Yoga Teacher

I was chatting with a student before class the other day. She shared stories about her life and job, and when the conversation hit a lull she asked “So what else do you do?”

Part of me is relieved to get this question. (I will explain below.) But a growing part of me is also astonished. 

You’d never think to ask your doctor, “So what else are you?” You wouldn’t ask the mechanic fixing your car, “What do you do in addition to this?” You wouldn’t ask your kid’s science teacher, “What is your other job?”

And so it surprises me that I get this question, in one way or another (another being, “what will you do next?”), from almost everyone I encounter. 

I am equipped with many answers. My go-tos range from: “Well, I had a former life in startups and marketing” to “I am also our studio’s Hiring Manager” to “I do some consulting.” 

All of these responses are true. But they are also all defenses. And when I voice them, they bury deeper my fear that being a yoga teacher is not respectable enough work. They allow me to rely on other, more “intellectual” pursuits to validate myself. 

For the past nine months I’ve internally committed to being a yoga teacher. Teaching is my main priority — it is what I’ve chosen to give all of my creative energy to, it’s what I’ve decided I want to lead all aspects my life. Why, then, when people ask what I do, do I still have trouble saying “I’m a yoga teacher. Just a yoga teacher.” Why do I still have trouble admitting this even to myself sometimes?

It’s strange because I have confidence in my direction. Teaching yoga is the most challenging work I’ve ever done, and I feel as though I’m able to spread more good than I‘ve ever thought possible. Why is there a gap between what I confidently know but what I sometimes feel?

After giving this some thought I’ve come to believe that the reasons go deeper than my own psyche; I think they are rooted in the things we value as a society, and I think these are about to change. (Monumentally, starting on Tuesday.)

America loves our brains 1st, bodies 2nd

We are a society that has chosen to value mind over body. We respect people more for work that employs their minds than work that employs their bodies. Of course we respect pro-athletes and models and people who excel highly at physical crafts (demonstrated by enormous pay), but we show a different type of respect to Jon Lester than we do Theo Epstein. It is a bias that runs deep in all of us.

We learn about our society’s preference for purely intellectual work very young. As kids we can’t go outside and play until our homework is done. For every six hours we spend sitting in school we move physically for maybe a half an hour. Overtly and subliminally, we’re told over and over that using our mind is more important than using our body. 

Now, there are two things I don’t want to be misinterpreted. 

1 First, I am not saying that work of the body is more important than work of the intellect. I am simply saying that I think we’ve damagingly given a lot more importance to work of the mind — and our bodies, as well as we as whole individuals, now suffer. 

Let me try another example. In the work that the majority of us do, work that is 100% mental and 0% physical (any knowledge-worker job), we tend to choose intellectual goals over our physical well being. If we have a deadline for work, we’ll skip workouts or eat quick but unhealthy meals in order to meet our goals. This compounds over time — while we’re making progress professionally (read: intellectually) we’re succumbing to feeling subpar physically. 

The justification is that “We have to fundraise now” or “The opportunity for this promotion isn’t coming around again”. But what started freaking me out was the thought that “I’ll never be 27 again. I’ll never be 28 again. Do I want to look back on 29 and feel less than great?” How long can I allow purely intellectual growth to supersede my best physical health? How many years am I willing to feel sluggish physically in deference to feeling like I’m soaring intellectually?

The irony is that, when we’re not feeling 100% physically, we can’t possibly perform 100% mentally. 

2 I am also not saying that yoga is work that is only about the physical body. Yoga Asana, the physical postures we all recognize as “yoga”, is one small element of what is delivered in a yoga class. In reality yoga is very much an intellectual pursuit.

But most Americans know yoga only as a physical practice or form of exercise, and I believe this is the main reason for my insecurity. Because yoga class is viewed as a workout class, it’s the reason I get the question, “is this all you do?” 

I am insecure in part because I want people to know that I am smart and can do much more than deliver a physical experience. 

But then that brings me full circle to the underlying question: why would I be ashamed if what I am offering is only physical?

So here is where I may lose some of you. (Perhaps I already have ;)

From a spiritual perspective, masculine characteristics are associated with the mind and feminine characteristics are those pertaining more to the physical body. 

The descriptors “Father Sky” and “Mother Earth” clearly demonstrate how physicality and sensuality and body belong to the realm of the female and ascension beyond physicality into the place of the mind belongs to the male.

We can all find examples from our society. Until recent decades men were expected to do the intellectual work required to support families and women were meant to nurture the family physically—from childbearing to tending to three meals a day.

And so it’s easy to see from this perspective why a male-dominated society would value pursuits of the mind over pursuits of the body. The skills that are connected to males are presented as more important than the skills connected to females. 

And as such we find ourselves in a society that says it’s more important and respectable to use our mental muscles than our physical ones. Even though we’ve proved wrong the long-held belief that males have a greater capacity for intellect than females, we’ve allowed intellect’s importance above all else to live on.

And so on the brink of a big change — one that I hope results in a woman holding perhaps the most influential position in the world— I am also hopeful that we may take a more holistic perspective towards our minds and bodies. That we may give equal value and interest to the things we do to serve our bodies and our minds. That we may give equal respect to pursuits that require our minds’ work and our bodies’ work.

That I will be able to fully embrace being “just a yoga teacher”, whether it is understood as a practice of the body, or the mind, or both. 

Joanna Cohen