You Don’t Have To Look A Certain Way To Be A Yoga Teacher

You Don’t Have To Look A Certain Way To Be A Yoga Teacher

When you think of the word ‘yoga,’ what’s the image that comes to mind? For a lot of us, it’s probably a thin, white woman contorted into some sort of pretzelly shape that looks impossible, yet she’s still somehow totally serene. Right?

It’s funny the way that marketing, social media, and the West have influenced yoga. Because, traditionally, yoga was only practiced by Indian men. Not a bunch of wealthy white chicks in $100 leggings. 

I know what you’re thinking: umm, Kayla, you’re literally describing yourself. Yep, guilty as charged. I’m a middle class, white American woman in expensive yoga gear posting flexy and strong photos. I get it. The thing is, I’m not necessarily critical of that image in our head. This is simply a result of yoga evolving overtime (plus the brainwashing of marketing, but whatever).  

While we’ve started to see more diversity in models thanks to the body positivity movement, it still seems like that image of a thin woman just can’t go away. I don’t know if it’s the yoga part of it, or if it’s because yoga is so closely tied to fitness nowadays- but, either way, the implication that you have to be thin in order to do yoga is quite strong. That implication only gets stronger when you become a teacher. 

This post will uncover where these biases come from, and what we can do to continually work on breaking these standards that have our society in a chokehold. 

You Don’t Have To Look A Certain Way To Be A Yoga Teacher

You Don’t Have To Look A Certain Way To Be A Yoga Teacher

Where does body bias come from?

I don’t know if I have to preface this by saying that these are my opinions and observations, and not necessarily points that have been collected by any formal studies- but I’ll say it nonetheless. The only kind of professional I am is a yoga teacher. Not a social scientist, or doctor, or nutritionist. 

Just a plain ‘ole yoga teacher who has seen some shit in the last decade of working in this industry. I’d say that gives me some clout, though, yeah?

I’d also like to start off by saying that as someone who falls in the category of the stereotypical yoga chick, I understand that I have immense privilege in my body. And. I’ve also experienced a lot of shame, control, and disordered eating within my body, too- especially in relation to being a public figure in the movement teaching industry. 

Assumption that healthy = thinness

Overarchingly, I think most of us can agree that our society is pretty set on the idea that if you’re thin, you’re healthy. And if you’re fat, you’re unhealthy. Because modern yoga is so closely tied to ‘health and wellness,’ that comes along with the understanding  that if you must be thin in order to do yoga. Healthy means skinny, remember. 

While our culture tells us thinness equals health, our bodies probably tell us another story. Hell, I know that times when I was at my thinnest, I was actually my unhealthiest. Whether that was due to mental health struggles that manifested physically. Or, depriving my body from food, over exercising, getting addicted to Adderall, and so on and so on. Sure, I was tiny. But was I healthy? Not at all. 

I’ve heard other accounts from people who admitted to seeing a woman’s thin body, and feeling jealous of her figure only to find out she was on chemo, fighting cancer. Literally fighting for her life, but- hey- at least she was skinny! 

Being small doesn’t always mean you’re healthy. And yet, our society doesn’t want us to let go of this belief, because then they’d be in big trouble. I mean, imagine if we learned to love ourselves regardless of our size, shape, or condition- the beauty industry would take a big hit. 

The yoga industry tends to use thin models not only because that’s the norm in modeling (yes, I know it’s changed a lot, but thinness is still by far the norm), but also because in using thin people they’re selling the idea of health, as well. 

Thinness in relation to purity culture

Many of you might have heard of purity culture in relation to religion. The idea of saving yourself until marriage, and all. Something that was more hard pressed on to women, thanks to the patriarchy. If you didn’t save yourself for marriage, you were less worthy of a husband. And if you weren’t worthy of a man, then you were essentially worthless, because men define you. Of course. 

So you’re thinking, how the hell does this relate to yoga?

Well, it ties into yoga with the wellness thread. 

I’m a health and wellness girlie myself, but if you’ve read my post on my take on what  wellness means, then you’ll know that my focus is more about how you feel, and less about how you look. While wellness has been incredibly healing for myself, as well as thousands of others around the globe- it can also get a littttttllllleee toxic (kind of funny considering so much of it is about detoxing btw). 

Toxicity occurs in wellness when it’s out of balance, and starts leaning so hard to one side that it’s entered the purity zone. Do you know what orthorexia is? Because it’s a great example of wellness gone wrong. Orthorexia is an eating disorder where you obsess about “eating clean,” to the point of illness. Something healthy, like choosing to eat whole foods, has become unhealthy in this imbalance state. Now it’s obsessive. And it’s running your life, instead of adding to your life. 

Within wellness, there’s an idea that if you eat unclean foods, or live in an unclean, unnatural way- then you’re somehow less worthy, maybe even deserving of whatever pain comes your way. There’s a superiority to be found in cleanliness. Saucha (cleanliness or purity) is the first Niyama in yoga, and it’s my belief that the wellness industry has preyed on that. The true meaning of practicing Saucha had nothing to do with making your body smaller, and everything to do with purifying the mind and thoughts. Yes, there was an element of physical cleanliness, like don’t practice when you’re dirty or smelly out of reverence and respect to practice. But the real emphasis is on the purity of our mind, our thoughts, and our words. 

What a fitness instructor “should” look like

Now, if you close your eyes and picture a fitness instructor- what do you see? I see abs, biceps, and shredded legs. Little to no body fat. A look that- for me at least- is totally unattainable. Again, thank you marketing. 

Modern yoga teachers are seen as fitness instructors. Period. Honestly, I was shocked when I realized this, because I never saw myself as a fitness instructor. But I realized a lot of people saw me as a fitness teacher, because yoga in the West is primarily only asana. Plus, we use the asana for the images and videos on Instagram, because it’s a visual platform. That’s how you grab people’s attention.

The thing is, even though I didn’t see myself as a fitness instructor, just knowing that others do created pressure for me to look a certain way. Plus, when your job pretty much entails that you’re wearing a spandex suit at all times, then you also want your body to look a certain way in your uniform. 

There’s this belief, whether it’s subconscious or conscious is really up to the individual.

That if your teacher isn’t ripped, or thin, or has a body that looks like the image in your head- then they’re somehow not going to be a good teacher. People are more likely to trust the person with the abs and bulging shoulders to learn how to handstand, as opposed to the curvy woman with a soft stomach. 

As we’ve already established, the way you look doesn’t indicate your health. And guess what? It also doesn’t necessarily indicate your body’s capabilities either? You can’t tell how strong or flexible someone is just by looking at them. And maybe the curvy woman with a soft stomach can hold a handstand longer than the one with abs. You never know. 

How to break the beauty standards in yoga

How to break the beauty standards in yoga

I’m not gonna lie, this shit can be hard. Even for me, after years of work, there are still some days that are harder than others. When I look at a photo or a video, I know I won’t post it to advertise my work, because of the way I look. Or the way that I think I look. Such a mind fuck. 

This work of breaking the beauty standards in yoga is both individual and collective work that I do feel hopeful will change with time. It already is in some ways. 


As yogis, this one will be a little easier for us, because we’re already used to observing our thoughts. And that’s really all that mindfulness is. It’s pausing, noticing, observing, and understanding ourselves more deeply by recognizing patterns.

The thought patterns you want to look out specifically are around body bias. Notice if you have a student come to your class that looks a certain way (big, small, old, young, etc), and you judge their body’s capability off of the first glance, before actually watching them move as a student in the class. Observe if you walk into a class with a larger teacher, versus a buff teacher- what assumptions, expectations, and judgments jump out. 

Just notice. Oftentimes these thoughts are reactions- like a knee jerk reaction, we can’t help it, because it’s been conditioned so deeply. What we can do is pause before we respond. In that pause, observe. Allow curiosity and openness to occur, instead of assuming you know it all based on that initial first glance. 

Body Neutrality

If you’re a yoga teacher who’s struggling with body acceptance, the best place to start is body neutrality. It can be hard to go from self-loathing to self-love. Those are two very different ends of the body spectrum, which can make the leap from hate to love seemingly impossible. Instead, work on the middle ground. Work on neutrality. 

Body neutrality is more about facts than love. I have legs that carry me around all day is a neutral statement. I love my legs is a self-love statement that might not feel at all true (yet). Stick to the facts, which can be found in your body’s functions. This will help you to be in your body in a way that notices, and maybe even appreciates, all that it is doing for you on a daily basis.  

Self Love Exercises 

If you’re ready to shift out of neutral, and into the self-love territory, then there are a few self-love practices that are a great way to ease in. I have a really powerful Forgiveness Meditation in my Heart Medicine series that works wonders on cultivating self love. 

Another option that’s totally free is mirror gazing. Whether you look just at your face, or at your whole body (naked or clothed), just allow yourself to see yourself, rather than hiding from yourself. Talk to yourself as you look at yourself (silently or aloud) in the same loving way you’d talk to a friend or a partner. 

Last one I’ll recommend is writing a love note to yourself. It’s as cheesy as it sounds, but I bet it’ll make you tear up, and you know us yoga teachers love to make people cry. But seriously, this can be really transformative if you let it. Write to yourself the way you’d write to your soul mate, showering them with love, affection, adoration, and appreciation. Take the time to actually notice the things you love about yourself, and write them down. Keep the letter. 

Discomfort In Posting

It’s hard not to just post the most perfect content ever, isn’t it? If you look at my feed, you’d probably think that all I do is post the perfect stuff. Because, yeah, it’s curated, and it’s aesthetically pleasing and all that. 

That’s the funny thing about this exercise. You might take a video or a photo, and all you see is the roll on your tummy- whereas someone else sees it, and literally doesn’t even notice. Hell, they might even feel envy, or wish that they could do that super cool transition themselves. We tend to hyperfocus on areas that we are insecure about, when most people don’t even notice. 

So, my challenge for you is to post the one that you’d otherwise delete. My challenge for you is to- sure, create beautiful content- and also don’t be so wrapped up in sucking your stomach in the whole time that you’re not even breathing when you’re practicing asana. Because that’s not yoga at all, is it? 

How You Feel Versus How You Look

As yoga teachers, we often encourage our students to focus more on how they feel, rather than worry about how they look. Think about it, if a newbie is next to an advanced practitioner in an all level class, we encourage them to keep their experience inward, rather than compare to their very bendy neighbor. So why can’t we take this advice ourselves?

All of the yoga-speak that we spout while we’re teaching is genuinely useless if we’re not practicing it ourselves both on and off the mat. If we just talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk, aren’t we a little….fraudulent? I think so. 

I’m not saying there won’t still be hard days, or that it won’t be a process. We’re striving for practice and progress, rather than perfection. Just like asana, remember. 

When we focus on how we feel as opposed to how we look, we’re able to more completely give our body what it needs. Not what we think we “should” do, and not what society tells us we “need” to do- but the honest to god truth of what our body is asking for in each passing moment. Easier said than done, I know. It’s a practice. 

If there’s anything you take away from this post, I hope that it’s this:

Regardless of your body’s size, shape, or capabilities you are worthy of yoga. You are worthy to teach. 



You Don’t Have To Look A Certain Way To Be A Yoga Teacher
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