A Teacher's Journey by Justin Randolph

I remember when I was twelve I was involved in a mime dance group with a youth group at my church.  We were on a trip performing in a venue that was at least 1200 seats full of crazy hormonal teenagers, and I remember stepping off the stage after a performance to my youth leader asking me frantically if I was ok.  “Of course I’m fine, why?” was my innocent reply. She explained that there was someone in the audience who was loudly making fun of me and the way I was moving, someone who thought it was acceptable to tease an overweight adolescent in front of hundreds of people.  Truthfully I heard the hurtful slurs and shouts that were being thrown my way, but I was able to somehow tune it out. It wasn’t until this moment when my leader and others asked me about it that I had become completely self-conscious. It wasn’t the fact that someone made fun of me and the way I was moving my body so much, as it was the fact that others HEARD this person making fun of me, and they felt sorry for me. This made me feel ever worse, I felt exposed and raw. 

This brought on an immense period of hiding deep in my skin away from the world. From this point on I was very uncomfortable in my body. I watched every move I made and examined myself in every mirror I passed with disgust. I was a “fat kid” from the time I turned 10 until around 15 years of age.  After this incident I quickly gave up the dance group, I didn’t want to put myself through it. I literally envisioned myself as I was dancing and imagined what others saw: jiggly rolls and bumps in my black turtle neck as I moved.  No thank you. This image allowed me to spiral into some really bad eating habits and an attempt to lose my weight in the most-unhealthy of ways. This began my belief that I was just not good enough, that something needed to be fixed.  My relationship with my body was a complete disaster, my shoulders became hunched, and I began to withdraw myself socially. The summer of my 14th birthday I naturally lost quite a bit of weight as I grew taller. For the first time I felt more confident in myself, but it was still never enough. “Once a fat kid you will always feel like a fat kid” is a phrase that I’ve heard thrown around a lot, and for me it has been very true. 

In 2003 I had gained the extra college 25 lbs, and was pretty out of shape and unhealthy. I came to yoga this same year for the first time, and I felt an immediate draw to keep going back. I suddenly saw people of all different shapes and sizes moving their bodies in ways I couldn’t imagine possible for me.  Not to mention I literally felt SO good after class. I began to notice that my clothes fit better, I had more confidence, my body began to change, and my mind was so much calmer. My practice was not consistent in those early years, but when I could get to a class I would jump on it and always be grateful for my experience. I moved to NYC to begin a life as a performer after years of undergrad and grad school. I suddenly was faced with the fast paced demands of a city full of people who shared the same dreams as me, that also meant people who looked kind of like me but in my mind always looked better than me. I continued to be on the self-improvement train because I never felt good enough. This began a downward spiral back into physical self -consciousness and a lack of comfort in my own body train that I so often drove. I remember some early auditions being asked to join the dance portion of the auditions and feeling so incredibly uncomfortable. How could I possibly remember the combinations and sequences when I was so busy worrying about how I looked when I was doing some move that just made me absolutely vulnerable. One dance audition I was so scared I actually snuck out of the room and ran out of the building before they could even put me into a combination group. I suddenly had to come face to face with my insecurity that I had buried over the years. I didn’t feel good enough, I felt completely uncomfortable and forever stuck in what I thought was the awkward body of an “fat kid.”

Some general anxiety from living in NYC brought me back to yoga. I lived one block away from a hip new studio in my neighborhood and I began practicing again. I hated the challenge at first, I felt like I was never going to be able to do any of the things these people were doing. I felt uncomfortable in my own skin, and very much like these dance auditions I would get lost and forget where I was. But no one judged me or stopped the entire class to look at me. In fact I noticed no one was watching anyone else. My practice grew more and more consistent and I finally began to notice that this amazing feeling I was getting after class was more than just the yoga itself (which yes gives us all the feel good feels), but it was that sense of accomplishment having made a commitment to myself to do something good for myself and having followed through. You see all those years I would diet or say I was going to do something but nothing ever really connected for me quite like yoga. There were many periods of doubt on my mat, tears, and lots of sweat.  I was suddenly brought into a world of culture and philosophy that looks within. My eating habits began to change, my body started to change, and I found more comfort in myself than before. It suddenly seemed that the periods of self-consciousness and discomfort in my own skin were fading away. 

I decided to be a teacher because I ultimately wanted to share my experience of profound personal healing with others. That was what I thought. But teaching has taught me that nothing is ever complete, including healing of old wounds. I wish I could say that my insecurity and doubt vanished overnight with my yoga practice, but it didn’t. It still comes and goes. As a teacher I fight comparing myself with other male yogis who are constantly posting Instagram pictures of themselves shirtless and in postures that my not so naturally flexible body does not and may never do. I still battle with loving myself, meeting myself on the road where I’m at, and allowing myself to know that where I am is where I am supposed to be.  As a teacher I now see that I am able to connect to those students who are uncomfortable in their own skin…those students who are insecure…the students who have been told they’re not good enough, strong enough, or smart enough. Those are my people, and those people are almost every single student on the mat. Truth be told we have all been bullied, we’ve all been forced to deal with society’s unforgiving image of us that is constantly projected in our faces. We’re all walking around with giant walls of protection because we’re afraid. Afraid that we are not enough. This beautiful practice of yoga teaches us that we are indeed more than good enough.

When I did my 200 hour training with Three Sisters I was struck by the diversity of knowledge and experience every teacher brought to the experience. I was able to see how important it is to speak to your community, to celebrate diversity, and to fight for inclusion of all human beings on the mat regardless of skin color, sexual orientation, size, age, religion, or ability.  Our Instagram world of insta asana and yoga-lebrity is turning people off who need yoga the most. When I came to yoga Instagram wasn’t  yet a thing, there were no images clouding the minds of curious would be yogis. My training at Three Sisters has given me the tools needed to step forward in a rocky yoga world and celebrate every single body, including mine. My training has given me the tools to encourage studio managers to create more diverse class offerings, and to diversify their marketing strategies to appeal to all shapes, sizes, colors, and sexes. My training has allowed me to hold the space for every single individual who comes through the door and to realize that this is a precious opportunity to serve. 

 Remember that guy who made fun of me at the dance event?  This is my tribute to him, because without him, myself and so many others who have been harassed would not have the experience and courage to move forward spreading a message of acceptance and self-love. In such rocky times that we live in, we deserve to honor ourselves, our truths, and stand tall and proud in every inch of our being.  What do you want to share as a teacher? I encourage you to share from your deepest authenticity. Share beyond what you think is easy or looks good…come into the space and be there for your students. Your students aren’t going to remember when you mispronounced a pose in Sanskrit, but they will remember how you touched their hearts with truth. Encourage your students. Know that in sharing your authenticity with your students you are opening up the doors for truth and liberation. You are holding space in which your students can feel alive again, and your encouragement might just be the one thing that sets someone free.

Yoga & Race by Jesal Parikh

Starting out as a yoga teaching, no matter what you look like can be a really intimidating experience. There you are, leading a class and telling people what to do with their bodies when you aren’t quite sure if what you’re saying is correct. It’s easy to feel like an imposter.

Now imagine that, on top of feeling like an imposter, the only people around you are really flexy-bendy white women who can easily do splits and a few muscle-y, white men jumping easily between handstand and chaturanga. I mean, that might be a slight exaggeration, but only very slight. You might get the sense that you don’t belong…and it all takes a toll on the psyche.

It can be daunting to be in an industry where seemingly so few people aren’t white. You might think that as someone of Indian descent doing something that came from India, I wouldn’t feel this way. But you’d be wrong. I mean, when was the last time you were in a yoga class led by someone of Indian descent?

When I started out teaching yoga, the feelings of not belonging were compounded by the fact that not only was I not white and not experienced, I am not a naturally strong or flexible person. I’ve never had an easy time with challenging yoga poses and it was years before I could touch my toes. Not to mention that I’m chubby. Yet everywhere I went, the images I saw of yoga teachers were of thin, able-bodied, white women. Even now, the images presented in yoga studios, yoga clothing brands, yoga accessories and in both yoga and non-yoga, media and advertising are always of thin, overly-flexible white women. There is very little diversity or deviation from this image.

The images weighed on me and made me feel like I was never going to be “successful.” Like I didn’t belong on the roster of teachers at a studio. Most of the time, I felt like it wasn’t even worth it to audition because I didn’t look like that stereotypical image.

The fear of being seen as I am, as someone who doesn’t fit the mold, created a lot of emotional paralysis. I desperately wanted to teach but I didn’t have any idea how to take action. I mean, why would anyone want to hire a chubby, inflexible, brown yoga teacher who couldn’t even do chaturanga easily?
 
That insecurity was the driver behind a lot of my yoga teaching mistakes. I felt unworthy, therefore my mindset was to get whatever gigs came my way without any standards or regard for my own needs whatsoever. For example, I signed on to offer one of those Groupon-like deals where I had to drive really far out to meet people in their homes, not necessarily knowing if the situation would be completely safe. I would often walk away with barely $15 after my expenses were covered. And there was that studio that “auditioned” me to teach, only to find out find out it was a scam to exploit my insecurities so I would PAY to be a part of whatever training they were offering.

For a long time, I shied away from doing any real marketing or posting images of videos of myself. I charged waaaaay less than I should have. I never said no. Even if it meant burning myself out to do the job. All because I didn’t think I was worthy.
 
I haven’t talked publicly about this too much, but being different and being non-white has been a huge reason why I don’t teach in studios. There are some great studios to work in, I’m sure. I was even briefly a part of one before it closed. But in general, you’re made to feel that if you’re not white, then you have to be “perfect” in every other way: a skinny, strong, smart, super yogi! And even then sometimes you’re made to feel ignored, stupid or just plain uncomfortable.
 
So I decided that I wasn’t going to subject myself to that environment anymore. I decided, that, instead, I was going to launch my own business teaching private clients and eventually creating a program where I could help new teachers get a leg up on teaching private yoga and creating their own businesses. I’m proud to say, that after 8 years, I just launched that program.

In no small part, Three Sisters Yoga has been a part of that entrepreneurial journey. When I signed on for my 300-hour program with Three Sisters, Jen was one of the few people who would accept my initial 200-hr certification that I received from the only yoga university in India. During the 300-hr program, she encouraged me to speak up about my Indian heritage and my training in India and give life to some of the concepts we were learning about. She validated me as a teacher and made me feel like I had something to contribute to the yoga community.

In the program, I also met an array of students, the likes of whom I hadn’t really seen on teaching staffs at studios. And as Three Sisters has matured, the community of students and teachers has only gotten more diverse and more inclusive.

Through the example of Three Sisters, I also realized that I didn’t have to make a living working for studios. TSY is founded on the idea of offering something independent from yoga studios, allowing yoga trainings to be more accessible to people who love yoga but can’t afford or don’t feel comfortable practicing yoga in studios. After graduating from TSY, I realized, that I could us it as a way to model my own yoga business.

Of course, I didn’t leave all my insecurity behind all at once. And there’s still some that lingers with me. But in the last 8 years, I’ve learned something extremely valuable…
 
I’ve learned that there is a market for people like me. A lucrative one. There is a market for people who look and feel different from all the mainstream images. I don’t have to charge less or take whatever I can get, because my unique experience is an asset, not a setback. There are plenty of people who will hire me as a private yoga instructor, because they, too, don’t feel comfortable in studios. Some people just feel like a skinny, flexible white woman won’t “get” them or their body. Some of them just don’t care what I look like and they just love what I teach in the way I teach it. And so regardless of how much these clients make or don’t make, they will prioritize working with me. Because they just aren’t gonna get experience and insight like mine at their corner yoga store.