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.