Why You Don’t Need Life Experience to Teach Yoga

I’ll never forget my first yoga teacher training weekend.

Full of excitement, energy and an eagerness to learn, I bounded into the studio with all the naivety of a first-time attendee (this is before I started drowning in sun salutations and Sanskrit).

After a stomach-twisting 9 am Ashtanga class, we settled down to study the business of yoga. I work in marketing so this module sounded especially exciting. How do you start a yoga business? How do you promote classes in a saturated market? How do you sell yourself within an industry that prides itself on being ego-free?

We spoke about self-promotion and our business plans in turn. Everyone had high expectations and big goals; this wasn’t a hobby, it was a career path and way of life.

I drank in their enthusiasm and, when the attention turned to me, I similarly poured my heart out: “These are my ideas, my dreams and here’s how I’m going to do it!”.

When I finished, in the lull that followed, I heard it for the first time: “I wouldn’t want to be taught by you. You’re too young. You don’t have enough life experience.”

It had taken me a long time to start this course because I actually did feel inexperienced (despite having practised regularly for years). But, thanks to the reassurances of friends and family, I took the plunge anyway and buried that anxiety deep in my gut.

Plus, I felt compelled to teach. Yoga had changed my life, saving me from the savagery of bulimia, so surely it could help others?

But this remark, so thoughtless in its delivery, carved my fear out and slapped it, red and bloody, in the middle of the room for everyone to see.

Over the following months, I heard this reaction a dozen times more.

Apparently, young yoga teachers are like unicorns, glittery and fake. My age held me back in every area of training, not because it was a problem in itself but because of the prejudices of others.

I just didn’t get it. I was capable and strong, with a good understanding of tricky yoga concepts. I tried hard, peeled myself off the studio floor when, inevitably, I fell out of a more advanced inversion or arm balance. I implemented yoga principles outside of these sweaty and spiritual weekends.

Nevertheless, I remained an outsider, never quite welcomed into the fold.

I desperately wanted to fit in. Did I need to be older? Would a few more life-punches rattle my brain enough to unlock the key to perfect asanas and alignment

Life experience isn’t synonymous with age. I know plenty of young people who’ve suffered, been through extraordinary circumstances and come out the other side.

They’ve raised healthy children, navigated problematic marriages and juggled jobs. Many of my wise young friends have overcome trauma, mental illness and addiction.

Young people ask themselves the same questions that plague the older generation: who am I, what am I here to do, what’s the deeper meaning in all this?

In my opinion, anyone who’s living is “life experienced”.

Going through a tricky divorce, relocating or navigating a mid-life crisis can teach you helpful life skills, provided you’re the sort of person who learns from their mistakes.

Emotional maturity isn’t defined by how much has happened to you; it’s dependant on how you react to difficult situations.

There are plenty of calm 25 year olds and plenty of volatile 60 year olds.

In fact, if you’re carrying around loads of emotional stress, you probably aren’t in a position to give to others. The saying “you can’t pour from an empty cup” is very true.

Yoga teachers are vessels, designed to pass on knowledge. They aren’t the main event. Sure, students will gravitate towards charismatic individuals but they’re predominantly there to learn.

They don’t care if you’re having a tough time. They don’t want to know about your break-up or debt. They want to do a headstand?!

To think you’re more qualified to teach because you’re life is more colourful is pretty dumb.

I emailed a bunch of influential yoga teachers whinging about my situation. To be honest, I just wanted them to agree with me. To say how disgusting the judgement from my peers was. Basically, I was being a baby.

But I needed to do something because the urge to run away and forget about teaching was growing.

One of the teachers I contacted was David Swenson.

I sent an embarrassingly long email to an address I never expected to work: “Dear David, am I too young to be a yoga teacher? Everyone seems to think so…”.

Much to my surprise, he eventually replied.

“Truly we are all simply students… Be honest! Share what you know. Spread the Joy! Treat people with respect. Accept those with a difference of opinion and treat them with kindness and learn to see that we are all doing the best we can. So go out there and shine your light! Spread the joy that you experience from yoga in the best way you know how. The world needs positive people with positive energy and compassion in their heart.”

Vague and unreassuring — not exactly the reaction I wanted.

In a burst of clarity, I realised none of this actually mattered. The months I spent worrying about what others thought could have been spent learning or practising.

Throughout all my wavy moments, one thing remained certain — I had a strong desire to share yoga and, as Swenson put it, “spread the joy”.

I didn’t need any life experience to do THAT.

It doesn’t matter if you’re 18 or 80, an alcoholic or a nun, if yoga is your passion then you’ll make a superb teacher.

If yoga calls to you, then you don’t owe anyone an explanation when turning up at a training course.

You’ll get what you give; work hard, push through the negativity and BELIEVE in yourself.

David was right — “we are all simply students”.

Originally published at antiunicornclub.co.uk on February 10, 2018.

My name’s Ashleigh — yoga teacher and mental health advocate.