Maris Degener

Who am I to be a yoga teacher?

Maris Degener
Who am I to be a yoga teacher?

Less than a month ago, a documentary about my life was released on Netflix.

I knew this was coming. In fact, I found out about the Netflix release date a whole year in advance. That meant 12 months of secrecy, 12 months of anticipation, and 12 months to convince myself that it really wasn’t such a big deal. By the time April first rolled around, I’d gotten this idea in my head that, sure, maybe a few more people would watch it, but it probably wouldn’t make a terribly big splash. Call it a coping mechanism, self-doubt, or humbleness: you choose.

Over the past month, however, I’ve been proven wrong. I’ve navigated thousands of emails and messages from people I’ve never met before, all telling me what the film means to them. I’ve gotten requests to travel to Spain, The Netherlands, Australia, and beyond to teach yoga and share my story. I’ve been stopped by strangers while sitting in public, asking if I’m that yoga girl. And although social media is no perfect test of meaning or influence, it has certainly been a drastic change to suddenly have 40,000 sets of eyes on me seemingly overnight.

Rarely throughout this process, though, have I allowed myself to be proud.

I know “pride” doesn’t necessarily sound very yogic, and humbleness certainly is a virtue. But I personally love playing cheerleader for others in my lives, hyping friends up for things they’ve accomplished and cheering them on. I see the value in stepping into your power and embracing your worth. Hell, I read Marianne Williamson’s poem Our Deepest Fear at least once a month in my classes:

Your playing small

Does not serve the world.

There's nothing enlightened about shrinking

So that other people won't feel insecure around you.

And yet, here I am, struggling to be my own cheerleader. While I’ve certainly felt excitement and gratitude throughout this exciting month, I’ve felt a lingering sense of worry and dread hanging over me like a cloud. And how I first noticed it was an interesting (and rather agonizing) little journey.

You see, the response to the film has been oddly positive. As someone growing up in the age of the Internet, I’d almost come to expect backlash and disappointment, at the very least from a vocal minority. It seems that nowadays, nothing is sacred enough to be safe from Internet trolls, embodied behind their keyboards by anonymity. But with the exception of one person emailing me to let me know that I didn’t have an eating disorder, but rather sleep apnea (don’t ask), and some very zealous vegans encouraging me to ditch meat from my plate, every email and comment has been incredibly supportive.

Because of this, I began to worry that what I was experiencing was the calm before the storm. I began to craft a story in my mind that soon, the shoe would drop, and negativity would come rushing in like a flood. As a recovering perfectionist, I began to scrutinize myself for any possible way that I could be anything less than the perfect role model and ideal yoga teacher: the antithesis to the film, my blog, and, well, yoga.

The swirlings of my mind took on one ever-present theme: Who am I to be a yoga teacher?

The film is largely taken up by my story of becoming a yoga teacher, and going through training. It’s a turning point in my story, the way I found purpose in a life that had previously felt directionless. Although I consider myself a student of yoga first and foremost, my identity is now often framed around the role I take as a teacher: both online and in-person.

Each of the fears my anxiety constructed were attempting to find a reason that I don’t deserve to be a yoga teacher, a reason someone would soon use to call me out for being a fraud. It’s a perfect case of Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome is something I dearly hope you never have to experience, but one I’ve heard nearly everyone in my life share that they’ve encountered at one point or another. It’s a persistent, lingering fear that your success and accomplishments are all chalked up to luck, circumstance, or unfair advantage. It’s a persistent worry that eventually, you’ll be outed as the fraud you feel you are, and be exposed to the world as a failure. This phenomenon classically shows up during times of adjustment to change (such as beginning a new job or entering a new relationship), and presents as anxious thoughts that can be hard to dismiss.

Even having knowledge of Imposter Syndrome and having experienced it before in my life, it still snuck up on me. I found myself obsessively reading every article on cultural appropriation and yoga I could get my hands on.

Yes!” I seemed to think to myself, “This will certainly be the thing I’m called out for. If I can beat myself up over this before anyone else can, maybe it won’t be so awful when it finally happens.”

I’ll preface this by saying, cultural misappropriation is a very real phenomenon and one that hurts people and communities of color. It’s a member of a dominant culture adopting or profiting off of meaningful elements of another community (typically, marginalized communities) without properly understanding or respecting those elements.

Different from cultural exchange or assimilation, it’s a form of oppression that can reify stereotypes and make starkly clear the double standards racism produces in society. A great example would be a black woman being sent home from work because her cornrows are considered “unprofessional,” while at the same time the Kardashians are praised as sex symbols and ideals of feminine beauty for sporting the same hairstyle. Simply put, cultural appropriation is harmful not because we shouldn’t engage with other cultures, but because it must be done in a way that uplifts marginalized communities instead of oppressing or offending them.

Here’s the thing: I knew all of this. I study social justice at a university known for its emphasis on the topic. I do my best to stay informed and aware on the ways I can practice everyday activism and talk openly on my blog and social media about social justice topics. And yet, my brain became clouded with self-doubt about what makes me worthy of practicing, let alone teaching yoga.

I’m not Indian. In fact, I’ve never even been to India. My great-grandparents traveled through India, and I grew up with elements of Indian culture they brought back in my home, such as incense burners and pottery, but I was never taught the significance or meaning of them.

But yoga is, without a doubt, an Eastern practice. I use Sanskrit names for poses in my classes, the yoga studio I teach in has statues of Buddha and Ganesh on their altar, and I have a tattoo in Sanskrit on my arm. Does all of this mean I’m a fraud, a culturally insensitive fraud? My imposter syndrome and its resulting anxiety begged me to think so.

So after a few days of torturing myself over this idea, I decided the most appropriate thing to do was to consult a member of the potentially-offended party. A friend of mine here in Santa Cruz is from India, and has practiced yoga since they were a child. Although I know one person can’t speak for an entire group or culture, I asked for his thoughts on the topic, if he felt comfortable sharing. Somewhat nervously (and prepared to drop some serious cash on a cover-up tat and a drastic career change), I asked him, did he think my work as a yoga teacher was an offensive practice?

You can imagine my relief when he said, “I personally don't have any issue with it. I was actually very happy to see your tattoo of Ahinsa because it gave me a sense of India…and the values I was taught since childhood in a foreign land.”

He went on to share with me some more history and education on Sanskrit and his perspectives yoga itself becoming a culture, one designed to spread. He even offered to connect me with his teacher back home in India, and to be a resource for learning more about the meanings, etymologies, and translations of common words used in the practice of yoga.

What began as an interaction instigated out of fear, was a powerful opportunity to learn even more about a practice that has meant so much to me, and where it comes from. I was reminded of how my teachers have always shown me the importance of honoring the origins of yoga, from the way they speak about its history, to the way they acknowledge the differences in the way it’s practiced in the West. I remembered all the reasons that I got my tattoo in Sanskrit in the first place: to not lose some of the meaning it gathers from its original language, and to recognize its original home, not erase it. I remembered that B.K.S. Iyengar felt strongly about bringing yoga to the West, seeing it as accessible and meaningful for anyone and everyone.

Are there instances of cultural appropriation in the Western yoga community? Certainly. Is there room for us, collectively, to become better educated on the origins of the practice and the meaningful elements of it that we can’t lay claim to? Of course. But would it be helpful to anyone to stop studying and sharing a practice that teaches compassion, empathy, self-study, and love? No, I can’t say it would, so long as we do it as respectfully as we can.

And as I began to recognize all of this, like clearing through fog, I remembered the story of Buddha and the Bodhi Tree. Although I am not a practicing Buddhist, or Buddhist scholar, this story called to me the first time I heard it. The way it was taught to me by Lama Brandy Davis, Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree in meditation for 49 days until reaching enlightenment (thus gaining the name, “Buddha,” or, “The Enlightened One”). During those 49 days, Buddha was tempted Mara, “The Evil One.”

Mara tried many tricks to tempt Buddha out of meditation, but the final one he attempted was: “Who do you think you are to be enlightened?”

Although I’m certainly not implying I’m close to enlightenment (maybe not in this lifetime, but who knows), I realized that I am being tempted by the same threat. Who am I to be a yoga teacher? Who am I to share my story and guide others? Who am I to believe that I am doing good in the world?

But this temptation serves no one. Not myself, not those who are touched by the film, not those who join my classes, not those who read what I write.

In lingering in the fear and doubt around what others may think of me, I’ve taken precious energy away from what matters: serving others and using the voice I’ve been given to do so. With more eyes than ever before reading my words and hearing my voice, I have the ability to speak for those presently unable to. I have the ability to create shifts in the conversation around mental illness, yoga, and simply being a human in often-chaotic times.

In order to do good, in order to honor the teachings of yoga beyond the asana, I must step out of this space of protecting my ego, and instead protect myself: my true self. The student, the teacher, the human being. And perhaps counter-intuitively, that means honoring my accomplishments and making space to trust my worthiness of the good in my life.

Yoga has truly been a saving grace in my journey. To not share it out of fear that I will be exposed as a fraud or insensitive person would be a mistake: so long as I continue to practice and teach with respect for the teachers that have come before me. My tattoo, a longstanding symbol in my life, Ahinsa, symbolizes compassion. But to be able to share and spread compassion to others, I must first extend it to myself. And that means trusting that I am worthy.

Photo by Cat Fennell.

Photo by Cat Fennell.