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"ageism goes both ways"

"ageism goes both ways"

by anouk numi
Practice Yoga | Personal Story

the dilema of being of young yoga teacher
When the average American thinks of a yoga guru, or any instructor who synchronizes breath with movement, they usually picture a wise old man with wrinkly cheeks and grey hairs who chants “Om Shanti Om,” and drinks only green tea—not a gangly tall Persian girl with wild wavy hair, young bright brown eyes, and a latte always in-hand. This is me: Anouk Numi. My face is not wrinkled and students don’t see me with a singing bowl or jingling bells. Yet somehow this performance, (if you can view yoga instruction as such), is perceived as more credible, more yogic for the average American and practitioner. But what does it mean to be a “true” yoga instructor? Is the wrinkly faced man or woman who leads chants in words practically half of the room doesn’t understand, (and sometimes doesn’t even care to understand), the valued teacher? And if so, why is he/she more appreciated? Do we authenticate a practitioner based on how ascetic or, if you will, “Spartan” they are? Albeit free podcasts, online instruction, and donation-based studios, yoga mainly targets the rich and wealthy and we’ve seen yoga chains, like Yoga Works, open studios in the nooks and crannies of fairly well-off suburbs all over the states. Perhaps yoga is intended to equip those who hold more power and status in society to speak, act, and breathe with more awareness, consciousness—sentience.

Truth be told, I would love to believe and breathe into this “intention,” but my experience as both a writer and yoga instructor, proves otherwise. I’ll never forget when I moved east, bright-eyed and eager to start grad school and teach yoga. After giving a stellar audition at a studio, the one question the owner asked was, “How old are you?” Upon hearing my mere age of 20, the owner chuckled and said: “You’re so cute and with those dimples too! Hey, you know I worked at a bank when I was your age! How about you file some papers and then we can slowly put you on the sub list?”

I wanted to tell the owner to take a hike, but I bit my lip and ventured elsewhere. It only took me 2 weeks to land a steady class at a studio, and after just a month, I got 4 of my own weekly classes. Numerous students were amazed at my passion and knack for yogic choreography—for linking breath with movement. Maybe if I had a couple of grey hairs and sang the “kumbaya,” I would’ve gotten that first yoga gig, but since grey hairs are still years to come and “kumbaya” is just not in my tunes, does that make me “less” of a yoga teacher? Is my wild wavy hair too uncontrolled for the ideal instructor? And if so, aren’t we countering one of the most fundamental ideas discussed in the Yoga Sutras of Pantajalisatya—the “absolute truth”? The irony of it all is that the old dude or gal with grey hairs didn’t need to bust out the jingly bells or sing some chant that nobody understood. An older person could walk in and even sprinkle their playlist with some Madonna, Brittney Spears, and even Lady Gaga (and yes, I have witnessed this before!), and be “A” okay.

This brings us to the double standard—ageism. We hear it all the time for the elderly, and I’ve had my fair share of heart-to-heart discussions with teachers ranging from 0 to 33 years of experience. Older teachers have expressed the pressure to fit in and adapt to the rather cutting-edge sequences, and female instructors in particular, have sometimes told me that they feel a “competition” with the “up and coming” talent. Close friends and family members of mine have experienced ageism in a variety of social spheres, so please do not take this piece as my “rant” against the elderly. In fact, as a writing and yoga instructor, (mediums of expression that both foster critical and self-inquiry at some level), I sympathize with anyone who suffers from racism, sexism, ageism, and any of those “isms.” But what is largely under discussed in most fields, including yoga instruction, is ageism for the young. Are unwrinkled faces seen as cute, hot, and dainty? In what ways can younger instructors assert their authorial presence as professionals?

 As someone who has by far and large been the “greener” one in various fields, many “senior” people have told me to dress-up, be “strict” as a writing teacher, and look “less young, less attractive.” When I first entered academia, many “wiser” folks told me that I just got “x, y or z” because I went to “X” school and had the “pedigree”—not the skill set or talent to teach writing. I have friends and family from many walks of life who have experienced similar encounters and left feeling anxious and dispirited to face their new job. If there is one space where an “ism” should not exist, shouldn’t be yoga?

I have been blessed to teach yoga in a nurturing community, YogaSource Los Gatos, California. A major difference I see in this studio space compared to the range of work spheres (both yogic and not I have been a part of) is the founder Linda McGrath. She encourages all her instructors to grow both on and off the mat and never belittles them to “make them get up” nor nitpicks at every little subtlety of a teacher’s personality. If there is one message I hope the older, wiser, senior readers take from my piece, it is this: identify your workers’ strengths and passions and provide them with the space and opportunity to showcase their talent in such a way that genuinely fosters collective growth.

For the young buds, my advice is this: never doubt yourself and be true to your unique satya—your truth.