Celebrating the Unsung Heroines of Yoga – and Life

"Sunflower in the Sky" by May Photography

“Sunflower in the Sky” by May Photography

During the past several years, I’ve participated actively in the rising tide of critical commentary on the state of yoga today as a writer, teacher, and activist. As such, I’ve been tracking its development pretty closely, and been truly surprised by how quickly it’s grown. On the whole, I’ve naturally tended to see this in a very positive light: Perhaps needless to say, I believe it’s critically important that issues such as teacher abuse, asana injury, and body image are discussed openly, rather than hushed up and swept under the mat (so to speak).

Nonetheless, I’ve had a gnawing feeling for some time now that the collective discussion may have reached a problematic tipping point. What had only recently been a pent-up demand for an honest airing of pressing issues may have morphed into a habit of negative commentary with its own internal momentum – at least on social media, which I see as the most important forum for broad-based public discussion.

This concerns me. Relentless criticism becomes its own problem if it’s not adequately balanced by good news and inspiring commentary. After a certain point, it starts sapping positive energy by undercutting the collective sense of being involved in a meaningful enterprise with something important to contribute to the world.


Yoga’s Hidden Backbone

For this reason, I wanted to take the time to celebrate the uncounted multitudes of committed teachers and serious students who have never made yoga headlines – whether positive or negative – and, most likely, never will. Neither villains nor celebrities, their names simply aren’t known outside of local circles. They wouldn’t appear in any “who’s who” of yoga. They don’t attract thousands of followers on social media. But their efforts are what combine to form the real backbone of yoga in the world today.

Without their work, there wouldn’t be anything worth criticizing, because there wouldn’t be any meaningful practice to build on. There wouldn’t be millions of people who care deeply about yoga because they know that it’s helped them in profoundly important ways. There wouldn’t be yoga classes available everywhere from affluent urban neighborhoods to isolated rural communities and impoverished inner-city schools. There wouldn’t be a shared sense of deep caring about this modern mind-body practice, which we are only starting to understand in more in-depth, robust, and multifaceted ways.

True, there might still be a commercialized “yoga industry” that profits off hawking an idealized “yoga body.” But anyone who thinks that’s all that’s driving the passion for yoga today is sadly out of touch with everyday reality on the ground.

To be sure, there are plenty of poorly taught classes and shallow marketing schemes out there. There are also, however, a lot of dedicated, caring teachers who are making a lot of personal sacrifices to pursue something they love sincerely. Their work is benefiting countless numbers of students who are challenging themselves to open their bodies, minds, and spirits to the practice, willing themselves to do the hard work that deep learning necessarily involves.


Ordinary, Yet Extraordinary

I’m lucky to live in Chicago, which has a robust yoga scene that remains nicely insulated from the hype, flash, and pretension that thrive on the Coasts. That said, I immediately want to add that some of the most amazing yoga teachers I know live in New York and California! – so, I don’t mean to disrespect the excellent work that happens there. As a Midwesterner, however, I feel comparatively more attuned to less glamorous settings than LA, San Francisco, and Manhattan. I know, for example, that there’s incredible, transformative yoga being practiced in such pedestrian places as Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Living in flyover country, I feel plugged into an invisible network of practitioners that doesn’t register on the yoga magazine and social media radar. And there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s touching many lives in positive, powerful ways.

The ripple effects of good teaching and solid practice go far beyond the yoga community per se. For example, I know that yoga helps me as a parent, which means that it helps my kids, even if they never set foot on a mat (which, in fact, they don’t). I practice regularly with two friends who are both therapists. They see multiple clients a week, and have done a lot of work with kids traumatized by violence in one of Chicago’s worst neighborhoods. To the extent that yoga helps them with their personal lives and professional work – which it does – it indirectly helps their clients, as well. And from there, the positive energies spread further.

We never know how many lives we touch. But we are all interconnected – and, in our networked, globalized world, more so now than ever. Yoga is only one of many human practices with the potential to generate positive, healing power in the world. It’s an important one, however, with exceptionally wide resonance today.

As the yoga community grapples with the confusions and dislocations of an historic paradigm shift, it’s more important than ever to celebrate the contributions of the untold numbers of not-so “ordinary” teachers and students who are quietly doing extraordinary work. It’s their dedication to harnessing their practice to the best in themselves that plugs it into something mysterious, powerful, and beautiful. The fact that they are willing to do this work without the perks of widespread public recognition – and with the many intense pressures of everyday life – makes it that much more meaningful. The positive energy they generate connects, catalyzes, and spreads outwards in ever-widening circles. The collective force created helps light up our troubled, suffering world.




Note: The title phrase “unsung heroines” is intended to recognize and honor the fact that most yoga teachers and students today are women. Nonetheless, it’s not meant to be gender-specific or exclusive. The same message applies to men, as well as those who identify with neither gender.



  1. A perfect day to read such positivity. I know as an academic, I thrive on healthy critical inquiry, but lately I am aware when this intention becomes imbalanced. It is great that you bring up the web, because I am fascinated with how that fuels our discourse as a community-controversy obviously breeds click bait….. Thank you for helping me step back.

  2. Thanks so much for this, Carol! Much needed

  3. Lil Elsworthy

    I am a brand new student yoga teacher. Thank you for encapsulating how I feel about the profound practice of yoga. I hope I can eventually help others like my teachers have helped me (and continue to do so). Let’s stay positive and keep doing our asanas, meditations and pranayamas with love and compassion in our hearts.

  4. carol, thank you so much for this. i am one of those whose name etc will, most likely, never be known outside of my community. i struggle regularly with feeling that i should be putting myself more out there – teaching more classes, writing more blog posts, more social media presence and networking – and with the subtle feelings of competition and hierarchy this seems to engender in me (and others). in part because i have young children, doing any more than i already do would likely impact on my practice time. for me, this is where i go to nourish and support myself as so much of my personal and professional lives depend upon nurturing and supporting others. while i know that my practice is the cornerstone for everything else i do, i find myself rather galled by the constant flood of yoga media, and feel that i fall short of the fantastic work so many others seem to offer. (although, as lao tzu said – possibly paraphrased – “those who speak, do not know. those who know, do not speak”…somewhat dualistic but i resonated with this today.) so, thank you so much for the validation. it feels very generous.

  5. Maribel Martinez

    Brilliant; thank you Carol for raising the white flag of peace. This is wonderful to remember how yoga is a practice of transformation. As i transform in my practice for the greater good, by the very act I become a better member of my community


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