3 Ways Yoga Teachers Can Overcome Imposter Syndrome


Maybe it’s happened to you as a yoga teacher, maybe it never will. My paralyzing moment of doubt came when twenty-some students were following my cues to move through different poses. The thought “Who are you to direct all these people?” crossed my field of consciousness. It caught me off guard. 

I rallied, managed to finish the class, and headed home to attempt to meditate on the question, but I wasn’t quite able to sit with it. There was fretting, stewing—a lot of self-doubt. I kept returning to that core question: Who was I to ask this collection of souls to engage in my selected pattern of movements and breathing? 

I wondered if some of my fellow teachers had also experienced this feeling of not being qualified to lead a class—in short, imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is defined by the Harvard Business Review as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. 'Imposters' suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.” Many confident, successful people have spoken up about experiencing Imposter Syndrome, including Serena Williams, Sheryl Sandberg, Tom Hanks, and others. Why it happens, seems to depend on certain audiences and situations and stems from a desire for perfection and a fear of failure and often goes hand in hand with constantly undermining achievements. 

I experienced my “episodes” of imposter syndrome 15 years after my first teacher training, with 500 hours of training under my belt, which seems backward (rather than alleviating my fears, my increasingly advanced education seemed to highlight my lack of competence even as I racked up certifications with flying colors). As a newly minted yoga teacher, however, I was full of confidence. I felt I could offer suggestions for most ailments, or at least make recommendations that wouldn’t do any harm. But the more I learned about anatomy, physiology, and individuality, the more daunted I became. I would look out at my students and feel overwhelmed—there were so many different bodies with plenty of potential for movement, but also with myriad conditions, idiosyncrasies, pain, and past injuries. 

How could I possibly instruct in a way that was optimal for all of them? What if, instead of helping, I was hurting? Students trusted me, had faith that I would help them feel better, stronger, healthier. The burden of this responsibility felt, at times, too heavy to bear. I could see continuing to study for years and not being able to address each question or condition.

Saying “I Don’t Know”

One strategy that truly helped me along the way was hearing yoga teachers and mentors I respected say time and time again, “I don’t know.” One of my teachers, Bernie Clark, has a great response to many questions his students ask: “It depends.” He taught me that the key to unlocking the mysteries of all of our bodies, movement patterns, and health depends on a wide range of factors. And a yoga teacher is probably not going to be able to scratch the surface of a medical question in a five-minute chat after yoga class–nor should they. 

Training with Bernie reminded me that as yoga teachers, we don’t have access to our student’s complete medical history, lab results, X-rays, scans, or other diagnostic information—again, nor should we. We only know what our students tell us, and they may or may not have accurately summed up their situation. 

We are not trained to diagnose or treat, as health care practitioners are. We may be able to offer our students some practice tips, but in answer to other questions, the appropriate response might be, “I don’t know."

To offer another example, Gil Hedley is, in my opinion, a fascia and anatomy master. He has explored the anatomy of countless bodies and has a vast amount of knowledge and experience about what he’s seen, but he is still comfortable shrugging his shoulders and saying “I dunno” in answer to a specific question, be it about injury or pain. Of course, he will go on to explain that human variation is just one reason he can’t always offer a conclusive response. One size fits all is convenient but not realistic when dealing with anatomical and genetic variation.

Once we acknowledge the wonderful range of human variation and the beauty of that fact, we can begin to see that “I don’t know” or “It depends” are legitimate responses to questions with limitless answers. 

Setting Boundaries with Students

Surprisingly, being ok with admitting that you don’t have the answer to a particular question, or that you’re not in a position to diagnose or treat pain or injury, is a good first step in overcoming imposter syndrome. I tried it. I explained to a client that, in the absence of their consulting with a health care practitioner, I couldn’t know for sure what was causing their pain. 

I had a ton of ideas about what might be contributing, but no one definite answer. I explained that and offered one modified yoga pose that was fairly innocuous, and recommended that she ask her health care professional for more details. I paused, waiting for her to show disappointment—but that isn’t what happened. The world didn’t stop. My client didn’t call me a fraud. She continued to work with me. I think she respected my educated refusal to guess or make bold claims I couldn’t substantiate. 

Getting to a Good Place with Ourselves

As I mentioned previously, a huge part of imposter syndrome is fear of failure. When we accept our own limits about what we can offer, we aren’t failing—we are succeeding and doing right not just by our students, but by ourselves as well. We are qualified to teach a class because we have studied long and hard, and through teaching we learn more about the gaps we want to fill so we can better serve our students. 

These days I use my circumspection to make me a better teacher. I am more mindful of the poses I select, and there are a few that I very rarely teach anymore because I feel that they do more harm than good for the majority of my students. I am confident about what I do know, and respect how much I still have to learn. I no longer feel that I am an imposter, because I am gradually getting over my fear of failure of disappointing students. I know that I know more than enough to do my job, which is to teach yoga, not magically cure everyone’s ills.

As yoga teachers, we aren’t qualified to address medical questions. And that’s okay, because again, we aren’t trained medical professionals. Instead, we should feel confident with our knowledge and abilities in the field of yoga and possess a healthy respect for the words “I don’t know.” The doctor may be “out” but the yoga teacher is always “in” and our knowledge of yoga is ever-expanding as we grow.

About the Teacher

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Janice Quirt
Janice Quirt first discovered yoga as a child in the 70s, watching her mother flip through a yoga book... Read more