A Yoga Story for Self Esteem and Self Respect

Yoga Teacher Brian Cooper’s personal yoga journey illustrates the power of yoga for low self-esteem, building our confidence with every posture.

Yoga brings on a huge amount of self-respect

I came to yoga because I really hate sport. I never did sport—swimming I love—but not sport. I was studying and doing academic work to become a physicist. I was at a party and found a book on yoga. I went home and started practicing what was in the book and I really liked it. It made a big difference. The difference had everything to do with self- esteem and self-respect. A lot of people have very low self-esteem and some people have no self- respect, especially if there are problems in their life. They see the problems as their fault; they put themselves down. You start doing yoga and—even if it’s just managing to do a single posture—it’s yours, it nobody else’s. It’s your practice. Your self-esteem starts climbing because you think, “I can do this. I did it on my own. I’m doing it every day,” which then brings on a huge amount of self-respect. That’s the biggest lesson for me.

Yoga gave me a feeling of confidence

When I started practicing yoga I was doing research in physics. What yoga did was stop me doing research. I realised what I was doing was a waste of time, I didn’t like it, and I wasn’t enjoying it. Yoga gave me a feeling of confidence (which I didn’t have) to say, ‘No I don’t want to do this, I want to do something else,’ which I did. I’ve had 55 jobs in my life. I went away, did different jobs and then went back to physics much later.

Yoga has given me freedom

I have very little fear of the future. I don’t have a pension, I don’t have money; I just don’t care. Most of my friends, since we were 40, were worried about saving money for retirement. That’s never formed part of my life. Yoga has given me that freedom. What it does—and what it may do for some people—is give them a certain amount of self- respect, which can translate into self-confidence, not being told what to do, and to stand up for what they want to do, which is what I do. I say exactly how I feel; I feel I’ve nothing to lose and that’s a very nice place to be.

Most people grow up in a very sheepish way

I founded Yoga Alliance UK because I was tired of the general standard of yoga. It’s very poor. I’m sort of a troublemaker and I say what I think. It works for me because I still have something to push against, which I quite like! Most people grow up in a very sheepish way; they’re scared. If people just agree with everything you say, then you’d think they have nothing in their brain or they’re just agreeing with you, which isn’t a very nice thing. I encourage everyone in the organisation to think independently and speak up, and I try to encourage it by leading by example. Yoga Alliance UK is a member driven organisation where the members are able to dictate what happens. I think people find that hard because the majority are not interested one way or the other; they simply don’t care. Some people don’t like being told what to do or don’t want to contribute or to stand up and say, ‘I want to do this or I think we should do this.’ Part of me being involved in yoga and Yoga Alliance UK is for me to encourage teachers and people to think for themselves and not just follow like sheep. Ask anyone, “What is yoga?” and most of them will come out with a cliché answer; it will be something they’ve read or been told and that’s not yoga.

Yoga is an umbrella

The answer to that question is impossible to define because yoga is a general term; it’s an umbrella. It’s this idea of joining, but what is it that you’re joining? Some people say it’s joining the physical body, the mind and the spirit. These people do yoga thinking they’re going to join it all together, but these things were never apart in the first place! So, they’ve already started yoga with a deluded assumption. What does that get them?

Yoga therapy is an invention

I teach yoga and for me teaching yoga is therapy. You don’t need to be a yoga therapist. If you teach yoga well, you’re giving therapy. To me, yoga therapy is actually an invention and I’m not convinced by it. I think it’s just creating another niche. My problem is it’s a bit exploitative and it’s promising something that you might not be able to deliver, so I’m very wary. When I teach yoga, I’ve been asked, “Can I get private lessons? My back is shot,” and I tell them, ‘no, I can’t promise anything.’ By doing that I would be putting their hopes up and I would never do that. It’s not my way.

People are complex

Yoga (as everyone likes to say) is holistic. You can’t say that somebody with a particular condition will be cured by a particular regime. For me, for a Yoga Teacher to say, “You’ve got a bad back and I’m going to cure your bad back by these specific exercises or yoga asana,” is wrong. It doesn’t work; people are too complex. There are lots of people who will tell you, “I do yoga therapy, I do yoga for the mind, I do yoga for arthritis, I do yoga for heart conditions,” and in the end, if you look at what they’re actually doing, they are just doing yoga. It’s the same yoga everyone else is doing, they just call it therapy.

You are fundamentally healthy

There is a lot of talk in the yoga world about detoxing and being toxic, and this is a very negative message. Instead of telling people they are fundamentally healthy, the message is the opposite: you are fundamentally unhealthy and we’re going to fix you, so buy this, take this, and do this. It’s the wrong message. Instead of empowering you, the power is going to the people selling the product. They’re now controlling you and your health and that is a very, very bad train. The right message, the positive message is: you are fundamentally healthy, and though there may be some things you need to do to correct some problems you have, you are the source of your health. Your health does not come from products, you’re already healthy, and you just need do some fine tuning. That message is empowering to people.

Yoga is not a religion

Yoga right now is tailored to middle class, white, Americans. That’s who it’s for. It’s become extremely Christianised. People love preaching to you what you should do and not do; it’s the Ten Commandments all over again. Talk to anybody and they’ll tell you about the yamas and the conduct and how you should live. They’ve substituted one religion for another and yoga is not a religion, but people are now treating it like a religion.

Yoga is unique to each individual

Yoga is not consuming. Many people are consuming yoga, not doing or being yoga. But to do and be yoga, you don’t need to philosophise, you don’t need to have any ideas, and you don’t need to read books; you just simply do it. It takes its own process, which is unique to each individual person, and you can’t market an individual process because it won’t work for the masses.

Yoga is freedom of self-expression

One of the things they say about yoga is that is supposed to help you towards what they call the “truth”—whatever that is. It’s a bit esoteric. In my experience, a lot of people who do yoga behave like sheep. In most classes teachers have students all do the same thing. In my class I encourage people to think for themselves. I don’t tell people, ‘this is how it is, the end.’ They should think. I think people doing yoga are actually going the wrong way; they’re actually thinking less. They read all this stuff about yoga and it’s making their minds smaller and smaller and smaller, instead of expanding it. Yoga is not religion, but a freedom of self-expression, self- esteem and self-respect.