Nadia Gilani, known as @theyogadissident on Instagram, is a former journalist, seasoned yoga teacher, and author of The Yoga Manifesto. Her approach to yoga emphasizes inclusivity and authenticity, challenging modern ‘wellness warrior’ stereotypes and promoting a practice that is accessible to all. Through her platform, she engages with a diverse community, encouraging them to embrace yoga in a way that feels genuine and empowering.

Nadia, can you share a bit about your personal journey into yoga and how it has shaped your life?

It was all my mum's doing. She took me to my first class in 1996 and I really didn't want to go! I was a tricky teenager and in pretty bad mental and emotional shape at the time and mum thought it might help. The class was only an hour and in an unremarkable, un-fancy, zero-frills community gym in east London. The lights were way too bright and there were no incense sticks but something magical happened and I kept going back to find out more. 

How has your understanding and practice of yoga evolved over the years?

Yoga’s been in and out of my life for over 25 years and it definitely hasn’t always been an easy ride. I’ve had a loving relationship with it, a destructive time with it throwing it away, yet have returned to it time and time again. I did it for purely physical reasons at times, seeking a spiritual purpose at other times and there were huge periods when I didn't know why I was into it or what I was looking for at all, and did it anyway.

It’s partly why I wanted to write my book - The Yoga Manifesto - to show that it’s not all ‘love and light’ all the time, because it wasn't for me. I was also upset about the narrative surrounding the practice that I discovered when I started teaching yoga. I didn’t want to be part of that scene.

I’m interested to hear more about the narrative you discovered and how that inspired you to become "The Yoga Dissident". How does this identity influence your practice of yoga?

The Yoga Dissident moniker started out an off-hand thing - a joke on Instagram when I started teaching because I didn’t fit in or look the part when I started teaching yoga. But the name started to take on a new meaning in 2020 when I started writing online about the problems I saw in the so-called ‘wellness industry’ that yoga has got itself wrapped up in. The cultural appropriation, commercialisation, commodification and lack of inclusion bothered me.

It’s through my writing that the name took on a genuine meaning. I became a dissident to yoga whilst at the same time loved the practise, and declared myself publicly as a non-conformist to the industry by being vocal about what I saw going wrong. Turns out I wasn't alone and things I was writing about struck a chord with others but not many wanted to talk about it. I was just one of the first to stick my neck out and do something about it. I didn’t have a reputation and I wasn’t making any money off of yoga so I had nothing to lose. 

What are some of the most significant misconceptions about yoga in the West that you noticed?

That you have to be slim, bendy or some absurd kind of green-juice drinking wellness (I hate that word) warrior to practice. I’ve worked with men with injuries, older people with disabilities, refugees and asylum seekers, people dealing with substance misuse, gender non-conforming and LGBTQ+ people. So many people have told me that yoga hasn’t always felt like it’s for people like them. Something’s not quite right, is it?

Since my book came out I've had the privilege to meet loads of community organisations, independent businesses and individuals doing brilliant grassroots work that's outside the mainstream but too many people are still missing out because yoga got turned into an elitist yoga club for a long time. I'm hopeful that the tide is turning. There's definitely a backlash taking place in the UK at least.  It's what I hoped for. The Yoga Manifesto called for a revolution and I think it's happening. I'm happy to have contributed a part to that. 

How do you see the role of yoga in promoting mental health in today's fast-paced world?

It’s an excellent antidote to modern life. However, I’d like people to learn that it’s not meant to be a quick-fix even if it can help in that way. The practice can be a truly therapeutic and profoundly transformative journey of knowing yourself if you let it. Going deeper into it is when it really starts to work and that's what it was intended for.

Can you describe your teaching philosophy and how it differs from more commonly used approaches?

I love sharing practices that help people feel good in their minds and bodies and better about their lives.  When I was teaching regularly I didn’t throw bucketloads of philosophy at people. This is an ancient practice that we’re dealing with while living in western bodies, navigating busy lifestyles in a mad world. The practice has to be adapted but given its history and spiritual foundations also needs to be practiced with respect and integrity. 

What are some key principles or techniques you emphasize in your classes that you believe are essential for a holistic yoga practice?

For me it’s about getting back to basics; practicing how to control the breath, focus the mind and doing crazy shapes with our bodies that probably feel ridiculous until you get used to them. It's a form of mental training in a way, about looking inwards and practicing discipline.

When I was teaching regularly I always tried to remind people why we were doing what we were doing. It's about quiet time for me, taking time out - sure - but not just for your lunch break - towards building and moving towards something - even if that's just a posture to start with.

I’ve always loved the twists and binds and mad shapes of the postures but it’s important to remember what it’s all for. It’s so easy to get caught up in not being able to do a specific pose but that’s a big distraction stops the practice being a joy which I think it should be. I say that as someone who did all that obsessing over poses thing and took it all too seriously myself too, but the practice is about so much more. It took me a long time to learn that. 

Photo credit: Yoga Matters 

Indre Velaviciute