Is Yoga really for Every Body?
A guide to body positivity and falling in love with yoga, right now.
By Bhakti White | May 17, 2018
As a young child I was thin and taller than most of the girls my age. I’m told that my mother’s friends used to describe me as a gazelle. Graceful and long. I followed the natural progression from this into an early modeling career; which resulted in a diet pill addiction that landed me passed out on a shower floor in my apartment at the age of 18. That wake up call helped me get off the diet pills at least. However, still determined to stay as thin as my industry wanted me to be, I spent the next year eating nearly nothing. I had literally no energy and slept whenever I wasn’t out on a call or a job. Eventually moving to LA and away from friends and family, I became increasingly reclusive and depressed. Sadly, I have never received as many compliments on my appearance as I did during that time in my life.
Gratefully, I was blessed with a certain kind of fortitude and a stubborn persistence. More than twenty years later, I still don’t know what prompted it, but I ultimately pulled myself out of my unhealthy habits. I found a more balanced approach to caring for my body and relating to my ever-changing shape. However, my quest for positive self-image had only just begun.
I have inhabited many bodies along that quest towards loving the temple I’m in. I recognize now that each of them was exactly who I needed to be at the time. In all of these bodies, I’ve had yoga. Like an old friend who knows you better than anyone. I had a way to feel safe in my own Self through it all. Yoga became the best friend who would never reject me however I would change and evolve. It’s seen me through eating disorders, recovery, weight gain, weight loss, pregnancy, massive injuries and every shape of my skin imaginable. Today, I am considered a plus sized yoga teacher. Of course, I still struggle with my body image; but only now, in my plus sized, post-partum, rockin’ forties can I recognize, my body isn’t a fixed object in time and space. It is an ever evolving and responsive gift from nature.
Only now that I’ve moved on and learned to embrace myself in this fuller, more mature body am I truly radiating the benefits of yoga from the inside out. It’s the greatest irony that, long after leaving the modeling world behind, learning to love my curvy shape, stretch marks (or mama tiger stripes as my son lovingly calls them), my wrinkled skin, and grey hairs, I was scouted, discovered and called back into modeling once again. This time as an example of what yoga can do for you. I find it so encouraging that mass media yoga is finally beginning to recognize a need and desire for all bodies to be represented. I’m so grateful to be able to show others who have bodies outside of what is usually on those pages, that we all can shine through yoga.
Even with this slow progress towards inclusivity in yoga, I was recently asked in an interview how yoga had supported my relationship to my body image. Honestly, sometimes I’m troubled by questions like that. Yes, I am a “plus sized teacher,” but I’m really just a body in a sea of many bodies doing yoga. After thirty years of practice, a decade and a half of full time teaching, leading over 12,000 public classes, and 38 teacher trainings, I have a lot to share about yoga, but this is still the question I’m asked most often in interviews. What does it say about how far we’ve come in the multi-billion-dollar business of yoga that this is still the number one question I’m being asked? I think it says we have some work to do.
Still, I have to hope it’s a question that helps someone who still isn’t seeing themselves represented in the yoga industry make a connection to practicing yoga. So, I will enthusiastically keep answering over and over until no one needs to ask those questions again.
Yoga’s Role in My Body Image
I do have, what I think, is a somewhat unusual answer too. It wasn’t learning to love my body’s graceful movements as it flowed through a vinyasa class, uncovering its hidden strength and power as I began to do poses I never thought I could. It wasn’t even the self-acceptance that comes with having a strong contemplative practice that teaches us to identify beyond the body with our inner Self. All those things certainty helped, but for me it was teaching.
For me, teaching yoga has meant moving beyond fears and issues of self-confidence. It means using your body as one of your many teaching tools in service to others. When you see your body as a tool for service in teaching yoga, your perspective about its value and priorities shifts. When you’re teaching, you look out at the sea of students and (if you are a skillful and perceptive teacher) you will see that even if everyone in the room looks exactly the same on the outside, every single one of those bodies will still move differently. Every body has its own patterns and stories and every single one of them can be appropriately challenged to grow its potential, can be released to create better ease and fluidity, can be loved by its owner for the beauty of containing the mystery of its personal story. When we start teaching from there, we teach yoga with integrity, depth and supportiveness for the soul inhabiting that particular form temporarily. We see potential for change, growth, and personal evolution that may come from a physical practice and may involve physical changes, but isn’t defined by a physical agenda or goal. Teaching like that makes you a true teacher of yoga.
If you’ve ever wondered if yoga could help you, if you could even practice yoga at all in your current body, or if you could learn to feel more confident and comfortable in your own skin through yoga… the answer is, with the right kind of guidance and support, absolutely.
HOW TO FIND A SUPPORTIVE SPACE TO PRACTICE YOGA IN?
Less important than the style of practice you try is the community and teacher you entrust yourself to. Finding the right environment for yoga is the first step to building a practice; and the first step to finding the right environment, is to surrender the idea that there is any one typical yoga body. The body positive movement in yoga has seen some extraordinary traction in the last few years with a strong message that, despite some of what’s out there, every shape, color, size, and form of body that does yoga practice, is a yoga body. But we still have a long way to go. Unfortunately, there are still many teachers who don’t know how to support someone with a bigger body, other gendered body, older body, or really any body that doesn’t move and respond like their body does.
Knowing that a particular studio or teacher is body positive may be as simple as visiting their website. Pay attention to how they talk about yoga and see if it resonates positively for you. I remember visiting a studio website while on a trip and reading several bios of teachers I was interested in, but saw a common theme of talking about weight loss as a primary goal of practice. I discovered they offered a tongue in cheek class called “Big A$$ Yoga” where the description of the class chronicled the journey of the teacher from “fat” to “fit.” While I have a darn good sense of humor, fitness and weight loss are not synonymous, and that message is a dangerous one. Maybe some other people would find that particular class offering charming and lighthearted or resonate with it in their own personal goals. I immediately knew that this was not the place I would feel good about participating and supporting. Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to take your time and search again. That same trip, I kept looking and didn’t settle for a place I didn’t feel good about. I then found an extraordinary studio and teacher I return to every time I am in that area.
While a quick web search can help give you a sense of a studio’s mission, sometimes it can take an email or a phone call to be sure a studio is a good fit for you. Studios are generally very happy to help and support you finding the right fit for your practice, even if they have to acknowledge it isn’t them. By asking some questions you may invite the studio to reexamine it’s policies and practices in a more body positive direction.
ASK QUESTIONS LIKE:
- Does your studio have a body positive approach?
- What are your studio’s practices for making sure that every body feels welcomed there?
- Which of your instructors would have experience working with an injury/bigger or smaller body/recovering body/ transgendered body/ older body etc.?
- Which of your classes is best suited to my needs?
- How would you describe your students?
- Why do you personally practice yoga?
WHAT IF I STILL DON’T FEEL CONFIDENT GOING TO A STUDIO CLASS?
For some of us, it’s a scary proposition to have that initial conversation with a studio. Or we still just don’t find one we feel can confidently support us. Thank goodness we live in the modern age of technology! Online classes and workshops can be an amazing place to start. I began with tapes and a VCR and practiced that way for many years before feeling confident enough to don those stretchy pants and bend and twist in front of others. Having a home practice with the support of wonderful teachers online may be the best way to gain confidence. Home practice is also convenient and always there for you regardless of a schedule or studio availability.
There are many types of yoga and teachers to choose from online. Try several! Start with classes that are described as basic, foundational, or gentle. Hatha, restorative, yin style class can be a great choice too. Begin slowly, don’t be afraid to skip poses that don’t yet feel right to your body or simply rest and find child’s pose or some deep breaths anytime you need them. Explore lots of teachers and find what you like about each one.
I do advise attending an in-person class on occasion, when you feel ready. I recommend this so that a teacher can see you practice, check your alignment, offer personalized support, and make sure you are practicing safely. You may just find a great support for your home practice and a wonderfully positive community to share time with too!
RESOURCES FOR TEACHERS AND STUDENTS ALIKE
There are some great resources for people as the body positive yoga movement takes shape. Here are a few websites and resources you may find helpful as you explore yoga as a tool to serve your every changing body.
- The Yoga and Body Image Coalition is committed to body love by developing, promoting, and supporting yoga that is accessible, body positive, and reflects the full range of human diversity.
- Make a connection to a body positive teacher you admire either as a student or a fellow teacher who may or may not face the same challenges.
- A simple google search for body positive yoga teacher training or inclusive yoga teacher trainings will result in many paths to building those skills as a teacher.
- Teachers: listen to the way you teach. Can you remove some of the cues about the body that could be perceived in an unintended way? Is there unconscious language that may be offensive to someone who doesn’t look or relate to their body as you do? Dig deep into what you wear, what goals you help your students set, and how you talk about your own body and it’s journey of yoga. If you look openly and closely, you’ll see we all have room for improvement.
- Listen to how you talk, even to yourself, about your body and your yoga goals. Recognize achievements that are based on what you really need to feel good and enjoy this gift of life. Make some of your goals internal ones. Watch how yoga can change your inner landscape and bring greater satisfaction to the present moment and the present version of you.
- The ultimate resource is your own experience and trial and error with yoga. A great teacher can be a guide and a support, but nothing can replace you actually engaging in the process.
- If you need support overcoming an eating disorder the National Eating Disorders Association is a wonderful non-profit with an easy to access helpline.
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