The Case for Body-Positive Yoga Classes
Yoga is an incredible tool for learning to love your body. When I show up on the mat, or on my meditation cushion, what I am really doing is making time to be present to myself. I love the practice of actually experiencing my whole self, body and spirit. Moving my body in my yoga practice is now a loving, compassionate engagement with my whole self. But, to tell you the truth, this was a long time coming. I struggled to find my place in yoga. It was a challenge to get comfortable with having a practice that was MY OWN. It looks different from a lot of other yogis. What I didn’t know then is that this is absolutely as it should be! Everyone’s practice should be a genuine reflection of themselves. The problem is that the modern yoga culture is not always set up to help us find our own practice.
This week, a very kind friend of mine put my name out on a local newsfeed when someone asked for a body-positive yoga teacher. (Thanks, Poorna!). What she found after she put my name out was that a lot of people encouraged the person not to worry about going to a class specifically for larger bodied students. They told her that all yoga classes are good yoga classes, and that she shouldn’t worry about finding someone who specializes in body positivity. I really wish that all yoga classes were welcoming and practical for a wide diversity of bodies, backgrounds, and needs. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been my experience. Yes, there are lovely teachers out there who do know how to make people feel included, but most of the time I have to know how to modify poses for my body. I also have to know how to take care of myself emotionally whenever I go into a “regular” yoga class. I have seen people struggle with a teacher’s instructions, and blame themselves for not being able to do it “right.” This is not OK, but it is common.
I think that there is something to say for finding a class that is actually designed for your specific body, and your specific needs. It is OK to want and need a safe space where we can be in the bodies we are in without fear of judgment, shame, or injury. It is just plain nice sometimes to be in spaces where we don’t feel like “the other.” The reality is that just showing up on the mat can be challenge for us Curvy girls. Studios can be intimidating, invalidating, or unwelcoming. Teachers can inadvertently (or even purposely!) send the message that we don’t belong, or that there is something wrong with our practice if we don’t perform certain asanas (physical postures) the way they do. As a Curvy yogini, I have had my fair share of annoying, disappointing, and downright negative and offensive experiences with yoga classes. For years, I thought I was a terrible yogi because my knees bow out when I my toes touch in Mountain Pose, I can’t bring my let straight through from a downward facing dog to a lunge, and my belly gets in the way when I go into twists. I wondered why child’s pose sucked when teachers waxed poetic about how relaxing it was. And, eagle arms… forget it! When I asked about these things, I was told that eventually I would get there. Um, these boobs aren’t going anywhere, so that is not an acceptable answer. A modification is just a modification. It does not make us bad yogis, and it does not take away from the pose. Usually I find that a good modification can actually bring me deeper into a pose, and I get a lot more benefit out of it than if I had just “kept trying” to do things the way other people do it.
In their defense, I do think that most yoga teachers really mean well, and have good intentions at heart. It is the rare bird who goes into yoga teaching to be a judgmental meany! However, many yoga teachers really have no idea how to support a curvy student, and a lot of us curvy students have our own internalized stigma to contend with, so we don’t even know how to ask for what we need. It is hard to say, “Hey, this smooshes my boobs, and what do I do with my belly?” This can be embarrassing, and even if we do get up the courage to ask, the teacher may not actually know what to do with flesh she has never had to contend with.
So, what is a Curvy girl to do? First we have to get comfortable doing yoga our own way. Maybe you can do this in a hot-core-super-power class, but why not make space to learn in a comfortable, supportive environment? Vote with your feet, and go to the classes that make you feel tended to and seen. Take private yoga classes with a body-positive teacher (I’m available!), or get a group of friends together for some semi-private classes. Ask questions from body-positive yoga teachers you trust, and learn how to follow your own wisdom no matter what the teacher at the front of the room says. And whatever you do, however you make your way, just keep showing up on your mat.
Rachel Dhanya Smith a body positive psychotherapist, meditation teacher, and yoga teacher specializing in helping women transform their relationships with food, their bodies, and themselves. She offers individual counseling, body image coaching, and private yoga classes in person and online. She also offers group meditation, yoga, and body image classes and workshops in Colorado and across the U.S. You can learn more about her work at www.bigheartcounseling.com