Oof. That title, right there? That is one toxic concept.
When I was in college, I worked on a military base for about six months. It was a pretty cushy job. I was the manager and sole employee for the base’s swag shop, which would get some pretty impressive customers—visiting generals, officers, diplomats and all sorts of interesting military-associated people from all over the world.
I also had the pleasure of being the ‘stop-and-chat’ spot for a lot of the military personnel on the base. It was cool because up to that point, I had little exposure to the military at that point in my life, and this particular fort had members of pretty much all branches coming through. Because of this, I got to ask a lot of questions, learn about our armed forces and get a good immersion in the culture through the friendships I formed.
One fellow in particular, Tyler, an Army courier and driver for a high-ranking general, became basically my best work buddy over the months. We talked for hours—having existed up until that point in such different spheres of human experience, that it was like we were soaking up the details of each others’ alien planets.
“What was it like to attend a frat party on my college campus?” he wanted to know.
“What was it like avoiding roadside IEDs driving transports?” I wondered in return.
We were two people with little else besides nationality in common. And, the fact that he had any interest in my life—which, to me, seemed painfully bland in comparison to his—was sort of shocking and endearing at the same time.
One experience we did share, though in different ways, was working out.
Fitness, for him, was a job requirement. And, at the time, fitness to me was a necessary evil—something with which I flogged myself on a daily basis in the quest to be skinny. I knew little more than jack shit about exercise—and was a hapless student of the ‘two sad hours on the treadmill’ school of thought—thank you, Shape Magazine.
Since the age of 12, I had been two things: constantly hungry and vividly aware of not measuring up, in terms of ‘hotness’, to other, skinnier girls. When I knew Tyler, I was 22 and starting to wonder if I would ever measure up, or ever be happy with my body.
We’d work out together in the little gym adjacent to the University shop—me pounding away on the treadmill like a large, deranged hamster, and him throwing heavy items over his head and all over the room.
It was the same kind of silent, shared effort that permeates the yoga practice room.
We were sweating, huffing, pushing harder, not talking, off in our own heads, and yet still—mentally together. I will always remember the morning when the gym TV was tuned to some morning news show—Good Morning America, I think. It was the 5th anniversary of 9/11, so there were special retrospectives, survivor interviews and the like.
I was quietly crying, something I do still to this day at any mention of 9/11. I was not even really thinking about it, just feeling the emotion and letting it make its way out of me as I ran, ran, ran.
I looked over at Tyler, and he was crying, too. His eyes glued to the TV as he watched the retrospective while simultaneously pushing heavy dumbbells above his head. He looked over to me and grinned. It was a moment of “Can you even believe how much this day still sucks, all these years later?” and “I’m glad you’re with me in this glass case of emotion.”
All of this is to illustrate that I trusted Tyler’s opinion. We spoke and thought on the same wavelength, despite our wildly different lives. Also, I wanted his approval—I suppose because I saw him as such a genuine badass, someone who didn’t even see himself as brave, because bravery was just his job description.
One day we were talking about our workouts, and he encouraged me to get off the treadmill and pick up some weights. I said something about not wanting to bulk up and get big (again, thank you, Shape Magazine—and by “thank you” I mean go f*** yourself). To which he replied, “Well, I mean, you’re not a small girl.”
He realized that my brain had spiraled into self-doubt as he clarified, “No, I don’t mean that in a bad way—I mean that you’re a strong girl. You have muscles. You’re not small, and you’re not ever going to be small. You should lean into it, because you could be good at this. You’re resisting something that will make you better.”
“…in the pursuit of something you’ll never have anyway,” seemed to be the unsaid conclusion to his little speech.
That week in my yoga classes, I was surrounded by the kind of lithe, truly tiny frames that excel immediately at yoga and consequently tend to show up more for class. And, all I could hear in my head was “You’re not a small girl…you’re not a small girl.”
It took a few more years before I realized that Tyler was right, and I should lean into my body’s strengths rather than avoiding them. By that point, I was living in Oregon and eating all the wrong things in the quest for ‘skinny’ and still running mindlessly with no results. I was still doing yoga. I started to notice that anytime there was a strength component of an asana, I was a rock compared to the ‘smaller’ girls, and that the more strength-heavy classes I attended, the more my muscles started to show all over my body.
At first, allowing myself to consider that I had some kind of advantage due to my body type felt almost like breaking a rule or committing a sin. It felt presumptuous and so wrong to say that anything but a ballerina body was ideal. Like, if I spoke the thought aloud, society would come crashing down on me screaming, “Nope, you’re not a small girl. You aren’t fit. You aren’t yoga.” Meanwhile, the idea of a ‘yoga body’ had taken root in mainstream culture. We’re taking pictures of teeny celebrities in magazines with captions like, “She credits yoga for her slim, toned physique.”
By ‘slim’ and ‘toned’ they meant skinny.
Tara Stiles, with her swan neck and “Slim Calm Sexy Yoga.” And, something called, “Skinnygirl Yoga”—which I’ve never even investigated because it stabbed me in the heart with rage and doubt when I first came across the phrase.
I wasn’t slim. Did this mean I wasn’t calm, sexy, or yoga? I was getting toned, but I didn’t look like the other girls with so-called yoga bodies.
I was not, and have never been, a small girl.
But I was getting better at yoga, awakening to the practice in ways I hadn’t before—finding strength, ability and real progress in the asanas. How was this possible? I had been told by TV, by the cover of Yoga Journal and by American Apparel ads, that to be good at yoga was to be skinny. Yet I was starting to excel, and enjoying myself—starting to not care that I was not small.
It suddenly occurred to me that yoga was being sold to me as a construct of beauty—of other peoples’ ideas of beauty. That yoga was being pushed as advertisement and not enlightenment. And, that it was being done to make me buy things: Smart Water, stretchy pants, makeup… pashminas. These were accoutrements of a beautiful person’s life, as envisioned by corporations.
Waking up to this, and catching a whiff of the bullshit I’d been thinking was perfume, was a turning point. I decided that being strong, and embracing the mesomorph body I’d been gifted, was something I could “own”—something from which I could draw power. I could be solid, muscular, not-small and still have a yoga body.
I leaned into it.
I started doing things I was good at—things which required strength and musculature. I began practicing fitness and nutrition in a whole new way. It extended to all aspects of my life—I started taking chances in my personal life and career, putting myself out there more and reaching for things I’d never felt myself capable of. Ironically, owning being ‘not small’ is what led me to yoga teacher training—something I would have previously been terrified to do simply because I knew I’d be surrounded by media-approved yoga bodies. I knew I wanted to teach yoga because I knew there were other ‘not small’ girls and guys out there who loved yoga and could relate to me.
This small switch in my brain—that I should stop fantasizing about the person I wanted to be and just start being that person—changed my whole life. And I wouldn’t have gotten there without that first push, “You’re not a small girl.”
It’s been a few more years since that revelation, and the evolution of my body image hasn’t been totally smooth, but the joy I find in my own body and its abilities now is ten times what it used to be. Actually, that doesn’t make sense, because you can’t have ten times zero. I used to hate that I wasn’t something I felt I was supposed to be. Now I love what I am, and I love that in an industry largely populated by the tiny and lithe, ‘not small’ chicks like me tend to stand out.
Do I have a yoga body?
Depends on who you talk to, I guess, and what they’re trying to sell you. I believe I am a yoga body—that I’m a yoga mind and a yoga heart. And I was all along. It was my love for and practice of yoga that made me so, not any outward manifestation of my physical practices.
Want a yoga body? Step 1: Do yoga. There is no Step 2.
Meghan McCracken is a yoga instructor focusing on specialized yoga training for beginners and athletes with her company Greenhouse Yoga Austin, in Austin, TX. An active weightlifter and EMT, she practices and teaches with the goal of bringing openness and fluidity to musclebound physiques.
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Ed: T. Lemieux/Kate Bartolotta