August 4, 2012

Make Room For the Luscious Yogi.




Yogis come in all shapes and sizes

A luscious yogi is just as yogic as a skinny one. Let me preface this article by stating that I think my lean yoga brothers and sisters are awesome beautiful yoga practitioners but I ask the yoga community to accept the notion a skinny yogi is not the only one in the room who is down-dogging authentically.

Just because a yoga practitioner has extra fluff on the bones doesn’t mean that she is not tapped into the same amount of tapas (discipline), or that she must be tamasic (low energy), or steeped in illusion (maya) about the way she takes care of herself. Fact: a person can get the right amount of exercise that includes cardio, weights, and yoga and eat a moderate amount of high quality, organic, non-processed foods and still be chunky. Healthy bodies are not one certain way. The fitness world would like us to believe this so we can live in fear of fatness and spend lots of money to size ourselves down. We don’t want the yoga world to limit itself to the fitness world way of thinking.

What is the deal with yoga and having a bigger body?

It does seem that the yoga world subscribes to the belief that if a body is softer, curvier, or carries extra weight than he or she is not doing the inner and outer work of a yogi or be spiritually misaligned. Last time I wrote an article on being a yogi with a bigger body (who teaches seven Zumba classes and five vigorous yoga classes per week) a well-meaning reader asked me to check my diet and my thyroid. Thank you dear reader but I eat clean and my thyroid is normal. Just because I can’t get thin doesn’t mean that something is wrong. And I don’t mean to whine here but it would be nice if just once there could be a more luscious body type on the cover of Yoga Journal and could I put in a request for Lululemon to make a woman’s yoga pant bigger than a size 12.

For most of my life I have swam upstream in the ocean of negativity around body image. At times I almost drowned in my own harsh assumptions as well as those of society. In my early thirties, I found yoga, with it’s practice of mindfulness, breath and compassion, and made my way to the surface.

Empirical evidence supports yoga done with the right intention heals body image and eating disorders but I also think that yoga, without meaning to, contributes to the misguided belief that being thin is the only way to be healthy. From a yogic perspective, when we are in sync with our true nature we look and feel our best. But is best necessarily thin?

One day while buying dark chocolate at a specialty store, the woman behind the counter commented on her best customer Kim, a well-known local yoga teacher was her best customer.

“Kim must eat at least two pounds of chocolate a week.” the chocolate lady said.

Our local yoga community is tight knit. All of the teachers know each other. It occurred to me that I should get out of there pretty fast. The chocolate lady knows I am a yoga teacher and it was a little creepy that she was talking about others so freely. Good thing I was only buying a small piece. What would she say about me? But she was in the middle of waiting on me so I was captured. From the hushed tone of her voice, I could tell that she was about to be mean. My skin prickled.

“You know,” she said squinting and placed my dark chocolate with bits of orange on the silver scale, “Kim has the most yogic body I have ever seen. She is so thin. I hear her classes are packed. Even though she eats more chocolate than anyone else I know. Her body is perfect.”

My eyes rolled at her ignorance. The yoga teacher Kim is beyond skinny due probably to her genetic make-up coupled with the cigarettes she tends to smoke. But no matter how great of a body Kim has and no matter what she does in her private life, her classes are popular because she is a charismatic, passionate, and enthusiastic teacher.

The chocolate lady looked at me. “Kim has the perfect yoga body. I am in awe of her. You must be too.”

A hit of adrenaline shot through me like the moment you realize you are falling and by some miracle you mange to catch yourself. All I had wanted was to indulge in a bit of dark chocolate and now I found myself ready to verbally spar with the chocolate lady. I kept my mouth shut because I realized that this chocolate server was stating a universal assumption that the size of our bodies serve as proof of our discipline. Nothing I could say would change this. She subscribed to the notion, “a disciplined yoga practice will make you thin.” The truth is a disciplined yoga practice will bring the body to an optimal size for each individual and what is optimal for each person will vary.

Is it accurate to measure the health and beauty based on size and is this what we want for yoga’s next generation?

There needs to be room for the more luscious body type. The chocolate lady’s views on body size are not much different from the yoga community’s. There is an unwritten code that a “perfect” yogic body should be light and lean. The idea of a thin body as the most desirable yogic body type sends a tragic message to yogis whose bodies are curvy.

There is a category for bigger bodied people in Ayurveda, the sister science to yoga. It is called Kapha.

“Kapha-type people tend to have sturdy, heavy frames, providing a good reserve of physical strength and stamina. This strength gives Kaphas a natural resistance to disease and a generally positive outlook about life. The Kapha dosha is slow, and Kapha types tend to be slow eaters with slow digestion. They also speak slowly. They are calm and affectionate but, when out of balance, can become stubborn and lazy. They need lots of exercise and need to be careful not to overeat. “

I am kapha and this category stings in an all too familiar way. It makes the assumption bigger yogis are strong and happy folk, which is good. But also slow, and under stress possibly become stupid and lazy. This is the kiss of death to the healthy but bigger bodied person and perpetuates eating and body image disorders.

No matter how much yoga and exercise I do, I will never be the skinny white chick and I am not alone. For those of us who have suffered a great deal because we could not meet society’s definition of health and beauty, we have to find the path to healing. Strangely enough, yoga can be that path even when the stakes are high to be thin.

My ah-ha moment to change came during a trip to the West Coast a few years back in a very hip LA yoga studio. I was the biggest girl in a yoga class that was wall-to-wall yogis. LA yogis are lean. Ropey muscles, chiseled torsos, and expensive butt-perfecting yoga pants.

The male 30-something instructor eyeballed me as I unrolled my mat. Oh Shit, here we go. Is this teacher coming over to me because he thinks I don’t belong here? Does he think I am too fat for the class? Or is it just me who thinks I don’t belong here?

He got up from his kneeling position on his mat in the back of the room and I noticed that he was tall and handsome. He looked more like a NBA basketball player than any yoga teacher I’d ever seen. His long arm stretched towards me and I stood up. He was easily a whole foot taller than my five foot six inch height.

“Hi. My name is Light.” His dark skin glowed like lit candles. I didn’t expect the teacher to be so good looking. I stood a little taller hoping this would help me to appear more yogic.

My moment of wanting to merge with him was broken by what he said next. “Uhmm, have you ever done power yoga before? I need to warn you that this is an advanced yoga class.”

Shame burned my cheeks. Did he think I hadn’t checked the schedule or I stumbled into the wrong room? In my mind, Light had looked me over and decided I was not the right container for a power yogi. Too much boob, belly, butt and thigh.

The victim in me wanted to roll up my mat and leave. Ditch the whole LA yoga scene. Let Light’s inquiry into my practice serve as evidence for the fact that I was not worthy of being there. Taking vigorous yoga in a hip studio in Santa Monica was for someone thinner and better.

Despite my feelings of inadequacy, I managed to respond in a grown up way. “Yep, I know this class is challenging. I teach yoga in Connecticut. I will be fine.” This was the truth. Light gave me a smile. “Great. I hope you like the play list. We are going to be rockin’.”

During that hour and a half, I got what I came for. Light was right. The music was amazing and Loud. Rap, blues, rock, and indie all found their way into his play list. As soon as Neil Young came on singing about a cinnamon girl, I was gone. Gone into the poses: their structure, their foundation, my bones and my breath. I was reduced to feeling and breathing. Nothing else mattered. Being the biggest girl in class slid away with the sweat that trickled down my face and arms.

When class was over, I emerged shiny and new. Every pore in my body felt open and alive. A bunch of groupie yoga chicks gathered around Light. I felt separate. My own entity. I liked my uniqueness including my bigger and curvier body. I rolled up my yoga mat, slung it under my arm, and walked out the studio door. The sun blinded me and for a brief moment, on Montana Boulevard, on a sidewalk full of skinny blinks strutting in their Jimmy Choos, I couldn’t see anything at all.

I will never be the skinny white chick and this realization is my strange-shaped doorway to healing. Every time I enter a yoga class as a student, I have a moment where I wish I was her. In my hurting mind, she is all I see. She sits on every mat in the room except for mine. But then the breath begins, the body moves and unfolds and somehow in the midst of this, I realize that I am who I am, fat dimples and all, and that none of it matters. I connect to something much larger than myself. This is my spirituality. Each time I link with the beauty and vastness inside, I surrender my shame, perfectionism and self-deprecation and align with feeling raw and alive.

If all we see are ways in which we don’t measure up then it’s time to re-evaluate the measurement system. Stop running the tapes that shame us. As yogis, we can support each other with this. Yogis come in different shapes and sizes. Let’s appreciate the variety. Our body as a container for spirit will change numerous times in life due to age, childbirth, illness, hormones and all kinds of things. Instead of adhering to strict control over the size of our bodies or judging our differences, we could honor them.

Heads and hearts can be healed through the body. Yoga is exceptional for this because not only are we getting to know our bodies better through the practice, we become sensitive to what makes them come alive and feel strong, radiant and healthy. Comparing our bodies to others, judging our bodies because of size, or trying to make ourselves into something we are not is unhealthy.

 Yoga done with the intention of self-observation without judgment shows another way. A more wholesome, compassionate, and authentic way to be. This is one reason why yoga is an important tool for today. It is time to stop false beliefs that a fit body can only look a certain way. This shuts down our collective intellect and spirit.

Through yoga it is time to change this deeply rooted assumption and begin to heal all of us from within. We can make the world a better place for each one of us to be beautiful in.



Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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