Via Ann Nichols
on Oct 16, 2013
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Photo by Liz West Muffet, Flickr

Yoga had become largely the province of the same girls who didn’t pick me in gym class, albeit in older bodies.

For as long as I can remember, I have hated organized physical activity.

I always loved to play outside, to climb trees, to swim and to ride my bike uphill for the sheer joy of flying down with my feet in the air. My best friend and I spent hours creating a show ring so that we could “ride,” our bottom halves walking, trotting, galloping and jumping and our upper halves holding imaginary reins.

What I hated was gym class.

In elementary school, I was terrified of Slaughter Ball, a pre-PC version of dodge ball that seemed to be all about big, strong boys whipping red balls at anyone perceived as weak or slow. Often, that same best friend and I hid in the supply closet behind the tumbling mats, pretending to be fugitive orphans fleeing from oppressive matrons.

When I was older, and began to gain weight and develop breasts that jiggled and drew attention, I was plagued by the President’s Physical Fitness program which involved a song with the lyrics “go you chicken fat, go!” I was quickly identified as the chicken fattiest, and began the process of mental disassociation between my lumpy, often mocked body and my innermost self.

I could endure it—had no choice but to endure it—but my mind was miles away from the slender, pretty girls and loudmouthed boys who imitated me with exaggerated groans and called me “Ann Fan Fat.”

In middle school, there was the excruciating necessity of swimming class, after which it was necessary to walk naked from the shower to the little half-door where towels were given out. In high school we played team sports during gym, and every day for three years I spent the first 10 minutes of third hour not being picked until the end.

By that time I inhabited a different universe from the girls with perfect Farrah hair who were on the basketball, baseball, volleyball, and tennis or swim team.

They picked fellow athletes first, then popular friends who weren’t on any team, then skinny unpopular girls and then fat girls. After a few tries at participation, I learned to avoid the action and endure. No one passed to me anyway, or called for me to return a volley; I was largely invisible. Or, rather, large and invisible.

In my last year in high school, I devised a genius scheduling maneuver so that I didn’t have to take gym class. From then on, my exercise was solitary. I went for walks alone or with my dog, and when I was a gym member I hit the weights and treadmill alone, ear buds in, trying to do what I believed was right for my body without triggering the intense suffering of the past.

When yoga started to be a “thing” around here, it intrigued me.

I was not yet a Buddhist, but I associated yoga with all sorts of vague, sandalwood-scented peaceful Eastern stuff. I remembered watching “Lilias, Yoga and You” when I was very young, and remembered her mere screen presence as calming and gentle.

So 13 years ago, I signed up for a beginning yoga class at the community center. It was very basic, with an aging and soft-spoken teacher with long, grey hair in a bun and a motley assortment of students. It was, for the exhausted mother of a 3-year-old, heaven. I came away feeling that I was inside my body for the first time in decades. I couldn’t wait for the next class, and I made friends who are still in my life.

Then things happened, like my parents both became ill and required a great deal of my time, my husband’s job changed and I went back to work, and my relationship with my body alternated between complete neglect and obsessive and unsustainable diet and exercise routines.

There was no more yoga.

But then there was Buddhism, and as I became a meditator, and more interested in bodily sensations than fleeting thoughts, I thought again about yoga.

The thing was, yoga had become largely the province of the same girls who didn’t pick me in gym class, albeit in older bodies. The same women who had frequented local cafes in perfectly coordinated gym clothes years earlier were now wearing Lululemon and carrying their mats in bags that cost more than my car payment.

I was judging, and I know that. I also knew perfectly coiffed women with tight abs and thighs who were looking for yoga classes where they could burn calories. They liked the “relaxing” stuff, too, savasana and incense, but they seemed to me as competitive and threatening as the team captains from ninth grade. It was a trigger for me, and I was honestly terrified to step into one of their classes with my raggedy ass Target yoga pants and the baby tummy that never went away.

I knew these things: it was wrong for me to judge the women who intimidated me, who had every right to pursue fitness and to include yoga as part of that goal. It was also going to be impossible for me to practice yoga to integrate mind, body and spirit in an environment that automatically sent my mind spinning far from my body, to a place where I was not comparing myself and imagining every eye in the room focused on my inability to hold Tree Pose.

So, I stayed home with Rodney Yee and practiced, never quite sure that I was really doing things right or that I was not going to break one of my increasingly aged bones. It felt okay, but it wasn’t the feeling I had gotten from class years ago. I missed the people, and the barely perceptible hand correcting a posture as the teacher moved through the gym. I needed a class.

And as so often happens when I stay open, I found what I needed.

I found a studio far from the suburbs, a studio that has a total inclusion policy, a community garden and LGBTQ karaoke yoga nights. It’s donation based, and no one in the community is turned away because they can’t pay. It seems fitting to me to pay more than I have to so that someone with less money can have the experience of practice.

In my beginner class there were women older than me, men younger than me, and clothes ranging from “real” yoga gear to gym shorts and Hanes t-shirts. The teacher, the studio’s owner and founder was a miracle of gentle compassion, and (incidentally) a fellow Buddhist. At the end of the first class, sitting in lotus position and chanting Om with a group for the first time in my life, I wept.

Little by little, week by week, I could feel my mind tethered in my body as I stretched, and breathed, and learned not to judge and hate the body that was so strong and so good. I think that I could take a class anywhere now, without shame, and without leaving my physical self to avoid comparisons and suffering.

Mostly, though, I have found a home where all of me is safe, present, and healing.


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 Ed: Cat Beekmans


About Ann Nichols

Ann Nichols has been everything from a cellist to a lawyer, and is currently a Buddhist who gets paid to cook at a Protestant church. She lives in a 100-year old house in Michigan with her husband, her son and an improbable number of animals. You can hang out with her by joining the Facebook group “Metta-Morphosis.”


20 Responses to “Yogaphobia.”

  1. Danialle says:

    I am so glad you came back to yoga 🙂

  2. bgbombshell says:

    OH this is SO right where I am right now…..except just starting to be more consistent with my practice

  3. stacyecarroll says:

    I loved this…especially since your experiences so mirrored mine. I've practiced for a little less than 6 months. My class sounds very similar to yours and, yes, it is something I look forward to.

  4. Snowyogi says:

    Beautiful story. Those mean girls usually stay mean girls, hopefully they will gain as much perspective and love as you have from your practice. Keep on keeping on!

  5. mvf says:

    I love this, I am trying to get back to "me" after a divorce, depression and a myriad of other things. I wish there was a class were I lived but there is not, so I will get the DVDs and download the videos and try to work at here. I am hoping it helps and maybe even help me shed some pounds. But I am still in the very beginning stages of learning meditation, yoga and being a better person.

  6. GabbyAbby says:

    brave look backwards, Ann, and a wonderful 'rest of the story'. I would love to be in a class like this. I've never been drawn to the bending and stretching but I could really use it. Tree pose and savasana are my two favorite, non-bendy positions!

  7. @haskins2 says:

    Gym class took the fun out of physical activity. I teach yoga to kids in after-school programs. I wish schools would start incorporating yoga *into* the daily school program, not just after… And I'd love to see it as a part of the PE curriculum. Someday…

  8. Cece says:

    This is a beautiful article.

    So many of us struggle, with weight, appearance, age (that's my insecurity), or just the feelings of never having been picked for a team in that high school gym class. It's been a lifelong battle for me to shed those old patterns of self-doubt and claim myself as a strong, confident, worthy person. But it can be done. Whether through yoga, Buddhism, meditation or some combination of healthy paths, we can all accept that our best selves are the ones inside.

    Thank you again. Namaste.

  9. imagineannie says:

    Me too, Danialle!!

  10. imagineannie says:

    Consistent still isn't my best thing, but I think I'm getting there – I'm trying not to make a missed day a reason to beat myself up. Kind of spoils the whole joy thing. 😉

  11. imagineannie says:

    Well hello Miss Stacye, I'm so glad you're loving it as much as I am. I don't think it's making my body skinnier but it's making my heart bigger.

  12. imagineannie says:

    Thanks, Snowyog!. Funny thing is, I went to a reunion a couple of years ago and most of them weren't mean – and those who were were so clearly miserable that I ended up feeling bad for them. It's amazing what kind of perspective you can get from aging with a good meditation and yoga practice in your quiver.

  13. imagineannie says:

    You don't have to learn to be a better person, mvf. You are perfect and complete just as you are. The meditation and yoga will just show you how awesome you already are. 🙂 Thanks so much for reading!!

  14. imagineannie says:

    I would have loved yoga. My kid loved yoga in school. All kids should have yoga in school. And meditation. Let's make that happen………..

  15. imagineannie says:

    Ah, I wish you could come and take a class with me. If someone had told me I would be telling this story AND practicing yoga I would have laughed. And them cried. And this is better.

  16. "The thing was, yoga had become largely the province of the same girls who didn’t pick me in gym class, albeit in older bodies. The same women who had frequented local cafes in perfectly coordinated gym clothes years earlier were now wearing Lululemon and carrying their mats in bags that cost more than my car payment.

    "I was judging, and I know that. I also knew perfectly coiffed women with tight abs and thighs who were looking for yoga classes where they could burn calories. They liked the “relaxing” stuff, too …"

    Not sure how I landed in a class like that, but, over the space of some time in attending semi-frequently and/or making my presence known (as it was a matter of finances/time to devote to group classes low but interest high) I'd "stolen" plenty of creative sequencing ideas (that is pretty much ALL they had to offer. Alignment? Forget it–not enough to matter. Middle path-orientation? Only if they were in a good mood. Oh, Spiritual and/or New Age/Taoist patter? THAT they aced, but it was part and parcel of the style they taught … and they were prepared to use it as a diagnostic tool – maybe sometimes even against the student …[sick of calling them 'self-righteous' in their use of that, however… it had been their Eastern-tradition-laden spin on the "Altius, Citius, Fortius" – stronger, higher, faster theme that these "team captains" had grown up with]) — "stolen" for my home practice …

    The "team captains" are far away from me now …

    Under normal circumstances, I can't hurt myself … just that I'm a little lethargic when I just start out practice – that's all …

  17. Beautiful article, thank you for sharing your experience. Yoga is not a competition- it's an entirely personal practice- and it's wonderful that you were able to find that for yourself. It's a shame that yoga deters many because they think it's all about spandex and skinny bodies. Yoga is for everyone, Hanes t-shirts and all.

  18. Ti says:

    Loved, loved, luv’d this article! Thanks for sharing! Your new place of practice sounds wonderful! Glad you found it!

  19. PepperReed says:

    Your article is a great reminder to 'Just B'… ;^)

  20. immunodoc says:

    Loved this article. We were discussing yoga cliques, their behavior and effect and why they get under my skin just last night. Your article helped me understand that a little better and to remind myself to focus on my own practice. Thank you so much for sharing your story.