January 28, 2014

Yoga Wants us as We Are.

In the yoga world, we are surrounded with glossy images of thin white women, holding poses like scorpion on a mountaintop, at sunset, with little to no effort at all.

“Hold on one second”, I imagine such women saying brightly, “While I tickle my scalp with my perfectly polished toe.”

The reality of yoga, and yoga bodies isn’t quite as pretty—but it’s a lot more interesting.

I’ve taught yoga in a great deal of spaces, some less than ideal; the dank basement gym of a high school, a conference room in a senior center reeking of stale coffee and ammonia, and a drafty church library with a warped floor covered with threadbare carpet. I’ve also taught yoga to a great deal of people—all ages, shapes, colors and fitness levels.

In all of these places and all of these bodies, despite their dissimilarity, yoga happens. One breath at a time, in one messy warrior, one propped up triangle or one heartbreaking and perfect firefly pose, it happens.

One of the reasons I love yoga is that, unlike many other physical endeavors, it encourages the body to claim its natural form. If you have a soft, womanly physique before you start to practice, it’s likely that you will still have one after years of practice—and that’s a good thing.

Unlike weight lifting or Pilates or so many other kinds of exercise where the goal is to “whip you into shape”, “get rid of those love handles” and “shred up your abs”, yoga isn’t trying to change anything about you. Yoga just wants you to understand and delight in yourself as you are.

If we practice yoga with sincerity and over an extended period of time, the layers of ego which we all hide behind begin to fall away, sometimes along with pounds, sometimes not. We get in better shape, yes, but we get into a better shape of ourselves, and who we are meant to be, not some skinny idealized phantom.

When I first began practicing, it was strictly for physical fitness. I was obsessed with my weight and my size, always wanting to be smaller, lighter, thinner. I was pretty fit in the first place and I thought maybe yoga could take me to the next level.

I’m the same weight now as I was when I started 15 years ago—what’s changed is how I feel about it. I’m still not totally at ease in my body, but I don’t hate it anymore, and on some days, I even rejoice in it.

Releasing that self hatred has lightened a burden that has nothing to do with weight.

When I see my students walk in the door for any given class, I am always struck by the diversity of their physical forms. They come in every conceivable package. And the longer they have been coming, the more comfortable they appear to be in that package; self consciousness starts to break down and self judgment becomes less acute, leaving behind—almost universally—a blossoming sense of humor.

The thing about it is, we come to yoga to heal, not punish ourselves. It isn’t easy, it takes commitment and discipline, and it’s often a sweaty, foolish looking, frustrating, humbling experience. But as we stumble through our asanas in our imperfect bodies with their generous behinds and short arms that make it hard to bind and our old knees that don’t want to bend, we realize over and over again, this is my body, this is what I’ve got to work with so I better just accept it and move forward.

Once we start to genuinely have such radical content in our thinking, that fictional girl (and trust me, she is fictional) in scorpion on the mountaintop isn’t quite so troublesome. Yeah, she can still sting us a little bit with her pretty upside down toes, but now we can appreciate our own toes, too.

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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: Flickr

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