Yoga for Every Body: How I Learned to Welcome All of Myself onto the Mat

2015-02-15 16.11.03

Unlike many yoga stories, mine did not begin by coming to the mat through a transformative or life-changing event. My life was humming along nicely, full of family, friends, and a sense of security. Truthfully, the only reason I went to my first yoga class was because of the promise of sweet potato fries and beer with girlfriends afterward.

I walked into the studio and onto the mat in a 40-year-old, overweight, and inflexible body. I could barely see my toes much less touch them. For 90 minutes I tried to twist myself into a pretzel, attempting to mirror everyone else in the room. I nearly hyperventilated trying to breathe when instructed, and when everyone else glided into pigeon, I sat there perplexed … you want me to put my right knee behind what and my right ankle where? How was that even possible? In those minutes that seemed to drag on forever, while my foot fell asleep and my hips screamed at me to move, every possible negative thought about my body popped up: too old, too fat, too tight, why did I think I could do this, and when in god’s name can we go to the bar?

As we unwound and settled into savasana, I inexplicably found tears rolling out of the corners of my eyes. Yes, I hurt, I had no idea what most of the pose names meant in English or in Sanskrit, and there was so much self-doubt. But in those silent, still moments at the end of class I felt something that would compel me back to the studio time and time again. The words of Maya Angelou echoed my truth: I may have forgotten what was said, and other than pigeon I had forgotten what we did, but I would not forget the way yoga made me feel.

Over the next weeks and months, I found myself embarrassed to tell people I was going to yoga. How could someone who looked like me be a yogi? I’d hide in the back of the room and hope I didn’t draw too much attention. In time I learned to understand, at least in theory, what pigeon was about and picked up a few pose names. _BBB9933_EDITI tried new teachers and a new studio and started to find ways to adapt poses to work in my body. Through the wonders of Google I also discovered Anna Guest-Jelley and her amazing online Curvy Yoga community. In reading her story and watching her videos I saw myself reflected in the online space she created. I realized I was far from being alone in my frustrations of practicing in a larger body. Curvy Yoga taught me that moving my belly or my breasts out of the way was not only helpful, it was acceptable, and that exploration within poses to make them right for my body was encouraged. In doing so I learned to honor the body I was living in in the present moment—belly, breasts, bum, and all.

The one piece that was still missing for me, though, was finding a local Curvy Yoga instructor to practice with. As I searched, I found no one in Minneapolis, which led me to inquire about doing the teacher training myself. It was the last thing I ever imagined I’d be doing—I wasn’t even able to bend over and touch the floor! But with Anna’s encouragement I made the leap and spent a month in Nashville alongside other yogis who looked and moved like me. Together we learned not only how to modify poses and instruct, but we also began to understand the depths of this ancient, wise, and wonderful practice. It was in Nashville that I started to find my voice as an instructor and feel into how my own experience on the mat could help serve others.

Now, as I look out over each class I teach, I see the beauty, the hesitation, and the uniqueness each student brings to his or her mat. I know what it feels like to be the student who is uncertain and vulnerable, not wanting to be seen. And it is an honor and a gift to be invited into that space with them.

I am reminded daily of the importance of an explicit welcome to everyone and the need to provide a safe, supportive environment. No matter the reason you have for showing up to your mat—be it in search of a life-changing transformative experience or simply the promise of sweet potato fries and beers—yoga is there for each of us, just as we are.

Curvy Pose Tips:

1. Touch yourself! No, really, touch yourself.  

  • Tucking your belly or breasts out of the way as you fold forward helps create more space to drop in a little deeper.
  • Stepping your feet wider also helps create room for your belly in forward folds.
  • Pull the “goodness” away from your sitting bones in seated and reclined poses to help you root firmly into the ground.

2. Prop it up! Blankets, bolsters, blocks, chairs, walls, straps—use what you need to support your practice and play with a variety of options to find which one is best for you.  _BBB9889

  • If your hands don’t touch the floor when you bend over (mine didn’t when I started practicing), drop them to the seat of a chair or to blocks.
  • Since my hands couldn’t reach the floor, they certainly didn’t reach my toes in seated folds! If you’re in the same situation, use a strap looped over the ball of your foot to bridge the distance between your hand and foot.
  • Find online resources like Curvy Yoga to see the myriad of ways props can aid in your practice.

3. Honor the body you're living in today. This is the body that brought you to the mat and carries you through life.

  • Thank yourself for stepping onto the mat each and every time.
  • Remind yourself that your practice is constantly evolving and changing. Some days your class with click and all will feel right, while other days it may feel less balanced and serene. We learn something new each time we come to the mat.
  • This is your practice, it isn’t about the “photograph” moment where everyone is in an identical version of the same pose. You don’t all look alike, so why should your pose?

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