As we contemplate community this month at OWY, the idea of inclusivity has been foremost in my mind. Looking around the studios, I'm asking myself: Who is not here?
One group of people who are under-represented are people living in larger bodies. Larger-bodied people (truly, people in general) are often intimidated by yoga, yoga teachers and the students in a yoga room. These fears and feelings of intimidation get in the way because the reality is that every body-type can benefit from the mindful movement of yoga. Yoga is not just for the stereotypical yoga-body (whatever that is), it is for anybody with a body or mind. This doesn't mean that everybody can execute the fancy stuff we see on Instagram, but that is not the point. Yoga is a highly individualized practice all about getting deep with the body you're in - getting to know it, maximizing your health (right where you are), learning to love yourself (right where you are)... And everyone can benefit from that.
It can be so helpful to have a teacher who has experienced both intimidation and the validation of pushing through. To that end, I'm so very excited to announce that Emily Perry will be joining our staff starting May 1. Emily knows first hand what it is like to live in a larger body AND show up for herself, because she knows this experentially she can skillfully guide others in taking those first, hardest steps. Read on to hear about Emily's journey and thoughts on yoga! Welcome Emily!😘
Yoga is for Every Body
Sometimes showing up unapologetically as yourself is the most rebellious thing you can do. I have found this to be true as someone in a larger body who leads a moderately active lifestyle and now is starting to teach yoga.
Size inclusivity in active spaces is becoming more common, but we still have a long way to go. Most fitness facilities claim to be open and welcoming to people of all shapes, sizes, and abilities, but they can’t control the biases of staff or gym-goers. When you walk into the gym and become immediately aware of being the largest person in the room, it’s hard not to feel like what that really means is: “We’re one-size-fits-all, except for you!” I go to the gym to mind my own business and do my HIITs, not get unsolicited weight-loss advice or judgmental looks, or to inspire people with my “courage.”
There should be nothing remarkable or brave about this. People in a wide range of sizes accomplish all kinds of physical feats every day. Fat people (curvy people, large people, people of size - pick your euphemism):
- Complete marathons and triathlons.
- Climb mountains.
- Win Olympic medals.
- Take care of kids. (Kids are heavy!)
- Do physical labor for a living.
- Do CrossFit, martial arts, aerial acrobatics, and other stuff you’ll probably never catch me doing.
- Live long and healthy lives.
And yes, we can - and do - practice yoga.
It has been transformative to see the proliferation on social media of yogis in all different shapes, sizes, colors, ages, and economic backgrounds, because I might not have known this practice was for me otherwise. Even after immersing myself in #fatyoga on Instagram, practicing on my own, and taking a series of Big Body Yoga workshops with the fantastic Julie Brown in 2013, I hesitated for years to set foot in a “regular” yoga class because I was still embarrassed to use the props and modifications I needed among other people who (I assumed) didn’t. But knowing that my eventual goal was to teach yoga, I also knew I was eventually going to have to go to actual classes with actual humans that didn’t look like me.
Before I ever set foot in Open Way Yoga, I did what I (an introverted weirdo) always do before going somewhere new: Looked at their website, perused their social media, read some of their teacher bios, and thought maybe this might be a place I could feel at home. Obviously, I ended up being right. The whole place – and everyone in it – exudes authenticity, warmth, and unconditional acceptance. While the atmosphere there is wholesome, it never comes off as stuffy or dogmatic; there’s room for everyone to be or believe however they want. It also has a colorful, distinctively DIY vibe that underscores the sense that it belongs to everyone.
Although I was initially self-conscious about being the biggest person in every class, I was always treated with the same respect as everyone else. My teachers encouraged me to go beyond what I thought was possible for me (hello, Flip Dog!), but equally praised me when I modified poses effectively. I realized these people really didn’t care what I looked like – they just recognized me as a fellow practitioner.
It was in this nurturing environment that I was able to start inhabiting my body in a way that hadn’t felt safe before. I had come back to yoga not just to pursue teaching, but also to complement my exercise regimen and stretch sore muscles. What I didn’t anticipate was how the less “active” practices – restorative poses, pranayama, meditation, and savasana – would give me some relief from my overactive, hypercritical mind. I began to notice the ways I judged myself and pushed myself to prove that I could do the most challenging, active practice! That compensatory attitude felt increasingly out of place, as did the ways I punished and restricted myself off the mat. The more I sat with myself and watched my mind, the less hospitable it became to self-hatred and inadequacy.
That doesn’t mean I don’t still harbor ambivalence towards myself. It can be uncomfortable to sit with the dichotomy of self-acceptance vs. self-improvement, but my time on the mat has increased my capacity for both. Being okay with how I am in the moment isn’t defeatism; it’s acknowledging - and not rejecting - current reality. It’s trusting myself to do the best I can with today and let the rest go.
I’ve also learned that “advanced yoga” isn’t about executing the “full expression” of every pose; having the thinnest, strongest, or most flexible body; or being able to keep up with the rest of the room. It’s about tuning in to breath and sensation, using whatever modifications you need to maintain alignment and comfort, and resting when you need to.
I want to see more and more yoga classes attended by people of all different sizes, shapes, ages, and abilities doing their own versions of each pose, maybe sweating bullets, joints occasionally cracking, props everywhere, sometimes falling out of a pose, laughing it off, and getting back up again. That’s the real shit. That’s the kind of practice I want to facilitate.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “They say all bodies are welcome and affirmed there, but I know that doesn’t include me,” I get it. It’s intimidating to come to a new place and make yourself physically vulnerable with people you don’t know. But I’m glad I finally showed up (and kept showing up), because the relationships I’ve gained and the benefits to my mental and physical health have been priceless. These will always be mine, no matter what happens to my body.
So if you’re at a size where you think yoga isn’t for you, I hope you’ll give us a chance to prove you wrong. And if you’re not in a larger body, but still struggle with self-image, then for real – welcome to the club. There is no minimum or maximum size to benefit from this practice. We could all stand to make more space for ourselves in a world that constantly tells us the best thing we can be is small.
Emily will start teaching on May 4th.
Yoga for Every Body: Saturday Mornings 9:00 in Sandusky.
This class offers students of all sizes, shapes, and abilities the tools and confidence to make yoga work for them. Expect accessible flows, standing and seated poses, breath work and affirming meditations, all while using props and modifications to make space for the body in each pose. Everyone's practice may look different, but no one gets left behind, and all gain the same benefits.