“I would never take a yoga class from a teacher who didn’t look fit.”
Yesterday, I was getting my hair blown out in my town’s busy salon when I overheard a woman say this to her stylist. The stylist herself is fit and “tight.” She is overall a lean and well-muscled woman and she intended it as a compliment. The speaker had no idea that I was a teacher or even that I was eavesdropping at all.
It blew my mind.
I don’t mean to say I am naive. I see the women on Instagram who are super skinny and 21 who can do handstands and backflips and I think: Wow, that’s amazing. I see them talk about their vegan diets and I think: Cool, me too! But I don’t feel inferior. I never have.
Which is why I didn’t take that comment personally at all. I have a yoga body because I do yoga every day. I also have curves. I have an hourglass shape and while I am still almost always a small size in clothing (and a size 4 in dresses), I am probably somewhere in the middle in terms of “size” when it comes to the places I teach. Some teachers are smaller. Some are not. And I can honestly say until I was sitting in that chair, I hadn’t thought about it once.
Why would I?
I grew up with a mother who taught yoga. My mother was built a little like me (I am probably a little bustier). She never died her hair. She didn’t shave her legs or her armpits. She wore big glasses and old Birkenstocks. She was my first teacher and all of her yogi friends looked like her.
This was long before Lululemon. And Instagram. And ads for yoga classes that pop up on my Facebook feed. But even so: The big name yogis aren’t skinny. They just aren’t. Kathryn Budig is a beautiful, sexy, voluptuous goddess. She is one of the most well-known yoga teachers working today. And what makes her a good teacher isn’t her six-pack. It’s her soul. It’s her bravery. It’s her passion for yoga. Not the aesthetics. But the breath. The dharma. The deeper meaning.
I work in two different places. One is a smaller studio and the other is a gym. It’s a large gym with every amenity and a beautiful yoga studio and plenty of “real” yogis teaching the classes. But I have also been in classes where older women stare wistfully at one of our younger, thinner instructors and tell her they wish they looked like her. That sentiment makes me sad. But it also makes me uncomfortable. Because then they look to me.
And the truth is, I don’t wish I looked like someone else.
I love my body. I love all that it can do. I love that I birthed three babies and ran two sub-4 marathons. I love that I have run countless half marathons under 1:45 and had a lot of really good sex with my husband. I love that my husband loves my body. I stopped looking at my body the way women look at bodies a long time ago and started trying to see my body the way a man might. And it made all the difference.
The fact that I even have to justify this is so very sad. And so very beyond the point of yoga.
There are countless amazing yoga instructors who are not skinny. Jessamyn Stanley is perhaps the most well known, but there are many women like her, reinventing the idea of what it means to have a “yoga body.” But is it really reinvention? Or is the myth of the skinny, blond white woman the real reinvention?
Yoga isn’t fitness. It is breath linked to movement. But it is bigger than that. It is meditation. It is mindfulness. It is ahimsa, the practice of non-violence, both against ourselves and others. It is not becoming attached to silly ideals and ideas that cause us misery. It is calming the fluctuations in the mind so that we can find more peace.
Not one of those things requires a “skinny” body. Not one.
Low self esteem plagues women. We all have our insecure moments. But it makes me sad to see it among yoga teachers. I’ve always had pretty good self esteem. I was born into a family that valued education and I had access to the best schools. I have always had teachers who praised my brain. I have had professional success as a writer. I have always followed my heart when it comes to my career and my work and I have had a bit of luck as well. I went through the “I’m so fat” phase in high school, but I got over it. In high school. Because that’s where it belongs. If anywhere. How can women, especially women who practice yoga, even begin to think about whether or not they are “fat”? It’s so completely beside the point.
I don’t want to become disillusioned by the practice, but I think of my mother and the yoga she practiced and I recognize that modern Western yoga, taught in a gym setting looks very different from the yoga she practiced.
“Her practice was much less physical than yours,” my father told me the last time we were together. And he’s right. It was. She spent a lot of time on the breath. She spent a lot of time meditating. Yes, she stood on her head and yes, she moved through Sun A’s and the Warrior series, but she was a true yogi.
Can we really call it yoga when students stay after to tell a teacher they want to look like her? Truth bomb: When you are 35+ and have had children, you are probably not ever going to look like a 23-year-old childless woman. And what is “fit” anyway? I know what this one woman’s definition is. “Hard body. Slender. A six-pack.” But wow does that miss the entire point of the practice.
As a teacher, all I can do is plant seeds in my students. You are more than this body. You are loved. You are soul. Whether or not they believe me, whether they choose to cultivate the seeds into plants, is their choice.
But I know who I am. I am not sure if I am “fit” enough to teach the woman who sat in the salon next to me. But I hope that if she is ever in my class or if she ever happens upon my book at the library, that she opens her mind enough to recognize what yoga is really about.
Yoga isn’t about tightening the ass. It’s about getting your head out of it. And it seems we have a lot of that head in ass thing going around in the Western yoga community. Let’s do better, people. Let’s be better.