October 15, 2010

Yoga Made Me Fat.

Well, sort of.

I recently taught a workshop on arm balances that went horribly askew. I’m not sure what the missing ingredient was…perhaps the studio just wasn’t a good fit for my teaching style. Although the students were all happy at the end, having had mini-breakthroughs in their quest to balance on their hands, I distinctly got the feeling that the studio owner wasn’t engaged by  my approach.

This happens sometimes when you teach and part of the journey is learning to roll with the punches. My teacher Leslie Howard once said to me, ” You’ll lose more students than you keep. Don’t take it personally.” I have since found that sentiment to be true. So I won’t take offense if my teaching style doesn’t resonate with you. In fact, I always encourage new students, particularly if they are taking my class as their first taste of yoga, to try many teachers and styles until they find the right flavor.

But never have I had a student comment that they didn’t like the way I looked. Until this workshop.

Looking back on my experience and trying to figure out how I failed to engage this person, I remembered a comment I had almost missed. And it was this: “I thought you had to be skinny to do arm balances.” Looking at the super-thin studio owner, I didn’t, at first, understand what she was saying. Embarrassingly, it took me a while to understand she meant me. I smiled and shrugged, at a loss for words.

I’ve always stood on the understanding that yoga was for everybody. For every body. I’ve seen yogis of all shapes and sizes do poses I can only hope to someday experience. I never thought there was a weight limit (or an age limit for that matter). Now, I’ve admitedly gained a few pounds over the years, perhaps this is due to my extraordinary happiness. I blame the yoga. At some point learning to touch my toes made me a better person. It happened sneakily, while I wasn’t paying attention to the snarky voice in my head, with its lists of my inequities.  I blame the practice that has made me focus on what’s really important: who I am and how I live in this world. Radical self acceptance is a profound practice. It tells you that you’re perfect, extra pounds and all. And oddly when that happens, it calls us to let go of what we tell ourselves we are: young, old, skinny, attractive, smart, funny…and redirects our focus to really start asking: if who I am doesn’t consist of labels, then who am I? And more importantly: what am I capable of? How have I been limiting my own potential?

Self inquiry doesn’t always lead to weight gain, and anyway, since when is a size six fat? If who I am is not summed up in the size of my pants (or the size of my bank account, or the car that I drive, or my job title) then who am I? Asking that question can be quite intimidating at first. If we’re not who we think we are, who we tell ourselves we are, then who and what are we? Get deep enough into that idea and you’ll find freedom and possibility where fear and limitation used to lay.

As students and teachers of yoga, we need to remember that the practice is more than just the poses. It’s about opening up to possibility.  The next time you tell yourself you can’t, ask yourself why not? What’s holding you back? Is it fear? Judgement? Breaking social norms? Yoga has a bad reputation of being for only skinny beautiful people.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “I can’t do yoga because I’m too ______  (insert age/ability/weight here). But I know the truth. Standing in front of my own classes, I see students of all ages and abilities. They may put their bodies into all kinds of shapes, fancy and mundane, but the real yoga is happening in their minds. Just stepping into class means they’ve opened up to the possibility that yoga is for them too.

So yoga didn’t really make me fat. But it did open me up to the idea that being curvy doesn’t hold me back from reaching for what I want, be it a handstand or my wildest dreams in this life.

And for the record, I like my curves. I’m keeping them.

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