You look at all the yoga magazines and all the women are skinny. Not just thin but skinny. There are lots of women who are naturally thin, who are healthy and strong and eat real food. But if those magazines are the guidelines for doing yoga, women who are not naturally thin feel a stab of insecurity and the thought of entering a yoga studio seems an insurmountable challenge. So what’s a woman to do, a woman with breasts, a belly, thighs made for climbing mountains, hips made for birthing babies, arms made for carrying the weight of a family?
Many of the women I know have these kind of curvy bodies. And most of the women I know, even the slim ones, suffer from some sort of body dysmorphia, which is preoccupation or excessive worry about a minor or imagined physical imperfection.
It is nearly impossible to be unaffected by the culture in which we live. Even if you’re a forward-thinking free spirit, free in your mind, you are steeped in the culture around you. Like a teabag in a cup of hot water, you can’t stop your environment from seeping in. But the truth is, you can start to free yourself a little from the insanity. This is where yoga comes in. Yoga is about many things, and one of them is separating your mind from clinging to what it perceives as reality.
In olden days being thin was a sign of poverty, and the painters (the old-fashioned media) depicted women of girth and curve as our cultural beauty figures.
Today, we get so many negative messages about a bit of extra flesh that some people won’t even enter a yoga studio, let alone commit to a serious practice, because they think they are "too big."
But yoga is far bigger than any plus-sized negative view of yourself. Yoga can hold us all, and can hold all of us.
What's more important: What your body looks like, or what it can do?
As an average-sized woman, I suffered for years from body dysmorphia. I tried every diet on the market, I wore overlarge clothes to try to hide myself, I teetered on the edge of an eating disorder. It took moving out to a mountain town and learning how to snowboard for me to overcome my insecurities. I finally moved into a world of what my body could do versus what my body looked like. It was a powerful transformation and I swore I’d never look back. But inevitably, my culture would seep back in (usually after spending some time with a fashion magazine!) and I would have to remove myself from those undue pressures. The points of study for me were this: What can your body do for you? How much does your body support everything you do? How strong are you? How capable? How sexy or beautiful do you feel from the inside?
As soon as I turned my focus from how my body looked to what my body did, I immediately became happy. My body learned how to snowboard at 23, learned how to play ice hockey at 35. Over 40 and I’m climbing mountains with ease, and jumping into a sea kayak for a day on the ocean. And practicing yoga has been my biggest teacher. Once you see how much you can do in your practice, how strong you are, and how powerful you become, you start to have a deeper appreciation for your true self. This is at the core of the practice. Not how you look, but how you feel.
Yoga is a practice of bending. And fleshy women think they can’t bend. It’s also a practice where many of us have been put off and intimidated by the "model-perfect" yogi on the next mat pushing up into handstand or backbend with dancer ease. But the benefits of yoga can be accessed by anyone. A wonderful online resource is curvyyoga.com (that's founder Anna Guest-Jelley at right); there’s a book called MegaYoga which offers many modifications; there’s a website with classes and calendars at yogaforthelargerwoman.com. My only beef with that one is that the women are dressed in black against a black background. I say, don’t hide the flesh in artsy shots. Celebrate the strength and beauty of your yoga body.
The beauty of yoga is that it meets you where you are. If large breasts and belly make it challenging to do a forward bend practice, separate the legs to give yourself extra space. For seated twists, try bending one leg, straightening the other, and twist away from the bent knee instead of toward it. For bridge pose, try strapping your breasts down so they don’t suffocate you as you invert.
There are many resources to help, and you are your own greatest teacher. Instead of looking at the extra flesh of your body as a limitation, try approaching your body with a playful sense of experimentation.
At the end of your practice, sit and absorb your feelings. Check in to see if your mind is calm. See if your body is feeling centered and relaxed. Do you feel good? Capable? Happy? Trust this feeling. And as you leave the studio, allow yourself to expand into this new confidence.
Lauren Walker teaches EMYoga workshops all over the world. Her book, "Energy Medicine Yoga" and an EMYoga video will be published by Sounds True in October 2014. You can read more about her at LKWalker.com and on her Energy Medicine Yoga Facebook page.
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