How Does Yoga Define You?

Photo by Christopher Johnstone

Yoga and Body Image: What defines you?

It is time to change the images of yoga we see in current media. We need to stop celebrating the Lululemon culture because it keeps ridiculous stereotypes alive. The recent Chip Wilson Lululemon crisis brings to light some of the attitudes that still exist in the yoga culture.

Hands of many colours coming together. ​The culture of Lululemon shames women into thinking they are not celebrated as they are. We need to change the narrative and make it welcoming so that everyone feels safe on their mats. As a bigger bodied yogini, I used to be intimidated about heading to the yoga studio. I knew that I was going to be one of the only bigger bodied people in the class. I was always the only brown girl in the class. It was intimidating, so I mostly practiced at home. It is hard to be vulnerable in a room full of people who don’t look like you. Feeling like the odd person out can be very intimidating. Although I have had some very positive experiences in yoga studios, the experiences that stand out in my world are the not so positive ones. Sometimes, I get the feeling that I’m not supposed to come out and practice in the studio. Teachers seem to be baffled and annoyed by my size and how to teach me yoga. I want to remind them that being fat is not contagious and I can practice yoga right here if you just give me a chance.

The truth is that everyone can do yoga. Where people get lost is that we don’t see everyone on the yoga mat. We have created this unattainable ideal of what yoga looks like. Slim, white, young and super flexible bodies adorn yoga publications and yoga advertising everywhere. There are a plethora of fitness models who represent what we see in mainstream yoga media. They look like fashion models doing yoga. It makes yoga seem like a function of beauty instead of an expression of beauty.

Dianne Bondy ​What if you don’t look like that? You have a really hard time seeing yourself doing yoga because you don’t see people like yourself doing yoga. This is a big part of what keeps people away from their yoga mat. Think about it this way, when you head into a popular clothing store that has mannequins displaying clothes in the window, if the mannequin resembles an ideal you want to identify with, your attention is peaked and you are more likely to go in for a closer look. If the mannequin and the display don’t resonate with you, you will walk right by. The same is true for yoga, a person of color, transgender, or with a bigger body cannot see themselves as a tiny flexible white girl in a yoga pose. What if you saw an average or bigger bodied person doing a beautiful yoga pose on the cover of a magazine, then the idea becomes, “if they can do it then so can I.” Am I right?

Creating a safe and inclusive place to practice yoga is the key to creating diversity on the mat. We all have the tools to make this happen. Create the environment to come as you are, you are welcome here.

Here are some steps on how to create a space that allows people to step out of their living rooms and onto their mats:

  • Start a conversation in your community around diversity. Get local studios involved in creating more diverse classes.
  • Use social media to share images of diverse people doing yoga. Ask your students to be the model. Use real people doing yoga.
  • Offer free yoga classes in a community that does not have access to yoga. It will not only make you a better teacher by testing your skills with new beginning students. It will also open your eyes to diversity. You will see that we are not so different.
  • Come back to your beginner’s mind and mentality. Teach students that anything is possible. Learn how to teach beginning students. Do your research and pick poses that can be easily modified and encouraging to people. Pick standing poses for beginners. Standing poses are accessible to almost all students. It helps to complement their practice.
  • If you are participating in or teaching a yoga class and partner work comes up, chose a partner you have never worked with or someone who is new to the class or even culturally different from you. Be the change you want to see in the studio. Be inclusive in your choices.
  • Use positive inclusive language. Be careful how you speak. Stay away from language that stereotypes or may be offensive.
  • Encourage the use of props and demonstrate how to use them properly. Tell your students that props enhance your poses.
  • Smile, be welcoming and include everyone in class. Yoga is a practice that everyone can do. You just need to meet people where they are at. Be kind, be compassionate and have an open mind to the idea that different is really great.

I encourage you to look beyond the stereotypes. Know that there are millions of people just like you, doing yoga. You don’t need to be thin, rich, white, or young to do yoga; you just need the desire to learn about yourself, to find inner peace and to spread love.

Come as you are to your mat, everyone is welcome here.

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