Yoga body. Innocuous-sounding, but peel it back and the preconceptions are there.
“Until the turn of the 21st century, the yoga community in the West has been characterised by people who have the money and the time to devote themselves to it, and that has tended to fall into the category of wealthy, predominantly white, slender people, and even more specifically, women,” explains Jessamyn Stanley, yoga teacher and author of new book Every Body Yoga.
“The reality is that, that has nothing to do with yoga. The truth of yoga has absolutely nothing to do with body size or skin colour or physical ability [or] gender expression. It’s literally about connecting to your breath and looking within yourself.”
Jessamyn, from North Carolina, describes herself as ‘fat’. She’s not from a moneyed background, nor did she spend her teens vaulting in the gym. She’s honest and, if you want an answer to whether or not you’ll pass wind during yoga (you will), she’s your go-to woman.
So when she says ‘every body yoga’ she means it. Like many of us, she has felt the laser-like gaze on her in the studio, but hopes in writing the book, more people will feel encouraged to practice.
Here, she lays out her advice on common concerns…
Problem one: What if everybody looks at me in my yoga class?
“One of the most common questions I get is, ‘I’m worried that everyone’s going to stare at me.’ And I’m like, ‘They are going to stare at you. That’s the first thing you need to get over before you even go to the class because you can’t spend the whole time thinking, ‘Everybody’s looking at me.’ Everybody is looking at you.”
So what can I do?
“If you’re that concerned about it, don’t go to a live class. Take an online class. Sometimes it really is that intimidating to be in a space with other people. If you take an online class, you don’t need to have a teacher in the room with you, staring and telling you what to do. If you have a space that feels good for you, that’s really all you need.”
Problem two: I can’t stop thinking about how I look during yoga practice.
“We spend so much of our lives asking each other, ‘How do I look? Does this look OK?’ It’s, ‘How do I appear to others, not how do I feel?’ If every time you put on clothes you said, ‘How do I feel?’ you’d walk out of the house wearing wild things.
“But the point is that no one is having the experience you’re having, so if it feels good to you, that’s all that matters. And nowhere is that more true than on a yoga mat.”
What should I do?
“It’s so different to say, ‘How do I feel?’ Because ‘how do I feel’ might mean I need to pay more attention to this area, or I need to internalise this. That experience is so much more worthwhile and so much more telling. You can mine that experience for truth way more than you can the question of how you look.”
Problem three: What if I can’t do any of the yoga poses?
“I used to feel self-conscious that people were looking at me because I’m larger-bodied and the teacher would always be like, ‘Have you done yoga before?’ and give me a lot of attention I didn’t want.
“[Even now] I still have to talk myself down. I will be in a class and think ‘Man, I feel very self-conscious here.’”
What can I do?
“Don’t look at other people; close your eyes. Find ways to slowly tune into yourself because no matter who else is in the room, it’s your practice. Even if you don’t get out of shavasana [relaxation pose]. Even if you don’t move. Even if you stay in table top position and you come out of downward facing dog after a breath every single time, it’s fine, because that’s your practice.
“You don’t have to give an explanation to anybody else. You don’t have to feel guilty about it. That’s something I wish I had understood in the beginning.”
Every Body Yoga by Jessamyn Stanley is published in paperback by Workman, priced £9.89.