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.
Also on HuffPost:
It's a bird ... it's a plane ... it's -- yoga, in a suspended hammock? Antigravity Yoga (also referred to as Suspension Yoga, Upside-Down Yoga and Aerial Yoga) is not for the faint of heart. The practice incorporates traditional yoga poses mixed with acrobatics in a silk hammock suspended from the ceiling. What are the benefits of yoga off the ground? Kayda Norman, <a href="http://news.health.com/2012/08/07/aerial-yoga-learning-to-fly/" target="_hplink">who documented her Aerial Yoga experience for Health.com</a> writes, "Aerial yoga allows you to stretch further and hold positions longer than other types of yoga. Suspension yoga also helps to decompress tight joints and relieve pressure." Alexandra Sifferlin, a reporter for <em>Time</em>, <a href="http://healthland.time.com/2012/08/22/we-tried-this-aerial-vinyasa-or-upside-down-yoga/" target="_hplink">also shared her go with a Suspension Yoga class</a>. She <a href="http://healthland.time.com/2012/08/22/we-tried-this-aerial-vinyasa-or-upside-down-yoga/" target="_hplink">reported in a video of her experience</a> that the aerial class was helpful for "better controlled movements as you strengthen your core muscles." And for those without the strength and control for traditional inversions like headstands, Aerial Yoga gives us a chance to try these out.
Tantrum Yoga can help you access your inner child: the grumpy one, who needs to throw a tantrum to get back to center. It isn't violent; instead, it's an outlet -- a release -- that combines traditional yoga poses, dancing and, yes, some yelling. <a href="http://www.hemalayaa.com/" target="_hplink">Yoga teacher Hemalaaya </a>developed this therapeutic kind of yoga as the next step in her fusion-focused classes. And, as <a href="http://www.hemalayaa.com/?p=1629" target="_hplink">she puts it</a>, throwing a little tantrum works to relieve her own frustrations. She encourages her students to release stress by yelling, chest-pounding and laughing. "I believe we are emotional beings and there are times we need to express in order to let go of emotion, especially old stuff that is sitting in there, festering. Otherwise it gets stuck in our bodies and could turn into stress, disease, etc." she told <a href="http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news/food_coach&id=8666290" target="_hplink">ABC News</a>.
Perhaps it is Wheelchair Yoga that best demonstrates the versatility of the yoga practice. Many of the actions performed in Wheelchair Yoga (or, similarly Chair Yoga) are traditional poses adapted for those who are in wheelchairs. The <a href="http://www.livestrong.com/article/319124-yoga-exercises-for-someone-in-a-wheelchair/" target="_hplink">Cat Stretch, Cow Pose and Eagle Pose</a>, for example, have all been modified to be performed while sitting. Chair Yoga prioritizes breath-work and physical postures and can be incredibly beneficial for those with limited mobility. The activity can help to <a href="http://www.ncpad.org/disability/fact_sheet.php?sheet=345&view=all" target="_hplink">decrease physical pain and tension</a> and it promotes the many benefits of physical activity to those with disabilities might not otherwise have access.
Harmonica Yoga is a form of Raja Yoga (yoga for both the body and the mind). Harmonica playing and yoga are both based on the control of the breath, making this a fun way to work on mindfulness. "Harmonica is the easiest and most accessible way to practice breath control," <a href="http://www.davidharp.com/" target="_hplink">David Harp</a>, the founder and originator of <a href="http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=ntt_athr_dp_sr_1?_encoding=UTF8&field-author=David Harp&ie=UTF8&search-alias=books&sort=relevancerank" target="_hplink">HarmonicaYoga™</a> and HuffPost blogger wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. "This allows practitioners to short-circuit mental patterns such as fight or flight responses, and thus develop mindfulness," he continued.
If laughter is the best medicine and yoga touts countless health benefits, the combination of the two must be infallible. In this silly practice (its founder, Sebastien Gendry, <a href="ttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/06/laughter-yoga-benefits_n_1478960.html" target="_hplink">called it "bizarre" and "weird"</a>) you might find yourself clapping joyously, milking imaginary cows and pretending to be a lion, just as <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/06/laughter-yoga-benefits_n_1478960.html" target="_hplink">Catherine Pearson did in her Laughter Yoga class, as she reported</a> in HuffPost's Healthy Living. Laughter Yoga incorporates much less of the physical aspects of yoga and much more of the social and mindful aspects. Still, the physical benefits are not completely lost: laughter has been found to <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16652129" target="_hplink">burn calories </a> and <a href="http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/26/5/1651.full" target="_hplink">lower blood sugar levels</a>.
Karaoke Yoga, developed by Los Angeles-based yoga instructor <a href="http://jenniferpastiloff.com/" target="_hplink">Jennifer Pastiloff</a>, gives people the opportunity to stretch their limbs <em>and</em> their vocal chords. The class is equipped with a TV screen to display song lyrics and, luckily for those with stage fright, there are no solo performances. You can expect to sing along with the whole class to songs from Adele, Elton John and Journey. The focus of the class is joy, not the perfecting of poses. "It's not about alignment, it's about connecting to your joy," Pasiloff <a href="http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news/food_coach&id=8713322" target="_hplink">said in an ABC News interview</a>. Though not about the yoga, per se, it's still about the workout: "It's longer exhales, it's sweating, dancing," she insists. Pasiloff wrote in a<a href="http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-5085/What-the-Heck-Is-Karaoke-Yoga.html" target="_hplink"> blog post for <em>Mind Body Green,</em></a>"It is connecting some of the greatest pleasures I know of in life: dancing, singing, yoga, connecting and good old fashioned rock 'n' roll."
Yoga Raves bring the yoga studio to the club -- so don't forget your glow sticks (and glitter). Combining music, movement and meditation in a single space, Yoga Raves also promote drug-free fun. Many of these raves begin with a guided meditation as a warm up, to lead into a more free movement. According to the not-for-profit movement's website <a href="http://Yoga Rave" target="_hplink">Yogarave.org</a>, "The Yoga Rave Project will bring the spiritual element back to celebration and the way we have fun, offering a drug free alternative for our youth to gather and release their energy and tension." <a href="http://www.artofliving.org/us-en" target="_hplink">The Art Of Living Foundation</a>, which funds and organizes <a href="http://Yogaraves.org" target="_hplink">Yogaraves.org</a>, is not the only initiative propelling the yoga dance party. <a href="http://www.jivamuktiyoga.com/" target="_hplink">Jivamukti</a> and <a href="http://www.laughinglotus.com/" target="_hplink">Laughing </a>Lotus are among the yoga schools supporting the combination of yoga and "getting down." <a href="http://www.yogadork.com/news/grab-your-glow-ga-sticks-yoga-raves-all-the-rage/" target="_hplink">Yogadork.com might have said it best:</a> "The Yoga Rave: a place where you can totally trip out drug free, get friendly with your fellow man/woman and wake up in your own bed the next morning (if you so choose)."
The World's Oldest Yoga Teacher
And just for fun, here's a video of <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/14/tao-porchon-lynch-93-worlds-oldest-yoga-teacher_n_1515579.html" target="_hplink">the world's oldest yoga teacher</a>, 93-year-old Tao Porchon-Lynch, showing off all she's got.
Seane Corn on The Benefits of Vinyasa Yoga
Yoga instructor Seane Corn explains the benefits of Vinyasa yoga.