By: Monina Sanchez
I used to want my body to appear similar to the yoga girls I’d see on social media: thin, flexible and able to do crazy poses. I worked hard towards achieving this goal, practicing daily and strived to pull off 3 poses a week. Eventually, I became lean, thin, and toned but instead of fully celebrating this, I found myself unhappy. Anxiety hit whenever I stumbled upon other women with better poses, even sustaining injuries as I attempted to copy what the yoga influencers would do. I became too competitive, wanting only the best because I knew I was blessed with the body for it. This was triggered by both the constant praise I received for my flexibility and the subtle yet harmful micro aggressions towards my body - "You are my best student because you're the most flexible here!" This resulted to me giving unsolicited comments to myself such as - "You can do a split since you're thin anyway ". Looking back, no doubt I was blinded as to how harmful these were to me.
My perspective eventually changed when I took up my yoga teacher training, shifting from what used to be an unhealthy ego-driven practice to a healthier, intention-based one. My teacher instilled in me that yoga practice is not about achieving perfection because all of us are perfect to begin with. The goal of yoga after all is to find that innate perfection within us that's buried and clouded by our ego, by clearing our mind through consistent, meaningful, and intentional practice. With this I realized that all the past efforts I did was really in vain. I did not work towards a better self.
So, if I could turn back time, I would tell myself two things:
First: no practice is worth doing when the goal is to bring other women down.
Second: Find a community that embraces diversity and inclusivity.
Majority of yoga practitioners are female and due to the pandemic, many turned to alternative sources like YouTube and Instagram for inspiration and yoga training. A quick search of #yoga on Instagram would reveal images of a specific body type and demographic: typically lean or thin white women clad in body-fitting activewear on sleek rubber mats doing tough poses on a beach, in a studio or against a clean background. This can lead to false preconceptions as I’ve experienced in real life when I hosted online yoga challenges in the past and convinced practitioners to join, but would get responses such as:
I don't have the body for it.
I don't have a nice camera to take pictures with.
I don't have the right clothes for yoga.
I don't have a neat space to show.
The saddest question I have also received was "Don't I need to be flexible to do yoga?" Like I was, I realized that many other women too had the notion that to be deserving of sharing their yoga practice to the world, they had to look the part.
I felt disheartened by this phenomenon and felt that online yoga challenges may be perpetuating the Westernized "yoga body". So, I changed my path. I stopped hosting challenges altogether and took other trainings that helped me understand anatomical considerations in yoga. I proactively researched on the history of yoga and began delving into yogic practices outside of asana. I realized that many popular asanas were not accessible to different types of bodies, so I completely removed them in my practice and teaching/reworked them. I learned that cultural appropriation is rampant too and that there is a stark difference between the South Asian culture and Westernized culture of practicing yoga.
When I teach, I focus my teachings on the “whys” rather than the “hows” of the poses, and include other practices like mantra chanting, Pranayama and meditation.
Should you happen to stumble upon my social accounts and wonder why I stopped posting pictures of my body doing "yoga" shapes and curating my feed, it's because I don't want my students and the community to think that there is a "look" to fulfill. As a teacher, practitioner, and sharer of yoga, I wish for a more inclusive world for all practitioners of yoga. The purpose of yoga is to empower the Self within.
So, I think that the best way to empower women in yoga is for them to accept themselves as they are - in whatever size, shape, or color - and to persist in finding the best version of themselves that is deep within. Every woman and level of practice is deserving of a space in the yoga community. My goal is for my students to be able to look around and say they feel truly safe in the space they are in. I wish for a future where women can confidently practice yoga without having to worry about opinions on their body, clothes, or whatever they choose to bring in class. I, together with my sisters in yoga, am doing my part to rewrite the narrative.
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