What image springs to mind when you think of yoga?
Probably a young, skinny woman contorting into strange shapes suspended in Lycra, right? It’s moved on from the wacky new-age hippy stereotype and now it’s totally cool for ‘regular’ and ‘respectable’ people to sport power suit by day and Lululemon by night. Personally, I think it’s great that yoga is reaching so many people, even if it is focused more on postures than philosophy. But is the image of the modern-day yogi also holding a lot of people back?
I recently took a 6-month break from social media, and upon return, I felt pretty crushed by all the images that were suddenly all up in my face again. Obviously, Facebook knows I like yoga, and my feed is bursting with ads; Yoga for strength – get perfect abs! Lose weight fast – 30-day yoga challenge! And so on. Of course, all are accompanied with our image of the young, skinny white girl doing an impossible posture that accentuates her oh so airbrushed biceps. One ad for yoga leggings even had a video of women checking themselves out in the mirror to see how the added elastic in the butt-crease accentuated the shape of their booty. No joke.
Whilst being constantly bombarded with these images, it would be easy to assume that you have to have an XX chromosome, below 2% body fat and a whole wardrobe of spandex before you can even think about entering a yoga class. As my friend once put it, isn’t yoga just for hot chicks? It’s true that 90% of my teacher training courses have been female. It’s true that the younger you are the more elastic you tend to be. It’s true that in some types of yoga it gets very hot and tight clothes are handy if you don’t want your t-shirt in your face every time you do a downward-facing dog. And yes those racer-back bras do look very pretty and in fact, I own three. But is there also more to it?
In reality, all sorts of people practice yoga. The majority of the yogic gurus from Patanjali to Pattabhi Jois were in fact men. With the advent of ‘Broga’ (yes, it makes me cringe too) more Western men are joining the party, from the makers of kilted yoga to my old civil service director in his suit and tie. The youngest practitioners – if they can be called that – are under the age of one; the ultimate masters of happy baby pose. At the other end of the spectrum, the oldest yoga teacher in the world is still practicing at the ripe age of 93. Inspirational people like Dianne Bondy are showing the world that you don’t need to be size: small, flavour: vanilla to stand proud on two hands. I’ve practiced with a woman paralysed from the waist down, a man with one arm and many people who have used yoga for all types of healing. It’s just that these people aren’t plastered all over your news feed.
Being young, thin or bendy are not prerequisites to practicing yoga. Though they might be coincidental byproducts, they’re not the main purpose of it. In fact, you don’t even need to be able to do a single yoga pose in order to practice. How can that be? Because the thing that makes yoga different from other types of exercise is the use of breath. This is why yoga is so good for the mind, not just the body. And everyone – regardless of their age, weight, gender or skin colour – can breathe. Sitting on a chair for half an hour and breathing deeply is a very beneficial yoga practice. This stimulates the relaxation response in the body; it calms the nervous system, slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, improves digestion, aids sleep and a whole host of other juicy benefits. You can definitely practise yoga without your hands being even remotely in reach of your toes.
Okay, but isn’t yoga only accessible for the kinds of people who can afford to eat quinoa, avocados and coconut lattes? Granted, a yoga class is more expensive than a session at the gym or a run in the park. Despite this, teaching yoga is not a lucrative profession and most teachers scrape by or have second jobs so they can keep sharing what they love. In a good yoga class you get what you pay for; skilled guidance, one to one advice and maybe a free cup of tea. Some studios offer discounts and opportunities for karma yoga (classes in exchange for housekeeping). Increasingly, studios are directing some of their proceeds towards outreach classes to reach people who might not otherwise come into the studio. Charities like Edinburgh Community Yoga do excellent work taking yoga into prisons, mental health institutions and women support groups. There is always more work to do of course, but the yoga community is growing to be more inclusive and diverse than you might initially think.
I know what’s going through your head. It’s easy for me – as a young, slim, bendy woman – to be saying all these things. But the truth is yoga has changed my relationship with myself a lot. Our body image is usually somewhere on a scale between mildly inaccurate to wildly dysmorphic. I am the heaviest I have ever been, and probably the happiest with my body thanks to yoga. On the whole, I feel strong and healthy in my practice. Some days I even feel – dare I say it – gracious. I don’t really mind about the cellulite appearing on my hefty cyclist thighs, or the love handles that kindly take care of that extra piece of chocolate cake for me. Yoga has taught me to care more about feeling healthy and whole than the weighing scales.
That said, there are also the days when I feel like I’ll never lift my fat ass off the floor. This is the ugly side of yoga, the yoga they don’t put in the adverts. It’s emerging from practice sweaty and stinking, wishing you hadn’t eaten so much garlic bread last night. It’s the wild demonic abandon of lion’s breath and the cleansing practice where you suck water up through your anus. It’s pushing too hard and injuring yourself, or being injured by a teacher. It’s coming face to face with the aspects of yourself you’d rather pretend were not there. It’s the days you don’t even make it to class because leaving the house is just too difficult today. It’s coming to terms with the fact that you’re not as young or skinny or bendy or strong or manly or womanly or accomplished or whatever as other people in the room and you’re probably never going to be because that’s them and you’re you.
And what yoga teaches us, is that’s okay. Contrary to what the adverts might suggest, you don’t have to be pretty. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to show up.