By Angie Hay
I spent the first twenty years of my life not loving myself much at all, and then somebody I loved stopped loving me. In retaliation, I took up bellydancing. This wasn’t an act of bravery or courageousness of any kind. I was grasping at straws. I went to dance class in oversized overalls covered by a black sweater that hung to my knees. My dance teacher gently confirmed that she’d be better able to help me if she could see my body moving, but it wasn’t an option at the time. I was doing the best I could, and the sweater was part of that.
Next, my mom suggested we take a yoga class together. My first yoga teacher was a gift from the universe straight to me, a wise woman wrapped in a blanket in a golf course clubhouse. She taught a class that was compassionate, creative, and well-informed, tuned in to the seasons of the year and the people in the room. She had a way of suggesting modifications that made them seem like natural extensions of the poses, no judgment included, no subtext that “better” yogis would be doing something way more awesome right then. The body I had always been at odds with opened like a gate in her class and I began to believe myself capable of amazing things. I thought that’s what yoga classes were like.
After a year, she stopped teaching and I began looking for yoga in other places, ending up in lots of spots that had a decidedly different vibe. By then the modifications I had learned were so much a part of my practice that I added them without prompting, which was good, because I wasn’t given any. The teachers seemed busy with their soundtracks and giving us “a good workout,” and only my love of the practice kept me in the room. I became aware that in these classes I was the biggest person by far, and I felt committed to holding that space for other people like me to practice. Instead, each week I watched the same tragic trajectory:
One or two big mamas would come in and roll out their mats, spending a few anxious moments before the start of the class weighing the room. (I do this, too. I felt you every time I saw it.) The warm-ups were okay, and the first unlikely shape didn’t kill anybody, but the second one always did. I would start wishing for the teacher to say aloud the modification I was already imagined, but she never did. Her pathway was more about complexity, and by the time she was explaining how to “deepen the pose,” the prospective yogi had rolled up her mat and sealed the double doors behind her. It was awful to see. I knew that the right teacher could drop them right into the practice, as mine had, and the fact that they were turned away instead was heartbreaking.
I wish I could say that only happened in one room with one teacher, but any plus-size yogi already knows that would be untrue. It’s hard to find a doctor or employer who doesn’t see you as fat first and foremost, and it can be a complicated negotiation among family members, lovers, and friends. The world is a harsh place for bodies right now, an ugly web of what’s not allowed and what you can buy to banish the parts of yourself you don’t like. Many yoga classrooms are tiny little mirrors of these poisonous ideas. From the teacher who pretends not to see my big body because she doesn’t know what to do with it to the teacher who over-assists me because she’s hyperaware of a big butt in her class. From the skinny teacher who insists “we all have little bellies we’d like to lose” to the teacher who offers a modification “for students who are obese.” From the yoga companies who don’t make clothes in my size (all of them) to the partners who would rather work with anyone else in the room.
When I began to daydream about teaching yoga, those left-out yogis were the first people I thought of. People brave enough to give their bodies something delicious and new, only to have everything they feared about their own self-worth reinforced in the first few minutes. What if the room they walked into was filled with bodies that look less like Shiva and more like Ganesh? Have you ever seen a fat man in Warrior II? It’s awesome. It looks like someone who wins every battle. Have you ever seen a room full of fat women doing backbends? I haven’t either, unfortunately, but I saw a picture once of a big woman in Pigeon that looked like Aphrodite in her shell.
These are the reasons why Big Asana feels important to me. I want yoga to look like me and I want it to look like you. I know yoga can work for me and I want you to know it can work for you. I want big butts in yoga pants on yoga mats doing yoga poses. I want you to feel how powerful your thighs are and the amazing length of your wingspan from fingertip to fingertip. I want you to take a big breath that makes your big belly stick out, and I want it to be the one breath of the day when your size feels like an asset to you. I want you on this journey with me. I want yoga to feel like a home to you. If you’re there, it will make it feel more like home to me, too.
“Yoga is not just about yoga poses. It is a technology designed for revelation: revelation of your true face, your true name, your true nature. For most people, unflinchingly and lovingly knowing yourself requires a great deal of power. Although we tend to mistrust power as corruptive, I learned from my teacher years ago that, if I want to do something good in this world, I damn well better be powerful.” – Bernadette Birney
Angie Hay was introduced to yoga in 1998, and it was love at first Savasana. She was instantly amazed by the capacity for both strength and calmness she found in a body that often seemed weak and worried.Countless gym classes and DVDs later, Angie joined the 200-Hour Hatha Teacher Training program at Yoga on High.This course allowed her to broaden her understanding of both the mechanics of asana and the deeper reasons behind the mystery that happens on the mat. She has been especially grateful for assisting and teaching alongside wise woman Linda Oshins in her magical classes. Angie was as proud as she’s ever been of anything to graduate from the program in 2010, and is currently enrolled in 500-Hour Advanced Teacher Training.
This article was originally published on Yoga on High. Reposted with permission.