If you never stepped foot in a yoga studio and all you knew about yoga is what you saw in the media, you would not be wrong in thinking that all yoga practitioners are young, skinny and flexible. And we mustn’t forget beautiful. Even after completing all 26 poses of the infamous Bikram yoga sequence, in 100 degrees heat no less, the typical yoga girl emerges from a steamy studio looking fresh-faced and enlightened, with 6 pack abs.
Right? Wrong. Those of us who have spent time in an actual yoga studio know that’s just not the case. Yogis come in all shapes and sizes, but unfortunately, that’s not widely portrayed, leaving those that are not young, skinny and flexible feeling unwelcome, or worse, undeserving of a yoga practice.
While the proliferation of yoga-related content on the internet and in the media has led to more people coming to experience this ancient practice, the misrepresentation of the average yogi has led to a culture of inaccessibility and intimidation.
I never quite internalized this idea until my student pointed it out to me. Maria has been practicing yoga with me for 3 years and has been a dear friend of mine for 12. A beautiful, voluptuous Latina, Maria weighed nearly 300 pounds at her heaviest. She was not comfortable trying yoga for the first time in a studio setting, so we practiced in the privacy of my home. Given the right modifications for her body type, Maria was able to catch on to the poses quickly. She had a high-stress job and absolutely loved the deeper, relaxing aspects as well. After a few months of private sessions, I was excited for her to join my local yoga community, but knew she had hesitations.
Little by little, she started coming to studio classes and realized that yoga students are as diverse and unique as the poses themselves. Everyone on their mats is facing a challenge – whether physically, mentally or spiritually – even if it doesn’t always appear that way on the surface.
Through inviting yoga and other new healthy activities into her life, Maria is down to almost half her original weight. I’m so happy to report that I helped her into her very first handstand yesterday!
Through this experience, I’ve started to ask myself and fellow members of the yoga community these important questions to consider:
As yoga teachers - are we open and receptive to a diverse range of students?
Do we know the correct modification to offer them, depending on their needs?
As yoga studio owners and managers – are we marketing to all ages, body types and opening our doors to welcome them in?
Even with the best of intentions, sometimes certain groups will feel excluded by their local yoga communities. It’s up to us how we react and help alleviate their feelings of intimidation. But if anyone can be supportive, sensitive and intuitive to their needs, the yoga community most certainly can!