I have to admit, the first time I saw Erin doing yoga, I was shocked.
At 330 pounds, her frame was not what I was used to seeing in the classroom, but it wasn't until I saw her in action that I realized how strong my bias was about what a yogi "should" look like.
She recently wrote a moving article at YogaCityNYC.com about her struggles--and victories--being an overweight yogi in a perfectionist's town.
"Healthy", "strong", and yes, "thin", or at least, "toned", are all words I've come to associate with the practice of yoga, and the people who practice it. This is both because the founding yogis looked this way, and many long-term yoga practitioners end up with the long, lean and limber bodies of yore. To me, a transformed physique means a dedicated, advanced inner practitioner.
Even though I'd known Erin for a few months as the graphic designer at my yoga studio, and I'd encouraged her to come to class, I was taken aback at my reaction. I know better. It made me want to examine my bias, and do better.
Very overweight people tend to evoke feelings of spiritually-motivated frustration in me, as I see their struggle to come to balance with their eating habits, or their lives in general, but I can only offer them concepts, not force them to change. That must come from inside each student. And, to watch the fight, sometimes for their very survival, is a challenge for any healer.
So we walk the razor's edge of desiring change versus promoting acceptance of what is.
We know that yoga, coupled with a healthy diet can help people come to a healthy weight and a strong, limber body. However, obesity is only the external symptom of an internal source problem, often low self-esteem.
Erin agrees, saying "I know I don't have the most nutritious or appropriate diet in the world. But eating right ties in with self-love (or in my case the lack of), so it is a very vicious cycle.
My practice and I...the dream and the reality. We battle every day."
But then again, my Spidey sense goes off whenever I see someone engaged in coping mechanisms, and behaviors that contradict their stated goals of inner peace and health. That's why I do what I do. And part of that "I want to fight your ego to the death and win your happiness" reaction is a good thing.
In yoga, we would say that if someone cannot contain their energy, their weight, their habits or their thoughts, and is actively participating in habits that are holding them back from what they say they want, then there is still something of the fear-based ego to be brought into awareness, and dissolved. One's true nature is harmony with self and the universe, and this will be revealed as the ego (and its need to pad itself away from the world) falls away.
And, I have to admit, I do view obesity (I'm not talking about a healthy, curvy woman, mind you, but clinical obesity) as an imbalance that that originates in the ego's shadow looming too large in front of the spirit's light, but ultimately reflects in avoidable heart attacks, cancer, and strokes.
To be fair, I also see imbalances in myself and my students that manifest in other ways.
Family drama, reactivity, anxiety, overeating, under-eating, self-criticism, aggression, victimhood and a million other ways we live our fears and insecurities out loud, all show up in the way we look, feel, and even do our Down Dogs. I can tell the way that you live, love and view yourself and your world from the way you practice on the mat.
Since my job is to help the people who come to my classes seeking information that might encourage them to gain freedom from these restrictive ways of thinking and being, I will always invite them to shift themselves through developing new ways of being and taking action.
Still, I have to be careful that my support of their process doesn't negate the fact that they are fully realized just as they come to me. Even if they never lose a pound or implement the changes they find. And I find a lot of 'growth-obsessed' people in the yoga world who won't be happy with their students or themselves until they look like fat-free Gumby clones.
Therein lies the rub: As a teacher whom people ask to help them find their middle path, my spiritual eye is trained to spot--and tame--misalignments on every level. Every person that steps onto the mat is asymmetrical in some way--poses, relationships, self-esteem or family dynamics can all be slightly or massively gone off the rails.
However, the other, complementary teaching of yoga is to reach a state of complete self-acceptance in the moment, so that we experience the deep soul-relaxation that occurs whenever we stop fighting ourselves and cease striving for what we could be, and instead, allow ourselves to be exactly enough just as we are now.
I find that in many studios, there is more emphasis on the fires of transformation, than the cool, still waters of welcoming oneself--or others--as is. We talk the talk, but how many fat people do you see in yoga classes? How many of color? There are still biases to be overcome--on both sides of the mat.
Students and teachers alike can easily fall from discernment, which helps us observe where we want to aim for growth, into the dark morass of judgment, which shoves others into your own specially-designed categories, usually ones you deem "not as good as" yours.
I'd like to see this change, as we start to shift our very idea of what a yogi really is--inside, and out.
It's a yin-yang thing. To be in balance, we must both be self-accepting and present in the moment as it is (yin), and actively working towards self-transformation (yang). This means that even as we float in the soothing murmurs of self-love, we still realize there is work to be done to peel away layers of BS, and reveal more and more of what we already are: refinement, integrity, self-nourishing, health and happiness.
In her article, which I encourage all of you to read, Erin reminds us that there is a person, and yes, a true yogi within the outer body that might look out of place in a studio. And trust her...it feels out of place, too.
As Erin says, "when everyone in that room is giving 100 percent, I'm giving 300 percent", due to the added weight."
Many teachers aren't equipped to deal with special needs or bodies in different shapes than their teacher training blueprint in class, and so might unintentionally alienate the very overweight woman (or even one with a chest!), the tight guy, those who are limited in mobility due to, say, spinal scoliosis. The inner yogi is the same in all of us, but our outer bodies can be radically different.
I shake my head whenever I see a teacher trying to yank a girl with extremely tight shoulders up into handstand, or force someone deeper into a seated forward bend whose legs are still radically bent. This won't get us there, folks...it will only get us injured.
Luckily, there is a new worldview happening in yoga, where new, and alternate populations are finding more acceptance--and more specialized teachers who understand their challenges--than ever before.
Entering into the scene are paradigm-changers like plus-sized model and yoga instructor Megan Garcia's "Mega Yoga" books and DVDs, the all-welcoming Reflections Yoga, headed by NYC's Paula Tursi, creator of "Yoga Inside Out" DVDs, paraplegic yogi and internationally known teacher Matthew Sanford and longtime yoga instructor Ellen Saltonstall with her new "Yoga for Arthritis" book.
And we could all learn a thing or two from opening our eyes to the full spectrum of yogis, both potential and actual, that surround us.
Tursi, who recently hosted studio events that included Native Indian, Jewish, transgendered, full-bodied, African American participants and more, sees the necessity for making space to those who might not see themselves in the current, predominantly thin, Caucasian and youthful yoga mainstream.
She says "You can be anything or anyone at Reflections Yoga just as long as you are looking for truth. You can be a shaman or an atheist, you can eat meat or be raw, you can be a part of the slow sex movement or a celibate, or anything in-between.
What I look for is the desire for truth. Is the lens you are looking through a place where you are hiding or your particular journey of exploration? We have so many different types of seekers in our space but the one thing they all have in common is a deep desire to understand why they are here and to find a deeper understanding of it all."
Those yogis belonging to the strong, lithe, and injury-free tribe can also gain a wider knowledge base and appreciation of their own practice by studying with teachers and observing students who have another perspective.
I once took a lovely class with Sanford where I was reminded how important it is to initiate every pose from the inner energy body first, whether the outer body itself can actually move that way, or not, or if the limb is even there, or not.
Anyone can do a full yoga posture with the pranic body...the physical body will meet its resistance at some point, but we can all be in Scorpion Handstand, though we may be physically sitting in a chair...or a wheelchair.
And as Tursi reminds us, "I think as a culture in general we like to look at what has asthetic appeal, but what defines that appeal changes over time. I feel as teachers we have the influence to enlighten our students to what real beauty can be."
Erin says that, whatever the impact on her outer body may be, yoga is already impacting her at a deep inner level:
"Despite the disadvantages of my body's size versus the size of everyone else, my teacher taught me and is still teaching me it is not about the perfect pose--it's about the individual and their own practice.
Every yogi that gives me a kind word in practice...seeing the joy on a teacher's face when someone learns more and becomes stronger. That's what keeps me going."
Before we develop a cookie-cutter view of our fellow seekers, and begin to quietly judge those who deviate from our Yoga Journal cover model ideal as "not there yet", or "not advanced" let's all open our hearts along with our minds, and look at all your fellow students as you'd like them to view you:
fully, stumblingly human--and powerfully divine.
Try my free videos to gain a new vantage point on the practice:
Yoga for Overweight Yogis: To Lose Weight, or just Feel Great!
Yoga for the Inflexible