I’m a student in a year-long, 200-hour yoga teacher training program, and the end of June marked the halfway point in the program. I’ve hesitated writing about it here because it feels a little too personal, and a little self-congratulatory talking about “my yogic journey”. But as my friend Lisa said to me, the story is mine and who else can tell it? So here are some things I’ve learned, changed, or grown through during the past six months.
Communication & adjustment
Yoga is a direct experience. We begin by teaching students to focus on their bodies, to use their muscles to bring their bones into proper alignment so the muscles can release gripping and chronic tension. To me, asana is often difficult to put into words. Verbalizing the instructions for alignment in a pose and especially transitioning from one pose to another has been challenging for me. An asana is broad in its experience, so only a few pieces of information can be given at a time. Choosing the right pieces of information, using the right words about orientation, and being clear and concise is a new skill that I am delighted (yet challenged) to learn.
The keys are knowing the right information to give, the clearest way to give it, and when to offer it. All the while, keeping safety and proper alignment in mind. It is educational to give a verbal cue like “let your knees fall open and the soles of the feet come together” and watch people do all kinds of crazy things that are not supta baddha konasana. I feel like having 10 different ways to cue a body movement would be helpful. Learning to prioritize information to give people, especially beginners, is still a challenge for me. Directional orientation that makes sense to people - place your foot at a 60 degree angle instead of point your foot toward the corner of your mat – is the most challenging thing for me to do so far. Especially in a yoga class where mats are facing in different directions. Keeping left & right straight. Giving instructions without actually going through the poses with people. It’s something that I know will come with practice. All my yoga teachers have always made it look so easy!
I assisted my first class last week. Actually walking around the class and touching people was something I needed to experience, when so far I have only touched other yoga teachers or Jimmy when we practice at home. In a beginner class there are so many different types of bodies. Training my eyes to see proper alignment when someone’s spine is extremely curved or when their hips are tight is a new skill as well. I like giving physical cues, and am always amazed at how the body instinctively knows how to respond with just a light touch, properly applied. I am still nervous about adjusting people’s hips or thighs, it just seems very invasive, but it’s something I want to be more comfortable with. Proper alignment is of utmost importance for safety, so I’ve got to learn to give those cues sometime.
Range of motion
Many people come to yoga because of physical pain. Lots of us aren’t really in our bodies until our awareness is forced there by an injury or by chronic pain, a signal that something is out of balance. An injury brings limited range of motion – from overworking muscles or from being too still. Stiffness comes with age, or with habit. Physical memories in the body, or samskaras (predispositions, stiffness), can be worked through using a yoga practice. Yoga can undo somatic memory, retraining the body through awareness, and then inhaling breath into the muscles to create length and openness, and exhaling to release gripping and stiffness.
Yoga can work physically on the body, but for me it has also been a balancing influence – increasing my “range of motion” spiritually and psychologically. My ability to adjust, change, and adapt has increased. Mental samskaras (conditioning, habits) can hold us back and limit our life’s range of motion. Judging people based on past experiences, prejudices held toward a situation or group, these are all ways we can be limited. Considering mental samskaras has helped me to forgive people, to let offenses go more quickly, to have a thicker skin, to be more open minded, and to approach people (and myself) with compassion and love instead of judgment and skepticism. It has been a big shift, and not an easy one.
Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed.
Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding,
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
as bird wings.
It is hard for me to describe the changes that have manifested through working with my breath. The main thing I can say is that you have to do it. I’ve experienced better body awareness, more energy, greater relaxation, and increased mental clarity through working with breath. One of our textbooks is The Breathing Book by Donna Farhi, which has some excellent exercises and inquiries if you’re interested in exploring the breath and body connection. The syncing of breath to movement is one of the fundamentals of yoga (it’s what is meant by vinyasa). I have been working with it in my own practice as well as cueing it during a class.
I have also learned to release my belly, which has helped me with body acceptance. I’ve had a habit since I was about 10 years old of “sucking in” – pulling in my upper abdominals to appear thinner, because I don’t like the way my belly is shaped. When you suck in your stomach, you cannot breathe properly. You especially cannot breathe intentionally or fully as needed in yoga. I’ve learned to stop doing that. By allowing myself to let go of my diaphragm, I’ve learned to breathe. I’ve also accepted that my body will present itself however it will, and I look the way I look. Sucking in my breath isn’t going to magically make me appear to be a size 4. Just saying that out loud allowed me to let go and experience the benefits of really breathing.
Inquiry, not judgment
My body is not the typical bendy, willowy, Jivamukti girl you see on the cover of Yoga Journal. I am bigger than most yogis. Nearly every time I take a class, I am the biggest person in the class. I am used to teachers asking me things like “Is this your first yoga class?” or “Are you sure you can do that?” when I begin my handstand practice. And yes, my body is limited in certain ways: I have tight shoulders. My ankles are injured and have built-up scar tissue and bone weirdness. I can’t do the full expression of eagle pose or go as deeply into twists as most bodies because of my big arms, thighs and belly.
Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
But guess what? That’s my yoga. Yoga has done wonders for helping me meet my body halfway. I have an awareness about my body (which I spent many years ignoring, punishing, and denying) now because of yoga. I have to feel what correct alignment in trikonasana or Warrior II feels like, because my body doesn’t look like other bodies while doing the pose, even if my alignment is correct. I know what that feels like now.
I am in my body instead of checking out, in my head. I do my yoga. It’s all I can do. When I stumble during a balancing pose or am uncomfortably balled up while everyone else is resting in child’s pose, I just have to laugh to myself. I now practice with humor and inquiry instead of judgment and “shoulds”.
I first ran across this poem by Derek Walcott when I read (my now-favorite book) The Time Traveler’s Wife. I have often found myself reading it out loud, and phrases from it get stuck in my head. It has always haunted me a little bit, but hasn’t quite fit me until now. Now, I get it.
My future in teaching
I went into this program thinking I wanted to do it to deepen my own practice. I didn’t intend to teach. Now I am changing my mind. Going through this experience in a bigger body has intrigued me. I am on a path to self-acceptance (giving up dieting, actively working on improving my body image) and yoga has absolutely been a game changer in all that.
I want to share with others what yoga has done for me, and so I’ve decided that I want to teach classes that help other big people come to yoga. A yoga studio can be an intimidating place for a fat person, and it’s easy to feel out of place when you look and move undeniably differently from everyone else. But the benefits of yoga can be so life-changing, that I feel like everyone should experience them.
Once I graduate, I will be holding a series of workshops – body positive yoga workshops. The workshops will possibly morph into a weekly class, specifically geared toward large bodies. I’m still developing ideas, researching modifications, thinking about more training, things like that. I plan on starting a blog specifically for body positive yoga where I’ll reflect on my own yoga practice as well as posting tips for thicker yogis, talking about body image stuff, maybe posting some podcasts and more. Anna at Curvy Yoga has been a great inspiration to me (thanks, Anna!) and I think all of you should sign up for her 30 Days of Curvy Yoga program (I did!) which is going to be amazing!
Anyway, that’s what’s up! I’d love to hear your thoughts. Or if you have any questions, I’m open to hearing them in the comments! Namaste, y’all!