Almost 10 years ago, I walked into a yoga studio in my new home, Sydney, for the first time. I was stressed out, exhausted, and looking for some inner peace. I immediately felt like an elephant in the room compared to all the yogis.
“Over the years I tried to attend yoga regularly, only to feel completely out of place and unwelcome.”
I’m a size 16 black woman who stands tall at 5’9″. No one else in that studio looked like me. What felt like a million eyes watched as I walked across the studio and rolled out my mat coyly at the back of the class. Around me was a sea of willowy bodied women, in the latest yoga attire, bending their bodies into Celtic knots and whipping up a glistening power yoga sweat.
Being physically fit, I managed to keep up with the instructor but felt ignored and isolated from the lack of options for my level of experience (zero) and my body shape. After 45 minutes of intense movements, I was dripping with sweat and out of breath. The instructor advised us to come to our mats for savasana.
So I did as I was told: I lay on my mat, my breath beginning to calm, and I lay there in silence for what felt like an eternity. Though sadly, that was the best part of the class. Tears rolled down the sides of my face and I realised that these had been the only 15 minutes I had to myself all week.
Over the years I tried to attend yoga regularly, only to feel completely out of place and unwelcome. I tried many studios; some had so many students that you literally had to climb over bodies to find a sliver of floor for your mat. Others had gaggles of women who had their cliques and pretty much ignored anyone new who dared to show her face. I would use introductory passes for these studios and then never go back.
While traveling overseas, I found myself on the volcanic shores of Lake Atitlán in the small town of San Marcos in Guatemala. Here, I spent more than a month practicing yoga, meditation, and mysticism in a supportive and loving environment. This is where I decided that if I wanted to feel welcome, at ease, and a part of a community, I would have to create it myself.
And so, in October 2014, I decided to pursue yoga teacher training, and I signed up for a three-month intensive teacher training program, where I practiced yoga intensely for about six hours a day.
I was prepared for my body to be tired and sore from the hours of asana practice, and it was. Each Sunday morning my body let me know that I had put my size-16 frame through hours of yoga the day before, hardly able to sit up and get out of bed in the morning, only to have to repeat it all again.
But I had not considered the depth of ferocious feelings that would surface. With each lunge, fold, and arch of my body, more and more anger emerged. I wasn’t just angry at how I’d been treated in the yoga community. Something more profound was happening: a lifetime of hurt, anger, disappointment, and self-judgment was leaving my being.
I realized that for years I had been searching for a feeling I was finding in that yoga studio. I had been craving the ability to turn up and focus on my mat and myself, a place where I didn’t have to worry about where my yoga pants were from or where to buy the best soy chai latte after class.
All along, it was me who had to let go of wanting to fit into the expectations of others, and, luckily for me, I found a studio that created such a warm and safe space for that shift to occur. The studio consisted of a group of yogis who were so diverse in age, shape, and size — students AND teachers. Everyone was warm and open and didn’t look one certain way.
What I learned from my journey to becoming a yoga teacher is that yoga isn’t only asana. Yoga isn’t about how perfectly you can mold your body into a pose.
Yoga is about meeting yourself, exactly where you are in that moment and accepting yourself, right there and then. There are always going to be poses that you need to adjust for yourself, but if you can be gentle with yourself, surrender to the moment, and connect to yourself, then your yoga practice will continue to develop.
Our role as yoga teachers is to provide a space where our students feel welcome and safe to experience whatever decides to show up in their practice that day — without expectation or judgement. That is my intention for each and every class I have the honor of teaching.
This article was first published on Mind Body Green as a part of the Real Talk series on 15th December 2015.