Walk into a yoga class and you’ll likely hear discourse about multiplicity and acceptance, but look around and you may see why the Western yoga world has a reputation of uniformity. Recent conversations have focused on the way in which “curvaceous” bodies have been left out of mainstream yoga culture. Yoga magazines and advertisements predominantly feature slim white women and some yoga apparel companies tend to ostracize heavier-set practitioners. The obvious dearth of diversity, however, does not solely pertain to different-bodied folks. The homogeneity of the yoga world—composed mostly of middle-aged, affluent, white women—is an offshoot of a general state of disrepair in society and the disconnection of marginalized communities.
Yogis should be the first warriors to defend everyone’s right to the mat. Not only that, but yogis should do what they can to help bolster equality and strive to create a non-judgmental space where people can express both love and struggles with their identities. Recent movements to reclaim the words “curvy” and “fat,” and the surge in popularity of inspiring Instagram sensations help broaden the perception of what yoga looks like, but true multiformity is still elusive. In an effort to help illuminate the multifaceted landscape of yoga, we asked people of different ages, orientations, sizes, and backgrounds to share their thoughts on how they relate to the practice in body and in essence. Each sentiment reveals a beautiful body-positive yoga snapshot of what it truly means to be a yoga practitioner.
Star S., 68
Four years ago I had a second bout with cancer, and my diabetes and blood pressure was out of control. I could barely move. I struggled to make it through a restorative yoga class and realized that this truly was my “last chance” to get it right. Two years after maintaining a regular asana practice, I applied to do the teacher training at Yoga Union. It’s the most empowering thing I’ve ever done.
If you can breathe, you can do yoga. It isn’t just about making your body more flexible and healthy (although that occurs), it’s about making your life more flexible and healthy. Breath is the first fundamental of life, and it’s no coincidence it’s the first fundamental of yoga. It’s about being strong enough to open your heart and allowing yourself to be fully present in every facet of your life. Yoga is prayer to me. When I sit in meditation, it’s opening myself to the divine. Yoga has been a precious gift that I unwrap every day.
Related: Yoga Is Not Your Therapy—Here’s Why
Brittany A., 28
New York, New York
I struggled with body image for the majority of my life. My adolescence was wrought with eating disorders and never feeling good enough. There was one day when I just let it all go. It was about four or five years ago, and I’d had enough. Sometimes thoughts and insecurities creep in, especially when I look at yoga magazines and images and see very few women who look anything like me. All that means to me is that I have to make myself known. I have to become visible on the yoga scene so that other women who are like me or see themselves in me know that they are the yoga body. It is important to me that all women understand that they are yoga, and that they have been all this time. They just need to be represented.
Kristin M., 45
New York, New York
The magic of yoga is that it has the capacity to bring us back over and over to the perfectly imperfect nature of our truest selves. I know this because it is what it has done for me personally. As a woman approaching age 45 this year, I am so deeply grateful that yoga has taught me how to care for, love, cherish, and appreciate every movement, every cell, every breath that my human body offers me in each moment of each day. It’s this freedom that I wish to illuminate for all women. Everywhere. My favorite phrase comes from the motto of the Women’s Therapy Centre Institute, an organization I work with that’s dedicated to educating health practitioners and the public about women’s psychology, eating disorders, and body image: “Start a revolution. Stop hating your body!”
Ximena S., 34
Yoga saved my life! Literally! I came to yoga as a stressed-out, overworked college student losing a long battle with my body. I was breathing wrong, I had zero connection to my body beyond my fixation with what I saw in the mirror (and how distorted that picture was). That all changed when I began to breathe … with purpose, with intention, with awareness. When I chanted and felt my whole body vibrate. When I gained not only physical strength through asana, and saw just how powerful and purposeful my body was, but when that strength gave me courage to look beyond the distortion. Yoga didn’t change me, yoga just helped me to see what I had been hiding from, deep wounds and all, and provided me with tools to help heal those wounds. Taking that first inhale in my first yoga class was me coming to life.
Danielle C., 50
Irvington, New York
A few years ago I started noticing I couldn’t twist as far as I used to. I thought maybe it was my back, like, “Oh, this is 45—your back tells you not to go so far.” Then I realized it wasn’t my back, it was my belly. Doh! I’m generally pretty nice to myself about aging and change. But this bummed me out—losing access to juicy effortless twists and binds. Every class nowadays this comes up for me. And each time I have to look for a way to meet it with a smile rather than a grumble. More than the asanas, these little opportunities to rescript that voice in my head— which can be pretty noisy and distracting—make me incredibly grateful for my mat and my breath and my hands and my feet. The whole shebang.
Chris G., 24
Wellness is being healthy in both body and mind. I used to row and was focused on being the best I could physically be. I am very active and I still have a competitive side. Yoga is one of the few things that bridges my body and my mind. I began my yoga practice about six months after moving to D.C.. It wasn’t the greatest period for me and I decided to dive straight into a six-week yoga program. One of the first things we had to do was simply observe and recognize things about our life, without passing judgement or acting on it. This was surprising and new for me as I tend towards action, wanting to improve anything about myself or my life that I’d like to change. A yoga practice demands that type of stillness and observation without judgment. And so even though I still strive for constant improvement, I want this to be balanced with an acceptance and contentment with myself exactly as I am.
Garance C., 28
To me, yoga is a metaphor for life. Anything that happens on my mat translates somehow outside of it. It’s pretty crazy. My relationship to yoga has deepened through the years and I’ve learned to respect my body, to nurture it and to listen to it. My body always knows what my mind is not ready to see yet. So when something is going on, I try to connect to my body and to listen to what it has to tell me. And I will hear,”Slow down.” “Rest.” “Feed me this.” “Let’s go for a run.” “I’ll have a glass of wine!” My body never lies and I see her as the gatekeeper of my soul. For this reason, I make sure I treat her with as much care, compassion, and love as I can.
Bibi M., 50
I make my yoga practice a priority because it keeps me balanced overall. My mind is more clear and calm, my body stronger and my awareness strengthened. I vibe high when I practice yoga constantly and that’s what it’s about. Taking it higher!
Too many yoga studios, practitioners, festival promoters, etc., tend to strictly market to a limited demographic that does not show all of the flavors and colors of the rainbow that represent the yoga community at large. Regardless of the size and shape of one’s body or ethnicity, yoga is for everybody and I’d like to see this be reflected in all advertising and marketing pertaining to yoga. When I appeared on the November 2014 cover of Yoga Journal magazine, I got hundreds of people telling me things like, “Yes, finally a normal-sized woman on the cover.” Others said they felt included to see someone with their same skin color and hair texture. Westerners often lose sight of the sacred and scientific origins of yoga by watering it down to fit into a package that’s convenient for our “I want it all and I want it now” mentality.
I always say this and I’ll say it again: Yoga is for everybody!
Therese J., 52
After a head injury in 2005 together with rhuematoid arthritis, a bone in my neck touched my spinal cord and required a long, complex, and traumatic operation. I had to learn how to talk, walk, and eat all over again. Yoga has helped me heal by loving myself as I am in spite of my limitations. It has helped me spiritually by tuning into my heart and the beauty of nature for healing. I learned from yoga how to focus on what I can do and not compare myself with others. Yoga asana has also helped me heal physically by improving my strength, coordination, and flexibility. I feel like I have woken up since doing yoga and meditation.
Jess L., 44
We used to move in so many diverse ways: to fend for ourselves; to find shelter; to harvest and hunt for food. Our bodies reflected this diversity in that we were more omnidirectional than just sitting, standing, and lying down afford. That linear orientation—forward and back, but never side-to-side or around—is mostly what humans do nowadays, and it has caused us to atrophy in body, mind, and spirit. That’s why we are seeking yoga—union—to return to an embodied reality that is inclusive of our whole experience, that mirrors nature in all its names and forms, and seats us at our place in the family of living things. Through yoga we explore how we touch the earth in any given moment. To notice the subtleties of form, such as the texture and quality of the breath, the arc of the spine, the ascent of a limb overhead. It asks our mind to do the same.
My yoga asana practice is a much needed ritualization of my moment-by-moment awareness, a time to formulate questions and make observations that would otherwise remain amorphous: “What am I cultivating? What dissolving? What resisting?” This is a lifelong aspiration, to see clearly, but it’s not easily measured, and that is incongruent with American culture, which glorifies the silver-bullet health solution as much in yoga as in other wellness-related realms. I call it the “Quinoa Effect”—just add quinoa and it’s healthy! Yoga asanas are long, drawn-out affairs. Like relationships, we commit to them, and the very act of abiding transforms us. It’s not Triangle Pose that does that. It’s the return to Triangle as a conduit for our attention. This is the most natural of all pursuits—to know ourselves, to never leave ourselves, to call our body home.
Maria M., 25
Brooklyn, New York
Rolling out my mat began with the desire to be a better mover and to feel good in my body. It was very much based in what I could accomplish on a physical level. This frame of mind made me attached to how I felt and looked every time I showed up to practice; it brought me into a space of judgment and criticism of myself and those around me. It was challenging to be satisfied by anything with this mindset, so I started to search for something deeper, something more meaningful. Over time (and with lots of practice), yoga has taught me to show up on my mat and simply be an observer. It has asked me to understand that every day is a new moment and that every person is at a different point in his or her journey. This mindset has given me so much more compassion for those around me and for myself. It has showed me that life is a constant cycle of death and rebirth. As a result I have learned to show up and let go, to fill up with something new so that I my capacity for light and love may continue to expand. Now when I take class I find myself smiling at of a group of people showing up to breathe and move, to be present, together—there is such joy in this simplicity and personally I feel that is what yoga aims to teach us.
Karen G., 59
I came to yoga in high school in a body I wished to abandon. Since surgery at age 11, and ongoing rare medical conditions, my body felt like it had failed. When joining in with Lilias! Yoga and You on TV after school, I felt like all my nerves and muscles were smoothed down, like the feathers of a bird, and I could deeply relax. I found wholeness. Now as a teacher at Unfold Studio, I practice to feel the joy, vitality, and beauty in my body. I practice to feel truly alive. The media have increasing portrayed “yoga” as people with fashion model bodies and the flexibility of ballet dancers. In reality, much of the qualities of what makes someone a yogi are deeply internal.
Joan W., 34
Beauty is strength, humility, and grace. Beauty is whatever makes your heart sing. I started practicing 13 years ago. I was dancing professionally in New York. That life is challenging, physically and emotionally. I showed up to a yoga class not really knowing what I was getting myself into. I was extremely flexible so I could do all the moves but my mind and heart were totally missing from the practice. I had been living in this body of mine beating myself up. I was full of judgement and criticism and the practice was asking me to love myself and to honor exactly who I was. Whoa. That was a game changer. Now, I have no choice. I just show up to my mat or my seat every day and do the work. There is no other way. After my practice there is always a shift. I always feel better and then I can show up to my life and my teaching as my best self. I have this Post-It note on my door that I see each time I leave the apartment. It reads: “Well-being is only stream that flows through me.” That’s what I strive for every day.
Gary B., 53
New York, New York
Often, when I’m in a class with a yoga instructor who doesn’t know me, I’ll notice that he or she will move closer to me when I’m attempting an inversion, as if thinking, “Someone this big can not possibly go upside down without killing himself.” So far, so good, I’m happy to report, which is mostly a function of yoga. Not simply because my practice has made me more flexible than one might expect of a 6’1″, 245-pound middle aged man, but because through my practice I’ve developed a greater understanding of my body’s abilities and limitations. And, equally important, my practice is really about teaching myself to be less proud of my successes than I want to be and more forgiving of my failures than I tend to be. Shockingly, this journey has left me a lot happier off the mat, too.
Autumn W., 25
I was a gymnast and a dancer for a long time. Beauty used to be about aesthetics. I felt beautiful when I looked nice. At some point, there was a shift and I started to feel beautiful when I felt strong. Don’t get me wrong, I like wearing heels and bright colors but over the last few years I’ve begun to feel self-love and that also makes me feel beautiful. I feel beautiful when I feel at peace and I find ways to care for myself and find that stillness. I think beauty is the expression of love. Love is a privilege and not a duty. I want to show that in my actions every day. I used to think beauty was about how someone looked. Now I think it’s beautiful when a woman throws her head back and laughs or licks her fingers because she’s eating something so good. There are so many ways to see beauty in this world.
Lauren D., 38
I began my yoga practice six years ago as just another class at the gym. This was part of a larger effort to regain control of my body during a period of poor health. It is now what brings connectivity between my mind and my body through breath. I feel most beautiful when I am strong. The more I can ground down and center myself on my mat, the more I can cope and succeed off my mat. Wellness means constantly striving to improve myself and my impact on the planet and the people around me. Yoga has brought a certain lifestyle forward for me—my practice makes me feel an increased responsibility to be my best self, to act with kindness and build community around me.
Julia K., 23
Queens, New York
Yoga connects me to who I am rather than what I look like. Having struggled for many years with my body image the yoga practice introduced me to the path of healing and self-love that helps me each day to recover. Over time my yoga practice has helped me navigate the path of loving kindness and better understand the divine nature that exists within the mind-body connection. Moreover, with constant practice I learned to let go of my distorted body image and speak more kindly to myself. Each time I step on my mat I am reminded of this message and realize the beauty and blessing of a healthy body and, more so, the beauty of a self-loving mind.
John A., 66
When I was 60 I was severely overweight and had trouble putting on my socks because my feet felt like they were in the distant land of Timbuktu. I felt empty on the inside and I knew that I wasn’t living into the fullness of who I am as a human being. I had to do something and that started my journey with mind-body practices.
When I compare myself to what others in the class are or are not doing then I create a barrier and distance myself from the fundamental unity of the universe. When I connect with the flow of life there are no distinctions and nothing to include or exclude—there is simply the yoga that everyone is welcomed into. What I love about yoga is the acceptance of everyone for who they are and where they are. It is such a life-affirming and life-empowering practice that anyone can be part of.
Jennifer D., 26
Brooklyn, New York
When I first began my yoga practice it was for all of the wrong reasons. I wanted to be thin, I wanted the “yoga booty.” I have always struggled with practicing self-love and actually believing in the confidence I exuded. It wasn’t until two years after I began to practice when I felt my confidence building and it had nothing to do with my physical appearance. I became aware of what it felt like to be grounded, feeling the floor beneath my feet and realizing I was standing up, firmly, confidently on my own. That was when I realized the beauty that I felt within my practice and within my body as I passionately gave myself to yoga. With every breath I took I nurtured myself and with every movement I did I became stronger. I am endlessly inspired by the fellow yogis in my class. All ages and sizes, because we all have something in common; love. Love for our practice and love for ourselves. I wish to hold onto this feeling of self love and live it every time I look at my body.
Niema L., 35
Yoga itself is all-inclusive. Anyone who can breathe can practice this art of opening to union. The asanas can be adapted to help any person of any age, body type, or skill level by a qualified and sensitive teacher who is deeply listening to his or her students’ true needs. The way yoga is taught and represented in mainstream American culture is usually exclusive of anyone who is not of European descent, heteronormative, and with the body type of a fashion model and prowess of an athlete. It saddens me how rarely I see yoginis like me, a curvy woman of color, depicted in yoga-related media. Part of my mission as a yoga teacher and artist is to spread the understanding that yoga, if properly modified and appropriately taught, is for everyone who wants to explore personal transformation. In the future I hope to see a greater emphasis on individualized yoga instruction, and inclusive yoga classes and studios creating a welcoming space for all populations.
Harry R., 27
I sought out yoga four years ago because, at the heart of it, I wanted to change my body. I was surprised to find a practice unconcerned with this, offering instead a path to quiet. The poses demand my attention, and in the shapes I have found my body in expressions of exaltation—and so I have learned to exalt in myself, which may be the same as contentment. Though in my practice, I have developed physical strength, the work is unravelling the patterns of mind that keep me chained. “Open your heart!” my teacher sternly repeats. In trying to learn what this means, I’ve found it’s not just muscles and ligaments that begin to change.
Skyler V., 23
New York, New York
When I was younger I had a pretty tumultuous relationship with my body. I compared myself to the girls I danced with, constantly wondering why my body didn’t look more like theirs and working fruitlessly to change my shape. As I started to practice yoga, I became more and more comfortable, happy, and proud of the body I have. It’s unlike anyone else’s, and that’s amazing. There are still moments, of course, when I wish that this thing were smaller, or that thing were bigger, but ultimately I’m proud of the skin that I’m in.
Estee F., 37
San Francisco, California
Practicing yoga, meditation, and Ayurveda have helped me to love my body, exactly as it is. Over the years my practice has shifted from a somewhat aggressive and physically demanding approach to a more holistic and healing system. In my daily practice, I’m continually checking in with my body, mind, and energy to assess what I need to feel balanced and whole. I think we have become increasingly confused by social media and advertising. In trying to sell us the latest thing that will supposedly make our lives better, the media wants us to imagine a yoga body as lithe, young, and “sexy.” To me, every body is a yoga body; all ages, shapes, and sizes can benefit from the practice of becoming more mindful.
Aden V., 28
Wellness is a mindset. It is accepting whatever is going on in my body at the time. I used to think I had to be physically active everyday in order to be well. But I have been both incredibly healthy and incredibly sick in the last few years, and that changed how I thought about wellness. There are points when my body is physically ill, and I feel strong because of a deep gratitude for my body, for its work to become healthy again and for being my vessel. Wellness is gratitude. Out of respect for myself, I slow down now and adjust my practice to what my body can do on a given day. These days, I dance in the mornings instead of doing yoga, because it makes me happy.
Sam M., 32
I came to yoga because my dad had been taking classes and bought me a monthlong introductory special for my 23rd birthday. I walked into a yoga class as a pack-a-day smoker and serious party kid. I continue to practice now because it helps me feel a deeper connection to the world around me. Lately, I’ve felt pretty disheartened by the fact that most popular yoga culture depicts it as a practice for skinny, flexible, young, white women. I’m in the beginning stages of working with some fellow yogi friends to reach out to communities that are generally excluded from popular yoga culture, such as people of color, larger bodies, seniors, low-income folks, and the trans and genderqueer communities.
Sadie K., 25
New York, New York
As a fitness professional, my body is constantly on display. I spent many years enslaved in self-doubt and fear. I worried what others thought of me and my own self image was so wrapped up in my body fat, my physical limitations and accomplishments. It felt as though every bit of flesh and every rep at the gym was a direct measure of my self-worth. My yoga practice has taught me that the real me is so much more than my body. Through yoga, I am limitless. I am breath and soul and yes, body, but also so so much more. Yoga has also revealed this: I must accept all of myself and my body. Not in a “love yourself” forced faux-feminist empowered way. But in a way that honors my true self. Once I can accept all of little things and flaws that are me and my body, I can truly open to the real “me”—the boundless, brave, joyous, and profound wisdom and energy within.
Brittanie D., 34
Wellness is balance. There is a model of holistic health in which one must find a balance between physical, emotional, social, mental and spiritual health. I try to take care of each of these aspects of my life everyday, protecting time with friends and something to stretch my mind at night. I’ve been practicing yoga for 15 years and this has contributed towards my sense of contentment. There has to be some “tapas,” or “heat,” that keeps us moving towards our goals and improving. But this is coupled with “santosha,” or “contentment.” In this way, I move forward and work through things but I try do so with complete acceptance for whatever the eventual outcome. How do I find that balance? It takes faith. Now I think of my body as a vessel, it’s main purpose to help me achieve self-realization. Because of this, I stopped asking how my body looks and started asking how my body feels.
Talha A., 37
I got interested in yoga through capoeira training. I practice to stay connected to my true nature. Yoga can be exclusive, because it’s my practice. Yoga can be inclusive, because it’s so vast and connects life.
Students from “Plus Size Yoga” at Santosha Yoga
Sheri H., 50; Patty F., 50; Peg S., 70; Becca P., 34
Sheri: For one hour a day, once a week, I know I will have complete calm. You need to find a place to practice that is a safe place for you.
Patty: I have been practicing yoga for several years now, and I really enjoy how it makes me feel both physically and emotionally. It’s one thing I do just for me. I have learned how to modify, and all of the teachers I have had are able to help me and others who need modifications. I never feel judged when I come for a yoga class.
Peg: Yoga is something I can benefit from despite my age (70) and lack of ability to do some things. My husband became ill and passed away in November 2013. Starting yoga in January 2014 was an important step in dealing with my grief. I hope more people who do not fit the popular image of yoga—young, slender, healthy, flexible, looks great in yoga pants and tank tops—will find a studio that truly does include and take the time to work with everyone.
Becca: I am a stay-at-home mom to two young girls. Time to myself is almost nonexistent, stress can be high. I feel stronger, taller, happier when I do yoga. After years and years of punishing myself, I will no longer deny myself wonderful care just because my body doesn’t look like someone else thinks it should. If the teacher is warm, accepting, and respectful, your experience of yoga will be totally different than if the teacher is aloof, cold, or gives more time and attention to thin people for example. No matter what anyone else thinks of your body, you deserve to feel wonderful, strong and happy simply because you are.
Mary W., 31
Santa Monica, California
Being a massage therapist and yoga instructor, I’m fascinated by bodies—how they feel, look, move, change. My personal yoga practice continually reminds me to appreciate the body that I have in the present moment—not five pounds ago, not five injuries ago, not five years ago, but now. It’s a safe space for me to shed negative body image thought patterns, and to create new positive, loving ones. What I cherish most about that is the more I love myself, the more love I have to spread to others. The more beauty I see in myself, the more beauty I see in the world and in the people surrounding me. My wish for myself is that I can find and keep a healthy self-love, no matter what the physical state of my body is in so that I can hold a space for others to do the same.
Rina D., 32
When I was a child, I would get ready for school and notice my father sitting with legs folded on the linoleum tile, his eyes softly closed, and inhaling and exhaling calmly. Every breath sounded like a wave on the shore, his thumb tapping the tip of his first finger, then middle finger, ring, and pinky, keeping count. After an adolescence dedicated to veering from my Indian roots, I found myself at age 21 in my first yoga class desperately seeking ease on my heavy and exhausted mind. “Begin with ujjayi ocean breath,” offered the teacher. In that moment, the connection to my parents, to my roots, and to the timeless truth and benefit of yoga were reawakened as if from sleep. Since then, my enlivened trust and appreciation of cycles help me to weather storms and manage uncertainty—around the corner await unexpected relief and joy if we practice trust and patience.
Jannae P., 26
I practiced through my entire pregnancy to connect with my baby and keep control of my body’s pain, as well as doing something positive for myself. I have continued my practice postpartum so I can reconnect after birth and manage my pain while keeping my body limber and active. I think a lot of people are afraid to do yoga because they don’t feel as flexible or are uncomfortable stretching in a large group of people. Apart from being exclusive in some ways and the stereotype of yogis being judgmental, yoga is an all inclusive practice. Everyone and anyone is welcome. It’s also very inclusive for you to become one with your body and really connect and focus on you for once.
Bristol M., 29
Providence, Rhode Island
The yoga asana practice has given me a deep respect for my body that I lacked before I began practicing. My practice inspires me to see my body not as something flawed that I need to change or improve but as my vehicle, which allows me to immerse myself in the practice. I could always be stronger, thinner, or more flexible. There will always be postures I can’t do, but each moment while I’m practicing I’m doing the best I can in that moment.
This piece was developed in collaboration with Raisa Aziz and Sophia Emigh.