How I stopped comparing myself to the ideal “yoga body” that doesn’t actually exist

I found my yoga teacher, Joy, when my oldest daughter was 4 months old. In the middle of deep postpartum anxiety, taking her class was the first time I left the baby and did something entirely for myself. I chose Joy’s class because she taught “curvy yoga.” I hoped I would find a safe space to practice without feeling like an outsider because of my body.

For five years, I followed Joy through different studios, and every class brought new ways to challenge myself and work with my body instead of treating it like a hindrance. Belly limiting your movement? Let’s adjust. This doesn’t work for you? Let’s try something else. Joy never sidelined a student for not fitting a predetermined idea of how yoga practice should look.

When Joy announced that she was taking a sabbatical from teaching, I had to figure out what yoga looks like for me, without her and our familiar judgment-free classes.

Trying to scratch out a start to this new path, I asked Joy, “What is your philosophy for yoga?” Instead she gave me her philosophy for life: “I exist.”

“As I have been teaching,” she said, “I am seeing it in everyone—that they too want to exist.”

One summer Saturday afternoon, about a dozen of us sat on mats around the loft studio for Joy’s last curvy yoga workshop before her sabbatical. We chatted about parking and the weather, then a deeper conversation began: Why had we each joined a curvy yoga workshop that day? A confessional of inexperience and insecurities followed.

I listened to women who were taking their first-ever yoga class and were drawn to Joy because she used the “curvy yoga” label. They talked about how they never felt like they had the right body type for yoga, so they were too intimidated to join a room full of “yoga bodies.” I also listened to Joy’s regular curvy yoga students bemoan her break from teaching and their fears of finding a new class where they can fit in.

I thought about the times in class when a folding or twisting pose made anger swell up from deep in my long-hated gut — all the times yoga was a physical expression of my emotions.

I weigh 250 pounds; I do not have a “yoga body,” but there is no such thing as a yoga body.

I have a body, and I have yoga.

Books and Instagram accounts tell the stories of curvy yogis and nontraditional yoga practitioners. When I google images of “yoga body” today, the first few results are pictures of Jessamyn Stanley, author of Every Body Yoga: Let Go of Fear, Get On the Mat, Love Your Body. Stanley and Anna Guest-Jelly, founder of a Curvy Yoga-branded teacher training program and author of Curvy Yoga: Love Yourself & Your Body a Little More Each Day, challenge assumptions about what yoga looks like and who can practice. Dana Falsetti’s Instagram is filled with daring poses and minimal clothing, a striking image against the idea that bendy yogis MUST be small and taut.

These women are challenging expectations associated with yoga, and I want to do the same. So when my teacher left, I retained these lessons:

I am my own teacher.

I had a mission when I went to Joy’s last workshop—to figure out what I would do next. In the quiet of savasana and deep breath, I wondered, what would Joy tell me to do? I imagined her response at once both compassionate and DGAF: “You figure it out. This is not about me.”

Yoga is for every body.

We are doing accidental yoga all day. My two-year-old executes a perfect downward-facing dog before her sister tickle-tackles her. Both the pose and the laughter are yoga. On the rug, my husband grimaces into an awkward frog pose to loosen up after a long run. I suggest a modification because “Joy says…” Both the pose and the communication are aspects of yoga. The practice does not only consist of people perched on mats, defying gravity and joint mechanics.

Practicing yoga when others think we don’t belong is a subversive act. It allows us to be an ambassador for all those people who are too nervous to take that first class.

Joy isn’t here. It’s time for me to try new classes with new teachers and new peers. My calendar is populated with the class schedule of the nearby gym. It’s five minutes away, offers childcare, and has an attached cafe. Still, I think about walking into that room for the first time and wonder if my body will be too disparate from the other bodies there.

But I go to class because showing up is the first step.

I will try not to be the one committing the offense of comparison: She is older than I am, she is shorter than I am, she is more graceful than I am. We all belong in yoga because we chose to be there, and at the same time, no one will have an identical practice. I will focus on commonalities, not differences when I practice yoga—even if that means the common experience of feeling different.

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