The Every Body Is Beautiful Project

What Yoga Is Really About (Hint: Not Skinny People Doing Bendy Things)

WellnessOphelia's Place2 Comments

When I received my certification to teach yoga many years ago, I had that somewhat off-putting urge to tell anyone within earshot that I was a yoga teacher. Having virtually no actual teaching experience, I encountered many interesting responses. Some were lovely (“I will definitely take your class, I like your calming energy.)” Others, not so much (“I want to take your class, your ass is insane!” and “you have the perfect yoga body, can you help me get that?”)

Fast forward 5 or 6 years and I started losing a significant amount of weight because of a rampant, undiagnosed autoimmune disease. More responses on my appearance followed: “Wow! You’re so tiny! How’d you lose so much weight?” “I almost didn’t recognize you, you look great!” and many iterations of the same. What wasn’t mentioned was the tremble in my hands, the clumps of hair coming out of my head every few hours, my clinical anxiety, my red bumpy back, the insomnia that kept me up all night and laid me up all day, or the hormones raging terror on my entire existence. But of course, my response was “THANK YOU!” Because that’s how we’re programmed as women, to take "skinny" as the ultimate compliment, like I’d somehow accomplished something by taking up less space. I didn’t look great, I looked emaciated and sick, but I relished in my slender frame that came without restricting food. These interactions and my response to my changing shape shed light on my unresolved body issues and the categorization of yoga teachers as fitness instructors — and what that means for body image within our community. 

My worth is innate, I deserve love simply because I exist, my body is a beautiful human suit holding my luminous spirit.

I started playing soccer at age 4 and continued all the way through college at a Division 1 program. Playing soccer brought me some of my closest, lifelong friendships. It taught me how to work well with others, how to take direction, and the value of hard work and dedication.  What also rooted itself during my athletic career was a destructive connection between performing well and receiving love. The type of perfectionism that stems from equating your worth to an external entity. It made me a great competitor but created unattainable expectations for all aspects of my life. I thought, If I could just excel in soccer, be thin, pretty, funny, smart, etc. etc.... I’d be allowed to receive love. So I trained excessively, starved and purged myself skinny, and belittled myself constantly. My inner dialogue was one long criticism. 

In the quest to fulfill my dream of being a successful athlete, I lost myself and all sense of worth beyond what I could produce for other people’s consumption. I know I’m not alone in my experience, I saw numerous female athletes struggle with the same things I did. I think part of the solution to help balance these tendencies lies within the principles of yoga. Some of what the practice has imparted on me is that my worth is innate, I deserve love simply because I exist, my body is a beautiful human suit holding my luminous spirit, and that life is sacred and not meant to be spent questioning my place in the world. So why was it that I felt so much pressure to look and market myself a certain way to ensure I’d survive as a teacher? Why did it bring up that same pattern of needing to fit a certain ideal in order to receive love and acceptance when the practice tells me to come as I am? 

In media, yoga is often marketed as skinny white women doing impossibly bendy postures. That being the way new students have interfaced with yoga, there’s an expectation that the practice offers a way to an end-goal of skinny-ness and bendy-ness and their teacher should somehow embody that ideal. So it’s a fair assumption that students commenting on my body were simply thinking they were giving me a compliment that pertained to my job. It’s important to understand that how someone looks physically or how they perform a pose has no bearing on their efficacy as a teacher or practitioner. The sign of a skillful teacher and an advanced practitioner has much more to do with how they move through the world. I truly hope to make everyone feel welcomed, safe, and unjudged in my space and want to help shift the dynamics of body image in the yoga community. Come as you are, all are welcome. 


Brenna Matthews

Warrior for Change