Once, a friend of mine asked me: What is yoga, to you? I don’t remember how I answered him, but I wrote this in my journal:
Yoga is…A coping skill; Exercise; A means to connect and socialize; Embodiment; An epistemology; Moving meditation; Political; An Escape.
Since then, I like to check in with myself and see how my thoughts have changed. I should note that I’m not reinterpreting Patanjali or any other legendary yogis. Rather, I’m expressing what yoga represents in my life.
Yoga helps me cope with stress
I began my practice after my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2015. This was an extremely difficult time for my family but, I had to contend with the added challenges of living more than 700 miles away and balancing a demanding job. My grief manifested as anxiety. Consequently, I was in a constant state of fight or flight. Sleeping was nearly impossible. In addition, I was irritable and short with my friends and co-workers. I heard that yoga was good at relieving stress and I knew that things couldn’t get worse, so I started a night time yin practice before bed. Within days, I was falling asleep faster and sleeping through the night. Since then, my practice has blossomed in ways I never imagined it would. I have a regular home practice and I completed my 200-hour teacher training last year. Altogether, yoga has helped me move through the grief of losing my father and grandfather and be less reactive person. I like to say that yoga has taught me to celebrate each breath, even when it hurts! But yoga is much more than just a coping mechanism.
Yoga taught me to celebrate my body
Yoga is often described as the union of mind, body, and spirit. I can confirm that yoga has forced me to reconcile these three. In our digital society, so many of us live disembodied lives. We are reduced to selfies, usernames, and hashtags. Additionally, our post-industrial economy means much of us engage in service, emotion, care, and intellectual work. For example, my day job emphasizes intellectual labor and neglects my physical existence. I spend hours behind a desk reading, writing, and answering e-mails with only a few short breaks where I stand in front of other being to “teach” them sociology. Because yoga rejoins body and mind it has led me to confront behaviors and emotions I used to ignore. At first, this led to a great deal of frustration in my practice. I became angry with myself for not being able to achieve the “ideal” form in many poses. I scolded myself for neglecting my body for so many years and engaged in a lot of negative self-talk. Soon, the self-shamming faded and now I relish in time I spend exploring my body and learning how it moves in the physical world.
I cannot deny the physical benefits of yoga. My regular asana practice has improved my physical health. I have increased my strength and flexibility and I’ve lowered my blood pressure. But overall, I just feel better. I don’t get as many headaches and my low-back pain has virtually disappeared.
As a fat person, I used to believe that exercise was punishment. That I needed to push myself to exhaustion as penance for over indulging. Yoga has taught me that exercise should be a celebration of the body and an opportunity to explore the edges.
Yoga helped me find community
In 2013, I moved to Hammond, Louisiana, to start a new job. I was a native Floridian and had lived in Orlando and Tampa for a decade before moving to Hammond. The transition to small town life was difficult. As a queer person with radical political beliefs, I felt isolated and trapped – surrounded by people who didn’t think, or talk like me. Practicing yoga has helped change some of my perceptions. In the studio, I have met people with similar beliefs and values. Practicing (and teaching) in the studio motivates me to get out of my house, to see my friends and relish in their company. Additionally, I’ve found an rich yoga community on Instagram, through #fatyoga.
Yoga is Political
We rarely acknowledge it, but yoga is political and tt always has been. However, the yoga industry doesn’t want us to understand the influence of colonialism on the development of yoga or to critically examine our consumption or cultural appropriation. Indeed, these are heavy topics that can make us all feel uncomfortable. None the less, they are important to discuss, and I’ll get to all of that, eventually. At a personal level however, we have become separated from ourselves and others through work that degrades our bodies, minds, and relationships. In this sense, yoga is political because it rejects the external conditions that creates suffering and provides a means for repairing harm.
Yoga practice, whether it’s asana, pranayama, or meditation, allows us to escape the physical world of suffering. As a fat person, yoga has taught me to value my body just the way it is. More importantly, my yoga practice has taught me that I am worth of love, respect, and dignity regardless of my body size or what I ate today.