I would categorize myself as a pretty serious yogi.
I use the word "pretty" for an accurate depiction of my dedication in comparison to other yoga enthusiasts, not as in, "I am a pretty yogi," because those who have had the fun of practicing with me know – the glamour stops at the yoga mat with me. I am not into expensive yoga clothes, makeup on the mat or fancy hairdos. I am all about the breath and the asana in the yoga studio.
I've had setbacks, periods of time with little or spotty physical practice, but for the most part, yoga is a daily part of my life. In fact, there were a number of years that I practiced the Ashtanga Primary series six days a week.
In all that time, about eight years to be exact, certain poses have eluded me.
The real stickler, the bane of my yogic existence, is Marichyasana D. This pose is generally one that causes most yogic mortals issue; specifically achieving the bind of the hands around the legs, which are pretzeled with one leg in half lotus and the other in a squat.
Over the years, I have really let go of "achieving" this particular posture. It no longer makes issue with me daily. I go for it and then let it go when it doesn't happen. After all – isn't this the real yoga ... non-attachment Especially to something as insignificant as a physical yoga pose.
I then popped into class at an Ashtanga studio where the teacher insisted that I should be binding this particular pose after all this time.
I thought, "OK ... if she thinks I should be doing it, maybe it should be more important to me at this point." So, I asked her what I could do to make that happen.
Her reply still sends shudders through me.
The very slender teacher nonchalantly requested, "Give me five of your pounds."
Did she just tell me to lose weight to achieve a yoga pose?
Now, I am by no means as slim as this teacher who suggested this to me. I am also nowhere near overweight. Nor over fat. I am at a healthy weight and bodyfat percentage for someone of my age and height. I carry a normal amount of bodyfat and a healthy layer of muscle that makes me look healthy and strong. I live life. Enjoy whatever foods/drinks I crave in decent quantities and sometimes even overindulge in things like ice cream and champagne.
Then, this morning I was the only student with a new teacher at a different studio, and binding this particular pose came up once again.
Without my prompting, she told me about when she was learning to bind pasasana in the second series of Ashtanga yoga and her teacher told her to "Do diet."
Hmmmm. This is looking like an ugly trend.
Since when did losing weight become necessary to achieve a yoga pose? And when did teachers start to feel it was OK to tell their students to lose weight?
I've seen female yogis, my height and well over 200 pounds, bind the same posture that gives me so much trouble easily. Nevermind many men – larger than I, can do Marichyasana D without issue.
Getting thinner does not necessarily make you more flexible and/or stronger. Weight surely has nothing to do with it.
The teacher who gave me my diet challenge urged that I needed to "get stuff out of the way."
To get my stuff out of the way, I'd have to cut my daily calorie intake way more than I'd like to. And I like to eat. And I really like to eat to fuel this difficult and demanding yoga practice.
The ramifications of this comment have continued to haunt me.
Old body issues from when I was a girl have returned uninvited. I remember in high school, my theatre teacher told me how much potential I had "to make it," but that if I wanted to do well – I should start going to the gym. Am I still somehow not thin enough? Not skinny enough for yoga??
This is further complicated by the fact that so many Western students come to yoga for that reason – to lose weight.
I've been a paid yoga teacher and am a certified personal trainer – so I know a thing or two about fitness and how to achieve weight loss. In my opinion, yoga alone is not going to make one "lose weight." Even in really vigorous forms like Ashtanga, Power and Vinyasa the calorie burn just doesn't create that significant of a caloric deficit in most people to affect a change in body weight or composition. In combination with diet and some cardio, this is much more feasible. But, yoga alone just ain't gonna cut it.
Why the rockin' yoga bods then? Well, truthfully most people who are into yoga are also into eating and living healthfully, probably have a pretty tight diet and that shows in their physical body.
So when a teacher tells a student to lose weight to achieve a specific yoga pose or to "improve" their practice this can lead to confusion.
Plus, it's one thing to make healthy eating suggestions to fuel the physical practice of yoga, but it is another lunch entirely to start telling people to lose weight for the purpose of being "better" at yoga.
This also becomes sensitive when you have someone in a position of power, leadership and influence telling someone in a more vulnerable position to change something about their body. Our body is our most sacred and personal possession. The size of it is no one's business but your own.
I personally do yoga more for the internal benefits. Yoga makes my body feel better, not necessarily look better. And at this point in my life and practice, that is precisely what I am going for.
I know athletes often have to lose weight or change their bodies to improve their athletic performance, but yoga is not typically considered a competitive sport. And unless a student actively seeks out weight loss advice from their teacher, I think it's best for yoga teachers to keep their mouths shut.
Should any teacher, fitness professional or coach tell anyone to lose weight for any reason other than if weight is jeopardizing a student's health? Just like too much "hand to mouth" can create physical weight gain for yoga students, "foot in mouth" can create bigger issues (whether or not they are flexible enough to really do it) for teachers giving unsolicited diet recommendations.
I have a friend who did a class and was asked by the instructor if she would feel more comfortable in the "Plus Size" yoga class instead. "Ummm..."she said, "...no, I'd rather not and this class is just fine thankyouverymuch. I am comfortable here but sounds like you might need to get over it to reach a comfort level with me here. Good luck with that. See you next time." I love my friend for this. She's not asking for special attention in class, she's just doing her best.
And then I read this blog - I thought yoga was about getting in touch with yourself and feeling good as a result. Between your experience (which, e-gads!) and my friend's experience...makes a gal like myself think twice about getting on board. (or that's just another excuse I have to not do it).
Lindsay - you rock. I've done the Primary Series, though I teach vinyasa flow. Your approach is right on--work it, remain present, observe and don't judge. That's what the Sutras and the Gita tells us. Certainly we're all striving to move to our edge, but the real gifts of yoga are far beyond the physical. Stay true to your core and take your practice where it's right for you. Inner peace doesn't come from Marichyasana D.
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