As I grow into my role as a yoga teacher I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can create a truly safe space for men and women to explore yoga. In particular I’ve been thinking about how powerful the messages of body-shame are in our culture, and about how this affects the process of teaching yoga here in the West.
I want to tell you a story to explain what I mean.
A little over a week ago I went to a yoga workshop with a visiting international yoga teacher. He’s pretty famous and several of my yogi friends had recommended him. The way they talked about him I had the impression that he had something special going on, something above and beyond your average yoga teacher.
Obviously, I wanted to learn all I could from him so, although he taught in a style that I don’t practice regularly, I went along.
The first morning, after dragging myself out of the house at 5.30 am, I found myself on my mat in a setting that although in some ways familiar was in many other ways quite, quite foreign to me.
Unlike my yoga teachers, who have been mostly women, this teacher yelled instructions across the room.
“Straight that leg!’ he called to the person behind me, “Staight that leg!”
I glanced back to see that the person behind me was in a pose in which, according to my yoga teacher training, insisting on a straight leg before the hamstring is naturally ready to open could compromise the spine.
My mind was suddenly busy. It leapt into ‘judgment’ gear, as I assessed whether or not – in my opinion – each of the cues he yelled out across the room was in fact ‘safe’ for the student at which it was directed.
Moment by moment I struggled to pull myself back into the full presence of my own practice, my
breath and the sensations of my own body. But eventually, as I found a rhythm in the flow of the familiar poses, I was able to release my grip on my own ideas about what was happening and just experience it.
It was going well.
Until, that is, he decided to direct his attention at me.
He approached my mat as I worked gently to ease my body into a complex twisting forward bend, one that demanded a little more openness in the hips than was available to me at six in the morning.
“Why is your knee there?” he asked. “Why don’t you lower the knee?”
“It doesn’t seem to want to lower this morning,” I replied, not yet too disconcerted. I’d been in many classes before when my knee wasn’t ready to lower and teachers had generally left it at that.
But not this guy. He sat down beside me and shook my knee with his hand.
“Tight.” he declared. “You are very tight.”
He wasn’t saying tight as thought it was a complement, in case there is any ambiguity. It was clear that tight was not what my hip was supposed to be. He slapped at my knee a few times in what appeared to be an attempt to convince my hip to suddenly release and the knee to lower. The slapping didn’t produce the results he was hoping for.
Instead, I felt a surge of heat in my face. My heart began to beat faster and I suddenly realised that I was about to burst into tears. I started breathing even more deeply and closed my eyes in an effort to stave off
the tears. The closed eyes and deep breathing must have looked like a profound yogic moment to him because he said:
“Yes, yes. Very good. Keep breathing and this tightness will go away.”
Much to my relief, and thereby proving his own point, he then went away.
Then the tears came. They surprised me. I’ve experienced tears in yoga. Tears sometimes come as I breathe my way into a deeper opening in a pose and, in doing so, let go of emotional baggage I’ve been carrying in my body. I’ve come to recognise and even welcome those tears.
These were not those tears. These were tears, I see in retrospect, of shame.
Reading Dr Brene Brown’s wonderful book ‘I Thought It Was Just Me’ has helped me recognise shame where I previously might have suspected grief. There has been so much grief in my life in the past ten years that every unexplained outpouring of pain and tears tends to get passed off as a release of stored grief.
But this was not grief. This was shame.
Because like so many women, like so many people, I have been raised in a culture that is rife with messages of shame about my body.
Our bodies, we are told, are too hairy, too lumpy, too noisy, too big, too scarred, too heavy and too smelly.
Then you begin to practice yoga and, for one thing, you begin to appreciate your body for what it can do. It can hold you in a balancing pose. It can carry you through a flowing sequence of standing poses. Your arms grow stronger and that matters more than whether or not they look good in an evening gown, especially since you never wear and evening gown. Your legs grow strong and that matters more than whether or not they look like they did when you were twenty.
But shame can be insidious. As I began to shed some of my shameful feelings about my body, I accumulated new ones.
Those damn hips that simply wouldn’t release into the deceptively named ‘easy cross-legged pose’ became a source of shame for me.
Over time, I found yoga teachers who led me past that shame into an even deeper experience of true body love. Those same teachers told me that my readiness to teach yoga depended not on the openness of my hips but on the openness of my heart and on my own personal commitment to my yoga practice.
But the traces of those decades of body shame remain.
On my mat last week as a well-meaning and, I’m sure, quite compassionate man slapped at my knee and deemed my body to be “too tight”, my own private body shames were triggered.
I suspect that his style of teaching, handed down to him as it was by his teacher in India, was quite suitable for Indian men. Perhaps they had not been raised on the diet of shaming body messages that we have been raised on in the West. I’m sure it is suitable for some people in the West as well, people who have already found a deep ground of resilience in the face of body-shame triggers.
But for the rest of us, for most of the women I know and most of the people who come to my classes, I’m aware that yoga can all too easily become simply another place in which to beat ourselves up about the inadequacies of our bodies.
As a yoga teacher my commitment is to be mindful of that context in which I teach. My commitment is to teach in a way which, as far as possible, reinforces positive experiences of and messages about our bodies. My commitment is to teach without shame.
Have you ever experienced body-shame while practicing yoga? What do you think a yoga teacher can do to help avoid creating more body-shame in yoga classes? Do you even think that this is something yoga teachers should be thinking about?
Updated: Your comments in response to this post were so fascinating that I wrote a follow up post. You can read it here. Thanks for the great conversation!