As many of you know I am a full-time freelance journalist and a lot of my work centers around health and wellness. I recently picked up a new client and was asked to write about my philosophy around modern-day yoga. Here’s my story for Shondaland.
I teach yoga in one of the most notoriously superficial places in the world: Los Angeles. I’m not thin, I’m on the cusp of what most would consider to be middle age, and I do not look like, nor do I want to look like an Instagram model. I teach yoga for normal people.
When I tell people that I am a yoga teacher, I am often greeted with one of two responses.
“Yeah? I can’t do yoga because I don’t look good in yoga pants / I don’t look like those yogis I see on online / I can’t touch my toes.”
“Oh. Really? You teach yoga?” As if they’re surprised that someone who looks like me could lead a room full of people through an hour-long practice.
My response is always the same. I teach yoga for the same reasons that I write and report: I want to make the world a better place using all the tools I have.
Through my teaching, I want to show people that yoga isn’t just for white, rail-thin fitness models doing Hanumanasana or Sirsanana at the beach in barely any clothing, like you see on Instagram. Yoga is for both for everybody and every body — every single one. Here’s why.
Yoga doesn’t care what you look like
Most people’s first introduction to yoga is in the form of marketing schlock or some overtly sexualized female (the yoga business in the U.S. is primarily dominated by women) doing some astounding yoga poses in some beautiful, exotic location. Don’t believe me? Just open up Instagram and search #yoga.
The most recent study in 2016 showed that more than 28 million people practice yoga. That number is estimated to reach as many as 55 million by 2020. The yoga industry itself is on track to generate as much as $11.5 billion in the U.S. this year.
The word yoga means “to yoke.” The yoking of body and breath together in a physical practice of movement is yoga. It makes sense that as visual creatures, we’d be drawn to sexy, strong bodies doing amazing athletic feats, right?
Yet as is common in anything physical, visual, and social-media-worthy, there are implicit and subtle biases and prejudices that become woven into the fabric of the practice. If you don’t look like an Instagram model, should you practice yoga? If you aren’t a specific race or background, should you practice yoga? Will you be admitted into the yoga world if you don’t have a specific skin color, the right yoga clothes, the right body structure, the right sex or sexual orientation, or the right income?
The short answer is yes. Yoga is for everybody — and every body — because at its core, yoga is about our relationship with ourselves, just as we are, in this moment, and that is a key element of the wildfire-like expansion of yoga. Outside of the fact that it’s become a tremendous money-making industry, the practice taps into a universal desire at the core of all of us — to ease our pain, be it physical or mental.
I often joke when I teach that yoga teachers are inherently selfish people. The things we teach in class are often things we are struggling with and working on in our own lives.
Suffering and the desire to move away from pain is universal, and it has been since the beginning of human history. Nearly every religious text from the Bhavagad Gita to the Bible to the Koran, gives instructions for how to ease, manage, explain, or move through suffering. And yoga works because the practice helps us mindfully reconnect with our bodies, which we often lose touch with.
Yoga is about far more than whether or not you can stand on your head, what your body looks like, how strong you are, or how much money you have (or don’t have). It’s a practice that can be done anywhere, at any time, in any kind of clothing or lack thereof. It’s truly up to you.
What about all of the recent controversy around yoga?
Yoga goes beyond just the physical surface, too, and there’s an important conversation going on in the yoga community around cultural appropriation, sexualization, and the industrialization and commoditization of the ancient practice of yoga. You’ve probably seen the headlines about the banning of yoga on college campuses and the debate about the word, ”Namaste,” a Sanskrit word used to close most yoga classes and a common greeting that is also used in Hindi, that means “I bow to you.” Should those controversies chase you away? Does that mean you shouldn’t practice yoga?
The short answer is no. While these are vital conversations to have, the practice of yoga is ultimately about finding a personal connection to your own deep river of peace. It offers a proven path to ease discomfort, pain (both physical and emotional), reduce inflammation, and connect more deeply with the people and the world around you. If suffering unites us all, then the practice of yoga, regardless of who “owns” it or the language around it, should also unite us, as well.
Finding a yoga class that is right for you
I’ve spent many years practicing and teaching in a variety of spaces. I’ve taught thousands of people over hundreds of hours, all who come to feel better.
I’ve taught older people and young people. I’ve taught yoga to people with depression, social anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ve taught yoga to people who are gender fluid, people who are going through gender transitions, LBGTQ populations, and Trump supporters. I’ve taught yoga to people recovering from serious surgery and illness and people struggling with the sudden death of a loved one. I’ve taught friends and family, my accountant, and random people on the internet. However you come to your mat, with whatever baggage you have, you should feel welcome, and finding a class or a teacher who welcomes you is key.
Try yoga in a variety of places and spaces
It doesn’t matter where you are on the path of yoga. The Bhagavad Gita, one of the oldest Sanskrit (and yogic) texts in the world states, “On the path of yoga, no effort is wasted, nor is there any risk of adverse affects in pursuing peace.”
If you want to give yoga a try, there are plenty of ways you can access a practice with skilled teachers. I’ve taught goat yoga and yoga in breweries where first-time students have never seen a downward dog. Skilled teachers can teach to a variety of people in any location and in any situation. A simple Google search for yoga studios or events in your area should yield a plethora of options. Try a few and find one that feels comfortable and welcoming to you.
You can also try yoga online for free. There are plenty of yoga practitioners like me, who share yoga sequences on YouTube. If you feel self-conscious about trying yoga publicly, give one of the many online options a try. It’s a great way to learn some of the basics and get comfortable with some of the names of poses before (or if) you decide to jump into a public class.
If you practice in a physical space, introduce yourself to the teacher
If you are new to yoga and heading to your first class in a physical space, walk up and introduce yourself to the teacher. Get to the space a little early so you can make time to chat. Every yoga teacher wants to make new students feel welcome, so we generally will spend some time early in class with new folks.
When you connect, let the teacher know if you have any injuries or physical problems. A skilled teacher will always teach to the people in the room and their abilities. The teacher should make you feel welcomed and comfortable in the space regardless of what you feel like, look like, or what your physical abilities are.
Look for someone who knows how to use props and modify poses
Can’t touch your toes? Don’t worry! A great yoga teacher will use props to help you get a similar shape or sensation.
While there’s a lot of debate about the use of props in yoga, they are crucial to helping us feel connected to our bodies. Even as a teacher, I use props in my own personal practice when I’m feeling sore or just want to generate a different sensation in a pose. I also use props in all of my public classes.
The best approach is to look up your teacher online before going to class to see if they share content showing that they use props to help students modify poses. If not, and if you’re worried that the teacher might not modify poses for you, look for another class or teacher. Some larger, franchise studios only teach set sequences and do not often offer modifications. In that case, it’s usually better to find a local studio with teachers who come from a more varied background to work with.
Additionally, as you practice, it’s important that you don’t go beyond your physical limits. Even yoga teachers struggle with the idea of limits. Be careful and aware of any pressure you may feel to stretch further or do a more difficult pose than you are physically ready for. Going beyond your limits will result in injury, so be gentle with yourself. No one will care if you can’t do an arm balance or touch your toes. If you get a sharp or electric feeling in any pose, come out of it and modify it or change it. Only go as far as your body wants to and know that with a slow and steady practice, one day, you may be able to do that tricky pose.
Find your community
There are tons of yoga teachers out there. Some of them are famous on YouTube and Instagram. Some of them work with major brands and corporations to get their content out there. There are thousands of different kinds of people teaching yoga, and there is a teacher out there for you. You just have to look.
Once you’ve found your community or your teacher, they will connect you to other teachers and students who are coming from the same place in their lives or their practices. It’s like finding a group of friends who will welcome you with open arms, and it’s one of the best parts of yoga.
Ultimately the practice of yoga is about connecting your body to your breath in the present moment. It’s about cultivating an awareness of and relationship with your body and your world without judgment or hatred, and yoga will slowly and gently change your life.
No matter what you look like, what color your skin is, what physical abilities you have or don’t have, what religion or race or background you are, the practice of yoga is for every body.
Abigail Bassett is an Emmy-winning journalist, writer and producer who covers wellness, tech, business, cars, travel, art and food. Abigail spent more than 10 years as a senior producer at CNN. She’s currently a freelance writer and yoga teacher in Los Angeles. You can find her on Twitter at @abigailbassett.