You know… being yourself can feel like the hardest thing ever!
Not that I’m *cough* speaking from personal experience or anything. *cough*
For real, though. I know we’ve probably all been there, but I’ve really been noticing this as I’ve stepped more and more fully into the role of a Teacher.
And yet ome of the things I enjoy most about teaching Yoga are so enjoyable precisely because of who I am! After all, it is because I have such passion for the transformative power of Yoga when it comes to body image and self-acceptance and self-esteem that I love teaching it so much. It is because I have lived through so many years of pretty much hating my own body that I can talk about body-love from a truly authentic place. And it is my playful little kid trapped in a grown-up’s body personality that lets me have fun and bring innocence and simplicity to this practice that sometimes takes itself too seriously.
But I still deal with all the same fears that most of us face when we put ourselves out there in the world, particularly when we're putting ourselves out there exactly as ourselves.
What if some people don’t like me or my style of teaching?
What if they don’t take me seriously as a fat yoga teacher?
What if, even after joining a class of like-minded and like-bodied people, some people still don’t think Yoga is for them? Does that mean I've failed?
And then there’s the age-old advice that we’ve all heard a million times: “You can’t please everyone.”
Okay, so it’s true. I can’t please everyone. I mean, logically, I really do understand that. But what I teach really IS who I am. So it’s not always easy to remember that when people don’t dig it, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with me OR what I teach. The truth is, that I am who I am and there will be those that enjoy and appreciate and get something out of what I have to offer and there will be those that don’t. However, for me, it takes conscious effort to stay courageous about remaining true to myself and my message when faced with naysayers.
And then something, like this quote, brings it into sharp, crystal-clear, focus. Not only is it essential to my teaching to be authentically me, but it is my absolute privilege as a human being on this planet to be myself.
When I think about it like that, suddenly it doesn’t feel so hard to stay true to my authentic self and my perspective and this path. In fact, it feels like the greatest gift ever.
So to those that will resonate with what I bring to the table as a Teacher, I commit to you that we will walk this path together and in the process, find the love and gratitude and joy in each moment of it - even when it challenges us.
Let's do it!
So, you may or may not have heard about what's been going on in Georgia.
So, I'll do my best to sum it up. An organization, which claims to be concerned about the childhood obesity rate in Georgia, has released an onslaught of negative, shaming, scare-tactic filled advertisements on billboards and in bus depots around the state. The type of advertisements they're running are distressing to say the least. If you want to see what I mean, here are some examples.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out, that if the goal is to encourage a healthier lifestyle, shame doesn't work!! Self-conscious kids are more likely to hide, play video games, and lead quiet, sedentary lives than confident kids. If we raise our kids to be confident, then maybe they won't second guess themselves if they want to try out for a sports team or start up a fun physical hobby like cycling, jogging, hooping, dancing, or martial arts. The more our kids hate their bodies and themselves, the LESS likely they are to step out and do something new and different. I was a chubby kid and then a fat adult, and I'll tell you that I didn't start leading a more active lifestyle until I began to LIKE my body. I can't say enough how important this is. So, in response to S4L's icky tactics, a number of folks in the fat acceptance and body positive communities have taken action. Here's a couple of my favourites:
Marilyn Wann (author of the book FAT!SO?) began an online counter-campaign to S4L's shaming ads by editing submitted photos of individuals to include their own "I STAND" statement meant to inspire and encourage (NOT shame). You can see the photo and statement I submitted above. You can read more about this project here. And keep an eye on new STANDards (as they have been named) via her tumblr page.
Ragen Chastain (professional level dancer and author of the popular blog Dances with Fat) began raising money for a campaign to compete with S4L. She raised the money needed, including a matching donation from More of Me to Love and will be putting up POSITIVE message billboards and advertisments to send the kids of Georgia a more body-loving message. Read more about her progress here.
I support both of these projects wholeheartedly and am so grateful to all of those involved in them for their hard work and their efforts in addressing the issue of fat shaming in Georgia.
Because... that's what I am, silly!
Obviously, that's not all I have to say on the matter, of course - otherwise, why a whole new post about it? But, that's really the bottom line, isn't it?
I was a very thin child, constantly underweight for my age even, until I hit puberty. From puberty onward, my body and me started getting curves! And maybe that wouldn't have been so bad - except that, at that age, it sure feels like everyone had an opinion about the shape of my body (including myself). What hurt me most was not the extra pounds I carried, but the way I felt shamed and ostracized because of it.
When I tried to participate in sports in PE, or on the track and field team - not because I wanted to lose weight, but because at that young age it didn't occur to me that people might think me incapable since I was fatter than them - I found that I was passed over again and again or picked last for teams. I was an unpopular girl in school. I wasn't noticed, and when I was - it wasn't positive. I was bullied, teased, and ridiculed. If I wasn't being picked on for being "fat" (looking back, I was a size 9 but felt/perceived as fat compared to my peers), I was being picked on for being smart. After all, reading wasn't cool at that age, rock bands, concerts, and dance were.
A natural introvert, I was never destined to be popular, but I'll never forget the way it felt to be bullied for being fat. As a teenager, to be called "fat" was gut-wrenchingly painful. It meant "not good enough", "ugly", "unworthy", "gross", "lazy" and dozens of other things... and those other things were often shouted with just as much vigor as "fat" in my direction.
My mother was a chronic dieter for most of my life. So, naturally, when my self-esteem drooped, I would try "dieting" too. I would make up my own diets by mimicking my mother. And, because she tried them all - I had access to most of it. From meal cards to replacement smoothie mixes to meal replacement bars and drinks that tasted like chocolate flavoured dirt. No matter which one I tried, I saw little results but when I did I would get compliments from family and friends for "trying to do something about it".
The message was clear. It was only okay to be fat if I was actively trying to make the fat go away.
When I wasn't actively trying to lose weight, friends and family would make comments trying to "encourage" me to see the error of my ways. My older sister was constantly trying to make me prettier according to her standards. She never understood my lack of interest in makeup or in spending hours in front of the mirror "playing" with my hair and she sure as heck didn't understand why being fat didn't freak me out the way it apparently did her. I'll never forget the day she pointed at a picture of the two of us, when I was around 10 and said "Look how skinny you are in that picture, you were so cute then!". She was quick to offer a follow-up "...not that you're not cute now" but I heard the "..." and I've never forgotten the way it made me feel.
Everyone in my life made it glaringly obvious to me that FAT = BAD.
I really have to wonder if, without all of these outside influences, I would have ever hated my body the way I learned to in my teenage years. I had no reason, otherwise, to think my body was bad. I had tons of energy, was not shy about playing outside, running, biking, skating, or playing in sports. I particularly loved softball and had aspirations to join a team. But the more people treated me as "less than" "incapable" "lazy" "ugly" and "unworthy", the more I started to feel all of those things about myself and my body. I spiraled into self-hatred and the more I hated my body, the more I mistreated it.
Until, finally, I reached my breaking point. I was just tired of hating myself. I decided I wouldn't be held back by fear and so I started trying new things. I trained for a 5k charity walk/jog. I started riding a bicycle, or skating. I played Dance Dance Revolution with my Playstation in my living room. And, I began practicing Yoga.
Now, fast forward to today. After many years of yoga, meditation, hard spiritual work, and learning to let go and PLAY, what do I know now?
Today, I know that I am a valuable person - in fact, I am just as valuable (no more, no less) than any other person on the planet.
Today, I know that health is a direct reflection on the way I treat my body.
Today, I know that I am far healthier now as a fat woman who loves her body, than I ever was as a chubby girl who hated herself.
Today, I no longer assume that my size determines my level of ability. If I want to learn to do something new and active and fun - I try it. If I like doing it, I keep doing it, no matter what anyone else thinks.
Today, I know just because society seems to be so desperately afraid of fatness , that they now describe it as if it were an infectious disease (read: epidemic), that does not mean I need to be afraid of my fatness.
Today, I know that FAT is just a word to describe the shape of my body and does not inform the actual state of my health or level of ability.
Today, I know that there are fat women out there doing things that some people might think we couldn't or shouldn't, because of our size. With one look at my twitter feed, I can see that there are fat dancers, activists, writers, nutrition professors and nutritionists, hoopers, derby girls, fashion models, successful actresses, body-positive artists, athletes, personal trainers, and of course Yoga Teachers out there challenging stereotypes and shaking things up.
Today, I'm proud of myself and what my body can do and fat is not a dirty word to me anymore. Quite the opposite, I am empowered by my fatness.
Yeah, that's right, I said I feel empowered by being fat!
If you're asking why, the answer is simple: going through the world as a fat woman has taught me that no one else can limit me. Their assumptions can't limit me. Their fears can't limit me. The only person with the power to limit me is me!
Sure, society has a long way to go. I might get passed up for promotions to thinner, more socially acceptable-looking women or treated disdainfully by a stranger, a colleague, family member, or friend. However, the same might happen to me for being queer, and I don't plan to divorce my wife just to make other people more comfortable, so why should I try to be thin just to make other people more comfortable?
The reality is that people are going to judge me. That's life - and a sign that the world still has a lot of growing up to do. But the the valuable lesson that I've learned is that, these experiences don't have to stop me - unless I let them. So I don't. And, more importantly, by not letting them stop me - I'm helping make the changes I want to see in the world.
So I call myself a fat yogini, because that's what I am. It is a mantra of sorts, a symbol of my choice to accept and love myself, embrace life with joy, and live with passion.
What do you choose?
Today, I spent half of my practice in meditation and deep breathing and the other half in gentle seated and supine postures designed to relax and open my back, shoulders, neck, and hips. It was truly a practice of self-nurturing and self-care. It was exactly what I needed, today. It got me thinking about a valuable lesson that Yoga has for all of us.
In so many things we seek to do in life, there are prerequisites. Some of them are obvious, spoken right up front. Some of them are subtle or assumed. In almost every endeavor, there is a list of requirements we must (or think we must) meet before we begin. Whether it's a new job, a hobby, or a creative project. We must acquire the tools, or skills, respect, admiration of others, or even just the courage to begin. There is an expectation of how someone who does that job or that hobby must behave.
If you want be a public speaker, for example, there is an expectation of a certain amount of poise and grace under pressure, not to mention experience. If you want to paint portraits, it is expected that you have a steady hand, an eye for detail. If you want to be a bartender, it is assumed that you will be gregarious and outgoing, and have a good memory for drink recipes.
But here's the amazing thing about Yoga - there are no prerequisites. There may be some stereotypes, but yoga accepts you whatever your skill-set, flexibility, intelligence, level of ability, emotional state, strength, or personality. You may not know that about Yoga.... but it's absolutely true.
People are not simple creatures. How we feel and what feels best to us today may be different than how we feel and what feels best to us tomorrow. Our physical and emotional needs are in a state of constant flux. But with Yoga, it doesn't matter. All that matters, is that you bring YOU to your practice. What is important is taking the time to tune in to yourself and your own needs. One day, you might come to the mat ready to take on the world and find yourself doing things you never dreamed you would be capable of. And other days, it will be an enormous accomplishment just getting on your mat at all - and once there, you might need simply to sit, and breathe, and be. You can come to the mat feeling strong and open, or feeling sad and closed down. And no matter what state you are in before you begin your practice, you will leave transformed in some small way. What a magical experience this can be.
In a world chock full of assumptions and expectations, what a blessing it is that Yoga asks only one thing of us and that is to, simply, come as we are.