I first got interested in yoga when I was 19-years-old, as a student studying at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. It was making a revival in the college scene, and I was a serial exerciser - constantly trying to find the routine that I would adore and stick with, the gym my chubby teen body would fit in at, the sport that would make me fitter and thinner. I'd dropped out of sailing class because I was terrified of the water and when the hell would I use that skill when I was back at the University of Idaho anyway? I had to add the yoga class a few weeks late into the semester as a result, so was asked to meet with the middle-aged male instructor after-hours in his office, where he proceeded to lock the door and make sexually suggestive advances to me while feeling my back and neck for my "erotic chakras." Terrified, I bolted, and ended up nearly failing that class and ruining my GPA because I didn't want to be in the same room with him again.
Years later I gave yoga another try, only to feel completely out of place. As a fat woman in the early years of the 21st century, I most certainly did not have a lean, muscular yoga body, wasn't as graceful as I used to be, and my balance wasn't that good, either. I checked out Curvy Yoga DVDs from the library to do at home, but it just wasn't the same as the camaraderie I felt from being in a class, away from the clutter and my kids underfoot.
It wasn't long after I began my own body positive journey seven years ago that yoga was one of the first fitness studios to begin embracing the fact that all bodies could be yoga bodies - that we all deserved to move and feel good in our skin, with no weight loss goal or quick advancement of ability as an end result. Yoga studios around the country began seeing the value in being mindful of our own body where we are on this journey and being present in it, while moving it and breathing in it and feeling our muscles and our minds stretch and flow.
Luckily, a new body positive yoga studio recently opened up in my own Vista neighborhood on the Boise Bench, Zen Riot, owned and operated by a lovely and kind woman named Jenn. I attended their open house and asked about the studio's inclusivity of all bodies and levels, as I'd just had a handful of people in the Boise Rad Fat Collective inquire about fat positive yoga instructors locally. She assured me Zen Riot was a safe space, and I've been attending classes there for several months now and can't say enough good things about those hours I've spent in Jenn's quiet studio.
My recent yoga practice combines mindful meditation with flexibility, strength and deep stretching. I mostly practice with my eyes closed and envision being grounded to the earth, with roots growing out of my big fat ass and the bottoms of my feet and tying me to the dirt and rocks below. I often pretend to be outside, with Jenn's calming music playing softly, breathing in the crisp mountain air and feeling the sun on my shoulders. I pay close attention to my breaths, under Jenn's instruction, and let all thoughts leave my mind. For that one-and-a-half hours each week, I focus on nothing but my body and it feels divine.
It reminds me so much of hypnobirthing, something I intuitively did with all three of my childbirths, and something I've studied quite a bit about in recent years. The idea is that mindful meditation, breathing techniques and visualization can manage pain and allow for a natural unmedicated childbirth. I know this isn't for everyone, but it completely worked for me - moving into the pain, seeing it, feeling it, and breathing through it, while thinking about my uterus and cervix unfolding like a flower and pushing my babies out. In my mind, I also saw my contractions as ocean waves ebbing and flowing, crashing onto the beach and rolling back out.
Yoga has been such a great way to exercise my fat body, to treat it well and practice self-love at least once a week, giving my body some much-needed movement and time to re-energize. It's close enough to my home that I can ride my bike to and from the studio. Through Zen Riot I've even been able to introduce my kids to yoga, as Jenn and her sister came to our little elementary school's Earth Day Health Fair to do mini meditations with the kids and they were a huge hit. Right before I stepped on stage to give the talk of a lifetime in front of a full house at TEDxBoise a few weeks ago, I closed my eyes, repeated the wise words of Brene Brown ("Don't shrink. Don't puff up. Just stand your sacred ground."), and did a modified Tadasana (or Mountain Pose) as a way to ground and center my power. And it absolutely worked.
Like I said in a radio interview I did earlier this week, our mental health is just as important as our physical health and you cannot have one without the other. Learning to self-love is a journey, and takes lots and lots of practice. Sharing our truths and stories, images and ideas is the only way I know how to teach. I can only be me - leading by example and living out loud - even writing about hippie-dippy yoga journeys, speaking bravely on conservative Christian radio shows, and fighting back to body shamers and vicious Facebook trolls by posting nude photos of myself with love on the internets.