What I learned About Teaching From Feeling Body-Shamed in Yoga Class

IMG_4621The yoga teacher was drunk.* She was preditcably, annoyingly and self-absorbedly drunk on a god-like belief that I was broken and she could fix me. Yes, she must have been drunk to believe that in one hour she could– having never laid eyes on me before — diagnose my body as defective because my butt sticks out a little and use her unicorn-yogi powers to cure this unsightly booty of mine with an arsenal of cookie cutter chapter and verse from some 200-hour YA approved YTT or a regurgitation of some recent workshop with an insta-famous teacher.

Allow me to back that azz up.

Class started with generic pleas  of “tailbone down” (or something that meant the same thing), “ribs in” and progressed into, oh, now that we have a side view of our bodies in the mirror, let’s “take a moment to look at our posture.” Now take those three phrases and multiply each by four and you’ll get a sense of how many times I heard these futile cues, and believe me, by the third time hearing any one of them they had morphed from cues into weapons. Being a small class, the teacher (who as it happens was built like a New York City Ballet nymph) referred to most of the students by name. I alone stank of visitor-itis, wild cardness, interloper intrepidness. To make things worse, I alone sported this thing called a butt. As class progressed it seemed clear: she was talking to me, or rather, to my ass and my body type, to wit

I don’t think she was ready “for this jelly.”

‘Cause you can bet your bootyliciousness that my ribs were in, my tailbone as down as it would ever be and notwithstanding my flexi lower back, my pelvis was not in an anterior tilt. Still my butt curves out into space a bit. (Let me be clear, I’m a petite yogini, as in, I ain’t no Niki Minaje or Kim K, I just have the kind of yoga butt that registers on the “all about that bass” scale).

As I moved and sweated in this bikram/hot fusion whatchhamacallit excursion from my usual ashtanga mysore practice I felt full of chitta vritti and burned with indignant fire. I dreamed of creating my own line of custom tea-shirts reading: “Say tailbone down one more time and I will punch you in the face!” Or “My butt sticks out, f*cking deal with it!”  and “This is my tailbone down, Motherf*%kers!!!” I fantasized about shaming her with a list of the teachers I have studied with and pushing my ashtanga instagram posts under her nose– as in this ain’t my first day at the rodeo — along with a healthy side of some research indicating that my “J-shaped spine” is something to cultivate, not eradicate.

I left class with my tail between my legs (pun intended) mentally plummeting into the depths of a self-bashing bender, getting wasted on feeling really really bad about myself and then feeling bad about the fact of feeling bad about myself. Here I thought I’d moved past body image woes, that I owned myself, but damn! This teacher had gotten into my head and thrown me back into my insecure teens and twenties, to the ballet teacher who wanted to cut my ass off with scissors, the preppy friends in college who pitied my figure, to the men who send me fetishized messages over social media. I texted my yoga friends: “Tell me, seriously…have I put on weight?” I asked my husband: “do I look ok in this?” — more times than I care to admit.

It took a few days but with time on my mat doing my ashtanga practice I sobered up, excised this self-doubting demon and emerged once again with faith in my loveliness and some important realizations about how I want to be treated in a yoga setting and, concomitantly, how I’d like to treat others in a yoga setting. So here is what I learned from feeling body shamed in a yoga class:

1.Let me just admit this off the bat: if you’re thinking that perhaps this teacher wasn’t talking about me at all and that I’m just hypersensitive, well– you’re right. I am hypersensitive because of the way my body was treated, regarded, discussed and criticized during my teenage years. In my own way, I was drunk during this yoga class –on my own history of insecurity. It’s possible this teacher wasn’t talking just to me, or about me at all. It really is. So it dawned on me: I am going to encounter sensitive people when I teach and interact with others in this world, people who are sensitive to a host of different things I cannot imagine. The best I can do is the best I can do: try to address everyone with respect, compassion, and as perfect in his or her own way.

2. I am not broken. You are not broken. So let’s not teach each other that we are. You want to evolve me forward?How about acknowledging the gift inside the challenge? You don’t have to blow smoke up my ass, but a simple recognition that my flexible lower back is a beautiful gift rather than a physical curse, albeit one that comes with challenges, is a tremendous thing. I’ll never forget when I lamented my mobile lower back as I worked with Mary Taylor at the Yoga Workshop. She rocked my world by saying:

 “it’s a gift.”

3. When delivering cues or physical assists be my cheerleader, not my adversary:

“I sometimes lovingly refer to my job title as “Cosmic Cheerleader” because my job is simply to notice and to cheer you on, to applaud every smallest advance that you make on the road to self knowledge.”

~ David Garrigues

4. It makes a world of difference when certain teachings come from a teacher with whom I have a relationship. This is the beauty of mysore style ashtanga. My teacher can say “tailbone down” without sending me into a body image tailspin — and without getting punched in the face. Because it comes up almost never, I know it is truly at issue when he says it. And let’s face it, there is only so much you can accomplish with a student who is brand new to you in a single hour. I speak differently to the students who are in my classes regularly than I do to those who are brand new to me: A spoonful of trust helps the medicine go down.

5. Good alignment doesn’t mean that my body will look like yours when I am in a yoga pose (and maybe it’s not the end all and be all, anyway).

6. At a certain point, if you are giving me cues and nothing is changing (i.e., my butt continues to stick out), consider changing your focus, moving on. Sometimes I will talk to students after class to raise issues I cannot fully get into during class in a productive way. Look I’m going to give props to the teacher i experienced for trying, for having the balls to teach, for caring. But while alignment and anatomy are grand, they ain’t grand when dumped in harsh way.

7. If you don’t understand my body because it is so different from yours, own up to that. It might help you address me in a more productive way. I learn more from teachers who acknowledge what they don’t know than those who pretend to know everything.

8. “You are perfect inside and out. You’re a green ball of glowing light. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

When it comes down to it, I learned a lot about myself from this experience, and a lot about teaching. So if you’re in a class with me, I’m hope to get drunk on being on your side, you green ball of glowing light.

*I believe yoga teachers are doing the best they can. So while this post was inspired by a particular class, I took a little poetic license and combined a couple of experiences over the years into the composite of this teacher, as I do not want to “call out” any single teacher or class.  We all have our days, we all have our missteps, and indeed, we all come unexpectedly on students with certain sensitivities without making any obvious misstep at all. So for the sake of not publicly discussing a single person in a pejorative way, I am graying the truth line a tad to make my point without causing undue attention any one actual person.

*First line inspired by one of the best opening lines of a novel, “Elmer Gantry” by Sinclair Lewis.

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