When I first started practicing yoga, it was largely to help get some mental health issues under control rather than as anything I did for my physical health. Additionally, when I started, it was in classes (for credit and non) at my university — where the expectation was that people of differing backgrounds, goals, body types, and ability levels would be trying out yoga and/or developing their practices. College students would show up to yoga in all the ways that were typical of how students at my university dressed: in traditional athletic wear (though yoga pants were not a fashion “thing” yet), yes, but also in boxers and T-shirts, cartooned pajamas, and hospital scrubs. Most were what I’d term thinner, but larger people were definitely not absent from the class. The majority of students did not have a now ubiquitous yoga sticky mat. Some of us came to meditate, others to stretch, others because they needed to fulfill a credit requirement.
I won’t say it was the perfect low-stress environment — mostly because I was there to work on recovering from rape trauma, so nothing I did was low stress — but very little about the classes added to any stressors I was already feeling. I left those classes feeling like I could “do yoga.”
When on-campus classes were no longer a viable option for me, I started looking for yoga studios in town. Of the few choices available in my mid-size city then, I selected a studio with a location and classes that worked with my school and teaching schedules. The class that appealed to me most advertised itself as an “easy intermediate” class suitable for continuing students and fit beginners. Considering that I considered myself both a continuing student and fit, I thought it would be an appropriate choice for me.
“The beginner class is on Tuesday.” The first words as I entered the door with my mat, from the woman who turned out to be the instructor and studio owner.
“I’m here for this class,” I replied. “I called earlier this week asking if this was an okay class for someone who’s been practicing for a couple of years.”
“And you’ve been practicing for a couple of years?” Her raised eyebrows said she was skeptical.
I stayed for the class, already feeling self-conscious and on edge. During prasarita padottanasana, the woman next to me didn’t say anything but moved her mat far away — way more than was warranted by our positioning or the size of my body. The student on the other side of her started giggling.
I stayed through the end of class, but I did not go back.
The next studio I tried offered a multi-level class that advertised itself as suitable for most experience and fitness levels. And after a fashion, it was: For a lot of poses, the instructor offered multiple modifications and variations, so that most poses were accessible to most of the students in the room. Which is a really, really cool thing.
However, it didn’t take me long to get tired of the teacher confidentially telling me, “You’ll want to try the beginner version of this asana,” for approximately every second position, “until you’re strong enough to support your weight” — regardless of whether he’d seen me enter a particular asana before and instead of letting me use my own best judgment with respect to the class instructions, which is what he let everyone else do. Were most of the postures in question ones where my alignment was off or where I had particular potential to hurt myself, I’d totally get it; however, this wasn’t the case.
Nor was it endearing to watch the same teacher haul ass across the room to spot me in, say, the upward bow where I hadn’t asked for a spot and where my arms were plenty strong enough to support me — once leaving someone else they were spotting in the process.
I stayed with this studio for a few months, maybe eight to twelve individual classes. Ultimately, though, encountering a teacher’s negative assumptions about my body, even if they weren’t malicious assumptions, was draining.
I tried out a few more studios — three, I think, for a grand total of five, but it’s been a lot of years, so I could be mistaken — with no fundamentally new results, save for the fact that the “why are you here?” eyebrow look happened once in a basic yoga class as well. By that point, I’d used up all my nearby options, filled out repetitive “new student” forms, and spent a lot of money in the process. I was tired of it.
So I started hiding. I practiced only at home and never when anyone else — boyfriend, roommates — was watching. I never talked about my practice, never had a chance to ask question, and so never received instruction more individualized than a DVD could provide (which is to say, not at all). In a way, yes, it was insulating myself from the prejudices of others, which likely helped me to continue my practice. On the other hand, it was partly me internalizing those negative vibes, so I experienced enough shame that I felt like I should hide myself. The latter was quite limiting to my practice, both because it meant I wasn’t always receiving instruction that would have helped me and because there was some part of me that felt like I wasn’t good enough to be doing what I was doing.
[Loard, I did not expect this to run so long. Since I think I still have a fair bit more to type, I'm going to finish it in a separate post.]