“My arms are too short,” a frustrated Kalumba tells me as she tries to lift her torso off the ground in Elephant pose.
“My boobs are suffocating me,” Colleen says in a muffled voice from her Shoulder Stand.
Yes, we are all human with more in common than is different. But we are also different in many ways. Physiologically, we are all constructed a little differently, even if we are born in the same family. For instance, the placement of the hip sockets in the pelvis can determine how much our hips can open in a split.
Your skin tone, ethnicity, age may be visible to someone who doesn’t know you. Then there are all the other types of differences—some less outwardly noticeable than others. Your country of origin, first language, sexual orientation, food preferences, education, political leanings, and the list goes on of differences that can’t be determined by looking. No one can look at you and tell your blood type, whether you were raised by a single parent, are an orphan, have experienced abuse, or have been without enough to eat.
The problem, as I see it, is not that we are different, but that often there are perceived hierarchies with these differences—that one “difference” is in some way better than another. This then makes one person better than another. The mainstream standards of what is “acceptable” is drummed subconsciously into us by repeated messages in the traditional media, social media, TV and movies. These messages are subliminally writing and rewriting the scripts that tell us what is ideal, most valuable, to be striven for.
Yoga has not escaped this subliminal scripting. You could be forgiven for thinking that yoga is primarily for young, white, skinny flexible women dressed in tight lycra clothing—because that is the message we see. It’s easy to internalize the standards of what is “normal” and what is valued when we are fed these messages constantly.
And it’s all very well when you align with this version. But when you don’t? When you are darker. Male. Thick. Inflexible. Older. Prefer looser clothing…. When you are not the mainstream standard, it’s easy to feel less-than—and then to judge yourself harshly and judge others by your same harsh standards.
Like all of us, I came to yoga with my own life-acquired judgments. I tried to fit mainstream standards within the parameters that were possible. I couldn’t change the mocha color of my skin or the frizziness of my hair, but maybe I could mold the shape of my body. I could improve my flexibility. I could get my poses to look picture perfect for Instagram.
So I pushed and forced myself further and further to fit these external standards. I was so focused on the outward image that I was not listening to what was happening within. Not until I pulled a previously injured hamstring.
This shifted my practice from one of striving for an image of perfection, to a focus on what the poses and the practice felt like within. Was it what I needed at the moment? Was I pushing myself beyond the limit of the moment? Was I being complacent and could strive a little more? Was I judging myself by external standards or was I listening to my body? Slowly I learned the art of listening to myself and the encouraging voices within—a skill that serves me both on and off the mat.
As a yoga teacher, a big part of my mission is to help others feel comfortable in their own skin—to silence or ignore the relentless internal critic and to instead be in touch with the body and listen to the affirming voice inside. This is no easy task. It involves repeated messaging. I affirm this in class, starting with the guidelines that we go over at the beginning of every session.
Number 1: No Frowning. Crying is fine. Smiling is encouraged as long as it is not forced. Be real. Be authentic. If you catch yourself frowning, try to evaluate what is happening inside. Is it resistance? Are you judging yourself? Why? What do you need to adjust mentally or physically?
Number 2: No Judgment. Don’t judge yourself. Don’t judge others. Even if people can’t hear our judgy thoughts, they can sense it—and it’s not a good vibe. However, I’ve found that we tend to exercise the harshest judgement for ourselves and then think others are judging us just as harshly. Instead of judgement, think of something positive and affirmative to say to ourselves in class: “You made it to class.” “You’re doing your best.” “You’re honoring your limits.”
Number 3: Don’t force the funk. Listen within and go with the flow, doing what the body and mind need and are ready for. When you don’t, you’re forcing the funk and risk injury or a lackluster experience. Only you know where you are in this, but a whole lot of frowning can be an indication that you have crossed an internal boundary that is not safe to cross. (See Number 1.) Sometimes, going with the flow means pushing yourself outside our comfort zone. Sometimes it’s holding back. But it is always more about what things feel like than how they outwardly look.
These guidelines are not just for yoga class. Even as you are going through your day, check your facial expression, your attitude, your internal thoughts. Spare yourself the frowning, judgment, and forcing the funk. Go with the flow and embrace your difference.