Confessions of a Size 12 Yoga Teacher

I’m a yoga teacher and I have a dirty little secret. I’m a size 12. The last time I weighed myself, it was in the 180s. (Ugh. It hurts just to write.)

I’ve been practicing yoga for 15 years, and teaching for four. I’m in the lucky 10% of yoga teachers who teaches full-time – it’s not just a hobby.

I practice four to six hours a week. I teach ten to twelve hours a week. I eat whole, healthy foods.

I am a size 12 yoga teacher.


I have an almost schizophrenic attitude about my body and my weight. On one hand, I’m proud to sit at the front of the room, reinforcing that yoga is for everyone – for every body. On the other hand, I’m terrified that students walk in and think, “What is she doing teaching?” or worse: “If practicing yoga will make me look like that, I’m going for a run.”

I’m proud my body can do things that some skinny bodies can’t do. And I’m ashamed there are poses I don’t do because my body gets in the way or makes balance impossible.


I’ve been overweight my whole life. When I graduated from high school, I weighed 215 pounds. I was muffin-topping out of size 18s. I was miserable. I was embarrassed. I was deeply ashamed. I lived in denial.

I was hiding inside my body. I desperately wanted to be seen, and yet I was terrified of being seen.

After years of dieting and… not dieting, I joined Weight Watchers in my early 20s. I lost 40+ pounds, and at my lightest I was a size 6, weighing somewhere in the 150s.  I was running half-marathons, going to the gym, and writing down everything that went in my mouth. After I hit my goal weight, I went on a cruise. I ate so much in Puerto Vallarta that I literally made myself sick. I promised myself I would never do that again.

Shortly afterwards, Hurricane Katrina hit. I went from whole foods to fast foods in about 24 hours. In the grand scheme of things, gaining 20 pounds did not seem like a big deal. And honestly? In the grand scheme of things? It wasn’t.


For me, becoming a yoga teacher has been a process of self-acceptance. I had to accept how much I loved teaching — and that I was pretty good at it. I had to accept that I hated my day job — and I was getting worse at it by the day. I stopped telling myself there were poses I couldn’t do because of my body — and just started trying to do them. I began to accept that my body is shaped the way its shaped.

I try to make food choices that are healthy for me, without disrespecting my environment or fellow beings. I eat as little processed and packaged food as possible. I eat meat, but aim for sustainably and locally sourced options. I consume full-fat dairy, and if I could get raw milk I would. I drink way too much coffee, but choose locally owned, fair-trade when I can.

I am a size 12 yoga teacher.


I recently started writing down everything I was eating again — but for a completely different reason. I have found my energy to be stagnant and heavy, my brain not as clear as I need it to be. To be a yoga teacher my brain must be sharp. My energy is critical to the quality of my work. After 20 years of dieting and… not dieting, I finally found a loving reason to keep track of what I was eating.

Finally, I feel ready to start looking at what’s really going on — what are the consequences of my habits, and what am I willing to change? And how much difference does a difference make?


Yoga taught me a lot. It taught me how to get comfortable being uncomfortable. It taught me that I am not my body, although this body is the only one I’ll get (so I take care of it). It gave me the physical strength to do hand stands, and the emotional strength to survive disasters — from hurricanes to heartbreaks.

I teach yoga because I want other people to feel the way I feel: strong, flexible, balanced, and grateful for every day.

I came to yoga for a physical workout. I got that, but I also got something better: Peace of mind. Self-acceptance. Both a willingness and a curiosity for whatever happens next.

I am a size 12 yoga teacher.


Lately I’m experimenting with avoiding all added sugars. So far, I wake up easier and my energy feels steadier — but I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t hoping to lose a few pounds. Because who trusts a size 12 yoga teacher?

Why I Stopped Caring if My Yoga Was Right

Some yoga teachers claim authenticity of their practice because of how old it is. I’ve practiced with teachers who say their yoga is the “real yoga,” because their teacher taught them the “real teachings.”

Why do we need age or exclusivity to authenticate our personal experience in yoga?

I’ve been exploring a new approach to alignment called “The Bowspring.” It flies in the face what many of us were told and have believed for years that a strong core was “the belly pulled back and up,” and that an anatomical neutral pelvis was the safest and healthiest way to work. I have taught hundreds, if not thousands, of students these same principles: keep the tail moving down towards the heels (but don’t tuck it!), pull the belly back to protect the lower back, front shoulders back, shoulder blades flat on your back!

It’s a rigid shape. It feels hard to me, especially now.

bowtest
The Bowspring alignment echoes an article circulating recently from NPR about why indigenous cultures don’t have back pain. When the base of the buttocks lifts, the belly is full, the lumbar curve is greater than “anatomical neutral,” and the whole ribcage expands out and back. I’ll be the first to say I am not an anatomy expert (just an anatomy nerd) — but in my body, that feels better. It feels stronger, fluid, and dynamic. My body feels soft AND strong at the same time, and not at all rigid.

I was talking to a student about this after my lunchtime class today, and I’m beginning to wonder: Why do we care so much about which yoga practice(s) are “authentic”? Why do we care how old the poses are? Which sequence or alignment is the best? How could we say that anyone (or any country, or any religion) owns yoga? Does it matter that the vinyasa we all love is probably only 150 years old, and was influenced by British calisthenics?

I suddenly realized: Who owns love? Which love is the best? What love is the most authentic?

The answer, of course: none of us, and all of us, all at once. All love is the best, but none is better than another. To paraphrase my teacher’s teacher, “How can you compare infinites?”

That’s the kind of yoga I’m interested in. I want yoga that makes me curious. I want yoga that nurtures change and growth, and doesn’t elevate something static. I want yoga that helps me explore my body, my thought patterns, my emotional hang ups, and leaves me feeling more myself.

So I’ve been practicing the Bowspring. I might teach it in class or online somewhere down the line. But it doesn’t matter.  

If your practice leaves you feeling stifled, restricted, pent up, or somehow less than… I’m curious: what kind of yoga are you interested in?

Integrity

You’re made up of a million different parts. Perhaps even an infinite number.

It’s like the night sky. You can look up, and see twinkly lights — you know that some are stars and some are planets. You even know there are some that you can’t see because of light pollution. You know there are more than you can’t see because there so far away, but you still trust that they’re there. Millions of stars. Spread out across the universe – perhaps an infinite number across an infinite universe.

The gift of this life is exploring all the different pieces — and trusting that just because you can’t see some of those pieces right now, you trust that they are there. You keep exploring, keep looking closer, deeper, farther.

Despite being made of infinite parts, you also know you’re one whole. You’re both things: the pieces and parts of you that you can take apart, and the whole together. The old adage says your whole is more than just the sum of those million parts.

The remarkable thing about the matrix that is you is that one part also carries with it the connection to every other part. Sometimes the connection and relationship is easier to see, sometimes it’s more tricky. You know when you move your foot forward to step, something happens in your pelvis. It may be harder to experience what’s happening in your neck when your foot steps forward – but the more aware you are, the more willing you are to explore that connection.

It’s even harder to see those connections in the parts of us we can’t see — but know are there. When you offer someone a kind word, you know that’s connected to your history of experience with them. It might be harder to connect the kind word you offer to that person with your history of experience with someone else, but you’re willing to explore that connection.

What if it’s all connected? What if your foot is connected to the kind word? What if your history of experience is part of the miraculous matrix of your body?

Are you willing to see it? You’re one thing, refracted and reflected from an infinite number of angles.

Integrity is moving from that one thing in an infinite number of directions. You’re brave enough to make decisions from your center, instead of trying to be one thing in your day job and something else at home with your kids. You know the things you say to coworkers affect how you kiss your lover goodnight.

An infinite number of stars, one whole you.

Is Your Practice Protection or Prison?

Physical yoga (asana) comes from tantric schools of yoga. Tantra, however — contrary to everything your mother fears — is not all about sex. Instead, tantric practices are a concrete exploration of the divine. Tantric practice, in any tradition, involves ritual, movement, mantra, and other practices that give us a chance to experience the miracle of the world instead of just ruminate about it.

The word tantra comes from two Sanskrit roots – “tan” means expansion or stretching, while “tra” and it’s variations means protection or tool. Tantra, in its earliest forms, is often translated as “weaving” or “loom,” – in a way that we must stretch thread, and then bring it together, then stretch again and so forth.

If you have a physical yoga practice, that might sound familiar. You roll out your mat, take some sun salutations, and then settle into a yoga posture. Your practice expands into more and more challenging poses, you begin to stretch and extend your body, find more space, and then dive into that space. You’re constantly expanding, settling in, expanding, and settling in again. This is one of the reasons we call it a practice: because there is always more to explore, always more to stretch, always another pose. Perhaps paradoxically, there is always more contentedness, more ease, and more stability to be found in each of those shapes.

Mantra might be another piece of your yoga practice — another word adopted into our modern vocabulary. Mantra hasn’t been as misunderstood: most of understand it as a word or phrase repeated that comes to represent an idea or ideology. In yoga practice, repeating a mantra has a very similar meaning.

Etymologically, you can see the similarity between mantra and tantra. They both have that “tra” – protection or tool at the end. The “man” comes from “manas,” which means mind — sometimes just the thoughts, sometimes the entire space between your ears including emotions, senses, and all the rest.

So then mantra can both protect the mind and be a tool of the mind. We can use mantra to direct the thoughts — and by directing them in one singular direction, we direct the mind AWAY from all the crazy we’re trying to avoid most of the time. It’s like the banks of a river: without those boundaries, the water spreads, sits, and stagnates into a swamp. The edges keep the water moving in a certain direction.

But what happens when those boundaries feel stifling? What’s the difference between protecting the mind from distraction and putting blinders on? What happens when the walls you built up to protect yourself become like a prison?

This is where tantra returns. There is no final answer, but instead a constant dance between feeling restricted and feeling protected. Every time we get complacent, we can challenge ourselves, expanding our thoughts and our body. Every time it feels like too much, we can always retreat back into the safety of our practice.

The Two Kinds of Darkness

This epic super moon eclipse on the vernal equinox has me thinking about darkness. This is what I’ve been thinking:

There are two main flavors of darkness in our life. Because its easier to see what happening in the world outside us, rather than the world inside us (although I think they are the same), I’ll use meteorological metaphors to talk about these shadows. First, there’s the darkness caused by a great big, ominous, angry storm cloud covering the sun. And then there’s the darkness of midnight, in the void before dawn. It’s two completely different kinds of darkness, and yet we tend to respond to them in similar ways.

The storm clouds show up in our life as suffering — we are abandoned, disappointed, betrayed, or otherwise wounded. When we’re in the midst of this kind of darkness, it’s impossible to see the brightness in our life. When friends suggest the silver lining (i.e. getting laid off means you have time to pursue that side career of your dreams!), we quietly resent their perkiness. We try to be more cheery, we know we should be more positive – but when things are dark, sometimes you just have to wait for the darkness to pass. Because no storm can last forever.

The other kind of darkness is the darkness right before the dawn. The black sky, the void, the emptiness. This darkness is terrifying to many of us, because we aren’t sure what will come next — and we are paralyzed by the idea the we might have to begin to paint the picture of dawn.

Both kinds of darkness pass, but while they’re happening they seem like they’ll last forever. When we’re in the depth of heartbreak, we imagine we’ll always be heartbroken. We’ll never find love again, we’ll be alone eternally — might as well get a grocery cart and 12 more cats now. It the moment just before daybreak, when we have no idea what the next step on this path is because no one else has ever tread this path (because it’s our path), we can’t imagine we’ll ever know what the ground feels like under our feet or that we’ll ever be able to do anything at all.

Here’s what I see as the difference: the storm cloud offers a kind of security blanket, a kind of familiar bleakness that will neither surprise nor disappoint us. Sometimes it just hurts so good. That blackness before daybreak, however, is terrifying – it’s emptiness, eternal possibility. I will do anything to get out of that space.

And so this eclipse is a little like that midnight darkness — a little reset button on the sun. It can be terrifying to realize that our entire life might change forever and we could move in a completely new direction, especially if we think we have to chart the course from the beginning.

I suggest just start with the daybreak – start with the streaming layers of red and ochre, that painfully exquisite sight of your life rising over the horizon.

Places to Go, People to See

I have an ever-growing, expanding, twinkling list of all the people I’d love to study with, places I want to experience, and events that I just can’t miss.  Except sometimes I’ll have to miss them.  Maybe you don’t!  In no particular order, check out:

  • Krishna Das, anytime, anywhere.  Right now, I’m looking at visiting with him in Yogaville during Memorial Day weekend.  Want to come? If not then, check out the rest of his tour schedule.
  • Byron Katie, The Work.  Four simple questions that will blow your mind.  Cultivate happiness and peace of mind.  I’m dying to go to The Institute for the Work.
  • BhaktiFest – 4 days, 4,000 people, in Joshua Tree National Park. Yoga, chanting, workshops, community.  My annual schedule is planned around being in California the second weekend in September.  I wrote a little journal about my experience last year, if you want more detail.  For more information, go to www.bhaktifest.com.
  • India.  Need I say more?  Even if the yoga we do now isn’t the “original” yoga, I still want to go to place where it all began. From Benares to the Himalayas, Chidambaram to Mumbai…  When’s our pilgrimage?

What’s on your can’t-miss list?

Commencement — What I Wish Someone Had Told Me at My Graduation

I was invited to give the Commencement Address at Herzing University‘s December graduation last night.  It was one of those opportunities that came to me through a  series of unpredictable events (aka divine providence), but it meant I had just a few days to put together my thoughts for these graduates. I might have said something different if I had been given more time, but instead I just shared with them exactly where I’m living now. Check it out:


Good evening and welcome! I want to thank Jason for inviting me tonight. It is a deep honor for me to be among you, with your family and your friends and your partners and maybe even your children. I share with them deep pride in and inspiration by the dedication that got you here tonight. Please know that your work blazes a trail for everyone you meet – everyone who wants to make themselves better, their work better, and their world better. I want to a share a quote with you from one of my favorite authors, and it’s a quote I try to live my life by. Marianne Williamson says:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?”

As you move forward after your time here at Herzing, you have two choices. You can move towards joy, or you can move away from fear.

We all have fears – even fears that we are powerful beyond measure. That power in us can be intimidating, and it encourages us to take risks – and sometimes those risks lead to failure. I don’t know about you, but I’m deeply afraid of failing. I might have been a little afraid to get up here tonight, afraid of what you think of me, afraid I’ll say the wrong thing, or that I’ll let you down.

But I made a choice – not to move away from that fear, but instead towards the deep joy of sharing with you something I believe so strongly. I know each of you were afraid to begin your studies here, I know each of you had moments when you thought, “I can’t do this.” And I know each one of you made a choice, with great courage in the face of that fear, to move forward.

I think you already know what so many people don’t know – you can live a life that you fall more deeply in love with every single day.

A very wise person once told me: if you want to be happy, do things that make you happy.

And you know what I mean by happy – I don’t mean pleasure; I don’t mean sit on the couch eating bon-bons and binge watching “Orange is the New Black.” When I say happy, I mean so excited to get up in the morning that you’re simply thrilled to be alive.

If you want to be happy, do things that make you happy.

Sometimes when I say this, people argue. They always say some variation of these two things: One, “I don’t know what makes me happy,” and two, “I’m not sure I can be happy.”

I think you graduates know – I think you already have an inkling of what makes you happy. And it’s what got you to this chair tonight. It’s what got you through all those tough assignments, group projects, and the moments when you thought you couldn’t do it.

And if you’re still not completely sure – keep trying. Keep trying things on in your life; take risks. Get curious about the things that make you happy. Don’t be afraid to find things that don’t make you happy – but for heaven’s sake stop doing those things!

If you want to be happy, do the things that make you happy.

If any of you, any of you, fall into that second group, with a deep doubt that it is possible to be that happy – to be in love with your own life – trust me when I say it’s possible.  It’s not just possible for some of us.  It’s possible for each of you.

I learned too late in life that I had a choice to believe this. I could change what I thought about myself and my life. I was not a prisoner of my past, and I could instead embrace my future. And that’s what got each of you here tonight. If you can’t quite believe now, let me believe it for you: You can have a life and work where you are rewarded for being your complete, authentic self, and you fall in love with your life a little more every day.

Just like any other lifelong relationship, you will have doubts. You will wake up some mornings and think: “I’m just not sure I can do this.” That’s normal. It’s actually a great sign – because it’s a sign you’re about to grow. And you already know that because of how many times you maybe thought it in the last few years.

My mom went to medical school when she was 40 years old and I was 6. She once said, “the amount you learn is directly proportional to how uncomfortable you are.” Get comfortable being uncomfortable.

And I know you already know something about this. You know what helps you. I want to share what helps me, and what helps the people I work with every day:

Breathe. They kick me out of yoga teaching if I don’t remind everybody to breathe. Your breath can’t lie – when you get nervous it gets short, quick, and hard. When you’re content or relaxed it’s slow, steady and expansive. So when you’re scared or nervous, slow your breath down. It will trick your brain into thinking you’re content and relaxed. Trust me, it works.

Pray. Americans have a lot of baggage around the word God, so I try not to say it very much. I encourage you to find a deep, abiding connection with a power greater than yourself. Connect to the mystery and the miracle that your heart continues to beat every minute of every day. Don’t be afraid to get quiet. That leads me to the next one:

Be Grateful. Give thanks for the good things in your life, focus on the things that you have, instead of focusing on what you don’t have yet. Your attention is one of the most valuable currencies you have: what you focus on grows. Remember and give thanks for the things that bring you joy. You might just find those things growing.

Be Kind. Be kind to people. Be kind to everyone. Even the people it’s hard to be kind to. I work with homeless drug addicts, corporate executives, and everyone in between. If I’ve learned anything it’s this: it doesn’t matter the circumstances of life, everyone is suffering. Be kind to the people you meet – everyone you meet. And please remember to be kind to yourself.

Laugh & Have Fun. Do things that make you laugh, just because they make you laugh. If you want to be happy, do things that make you happy. Laughter is like nature’s medicine – it’s also great ab work. Laugh as often as you can, and whenever possible, laugh with other people. Because the folks near you are struggling with all the same demons you are, and they need a laugh just as much as you do: maybe even more.

In closing, I want to say thank you. Thank you to your friends and your families for everything they did that got you here tonight. And thank each of you for not giving up when it got tough, but instead moving a little closer to your dreams every day.

The end of that Marianne Williamson quote I started with tonight is this:

“As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Congratulations. I can’t wait to see how each of you makes the world a little brighter.

Thank you, and good night.

Receiving Gratitude

This November, it seems like all of my Facebook friends are writing gratitude lists: every single day, expressing appreciation for everything they have, from nice weather to tasty dinners. My reactions range from a light smiles to subtle groans: “Oprah wins again.”

My mind is so screwed up that I feel guilted into gratitude practice: “I should remember what I have more. I should appreciate the people in my life.” I wonder what I would be grateful for, but my list never seems like enough.  I am reminded again that my mind can use everything as a weapon — every medicine can be poison if taken in the wrong dose.

I am not, by any means, undermining the practice of gratitude.  When I’m humble enough to remember, I have found it a very useful practice.  Our minds tend to focus on what we lack, the things that are missing, the things that hurt, and gratitude gently focuses our attention on abundance and joy instead.  But I think there’s a more subtle practice that might be even more powerful: receiving gratitude.

Despite trumpeting the power of expressing gratitude, the “mindfulness community” spends little time on the practice of being receptive to it. We fill our lives with so much offering and service and generosity, that when someone says “thank you,” all we can think is, “That wasn’t enough. I could give more.” Perhaps we offer service not out of deep love for all beings, but instead because we feel we must serve in order prove that we have earned being here.

An underlying message of gratitude practice: If I don’t remember all the gifts I have been given, I couldn’t possibly deserve them.

What a dangerous, yet common, thought — and a thought that completely eliminates the possibility of grace. Grace is what we receive in exchange for nothing – grace is what we receive just by being. We don’t have to do anything, we don’t have to give anything, we don’t have to sacrifice anything — and thus you don’t have to know anything, understand anything in order to get it. They say: “God gives grace not because of who you are, but because of who God is.”

Perhaps this concept is seems odd: that’s normal. Intellectually, you can understand getting something for nothing (it’s nearly the American dream, right?) — but when it comes down to it, we can’t sit still and simply receive what is being offered to us. So… we practice.

Take a moment to sit quietly, and settle yourself into the present.  Let your breath become steady, and your list-making mind subside for a moment.

Once you’ve found this moment, think of a person who might be grateful for you. A parent, child, partner, friend, sibling, pet… maybe someone who sent you a text on Thanksgiving “I’m grateful for you!”  How many of those texts did you get that you can’t remember?

Give yourself a moment to remember what you’ve been for that person, what you’ve done for them in your time together.  Maybe it’s hard to a imagine a person like this — maybe you don’t have children, or your relationship with your parents is so strained that you can’t imagine that they might be grateful for you.  Maybe you have a dog or cat: imagine, for a moment, how your dog might see you.

If you can’t find anyone — think of me.  Because I guarantee I am grateful that you’re on the other end of the screen, reading what I’m writing.  I’m grateful that you’re spending your precious time with me, grateful that you bring all your experience to this moment, and are willing to process this receiving of gratitude with me.

Imagine the sense of gratitude that person or being feels for you — not just because of what you’re done, or presents you’ve given.  They’re not just grateful because of the checks-and-balances of life, they’re grateful for the space you hold, for how you make them feel about you and themselves.  Feel what that gratitude feels like.  Feel the fullness of your presence in their life.

Notice the effect on your breath.  Notice the effect on your thinking mind.  It might make you nervous.  It might make you really uncomfortable.  Maybe it calms you down.  You might think it’s a silly exercise: all of this is information for next time’s practice.

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.’
– Rumi