Skinny Yoga and the Violence of Perfection

My yoga is better now that I’m not skinny

Three thin women wearing yoga pants and trendy shoes

I have to move my belly out of the way, or else I can’t get my fingers under my feet. My thighs give out and I land on my butt trying to do a toe stand. No longer able to rotate my hip joint to place my foot on top of my leg, my tree pose is wobbly. “LaToya, bend your knees as much as you need to touch your forehead to your thigh.” My knees are almost bent in half.

It is my first time at yoga in more than a year, since COVID hit and closed my favorite studio. I was not going consistently prior to the onset of COVID; indeed, I was deeply depressed and not doing much of anything. In some ways, COVID gave me the excuse I needed to lie around. Both forms of exercise that I previously enjoyed were right in my building. While they were open, and as I passed them each day, I felt the familiar pangs of self-loathing at my inability to move my body. When they closed, I satisfied myself by declaring the reason I wasn’t moving my body much past my bed was out of my control.

This is hot yoga, and the heat hits me the moment I walk into the room. I make the mistake — but perhaps not — to be at the front of the room, closest to the room-length mirror. Every mat is spaced wide apart, and I choose my spot because it seems to be the furthest away from everyone else. Everyone can see me, at least from behind. I can see them, but before me is nothing but me.

Before class begins, I take a quick scan of the room:

Skinny. Skinny. Skinny. Skinny Man. White. White. Black (and skinny.) No one looks like me.

Some are already in poses: legs butterflied, limbered hamstrings in deep forward folds, lotus legs and meditating. Their thinness and general whiteness is on display, as the man practices shirtless and women are dressed in a sports bra that matches their pants, all with the familiar Lululemon brand logo. (The teacher is Black, and skinny. But also strong, and kind.)

I, too, was once a skinny, limber, and fashionable yogi. Fifteen years ago, before marriage, before kids, before most of my adult life, I could do all the balancing poses, moving like a dancer through the vinyasa’s asanas. I was a vegetarian, a teacher-in-training, a student of yogic philosophy, alignment and sequencing. In class, I was often placed in the “front row” so I could model movements for the yogis behind me.

That life was years ago. Skinny, but unhappy. Limber, but broken. A model of what it looked like to be on the precipice of a breakdown.

So much has changed since then. Necessary changes, but also painful changes. Bipolar diagnosis. Hospitalization and intensive outpatient treatments. Twice a week psychotherapy. Fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, and daily migraines.

That life was years ago. Skinny, but unhappy. Limber, but broken. A model of what it looked like to be on the precipice of a breakdown.

Today, as I watch myself in the mirror, breathing hard under a mask, sweat pouring down my back, striving to pull in my belly, it’s in me to say, “Fuck this. I’m hot, I’m tired, this mask sucks, and look at how much better at the asanas these people are.”

Laughter in the face of apparent failure is the practice.

But I didn’t. I fell, I got back up. I put my hands around my calves because I couldn’t reach my feet. I kept my foot low on my leg to balance in tree pose. And when I kept falling, when I kept failing, all I could do was shake my head and laugh (when I wasn’t feeling like I was gonna pass out.) Laughter in the face of apparent failure is the practice.

One essential concept in yoga is ahimsa, or nonviolence. It’s often interpreted to mean nonviolence against other living things, a key reason why many yogis embrace vegetarianism and nonviolent protest movements. But nonviolence includes the violence we do to ourselves, the ways in which we talk negatively about ourselves, how we compare ourselves to others. Violence in my life showed up as intense mental and physical suffering. To practice ahimsa means to sit with ourselves, telling ourselves that we are loved and are love, moving through the world with kindness and without judgment and appreciating where we are right now.

I laughed at myself, but not in a malicious, taunting way. I laughed as a reaction and response to any negative self-talk, reminding myself that I would never be so cruel to another living thing. I laughed to not take myself too seriously, to recognize that nonviolence must also mean self-love and acceptance of who I am right now — mother, wife, thinker, writer, and yes, yogi. I laughed because I know the truth: the goal of yoga is not in the postures, the asanas. Strength in the body matters, but the asanas bring us closer to something more precious than thinness with no belly fat. The postures, what we do in class, are not the end. They are the means.

The aim of life is to live in peace. ~ Baba Hari Dass

Om shanti, shanti, shanti.

Law professor. Teach and write about the law of educational inequality, property and the family. Mom of 3. Amateur artist. All opinions my own.

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