Body Positive

A groundbreaking meeting of diverse voices addresses the interface of yoga and body image.

Growing up in the Midwest in the 1980s, Erica Mather never felt like she fit in. “I was tall, busty, and brunette, where blondes were the norm,” she remembers. Under pressure to perform as an athlete and to conform to what she saw in women’s magazines, “my mind got out of control and imagined grotesque bodily flaws where I had none,” she says. “I started to eat to manage my emotions, and over-exercise to attempt to control my body.”

It wasn’t until she found yoga in her mid-20s that she began to heal from body dysmorphia—with the additional help of therapy, strong friendships, and the passage of time.

“I began rehabbing my relationship with my body and with all it contains and all it is capable of—feelings, thoughts, emotions, and Spirit,” says Erica. She became a senior Forrest Yoga teacher, and created the Adore Your Body System and The Yoga Clinic, where students, teachers, and health professionals can learn about self-care for the body.

“At its best, yoga teaches us to be present with what is real now, and gives us the tools to skillfully engage with and handle what is real now,” Erica says. In the context of body image, that means embracing your body as it is, without striving to create change. Yoga can be a powerful ally in that process, when taught and practiced with compassion and awareness.

Inspired by the growing conversation about body image in the yoga community, Erica launched the inaugural Adore Your Body Telesummit last year. She brought together presenters from the fields of yoga and health, as well as the feminist and body positivity movements, to share their stories and their techniques for changing the way we think about our bodies. The summit drew more than 700 people, and prompted Erica to envision a live event focused on yoga to promote body positivity—a gathering that would encompass the voices of yoga teachers and practitioners of all shapes, sizes, ages, ethnicities, and abilities.

Thus was born the Yoga and Body Confidence event, which took place at Kripalu in 2016, featuring keynotes from Cyndi Lee and Seane Corn along with panel discussions, interactive exercises, yoga, meditation, and Q&A. Personal stories from three of the program presenters are below.

“As I entered the conversation about body positivity, I wondered what right I had to speak up, as a relatively thin, arguably pretty, and definitely white woman,” Erica says. “What I came to believe is that each and every person’s story about this is part of the fabric of truth that makes up the human experience. I wanted to make a space to begin to have these conversations.” 

Dianne Bondy's story:

I grew up in a small town outside of Toronto with black immigrant parents, making me different from everyone else in every possible way. For most of my life, I felt like an outsider, an ugly duckling, and simply not good enough in comparison to the rest of my small world. The images and conversations that bombarded me reinforced my connection to these feelings of isolation and inferiority. 

The action that brought me peace and understanding of myself and the world around me was yoga. I started a practice with my mom at the age of 3. It developed into what would become my dharma. Yoga is my passion and sharing yoga with EVERY BODY is my mission. Yoga for all is about breaking down the barriers that keep us from nothing our true greatness. Yoga is in all of us and is for all of us; it is time to make so.

Dianne Bondy is a celebrated yoga teacher, social justice activist, founder of Yogasteya, and a leading voice of the Yoga for All movement.

Chelsea Roff's story:

Yoga was a game-changer in my recovery from an eating disorder. It helped me beat a disease that nearly ended my life. As a moving meditation, yoga taught me to recognize and respond to my body’s needs, cope healthfully with difficult emotions, and treat my body with compassion. As a holistic practice, yoga also connected me with a community and sense of purpose that infused my life with meaning and helped me beat the disease for good.

But I think it’s important to mention that the culture surrounding yoga in this country can also exacerbate food and body image challenges. Yoga must be taught and practiced with mindfulness and compassion, or else it can become one more tool we use to numb our feelings and try to fix a body that was never broken to begin with.

Chelsea Roff is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and the founder and director of Eat Breathe Thrive™.

Chelsea Jackson Roberts' story:

By the time I took my first yoga class, my body had already endured two decades of ridicule for being too big, too curvy, or just not the right body type for particular spaces that little girls often dream of fitting into. Why would yoga be any different? After all, I only saw maybe one or two women of color on the cover of a particular yoga publication I obsessed over before building the nerve to attend that first class. Moments before the instructor walked in, flashbacks from my childhood and the experiences that contributed to my relationship with my body convinced me that my presence in this space was a mistake.

Today, in my second decade of practicing yoga and teaching in communities, my body is still challenged by those who are not accustomed to seeing full body types move in certain ways. Similar to the critiques placed on my body as a young gymnast and later as a cheerleader, I continue to encounter reminders that my body may always be questioned. My yoga practice teaches me acceptance and that my body is not an inconvenience or a burden, but rather an opportunity to reclaim my position in any space I choose to occupy.

Chelsea Jackson Roberts is a yoga educator who works with marginalized and underserved populations and serves on the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. A longer version of her story appears in Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories about Beauty, Bravery, & Loving Your Body.

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