Learning to Love My Bigger Body Through Yoga

by Rachel Estapa

When I lost 55 pounds a few years ago, I was mad that I didn’t like myself any better. I felt duped and annoyed that, after a grueling nine months of arduous refinement of what I considered broken, happiness wasn’t waiting for me.

I had been reeled in by the ever-present message: “Want to love your body? Just change it!” Abide I did, following books, programs, seduced by effervescent success stories of happy-ever-after once the weight was vanquished.

Rather than the joy promised, I experienced quite the opposite: anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and a growing awareness that maybe this whole “love myself” thing was deeper than trying to change how I looked.

We are taught that the body is separate from the self and, with the right set of directions paired with iron will, we should be able to carve a form worthy of approval and praise. This approach left me feeling disjointed and broken, unable to tap into the beauty of my body, of its interconnectedness to my breath, mind, and most importantly, worth.

Rather than live separately from my body, I chose to flip the script and cultivate holistic self-love, no matter my size. I had no clue what this meant but, like so many miracles in life, the path forward appears when you’re ready to understand and walk along it honestly. So I find it no coincidence that in the throes of discovering that weight loss wasn’t a prerequisite to my health and happiness, the practice of yoga entered my life.

Being the largest woman in yoga class took some getting used to. For years, I practiced in the back of the class, hiding from my assumption that stares and scoffs were merely a sightline issue, and that if I was behind everyone, I was safe to practice.

Instinctively, I began to close my eyes during yoga class, filtering out the bodies of those around me, connecting into deeper reservoirs of experience within. Through this method, I felt every motion of my body as it linked with breath, reaching inward toward the core of me—a peaceful center that was accepting and loving. The reverberations of my compassionate practice would carry off the mat, into the world in which I was choosing to believe I could find self-love.

I soon created More to Love, a social enterprise committed to helping educate and inspire larger women to apply body acceptance in their daily lives. Through my personal experience paired with my background in coaching, I wove the lessons of yoga into my work, inspiring others with larger bodies to consider reconnecting with themselves through personal growth. As my yoga practice expanded, so did my capacity to teach others the art of self-love through their relationship to their bodies.

My work with More to Love is grounded in teaching the skill of self-acceptance. Often, people confuse self-acceptance with resignation; they believe that to accept means to give up. For some with bodies they are trying to love, acceptance often equates with failure. They believe that their best efforts to become happy and whole within their body should mean changing it, rather than learning to appreciate it.

But I offer a different concept of self-acceptance: It can mean being honest—honest about how you feel and how your actions affect your body, mind, and spirit. Honesty requires truthfulness of experience and, to do that, you need to learn the skills of present awareness and nonjudgement. When self-acceptance becomes a foundation, your health, happiness, and general appreciation of self also rise.

Yoga provided me a pathway toward self-acceptance, and I knew yoga could help many more people if taught by someone they related to. When I was accepted to Kripalu’s 200-Hour Yoga Teacher Training, I was energized with a sense of commitment to loving my body through yoga, in order to better help others, too. But I wasn’t without fear: Could I physically do a monthlong intensive? How would I handle the likelihood of being the largest person in the room and being seen that way? What would it be like to become more vulnerable with my own yoga?

The first night of our training, we were asked to create an intention to guide us through our month together. I knew mine. It has been the same intention I’ve held for a few years now: to love and experience my body.

During the training, I discovered a secret I sensed was always there, but needed to feel viscerally in my body—the pulse of strength, grace, and deep connection to life and transcendence. Lofty as that sounds, each day within the training touched upon these aspects of both body and spirit, almost as if the course was written for what I personally wanted to taste.

The depth of yoga seems to evaporate years of shame and conditioning that the body is not meant to experience or enjoy. And, for those who have considered weight to be the great mountain to overcome, yoga offers a compassionate pathway through the mountain, a guide to discover what treasures lie within, not obstacles blocking the way.

As my love for the deeper wells of yoga grows, I realize my body is not the centerpiece of my story: I am more than a larger body, I embody all the amazing truths of life through this body. A shift has occurred, one from body acceptance to body existence.

I have a gift and calling to educate and create space for woman with larger bodies to learn how to connect and find love in what might feel unlovable. It’s the bedrock of my work through More to Love, it’s my own story, and I’ve been honored to help thousands of women learn to cherish themselves and their lives, one breath at a time.

Rachel Estapa is a Kripalu Yoga teacher and the founder of More to Love.

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