This guest post is from Gillian McCollum, an Intuitive Eating Health Coach and Body Positive Yoga Teacher based in Edinburgh. Gillian is an advocate for body inclusivity within yoga and aims to make it accessible to everyone regardless of gender, age, race, ability, body shape or size.
Since the commodification of yoga by the West and with current emphasis on personal image and branding, we’ve seen an archetype develop of what yoga is seen to look like.
Most typically, the yoga body is portrayed as being female, white, young, able-bodied, slim, toned, tanned, flexible & affluent. These unrealistic, narrow standards of the yoga aesthetic (not unlike the more general female beauty ideal) have been internalised by mainstream culture and have resulted in the exclusion of many from this sacred practice.
It’s the responsibility of today’s 21st-century yoga practitioners not only to remember the true essence of this eight-limbed practice but to ensure its accessibility to all people regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, socio-economic status, body size, shape and ability.
For the scope of this piece, I’ll be mostly focusing on the body diversity aspect of this conversation. Posing questions that we may wish to consider if we’re ever to encourage people that fall outwith the yogi stereotype to participate in our classes and reap the far-reaching benefits of yoga.
Yoga is nothing to see and everything to feel, yet students often use the mirror in class to pick apart their appearance and as a tool to measure their ‘physical performance’ against. This detracts from them searching for the deeper connection to and within their bodies.
If there are mirrors in your studio, can you face your students in the opposite direction? Can you draw a curtain across the mirrors or encourage your students to close their eyes during stationary postures?
The use of hierarchal language within class can make students feel ‘less than’, like they don’t measure up or have to be made a special case of. For example, using the word ‘variation’ of a pose as opposed to ‘modification’ of a pose is a small adjustment in language but can lead to far-reaching feelings of inclusion.
Perhaps letting go of the messaging that yoga is always graceful and pretty? Sometimes it’s messy and clumsy and that’s OK.
Similarly, using guide language as opposed to prescriptive language during class helps students foster a sense of self-enquiry and connection to what they feel and experience in their own bodies as opposed to being told what they should feel by typical textbook standards.
So instead of ‘you should feel the stretch in xyz area of your body’, invite students to be curious and explore for themselves what they feel and where, like ‘notice where you feel sensation in your body’. This helps students come home to their body and to care and respect their own unique body in their own unique way.
It’s also helpful to begin a pose in its simplest and most basic form (with props where possible) and add-ons, as opposed to working back from what teachers often describe as ‘the full expression of the pose’.
Rather than demonstrating poses yourself, which may feel somewhat unrelatable for the average student, consider using your students to demonstrate (with their consent of course) and perhaps not your most experienced, flexible student at that. This will help foster congruence between teacher and students.
In yoga (as in life) the body is never the problem and should never be framed as such. Instead, the pose and props are the puzzles to be solved by the teacher in how best to support the student’s body.
Developing a positive message around the use of props in class is important for students of all levels, not just beginners. The availability and use of props should be matter-of-fact rather than seen as a consolation prize for those who aren’t able to ‘do the actual pose’.
Setting props out for all students at the start of class is a great way to do this instead of asking students ‘who need them’ to go get their own. It can often feel like a walk of shame for those new to yoga.
Leave the food talk at the door (including vegetarianism, veganism, cleanses and detox’s). Not only is it likely you aren’t trained in nutrition (and if you are you would know not to offer advice in this way) but you also don’t know someone’s personal circumstances. They could be in the throes of or in recovery for an eating disorder. Their relationship with food could be disordered and well-meaning advice from a yoga teacher could be extremely triggering. Trust that the yoga is enough and leave it there.
It’s becoming more common to see retail areas pop-up within studios and gyms as a way of increasing revenue, no shame here, we’ve all got bills to pay. However what message is your choice of merchandise sending out? Do you sell juice cleanses or diet bars or do you stock a clothing range that stop at a size 14? (Side note the average UK dress size is 16 and the average bra size is a 36DD). Could you instead focus on yoga equipment such as mats, props, water bottles & towels or perhaps more spiritual items such as books, candles, incense and crystals?
Representation & Communication
As a teacher or studio, pay close attention to the messaging within your advertising, social media and recruitment choices of teachers and staff. Ask yourself; are bodies of all different sizes and shapes represented in these areas of your business or do they reaffirm the yogi stereotype?
When a potential student visits your social media platforms do they only see young white women in super bendy yoga poses?
Do the social media accounts you follow, promote diversity?
When they walk into your studio or gym do they see themselves represented in the bodies of the staff and teachers?
Do the images in your print and digital advertising represent a diverse range of bodies?
Same goes for ability; be accurate in your promotion of a class both in your language and in the image you select. If you are running a beginner’s class is a photograph of the teacher doing an arm balance the most appropriate image to use?
Offering an ‘All Welcome’ ethos in your class or studio isn’t just about providing a safe, non-judgemental space but it’s about being able to truly provide the suitable support required for all bodies.
In my experience students who have disabilities, injuries or certain health conditions are likely to enquire directly with the teacher or studio about their unique condition ahead of class to gauge the suitability. However, even those who don’t enquire will likely be supported as most yoga teacher training courses offer a basic education on the contraindications of each pose.
However, those in a larger body mostly don’t enquire ahead of time and neither should they have to, given the diverse array of body shapes and sizes that exist in our world. Since most yoga teacher training courses don’t offer guidance on this, it’s likely that larger-bodied students aren’t accommodated adequately in class and are just expected to keep up. This, unfortunately, leads to feelings of exclusion and inadequacy, deeming themselves just not fit for yoga and not likely to return.
So, if you are a teacher, particularly in a smaller body, ask yourself; are you aware of what postures or movements are likely to be less accessible or uncomfortable for larger bodies? Do you know what variations you can suggest to better support these students? If not then perhaps seek out advanced learning in this area, especially if you take an ‘everybody welcome’ approach to your classes.
If additional training isn’t accessible to you, you can still deepen your knowledge by asking how you can better support your students. Listening to their experiences to better understand their needs from both a physical and emotional perspective is invaluable. Our students are our best teachers if we’re willing to listen and learn.
Most yoga practitioners, teachers and studio providers know and understand yoga to be an eight-limbed practice and do their best to uphold these principles to the best of their ability.
But we don’t know what we don’t know, so I’m hoping this article will shed some light and offer some suggestions as to how we may all become more mindful, accepting and accommodating of all bodies that are interested in joining our classes.
If body inclusivity is a value of yours then it’s not an easy or well-trodden path in today’s yoga culture. It takes us to go above and beyond in order to provide an equitable and inclusive space for all bodies. It requires us to enquire of ourselves – what is at the centre of our mission as a yoga teacher or facilitator? I’ll leave you here to meditate on that.
Gillian McCollum is on a mission with Body Positive Yoga to make yoga accessible to everyone regardless of gender, age, race, ability, body shape or size. She aims to provide a space where all bodies are celebrated and respected and to be particularly supportive for those who struggle with body confidence and self-acceptance. Her private coaching and yoga teaching helps her clients to find freedom with food and peace with their body.
Visit her website https://www.gillianmccollum.com/
And Instagram https://www.instagram.com/gillianmccollum/