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My journey as a plus-size yoga teacher

The phrase “the elephant in the room” came to mind when I entered the yoga studio for the first time. This brightly coloured studio, with images of Ganesha and the blazing sun painted on the walls, is where I would spend every weekend for the next three months. Ganesha and I were to become firm friends; the elephant in the room was not him alone but how I felt embarking on my journey to becoming a yoga teacher.

The images of yogis that come to many people’s minds are lithe and willowy bodied instructors in the latest yoga attire, bending their bodies into Celtic knots and whipping up a glistening power-yoga sweat. I, on the other hand, am a size 16, five-foot nine-inch black woman living in Sydney.

Before my teacher training, my yoga practice over the years had been sporadic. I’d tried a multitude of styles, teachers and studios only to feel like I never really fit in. There were times when all eyes would follow me as I walked across the studio, and my heart would quicken in my chest as I nervously found a spot to place my mat.

While travelling overseas in 2012, I found myself on the volcanic shores of Lake Atitlán in the small town of San Marcos, Guatemala. Here I spent over a month practising yoga, meditation and mysticism in a supportive and loving environment. Each morning at 6am, I would walk through the lush jungle to a beautiful wooden temple overlooking the lake to begin the day’s practice. And, each morning, I’d be greeted by a sea of faces, some smiling and some pensive, but always encouraging as we practised in silent respect of one another. This is where I learnt about the true essence of yoga and realised that, if I wanted to feel welcome, at ease and a part of a community, I would have to create it myself.

I had prepared for my body to be broken and sore from the hours of asana practice. What I hadn’t considered was the depth of ferocious feelings that would surface.

Laying out my mat on the first day of teacher training, however, I felt a wave of emotions and was ready to run for the door. Fortunately, it was blocked by our teacher, so I settled on my mat, making a mental note of each face as people entered the room.

As the weeks unfolded, instead of feeling vibrant, peaceful and yogic, I felt a sea of emotions washing through me as I moved through the poses. Each Sunday morning, my body let me know that I had put my size-16 frame through hours of yoga the day before. But I had prepared for my body to be broken and sore from the hours of asana practice. What I hadn’t considered was the depth of ferocious feelings that would surface.

With each lunge, fold and arch of my body, more and more anger emerged. The heat flushed up my torso and out through my heart, and tears streamed down my face. A lifetime of hurt, anger, disappointment and self-judgement was leaving my being.

Over the following weeks and months, my body gently eased into the physical routine and my heart began to feel lighter on and off the mat. I made friends and I saw that I was not alone in the doubts and fear my mind brought to the surface. Every yogi in the room had their own inner critic that they were trying to quieten and accept. I realised I’d been my own worst critic. I had contributed to the feelings of not fitting in or being accepted because I had judged myself and my body. The peace and acceptance I’d been searching for the entire time had always existed, inside of me.

When I began the teacher training program, I did it mostly for my own personal development and self-exploration. I decided to teach on completion of my training, however, because the self-acceptance and peace that I’ve found through my yoga practice was what I felt needed to be shared with others. Our world is infinitely diverse and that should be reflected within the yoga community. I feel like it’s my responsibility to be a part of the awakening, the realisation that yoga is accessible to all.

From my perspective, yoga in the West has a lens that’s focused on physicality. There seems to be an abundance of power yoga, where the practice is concentrated on achieving a yoga body or becoming lean. This focus left me feeling isolated in the early days, and I feel it excludes others from taking that first tentative step to the mat. There are so many facets to yoga. What I hear from my students, over and over again, is that the most beneficial moment in class for them is when they have that space to just breathe, reconnect to themselves and learn the philosophy of yoga that they can take off the mat and apply to their daily lives.

I feel honoured to be able to guide and support my students on their journey, and hold space for whatever may come up in those silent moments. Now, I aim to create a space where my students aren’t intimidated by their teacher and the people around them, where they are accepted and welcomed regardless of their size, shape and differences.

Alisha Waterman

Alisha Waterman

Alisha Waterman lives and works in Sydney, Australia, and shares, uplifts and inspires through her wellness coaching, yoga classes, Reiki sessions and writing.

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