Written by Gabrielle Goldberg
In 2012, I decided to teach Buddha Bodies after discussing the studio tenant, “No One is Free Until We Are All Free.” A group of Yoga teachers discussed how the tenant affects our lives and community. Emily asked us, “Is there or was there a time when you did not feel free?”
I reflected on gratitude for the freedom I experience every day. I realized my idea of what freedom is, is at times, limited. I think back to my upbringing and the reasons my family immigrated to this country, moving from a country that was part of the former Soviet Union in the late seventies, to create opportunity that simply didn’t exist in their home country, freedoms as simple as expressing thoughts and ideas. I tend to think freedom is directly related to access of our basic human rights, clean water, nutritious food, safe home, access to affordable healthcare, and of course freedom of expression without persecution.
I felt gratitude knowing that we could sit in Laughing River Yoga and talk about this. Where my parents were raised, they would have risked being followed by KGB or questioned if they were too open with this type of talk. My father had that experience numerous times in his teen years and early adulthood. So any time I felt I was not free, my mind would tell me otherwise because I wasn’t dealing with the loss of my basic human rights. During our conversation I realized I was stifling a valid experience that made me feel I was not free.I’d been planning this series for years and decided it’s time to share my experience. I was hesitant to share. This is sensitive personal stuff. I didn’t want to talk about my personal experiences with strangers. Who wants to feel vulnerable like that? I recognized my fear in being open and have decided to face the experience of vulnerability because if I share my experience, there’s the possibility that somebody else may find healing and strength through that paired with Yoga.
Maybe I wasn’t fully aware of it growing up, but I didn’t feel free inside of my physical body. Don’t get me wrong – I was active and healthy my entire childhood and teen years without any serious physical ailments. But I felt I never quite fit inside my skin or my body. Somewhere in middle school I started to compare myself to other girls and women, without even realizing it. It comes with the territory of growing up female in American culture. I couldn’t tell you where or how it started, but I know I didn’t like the way I looked. My nose was too big, my hair was boring brown, and despite my healthy weight I thought I was fat. That last part really stuck with me. I didn’t wear certain styles of clothing because I felt my unattractive overweight body was exposed. I hunched my shoulders due to my insecurity. I didn’t like who I was or what I looked like. I didn’t love my self and didn’t even know why. That lack of love resulted in dieting. There were dieting pills and “diets” where I essentially starved myself. I smoked more cigarettes knowing that could keep my weight down and eventually the low self-esteem led to other self-abusive outlets.
Now skip forward to college. The self-loathing was somewhat regulated. I had come to terms with the very nose kids made fun of me for on the playground. I had “grown” into it and actually started to love my nose and how it reflects my Eastern European heritage. I had fun with my hair. Some days it was purple or pink, sometimes brown with red highlights.. I even grew dreadlocks as a personal statement against our culture’s normal standard of beauty. But I still had thoughts about how I needed to be on a diet and was too fat.
By this time I had gained the “freshmen 15” and around age 20 saw a photograph of myself in high school. I remembered where I was at emotionally the exact time when the photo was taken. My high school mind thought I was ugly and overweight. I was shocked by this photograph. It was a picture of a slender girl with long brown hair. She was smiling, though her eyes looked sad and filled with hurt. You could see a crinkle above her eyebrow and tension in her forehead. Her body shape was perfectly proportionate and she actually looked quite beautiful. It was like looking at somebody else, somebody who was not me. I could not understand how skewed this vision of myself had been.
I co-created a heavy body because of a lifetime of burdens I carried with me, some mine, some my family’s, some absorbed from our culture, ideas of how I “should be” as a woman. When I was slender, I still saw an overweight “fat” teenager. It was an absurd realization. After all, my body had served me well hiking mountains, swimming in oceans, dancing across the country at festivals and on Phish tour. I knew my body was capable of feeling good and feeling free. What I hadn’t realized is that my mind and body were disconnected. I decided to think different about myself and my body. My new approach was to respect myself for exactly what I was day to day, trying to release self-judgment to the best of my ability.
Around the same time I learned to snowboard, which led to Yoga. I was still heavy but I started to feel good about what I was experiencing. Between being on the mountain and on a Yoga mat, I started to experience the most freedom I’d ever felt in my life. I followed my new bliss upon graduating college. I spent weeks volunteering at Kripalu Center for Health& Yoga so I could further explore my new found freedom in my Yoga practice. And then I volunteered at an ashram in Virginia that fall, before returning to Vermont to teach snowboarding. What I didn’t realize at the time I was volunteering at Kripalu and Yogaville, is that I didnt look like the other female bodies around me. Of course I knew this but I paid no attention to it and just practiced, always adjusting poses to work within my ability level. I dove into Yoga Teacher Training with this attitude and didn’t allow being a heavier body type to affect my practice, until I became a teacher. As a teacher, I started to notice I was one of the few around me that was not slender and toned. It seemed most teachers in town had appeared to have “perfect” bodies, new yoga clothing, and basically looked like the walking cover of Yoga Journal Magazine. The old thought pattern and fear re-surfaced. I started to feel like that self-conscious teenager again. I doubted my ability to teach by comparing myself to everyone around me and basing my competence on my outward appearance.
Why would I do that? Where did this idea come from? How on earth does this fit in with a healing practice like Yoga? It doesn’t folks. The more I looked at my discomfort and dissected my self-judging thoughts, the more I realized that these are not my ideas. Instead of feeding them, I replaced them with my own ideas, using the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as a guideline for my healing.
It’s taken years of teaching to let go of ideas surrounding who I should be as a Yoga teacher and to gain my confidence in what I have to offer students. I show up to teach representing my most authentic self. I am open about my body weight and shape with students and other teachers because this body has brought me so much joy and many indescribable experiences. I’m ready to shatter the concept that Yoga is only for a certain body type or a certain gender or race. It’s a healing practice that can be shifted and shaped to any person willing to learn. As the teacher of this series, I want you to know that I am ready to serve your needs and assist you by drawing out your strengths and burning away old ideas and thought patterns about who you should be.
Get ready to step back inside of yourself and feel empowered!