In the back of Yoga Journal, lodged between ads for Himalayan salts and yoga retreats, was a photo of Ana Forrest, a yoga teacher famous in the yoga community. She was in handstand, naked from the waist up. The photo was a back view. Her muscled arms and opened hands pressed into rock ledge. Her bare legs stretched wide in a straddle and spread toes reached to an endless sky. A single black braid fell forward and touched the ground.
When I saw the photo, I felt a pang of longing. I too wanted a body that could do this. A body strong with each muscle defined. Even more, I wanted to be fearless and trusting.
In my head, I say, I have the right to be fat. I have the right to be fat.
I am a full-bodied yoga teacher. I take comfort in the fact there are others out there, luscious like me. In the yoga world, the majority of teachers are lean. On bad days, I look out at the students in the yoga class I am about to teach, and ask myself, “Don’t they see how fat I am? Why are they taking yoga from me?”
Yoga is practiced primarily by women, yet it has strong patriarchal roots and leanings, which means holding up thinness as a measurement of yogic aptitude and success. It’s the order of things.
Sometimes I wonder if being a fat yoga teacher is silently scoffed at. A suspicion that he or she is not doing the work. We must be lazy or sneaking processed foods. Most likely both. Yoga tops can not contain us. We fill out our lycra pants with hips and asses, yet we teach respectable and popular classes despite the fact we’re not skinny.
There are days I love my curves. Each one a chunk of wondrous love and an expression of my sexiness, aliveness and my ability to get down and dirty with a cheeseburger and glass of wine.
As far as skinny goes, I have been down there, in the palace, once or twice in my life, but only because of diet pills, smoking, over-exercising or sticking my finger down my throat. I cut out my risky behavior once I became a mom. But my thin moments are full- color photographs in my memory catalogued between power and acceptance. The truth is I was only ever skinny for a few hours at a time, and then my weight would creep back up again.
Catching a glimpse of Ana Forrest in the back of the glossy trade magazine sent sparks through my nervous system, so I signed up to take her thirty day course, even though I already held advanced yoga teaching certifications. I craved change.
I sat with my therapist a few weeks before the training was to begin and told her I hoped to let go of my body image problems once and for all. Maybe this training would do it. And then I regressed. “If I just didn’t have this belly, I could be happy.” My mid-section had become a bundle of permanent stretch marks, scar tissue and loose skin due to all the times I gained and lost large amounts of fat.
“It’s so unfair.” I hated the way I sounded. Whiny and superficial. Even to me. Especially to me.
I would have preferred to be swallowed by the therapist’s soft couch. Instead I clutched a trendy printed pillow on my lap.
My therapist, a PhD, who never wore the same outfit twice, nodded her head in agreement. “Maybe this would be a good time to get the tummy tuck you keep mentioning. Just get it done and over with. Right after the training. Then you can move on.”
That’s how I ended up in the upscale office of a plastic surgeon, with a brand new visa card with a zero-balance and a $10,000 limit hidden in my wallet. My insides were whirling. The wall-to-ceiling mirrors reflected back a woman with a rounded belly in jeans and a red flowered top. My flip-flops were noisy as I made my way across the marble floor.
In my head, I say, I have the right to be skinny. I have the right to be skinny.
The plastic surgeon was a tall man with big teeth and a spring-time tan. He held a red permanent magic marker in his strong yet manicured hands and waved the marker around as he spoke. As he drew a dotted line along my belly, hips, and even across the top of my ass, to show me where he would remove the fat from, he told me the incision would be tiny.
“In a couple of months, once you heal, you will be able to wear a bikini. Of course how good you will look depends on whether you are a cadillac or a chevy. It all depends on what model you are underneath. I can only do so much.”
I looked down at my recently painted and pedicured toes the color of cruises and cotton candy. When I had gotten them done the day before, I hoped he would notice I appreciated details and pretty things. Now I felt my own foolishness slap my face.
“You are going to love the results,” he said as he put the cap back on the marker. He was giddy with himself. “All my clients do.”
Later that evening, sitting with my husband, I told him I thought the plastic surgeon was an ass. “But he does really good work, so I think I’m gonna go for it. After the training.” I looked at Matt for approval.
Then he said the thing my husband always says. “If you need to do this, I support you all the way. But Annie, I could care less what your belly looks like. Just make sure that whatever you do, you continue to have sex with me.”
He leaned over and kissed me while his hands groped under my shirt for my belly. “God, you’re hot.” he said.
Acutely aware of the red lines that would not wash off and delineated my muffin top, it took everything not to pull away from the man who loved me.
In my head, I say, Stay. Stay.
The first day of Ana Forrest’s yoga teacher training was as I suspected. I was the largest women in the room. It’s not that I’m obese, but I carry rolls and padding in a crowd that had nothing extra to spare. It was a significant difference. This did not stop me from walking past every single size-two yogi and plunking my yoga mat down right in front of the teacher. Ana Forrest looked directly at me. I made eye contact back. For the next 30 days I would put my mat down in the same exact spot and every day we would greet each other with our eyes.
The yoga practice that first morning was demanding. At one point, while standing in a pose called Warrior One, I thought I might pass out from the heat. An assistant noticed and came over and instructed me to take deep breaths. My yoga mat was slick and wet from my own sweat. Because of my sweat puddles, my hands and feet were sliding and the yoga felt unsafe. In that moment I would have traded my silver Om necklace for a hand towel to mop myself up.
Two people dropped out of the program before lunch time. “Curves give me stamina,” I thought. For a moment, because I was fat, I felt superior.
The truth was I was scared the worst could happen. Everyone would learn I wasn’t really an enlightened being teaching yoga. What if the yoga revealed I was mundane, fat and miserable, just as I had suspected all along?
During the 30 days of training, I kept having dreams that my teeth were falling out into my hands, and I wouldn’t allow anyone to put them back in my mouth. Everyone was repulsed by my toothless smile. Not me. I felt a sense of clarity as I held each fallen tooth in clutched fists. Each one left its own bite mark. This satisfied me in some way.
Maybe because of my reoccurring tooth dream, I kept to myself and cut off any possible friendships before they could begin. To me, these other yogis seemed too free with their dramas. They spoke during sharing circle, a time each day where we passed around a Native American tree-stick tied with feathers. They spoke of toxic partners, parents, bosses and friends. Meanwhile, I stayed quiet. My abuser was not a stranger nor a person I was in relationship with. The person making me miserable was myself.
I refused to pull my shirt up in front of the whole class to demonstrate Agni Sara or belly pumping pose. This was an advanced yoga technique—one I could do, but was too ashamed to show the fat rolls, extra skin and stretch marks on my belly. I was not going to show these size-twos that I was a freak of nature.
“Your belly looks like the belly of a woman who has had children” said Ana. “Show this to your students and you will be a much needed role model in the yoga community for all woman who share this badge of honor. ”
It was then that I told Ana about my scheduled tummy tuck. “The doctor will cut my stomach, suck out my fat and staple my muscles together.”
“I wouldn’t do it.” She said. “Have you considered what it will do to your backbends?” I am able to do standing backbends, which is not an easy thing. A combination of exhilaration and going into the unknown. Each time I dropped back there was no guarantee I would find the floor, but when I did, it required not only a flexible spine but an open, soft belly.
My refusal to lift my shirt in front of everyone combined with the tears and snot rolling down my face had caused a dramatic moment. I was now one of them. When Ana walked away from me to help the next student, a woman in the training came over and asked me to show her my stomach.
“I can help you,” she said.
In my head, I say, I have the right to be healed. I have the right to be healed.
I lifted my yoga top.
The well-meaning but flat stomached yogi paused as she lowered her gaze to my torso. I held my breath.
“You should definitely get the surgery,“ she said. Her voice omnipotent. “Your students won’t get your stomach. It will scare them. ”
When she left, I laid down on my mat, spent and wide open. My hands rubbed my own belly feeling its fleshy softness.
This is my core. My gut. I said to myself. If I could have cradled and rocked it, I would have.
When the yoga teacher training ended, we had a graduation party. No booze and the electronica music played loudly. Thomas and Julian, the only two men in the training, gyrated together around a large concrete pole in the middle of the yoga studio. The rest of us, women, danced on our yoga mats. Our movements carefully chosen for beauty and appropriateness.
I closed my eyes and let go. Fuck the small, contained movements. I was done with being so linear. I wanted to spiral.
My body moved and undulated in ways it never had before. My spine turned upside down and sideways all at once. Arms and legs bound around trapped parts of me. Thirty days of hard core yoga had made me impossibly strong and flexible. I found myself in previously restricted positions with hands clasped behind my back and feet crossed behind my head. There was no fat girl here, and I never wanted to go back to a space so full of suffering. The studio doors were thrown open and the breeze of summer blew away the trappings of our collective sweat.
After the dance, we had a grab bag. Ana’s directions were to bring a present to put in the bag that represented your experience of the training. Wrap it carefully. This was an offering.
I spent days pen and inking Shiva. Shiva represented dancing with life, stepping on your demons, and transformation that can only be done when you walk through the fire. He was a powerful God. When my artwork was done, I carefully rolled it and tied it up with an orange ribbon. Orange was the color of a Sadhu or a seeker.
The woman who had told me to get the tummy tuck pulled Shiva from the bag. When she unrolled it, she looked over at me and smiled.
When my hand went into the bag, anticipation coated the insides of my belly. I wanted something special. A sign that all my hard work and sacrifice meant something. A sign that I was healed. Maybe the universe would meet my expectations.
Instead, I extracted a navy blue, insulated lunch bag.
The training ended.
Two weeks later, I cancelled my surgery.
My body remained strong for months after the training but I couldn’t keep up the eight hours of yoga a day. I eventually went back to my ordinary self—teaching yoga, being a wife and a mom. My belly remained unchanged. I lived in a world where things happened and things didn’t.
I still have the tooth dreams, but now I dream I put my own teeth back into my mouth. Each one carefully placed in soft pink gums. Each one a perfect fit. As I run my tongue over the tops of my newly planted teeth, I feel each indentation and crevice.
In my head, I say, I have the right to be happy. I have the right to be happy.