by amanda swan
I grew up in the lululemon yogasphere. The era of Bikram and his wannabes, tight pants designed for tiny sizes, and studios brimming with small, duplicate bodies. There was a studio across from my high school called Hard Core Yoga.
I grew up in a world that made me believe yoga wasn’t for people like me. Humans whose softness gently breaks elastic barriers. Humans adorned from the TJ Maxx clearance rack. Humans whose bodies move and jiggle and shake in asana. Bodies like mine.
I started practicing yoga when I was 16 anyway. I kept going back, even after studio after studio felt like someplace I didn’t belong. Sometimes persistence pays off. My yoga world isn’t like that now. My studio is brimming with variety and character, attracting all kinds of folks with all sorts of shapes. The friends I practice yoga with are more concerned with hard lessons than hard cores.
Three years ago, when I started attending hot yoga classes for the first time, I didn’t believe I could ever contort my big, unruly body into the asana shapes around me. I saw people flipped upside down and twisted into flesh braids. I saw myself, dense in the mirror, seemingly immutable. And I looked at the same girl I had stared back at for years, placed my hands on the mat, and began to practice.
You don’t have to practice specific asana to practice yoga. In fact, you don’t have to practice asana at all. But for me, practicing asana and learning to make new shapes with my body connected me to an international community of yogis, and to myself. This post is a reflection on that, and an invitation to reconsider what your own body might be capable of.
yoga poses I didn’t think I could practice in my body
I knew I could do downward dog, but I didn’t think I could practice it. It was terribly uncomfortable and I couldn’t remain in the posture for more than ten seconds or so. I didn’t enjoy doing the posture at all. My legs felt too short and my top felt too heavy, too dense.
We’ve all heard a yoga teacher call downward dog a resting pose, and I never thought I would feel that way. But after several years of more intense practice, downward dog does feel restful. It’s a place where I feel powerful, flexible, and grounded. There’s something important about having both feet and both hands on the ground once in awhile.
- Put blocks under your hands to bring the ground closer to you.
- Practice the posture with your heels against the wall.
- Widen your stance to create more space.
- Rest on your forearms instead of your hands.
I’ve wanted to do the splits since I was a little girl in dance class. Even as a child, I was told (and believed) that my body was incapable of such a feat. As an adult, I learned I have extremely flexible hips, and can even work into the splits with a foot bind.
Building block postures
These postures are a great pathway to greater hip flexibility to find your way into hanumanasana.
- anjanayasana, low lunge
- ardha hanumanasana, half split
- ashta chandrasana, crescent lunge
Balance has always been a challenge for me! I am clumsy, dissociative, and generally uncoordinated. Bringing my body towards a parallel line on one foot??? That sounded impossible. But after spending a great deal of time practicing warrior I and warrior II, I felt confident enough to start picking up my foot, just a little. One inch at a time, my back foot found its way off the ground.
- Use a wall for balance if you want to stretch more deeply.
- Only pick your foot up a little at a time! You don’t have to have your legs at a 90 degree angle to practice virabhadrasana III.
Speaking of balance, crescent lunge is a super difficult balance pose for me. When I started practicing this posture, all I did was wobble and worry I was going to fall over. After years of steadying, I can finally enjoy a deep stretch in my legs and hips in this pose.
- Try doing crescent lunge using a chair.
- Move dynamically between anjaneyasana and crescent lunge to gain balance in the lifted position.
- Put one hand on the wall for balance.
I didn’t think I had the spinal flexibility or the strength to lift my hips into a shoulder stand. I learned to rock back and forth on my spine and even that felt like a great feat. But once I figured out how to flip myself over, shoulderstand became a regular part of my practice. One day I tried baddha konasana legs in shoulder stand and the spinal extension is unparalleled.
- Viparita karani, or legs up the wall pose, is a lovely seed for shoulder stand. For an even gentler rendition, you can try the pose Judith Lasater has lovingly dubbed “instant Maui.”
- Eventually, you can try walking your feet up the wall to inch into shoulder stand.
- Try different leg positions to vary the impact of the posture.
The first time I watched someone in a body like me flip into halasana, I immediately decided I needed to experience that posture. The woman in plow pose became a case study for me over the next months, as I watched her practice her beautiful expression of the posture.
- Use a yoga wedge under your lower back.
- Go slowly and practice the motion of gently rocking back and forth on your spine.
- If you have large breasts, wear a constrictive sports bra so you don’t get suffocated. Alternatively, practice in private so you can let your breasts rest on either side of your head.
We had to do boat pose-esque exercises at high school volleyball practice and I always struggled with them. I never thought boat pose would be accessible to me, let alone fun, until I managed a revolved version and found myself grinning with glee.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment with the angles of the pose. Notice how different vectors engage different muscles.
- Use blocks or the wall to make the shape more accessible to you.
- Try keeping your hands on the ground and only doing the lower half of the posture.
Again, balance. Standing on one foot? With the other foot in my hand? As if. This is a pose I didn’t even really attempt until we learned it during my yoga teacher training.
- Even if you can easily grab your foot, try using a strap to connect hand to foot.
- Put one hand on the wall.
- Place your foot into your hand without raising your leg to establish balance.