I’m a huge fan of Yoga International magazine, and I’ve also loved Linda Sparrowe’s beautiful books on yoga for quite some time. So when I saw that the two were joining forces (Linda is the new Editor in Chief of the magazine), I was delighted.
When I sat down with the most recent issue, I almost cried when I saw that Linda had written a beautiful piece called “Making Friends with Your Body.” I think it’s so important for this message to become as widely available and discussed as possible.
I asked Linda to talk with us a bit about why she wanted to write this piece as her first feature for the magazine, and she generously and thoughtfully obliged. She articulates a gorgeous vision for yoga here as the inclusive practice that it really is. Many thanks to her for her time and for being a partner in this work.
In your first issue as Editor in Chief of Yoga International, you wrote a piece called
“Making Friends with Your Body,” which is about how yoga can help people of all shapes, sizes, genders and abilities. What made you want to approach this topic as your first major piece as Editor in Chief?
Well, I don’t think we can visit this topic too often, not as long as women still struggle with body image and so many of us despise our bodies. Also, the topic feels timely because yoga’s popularity continues to soar, and while yoga can help us “make friends with our bodies,” too many times it doesn’t.
In fact, yoga can fail us when we need it most.
After all, if our culture is so obsessed with being thin and having that picture-perfect body, how is a typical yoga class—with its emphasis on a lithe, flexible, strong, athletic body—going to help?
So I feel it’s my job to remind women over and over again that yoga—when practiced mindfully—can be their biggest ally and can help them connect with and celebrate their bodies. For some women being on their yoga mat is the only time they are not in an adversarial relationship with their bodies.
I also want women to know two things: there are classes for specialized populations—teenagers, large women, older women, kids, etc—and they should take advantage of that. Secondly if they don’t feel comfortable in one class—because of the teacher, the types of students, the level of intensity, or whatever—they shouldn’t give up.
They simply need to try another class. It’s got nothing to do with them; they simply need to find the class that fits their needs and the teacher they resonate with.
In the article, you quote a teacher who says: “‘I teach in Hong Kong and Japan, and some teachers there tell me all their students want is a good sweat…so, reluctantly, that’s what they give them.’” I think the same is true in many places. How do you think yoga teachers can address this conundrum — making space to both meet their students where they are (perhaps wanting a workout) and offering them a more complex view of the practice, both on and off the mat?
It takes a well-trained, skillful and intuitive yoga teacher to be able to give the students what they think they want while introducing them to and reminding them of yoga’s deeper truths. Good yoga teachers do that all the time.
For example, they may remind their students to pay attention to their breathing—too shallow and jagged, you’re working too hard; too slow and sleepy, you need to step it up—or offer them alternatives/modifications that they can choose to embrace or not. And good yoga teachers are well aware of the fact that each student is different.
I like giving choices; for example, when we’re doing a strong vinyasa practice, saying things like: If you feel particularly energetic this morning, you may want to add an extra couple Chaturangas in between your Down Dog and your cobra pose. If today is a sleepy day for you, slow things down and get it a few extra stretchy child’s poses whenever you feel like it.
I want people to notice and honor their limitations, play with coming up against their edges when appropriate, and do yoga with a sense of curiosity, lightness of being, and nonjudgment.
Also in the article, you ask, “So how can we all use yoga to move beyond these [physical] fixations and feel better about what we look like and how we perceive our physical form? By giving up the notion of yoga as a get-thin-quick-routine and embracing the whole practice — asana, pranayama, meditation — on a much deeper level.” What do you recommend for someone who is relatively new to yoga and wants to get started expanding their practice beyond asana?
I happen to think there’s no better time to embrace the full spectrum of what yoga has to offer than when you’re first starting out. Of course that can happen at any time during your yoga practice, not just when you’re beginning, but there’s no need to wait for the perfect time!
Once again, this can often boil down to finding a good teacher to guide you—or even reading good articles, texts that point you in the right direction. I hate to seem blatantly promotional, but one of the reasons I decided to come to Yoga International is because I wanted to help them create a vehicle to do just that. To give beginners and advanced yogis alike a place in which they could learn deeper aspects of the practice—pranayama, meditation, historical and spiritual dimensions of this ancient wisdom.
That said, simply committing to a consistent practice—with the intention of learning more about yourself and embracing your true beauty (inside and out)—will give you an opportunity to experience yoga as more than a physical, body-based practice.
In some ways, it’s all about the intention you set before you step onto your mat.
You may begin to notice how conscious breathing makes you feel calmer, more centered; you may notice that your choices off the mat impact the way you feel not only physically but also emotionally and even mentally. You may also notice that you treat yourself and others in a kinder, gentler way after a yoga class. You may move from doing only physical postures to spending 5 or 10 minutes meditating a couple of times a week—and noticing how that makes you feel. That sort of thing.
You’ve written several excellent books on yoga for women, including The Woman’s Book of Yoga and Health: A Lifelong Guide to Wellness (with Patricia Walden), Yoga for Healthy Bones: A Woman’s Guide and Yoga for a Healthy Menstrual Cycle. It always strikes me as interesting that yoga started as a practice by and for men yet here in the West it seems to primarily be practiced by women. What advice do you have for women to make the practice their own?
First of all, I just want to get this in…One of my favorite quotes that I think offers us all a good reminder (I think it originally came from Swami Kripalvananda): “Every time you judge yourself, you break your own heart.”
What I believe to be true about yoga is that it is a body-based moving meditation designed to help us understand who we truly are, how we embrace our experiences, and how we react to those practicing around us.
Yoga awakens the body, stabilizes and strengthens, softens and opens. The more we learn about our bodies and the more “embodied” we become, the more apt we’ll be to see our minds more clearly and open our hearts more readily.
Yoga can help us find freedom, not just from aches and pains, but also from our fears of not being “enough,” not being “worthy.” Yoga brings us a sense of connection to ourselves and to the larger community of women. By embracing yoga, women can shed society’s destructive and inappropriate messages of the perfect body and the ideal woman and become strong, powerful, and secure in their own individuality.
Make yoga your companion for life, something that will sustain you when you’re well, shore you up when your spirits are low, and teach you to love yourself from the inside out. Every time you step onto your yoga mat, remember that you are beautiful just the way you are.
Think of your yoga practice as a mirror to your soul, a barometer by which to gauge your feelings, and as a prescription for healthy action. Make a commitment to practice regularly (choosing to practice in whatever way nurtures you at that moment) and yoga will change your life.
Linda Sparrowe is a writer, yoga teacher and practitioner with deep roots in yoga and women’s health. She is editor-in-chief for Yoga International and the author of several books, including The Woman’s Book of Yoga and Health: A Lifelong Guide to Wellness (with Patricia Walden). She also co-leads yoga and meditation retreats for women with breast and reproductive cancers at Shambhala Mountain Center and Kripalu Center.