The poet, Maya Angelou, says “It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength,” and although I know this is true, if I’m being honest, it hasn’t always felt this way. It does not feel this way, I guess, because it is like the camera is always on and someone is always watching, judging…and I keep falling short. It does not feel this way because I cannot ever seem to fit my body in the box my world is giving me—as a woman, a wife, a mom, and a professional. And the fact that my clothes do not ever fit no matter how many sizes I try on is a sign: the beauty I seek will never come from anything or anyone beyond.
Yoga did not teach me this truth, but it has helped me experience its reality.
I am not alone. Yoga is everywhere, its images and aesthetics bought and sold and commodified a million times over. Yoga’s a billion-plus dollar industry and growing, and yet in the West, way too often the ancient practice that espouses nonviolence and contentment and truth and surrender to a higher power is wrenched and molded into Instagram posts of supermodel yogis in tight-fitting expensive clothes in jaw-dropping landscapes—all pretty inaccessible and unhealthy for most practitioners. There are as many variations of a pose as there are people. No two people are the same. No two sides of the same person are even symmetrical.
Translation: There is no standard. No definition. No singular model. Just a field to practice on.
My own practice began in college when I was seeking a low-impact mode of exercise to maintain flexibility and strength. The mental focus and emotional stability that came with it, some pleasant icing on the cake.
But there is a reason they call it a practice. Because, unfortunately, it does not always translate, or the message does not stick. That feeling that can come so naturally on my mat can be so elusive as soon as I step off it. The world sucks me back in—poor self-esteem, negative body image, not being good enough. The 12th century poet, Rumi, writes “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” One of my great wishes has always been to find the beauty and solace in mySELF off my mat as much as I do on it.
“Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”
So, I have continued with this practice of yoga for my mind-body-spirit throughout adulthood, throughout three pregnancies as my body was stretched and tugged from carrying, birthing and breastfeeding. And although it may not have been apparent in the spit-up all over my clothes and hair, my practice on the mat is what kept me feeling beautiful.
But it was different after the birth of my third child, my beautiful daughter. I knew I wanted to share this practice with her to keep her strong in mind-body-spirit and to establish a practice that would help build positive self-esteem and self-worth. Maybe because she was a girl, or maybe because she was born with Down syndrome. I knew she would face physical challenges of having low tone, being at risk for obesity, having an intellectual disorder, speech impairments, different shaped ears or eyes, and increased risk for all sorts of other conditions. I feared that she would be a target for bullying, she would be misunderstood, she would be under-valued or not recognized as an equal to other children her age.
The stories we tell ourselves.
I was given the book, Yoga for the Special Child by Sonia Sumar, and my daughter Sawyer and I began practicing together when she was 3 weeks old. Not only did I want to bond with my daughter on the mat through living in the moment with mindful movement, but I wanted to help her establish a healthy practice that would keep her strong and whole, and filled with love, beauty and positivity.
This spark ignited a passion within to continue to spread this light of beauty and love to all populations, to all people. Sawyer and I traveled to New York City for training in Yoga for the Special Child with Sonia Sumar. I went on to become a certified yoga teacher and I knew I wanted to work and serve special populations to illuminate the beauty inside each one of us—to show that this practice of yoga does not discriminate, or judge, but reveals the perfect, unique divine value in each one of us.
Then I reached out to an old classmate, Amy, who had a young girl with Cerebral Palsy. I asked if I could teach yoga to her daughter, Megan, who was wheelchair bound. Megan and I began doing yoga when she was 12 years old. I knew Megan’s needs on the mat would differ greatly from my own daughter’s. Part of making yoga accessible for different populations is to address everyone’s unique needs, desires and interests and allow for each individual to be autonomous in their own practice, making it their own.
Megan quickly found many benefits from her yoga practice, which is why she has been a dedicated student for over four and a half years. She commits to this practice weekly as the deep stretches through her hip and low back help manage her mobility and any musculoskeletal pain. Extending through her trunk and hips is necessary due to her prolonged time in a seated posture in her chair and we find a lot of spinal movement in all directions to help manage her scoliosis. It is her practice.
If you have a body, if you are breathing, you can do yoga. With the proper supervised clinical and/or therapeutic supports, it is accessible to all.
Brain injury. Mental illness. Chronic disease. Joint failure. Addiction. Vertigo. Trauma. As Leonard Cohen says, the cracks are “how the light gets in.” Our resilience gives us our shine.
We are all fighting our own battles, seeking our own truths. Somewhere in the midst of it all, I hope we can find our chances—to practice loving, living, being our truest selves. What could be more beautiful?