Yoga body. If these two words make you want to flip the page, you have good reason. The phrase, commonly found in celebrity magazines, advertisements, and social media, is rife with problematic connotations.
Often used synonymously with “lean, long, and sexy,” “yoga body” implies that there is only one right way to look and feel if you practice yoga. In reality, there is no such thing as one perfect yoga body. Every body is a yoga body.
This is the heart of Lauren Lipton’s new book, Yoga Bodies: Real People, Real Stories & the Power of Transformation. Featuring photos of and commentary by people of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, ages, backgrounds, and levels of dedication to a consistent practice, the book shows that yoga isn’t about a body ideal at all.
The word “yoga” is Hindi for “to yoke,” which emphasizes union and connection. In addition to the physical poses (known as asanas), yoga includes breathing, meditation, and other nonphysical practices.
There is a lengthy menu of yoga styles and an even longer list of their purported cognitive, emotional, and physiological benefits: stress reduction, sharpened mental focus, reduced back pain, and improvements in strength, mobility, balance, and concentration. (Learn more about yoga styles and benefits at “Yoga 4 You.”)
As such, yoga is many things, offering something for everyone — whether you’re an amateur athlete who wants to balance the rigors of your chosen sport, a stay-at-home parent looking for a respite from the demands of domestic life, a desk dweller who needs to unwind, or someone who simply wants to build more self-awareness.
“Every body is a yoga body. Already. We’re born that way,” writes Lipton. “By the same notion, there is no single definition of yoga. Yoga invites each of us to define it as we wish.”
In her book, Lipton profiles more than 80 people who have discovered the transformational power of yoga. For some, the change was physical; for all, shifts took place on a deeper level, helping them cope with insecurity, anxiety, depression, addiction, disability, gender identity, racism, aging, and more.
Here, you’ll meet 10 people (plus one soon-to-be yogi) featured in Lipton’s book, and learn what yoga means for them — inside and out, on the mat and off. — Maggie Fazeli Fard, RKC is an Experience Life senior editor.
Pose: Cow Face Pose Variation
Aging is totally uncelebrated in our society. I wish there were some way to change the attitude of Western culture toward aging and the aged. Because it’s so stupid to try to fight it. We all get there — we all age. You can’t do anything except to stay as healthy and mindful as possible, and to try to get as much as you can out of life. Am I at peace with aging? Nobody is at peace with aging, if they’re honest about it.
The majority of people at a lot of yoga studios are young. I took a three-day workshop and half the people were decades younger than I am. At my usual studio, there’s a wonderful age range. Still, at 78, I’m the oldest person in the room, for sure.
It doesn’t bother me. I’m used to it. If everybody in the room is in their 20s, they might look at me sort of weirdly when I walk in. But when I’m doing yoga, I don’t even think about that. I am more self-conscious about how I look as an older person when I am in front of my mirror at home and I see that my skin isn’t the way it was 20 or 30 years ago.
Everyone’s body is changing all the time. It isn’t the same between the left and right sides, between morning and evening, between today and Thursday.
What happens to me — and this might be age and it might not — is that I find that just because I’ve nailed a pose doesn’t mean I can do it every time. Some days I can do pose X but not pose Y, and some days I can do Y but not X. Some days I can do both, and some days I can do neither.
You learn in yoga to accept these things instead of saying, “I did this yesterday; why can’t I do it today?” You can’t do it today because your body is different today.
Whatever you are is what you have. That’s what it is. You might as well allow it to be OK.
Pose: Half Lord of the Fishes Pose Variation
I have a 3-year-old son, and I think everything I have been doing in my life up until this point has been to provide me the tools for dealing with a toddler. The last 30 years was the practice of yoga; the last three years has been the application of yoga.
For most of my life, I was self-absorbed and self-centered, traveling that road of finding out who I was. But my greatest battles and challenges pale in comparison to the challenge of getting my son dressed and out the door in the morning. It is a daily test of patience and compassion and trying to not react in a knee-jerk way.
Sometimes I lose my patience and get frustrated. I have to step back, breathe, try not to react, and calmly try to put this kid’s socks on.
Yoga is not living in some idealized state. It’s about rolling with the punches and hopefully applying whatever techniques we’ve picked up along the way. What you do on the mat for 90 minutes is just one very small part of it.
Pose: Diamond Pose Variation
When I was younger, I would get so angry I would have nosebleeds. I do yoga so when I’m confronted with a challenging situation, I can stop, count to 10, and say, “How may I help you?” I’m still getting there, but it’s definitely easier. I can let things roll now.
Recently, I was at a party with my husband. I was in heels and had my hair wrapped up. We got into an elevator with some white people and this guy said to me, “What’s up, Aunt Jemima?”
He was about 25 and drunk, and after he said it, he realized what he’d done. He said, “That was inappropriate, right? OK. What’s up, sista?”
I could feel the walls of that elevator caving in on me. It was one of the most humiliating experiences I have ever been through. I am over 6 feet tall in my heels and easily could have taken the guy out, but I didn’t; this was a work event for my husband. As soon as the elevator doors opened, I ran out and started crying. I tried to let things roll, but even with all the yoga I’ve done, I couldn’t help my state of mind right then.
I have tried to let it go, but it still lingers in the back of my mind. Sometimes I wonder what that scene in the elevator would have been like if I didn’t have yoga in my life. I’m sure it would have been different. Who knows? It could have been a lot worse.
Pose: Chin Balance Variation
There are so many times in a football game when you have to recapture yourself and recommit to yourself. It could be during a long play, when you come back to the huddle winded and have to keep on going. Yoga helped me during those times. When I got fatigued during a game, I’d tell myself, Breathe. Calm down.
With my current job, yoga helps me be more effective so I don’t burn myself out.
I’m retired from the NFL, and now I’m a coordinator for the NFL Legends Community. We assist players who are retiring, helping them with continuing education, financial matters, medical benefits, job placement, and counseling. For a lot of them, the change is emotionally difficult. They go from being someone everybody recognizes to feeling like they’re sort of past-tense.
My football career got me into a position where I could give back, and it just snowballed. If I can make a difference, I will show up.
Yoga is a way to put all of this into perspective. No matter what kind of problems or situations I am dealing with, when I practice, I leave everything on the mat. I walk out of class free from it all and can start over again.
Kay Kay Clivio
Pose: Crescent Lunge
I get pissy sometimes — just like everybody does — when I’m dealing with everyday life and other human beings are pushing my limits. Yoga teaches me to notice when the mind goes there, and to bring it back to something positive.
One time, I was on a flight from Hong Kong, which is already awful because it’s almost 20 hours. There was a baby next to me. The baby was not having a good flight, which meant that no one was having a good flight. I try to remind myself to be compassionate, and whenever I do that, it shifts me.
In yoga, when you’re in a challenging pose, you’ve got to surrender to it. If you get yourself worked up, it doesn’t help. So you breathe and redirect your energy.
This is what yoga teaches you: You’re strapped into this airplane seat, you’re not going anywhere for 20 hours, and this is your reality. There’s nothing you can do but find some calm and just deal with it. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that we’re all doing the best we can.
Pose: Headstand Variation
During my yoga teacher training, I was doing a partner exercise with a girl a lot smaller than me. I kept apologizing for putting my body weight on her: “Oh, I’m sorry. Oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
She finally said, “You know you don’t have to apologize, right?”
I said, “I guess I’m apologizing for my own existence.”
Then I thought, Oh, my god, I really think that.
I cried all the way home. It was the most cleansing experience. I have issues with being fat. I have issues with my blackness. I apologize because I cannot accept my own existence. So many people feel the same way. I have told this story so many times, and someone always says, “I feel that.”
That is the reason to teach yoga — to help others acknowledge these things and move past them.
The more people who are trained to be yoga teachers, the more people there are to spread around its messages. The training opened my heart, and it opened my eyes.
Margarita Manwelyan and her son, Pedro
Pose: Sphinx Pose
During labor with Pedro, I was able to use my yoga training to drop into my body and let it guide what I was doing. I had my eyes closed a lot of the time and was so focused on this internal experience.
I was in active labor for about seven hours and was moving around pretty much the whole time. I walked the halls, or I stood and leaned forward against my partner. I wasn’t necessarily trying to ease the pain, because there wasn’t any getting away from that. I was just using movement to flow through it.
Contractions are a tightening. But labor is a loosening. You’re trying to open and allow your body to birth. You have to relax, which is an ability we don’t usually work on in our lives.
But it’s important to practice. If I’m on the subway platform, waiting for the train, I’ll often use those two minutes to consciously relax and slow down. This is also yoga, and it is a useful skill.
Sean and Tommy Nolan
Pose: Upward Bow Pose
Sean: I have been practicing yoga since just after Tommy was born.
Tommy: I started when I was 4. In the winter I do basketball.
Sean: A couple of times a month, we’ll roll out our mats in the living room. We’ll put in a yoga DVD and also might have a game on with the volume down.
Tommy: In the fall I do flag football, and in the spring I do baseball.
Sean: But yoga is a nice change of pace. Would you say that?
Tommy: Yeah. It’s good to relax a little bit. I mean, I’m definitely better at baseball, but if you’re good at calming down, you can be pretty good at yoga.
Pose: Headstand Variation
Nearly all sighted people are captives to their sight. They think that what they see is reality, but they use their sight to evaluate and judge the world based on some arbitrary standard. As a blind person, it is my experience that how things feel, not how things look, matters most.
What if a pose does not look “amazing” based on the viewer’s criteria? Would that diminish the experience of the yogi doing the pose?
If the pose looks horrible, should the yogi consider his or her experience less than adequate?
For people who possess the gift of sight: Remember that it is often your attachment to what you consider beautiful that defines your experience. The blind yogi must work to develop an evenness of mind that transcends the polarities of right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, adequate and deficient.
We all must dive deeper into ourselves with the faith that we might one day revel in our own world of beauty, free of external evaluations, whether positive or negative.
From Yoga Bodies: Real People, Real Stories & the Power of Transformation by Lauren Lipton. Photography by Jaimie Baird. Copyright 2017. Reprinted by permission of Chronicle Books, San Francisco, Calif. All rights reserved.
This article originally appeared in Experience Life, Life Time’s whole-life health and fitness magazine.