I had tried a short stint of Bikram yoga a few years back. From what I remembered it was hot, and it was painful, but it was also really invigorating. So when I came across a Groupon for a $40 6-week course, I thought, “Eh, why not? I could use some exercise.” (And anything that induces a cardio workout without running is my kind of thing.)
I remembered enough not to wear pants or a t-shirt to the first class — I had made that mistake in my previous Bikram spree and had suffered through the heat with what felt like twenty pounds of water-logged synthetic hanging from my Bambi-like body. Instead I donned my (only) pair of athletic shorts and a tank top.
It was hot. Really hot. But I survived.
The next class I wore the same outfit, but as I arose from my pre-class savasana and looked around, I noticed something different: almost every woman in the packed 30-person class was in their skivvies. Nearly naked. I mean, skinny, plump, love handles, cellulite and all, just hanging out there and oozing confidence.
For the first time in my life I felt self-conscious for not being less self-conscious. I considered stripping off my extra gear right there, but I hadn’t quite worked up the nerve, so I endured that class with what now seemed like far too much clothing and body awareness.
Before my next class, I bought a pair of bike shorts. That night I stood in front of the mirror wearing nothing but the shorts and a sports bra. I examined my reflection closely. It wasn’t terrible; but really, it wasn’t great. The elastic in the shorts accentuated my thigh jiggle and created a lovely little muffin top. The sports bra showed the fat right below my shoulder blades and the space in between did nothing to hide my less-than-sculpted ab region.
I folded and stretched and readjusted things until it seemed I was covered in at least a slightly more flattering way. As long as nothing untucked, I might be able to pull it off. I decided to bring a tank top just in case and make a game-time decision.
In the locker room before class women changed and walked around fully nude with nary a thought. One woman even squatted — SQUATTED — butt-naked (literally) while checking her phone.
“Well, damn,” I thought, “it’s not like I’m obese. If they can do it, so can I.” I stripped off that tank top, hiked up my elastic waistband, and sauntered out like I owned the place. Or at least a modicum of self-respect.
When I entered the hot room it was still pretty empty. I rolled out my mat and towel and laid down to enjoy a good ten minutes of savasana. When the lights came on I stood up, ready to partake in a strong, body-positive, self-loving session.
I looked around.
Everyone was in yoga pants and tank tops.
Even the skinny girls.
And then there was me, a 5’5″, 150 lb. honey-baked ham in my god-loving hip-hugging spandex shorts and bra.
Suddenly I felt more acutely self-conscious than I have since my teenage years. Sandwiched between two men and surrounded by much thinner women who had opted for full coverage, I thought, “Who am I to be showing off so much of my body? How dare I be so flagrant with my fat?”
But what could I do? Class was beginning, and I had dedicated myself to the next 90 minutes of a sauna workout. I took a deep breath and looked at myself in the mirror.
“You are here to be strong, not pretty,” I told myself. “You are going to rock this class.”
And you know what? I did.
Much to my surprise, being more aware of my body actually made me a better yogi. When the instructor said, “Look at your waistline, pull in your abdomen,” you better believe I listened. Oh I came face-to-face with my own ab-flab in several poses (thank you forward bend, triangle, rabbit), but in some strange way I was starting to accept it. It was just a part of my body, and my body was doing some goddamn amazing things at the moment.
(Really, I think that anyone who can stay in a 105+ degree, 40% humidity room for 90 minutes holding a series of awkward poses is a rock star.)
For the first time in a long time, I felt a sense of self-acceptance — belly rolls and cellulite included. It wasn’t my favorite part of me, but it was a part of the me who was exceeding my own expectations. It was a part of the me that was being strong and tenacious and self-challenging. It was a part of the me that was feeling victorious.
After class I happily re-donned my pants and sweatshirt, grateful to no longer feel so exposed. But I walked away from the studio with more than just some sweat-soaked towels and a demanding thirst — I walked away with a new confidence. I walked away with a sense of my body’s power, and the knowledge that that power was not tied to my appearance.
Will I go nearly-naked in yoga class again? I think I’ll probably try to strike a slightly happier balance. But yes, if it came down to it, I would roll up my spandex to sweat alongside complete strangers for 90 minutes.
Because yoga is not about how you look, it’s about what you can do.
And that is a lesson to remember.