A very important reminder I received during my yoga teacher training is the importance of staying on your mat. I am not simply referring to the physical act of staying on your mat, though we should all be mindful of personal space, I am referring to a state of being fully present in your personal yoga practice.
As a person in a larger sized body, I have experienced being the only person that looks like me in a yoga class on several occasions. I attended many classes where I was preoccupied with everyone else, did not listen to my body and let my thoughts be consumed by perceived personal impressions, negativity and self-doubt.
I once attended a class where the instructor made everyone in the back and front of the room switch places. The instructor proceeded to explain yoga as a personal practice and the significance of staying on your mat (without using those exact words). Some people in the class assumed there was a level of practice hierarchy, ex: beginner to advanced, when there was not. Some people wanted an audience to showcase their “advanced” poses and flexibility, when one should not exist in this setting.
It was intimidating for me to move from the back of the room to the front. I awkwardly gathered my mat and my courage, walked to the front of the room and faced my reflection in the mirror. During class the instructor continued to share yoga philosophy and encouragement to notice your breath and body, which helped me to better focus on my personal practice and enhanced my overall experience.
After class, a woman approached me and complimented me on my practice. She stated that she just had to tell me that she never encountered a person of my size in an advanced vinyasa class. She said she was impressed by how “graceful” I was and that she was amazed I was able to “keep up with the pace” of class so well. Basically, she said a lot of really unnecessary, insensitive things related to her perceived expectations and my ability to meet and/or exceed them as a person in a larger sized body.
In hindsight, I think her intentions were well meaning. She just missed the entire point of the experience the instructor created and the instructor’s stated expectations for future classes. I patiently stood there as the woman finished her commentary. When she was done speaking and smiling from ear-to-ear as if she had just given me a gold star award, I stared her straight in the eyes, took a drink from my water bottle and walked away without verbally uttering a single word. I needed to pause and remove myself from the conversation. Honestly, some days I have the energy to educate or inform folks and some days I decide to preserve my energy as best I can. I am glad I responded in a way that served me well on that particular day.
So here is my ask, please stay on your mat so other people can stay on their mat as well. Notice how in that situation staying on my mat meant that I was focusing on my breath and the sensations of my body. It meant I was making needed adjustments for my steadiness and comfort. It meant I was letting go of expectations, comparison and judgment. It meant I was cultivating self-care and self-love in all areas of my practice. It meant that even if others were watching, I did not notice because I was not the instructor and it was not my duty to notice anyone else except the instructor as guidance was needed.
So please refrain from this type of behavior unless you are there to guide a practice or provide feedback. Even if that is the case, be mindful of the words you use and the context of your comments so as to not cause harm to others. I firmly believe that together we can create safer spaces for all folks in the yoga community if we continue to listen, learn, commit to do the work and are consistent in doing the work.