And why you might want to give it a try at your next yoga class, if you haven’t already.
“I’ve got a rockin’ yoga body. Unfortunately, it’s hidden under my donut body.”
I try this joke on Ryan as he checks me into class.
“Mmm, that’s enough of that,” he says. He looks around as if the owner could hear us. “We shouldn’t even be talking like that in here.”
This studio, The Grinning Yogi in Seattle, was started by a former Olympic skater who struggled with an eating disorder, in part as a response to a weight-loss centered yoga class.
“Now go choose your row based on your body image,” Ryan tells me.
Of course, he doesn’t say that to me. No one would say something like that out loud. Yet for so many years, that’s what I did. And I practiced in front of the fewest number of people possible.
But today, as I have for about the last year, I take my mat to my now-usual place in the front row.
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How I Became a Front-Row Yogi
No, I am not one of those yogis—the ones who do a Handstand on the way to Chaturanga in a sports bra. The ones like the bendy French ballerina who practiced in the front row of the studio I went to when I was still a newbie, almost a decade ago.
I am the frequent child poser. The one who panics if her shirt comes untucked in Down Dog. A block user, a barely toe-toucher, a less than 90-degree “wide-angle” forward folder.
And yes, while this studio is an oasis of body positivity, I live most of my life in the desert of body acceptance that is Instamerica, 2019. Even while I practice, I think things that I know: I shouldn’t even be thinking about that in here.
I actually ended up in front by way of the back row.
I’d been doing yoga steadily for years when I took a three-month break to travel. Upon my return, I sent myself directly to the back, in my shame corner, next to the bathroom door and the clock. The way the exposed ductwork runs along the ceiling, between the light and the back wall, I was literally in the shadows. It was just me, my atrophied triceps, and my thoughts.
I can’t believe I let myself slack off so much. Ugh, I suck at Dolphin Pose. Why can’t I ever get my hair to look messy yet pleasing? I wish I had a dinosaur tattoo. I miss the armpits of my twenties. Great, I can’t do Crow Pose anymore. I wonder what brand those yoga pants are. Can I just lie down yet? How much time is left? How much time is left? How much time is left?
Because I was hiding, I wasn’t doing my best. Because I wasn’t doing my best, I felt like hiding. It took me a few months of this to realize just how much it was not working.
Back when I was a little slacker failing in middle school, my mom had called all my teachers and made them move me to the front row, where I would have an easier time paying attention.
So, I pulled the same move on myself, slapping my mat down in the front where I could sit there and think about my intention. My only protection was a pole behind me, just wider than the light switch that was on it but enough to prevent anyone from being right behind me.
And I had a great class. Focused, integrated, and challenging. With nothing in front of me but an aqua-painted wall, my monkey mind had less to feed on. With the accountability of being in the light and seen, I owned my effort.
So I stayed. I stayed because practicing in the front is better for me, even if it doesn’t feel great imagining people viewing the widescreen of my tail end. I don’t practice yoga at home because without anybody seeing me, I’ll be laying on my mat scrolling through Twitter ten minutes into my “practice.” I need a some social pressure not to quit.
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Dispatches From the Front Row: Lessons I’ve Learned
Truthfully though, when you’re in the front row, you are on display. People can see me, and do see me, and sometimes follow what I do. Once, I lifted the wrong arm, and like dominoes, the person behind me, then the person behind her lifted the same arm I had. I had to do that “Sorry!” glance back in their direction.
But by now, aside from the occasional right vs.left mishap, I know yoga as well as anyone would know anything they’ve done at least weekly for the last decade. My yoga mat has been worn of its rubber where my feet have dug in a thousand Down Dogs, I’ve been around long enough to know my Utkatasana from my Virabhadrasana, and, after all this time, (can I say it?) I do have things that are worth being seen—and even followed.
I know the pose modifications available when my leg doesn’t bend that way. I know I can just lie down whenever I want to, and sometimes, I do. But mostly, I know how to fail. After a decade of failing experienced, I am well-failed.
When I was a novice failer, every time I fell I would shake my head, huff, and grab a drink, as if conveying, “Yes, everyone, I’m disappointed in myself, too!” Now that I am an expert failer, I respond to a fall by pausing, regaining balance, and trying again. I know enough to know that the failure is the only thing that gets you to those moments of joy, where you can suddenly do something you always figured would be out of reach. I have enough experience to see the failing and the succeeding as parts of one thing, the very thing we’re all here to do.
Just by being there up front, I’m showing that I’m not ashamed of my yoga practice because it doesn’t look perfect or I don’t look perfect doing it. I’m showing that we don’t have to sort ourselves by row as a judgement of the bodies we walk around in or the advancement of our attempts, but by where our practice is right then and there.
People practice in the back for many reasons, but I know mine was along the lines of this: This does not deserve to be seen.
Now, I practice in the front row because it’s what works for me to get the best out of myself. Whatever I do up there, I know it registers and is known. Sometimes, that’s starting my Savasana 15 minutes early with a pleased little grin on my face. Sometimes, it’s going for that Side Crow and feeling a little bit like a bad ass.
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My goal in yoga is not to get to Handstand or a Split or the weight of my college years. I mean, those are my ego’s goals—but my deeper self’s deeper goal is to create an integrated mental, emotional, and physical experience that feels closest to real me, real life. Sometimes, I’m right there. Other times, I’m like, “Oh my god, think it’s time for a pedicure at least if you’re going to humiliate yourself in so many other ways?”
It’s all good, worthy of the light.
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Yoga Transformed Me After Trauma and Sexual Assault
As a child, Ebony Smith survived sexual assault but didn’t have the tools to cope with the trauma until years later, when she found yoga. Now, she’s bringing the practice to her community, and others in crisis.
Exactly 247 people came to practice yoga with me today. Why is that such a big deal? Well, it means that I’m a badass. But to fully understand, you have to learn more about me and my community.
The practice of yoga powerfully changed my life. I went from being an alcoholic, Xanax-poppin’ college dropout to traveling the world to inspire others to be the greatest versions of themselves.
I was born and raised in Dallas, and was eight-years-old the first time I was sexually abused by my neighbor. That year I was also sentenced to my first in-house suspension. I didn’t have the tools to cope with the trauma, and I was punished for it. I became a menace in my elementary school. Teachers didn’t want me in class, so they placed me in an ESL class instead (English is my first language). The ESL teacher drank cold coffee all day. She spoke in Spanish (which I didn’t understand) and seated me in a cubicle I couldn’t see over or around. Needless to say, I didn’t learn anything that year. I grew more disenchanted with school. Nobody asked what was going on with me.
My dysfunction bled into adulthood. By the time I was 29, I was an alcoholic, married to a man I didn’t really know, and detached from myself. Then I found out I was pregnant. I told my then-husband, and I haven’t seen him since. Watching a Ricki Lake documentary called The Business of Being Born (who doesn’t love Ricki Lake?) inspired me to have a natural childbirth. I found a doula, and the first thing she advised me to do was to start practicing yoga.
My first thought was, “Yoga? Black people don’t do yoga.” But I found a yoga studio, and it went something like this: I’m nervous as fuck wearing too-little yoga pants (of course, people don’t make yoga pants for my kind of super sexiness). The white woman behind the counter actually said, “This is a yoga studio, mama.” No kidding, I’m here to buy donuts, I wanted to say. When I explained that I was there to practice, she told me to pick a beginner class because I was plus-size. This was my first interaction with the world of yoga, at the closest studio to my home, and I had to travel 24 miles to get there.
Despite it all, the first time I stepped on the mat I was introduced to myself. As I practiced more and more, I gained the power to cultivate my life. I also quickly learned that yoga was expensive, so I found a studio that would let me clean up in exchange for free classes. I didn’t understand how a practice that empowers people to heal themselves was so inaccessible.
That’s why I had a dream to bring this healing to my community in southern Dallas. And it’s why I started offering free yoga in Kiest Park. As a child, I spent several summers at this peaceful spot, an anomaly in the area where I grew up. I’m sad to say that my community—plagued with a drug epidemic, under-resourced schools, and poverty—is in crisis.
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On any given day, drive three miles in my neighborhood and you’ll see people slumped over park benches after injecting crack, heroin, or meth. You can visit a corner store openly selling crack pipes. You can witness people yelling down the street or talking to themselves because they lack the mental health resources they need. Everyone in the community is suffering from trauma; nobody has the skills to cope with the level of stress induced by living in these conditions.
I want more for the people living in the hood (definition: under-resourced neighborhoods). In my neighborhood, there is an abundance of food deserts and crime. Families living in these communities experience trauma, directly and indirectly, on a daily basis. If they aren’t victims of violence themselves, they see it at home or on the streets. The area is rife with caretaker instability, including substance use or incarceration. House fires are common. I’ve seen all the reactions to this madness, including PTSD, depression, over-indulging, anxiety, irritability, stress, and aggression, along with health issues such as cancer, high blood pressure, and diabetes. During traumatic encounters, the body’s fight-or-flight response kicks in, either by over-activation (“Too Turn’t Up”) or suppression (“Leave Me the Hell Alone”). When this goes down regularly, you become overloaded, hoarding trauma in your body. It’s like having a cut that never heals, because you don’t have resources to get a damn band-aid.
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COMMUNITY IN CRISIS
Needless to say, my hood needs some healing. But here’s the thing: Just because I understand the power of yoga doesn’t mean people in the hood do—or would even be willing to find out. Not only does the community lack accessibility (there are no yoga studios or wellness centers around here), but the idea of yoga itself seems foreign. Wellness is portrayed by the media as a luxury for the rich and the white, even though, truthfully, it is a human right.
Also, deep in the Bible Belt, people often have a false idea of what yoga has to offer. Yes, yoga came to us from an ancient religion, but even medical science recognizes the benefits of it for all. Recently I hosted a summer camp for young ladies at a local nonprofit, and we planned a trip to a yoga studio. Some girls had to stay home because their parents believed yoga was “worshipping another God.” Even one of the staff members sat outside the studio in 102-degree weather. “Yoga is against my religion,” she said.
Many yoga communities are trying to become more inclusive, but we have a long way to go. We must translate what wellness means across cultures, poverty lines, and sexual orientations. The best way to do it is from hood to hood.
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So, now you can begin to understand why, when I first started teaching at the park, I spent the first few summers teaching free yoga to invisible (that is, zero) people.
Every once in a while my mother or some of my friends would sit on the sidelines. But I wanted to empower my community. So every time no one showed up, I would still teach the class like there were hundreds of people there. I would still try to inspire, tap into the power of self, and discover the awesomeness within.
Last summer more than 200 people came out to practice yoga with me, the Ghetto Guru. I think people saw how determined and consistent I was on social media.
I’ve seen the power of yoga work in my community. One of our yogis lost 200 pounds because yoga changed her mindset. My favorite transformation so far has come from a 16-year-old African-American male. Like me, Will experienced trauma early in his life, seeing his mother on drugs and his father in and out of prison. When I met him, he was angry, hurt, and confined to the high-school behavioral unit. We began to practice yoga and mindfulness together. At first he was reluctant. But after a while, William got so good that I started teaching him how to lead classes, which gave him a sense of pride. After six weeks of practice, he was released from the behavioral unit and returned to regular classes, where he thrived.
I am guessing you might be saying that shit sounds like some yoga fairy tale—and it is. It’s a fairy tale I brought to life with the power of positive thoughts and perseverance. You can do the same thing with your fairy tales if you believe. My dream (and hard work) crystalized with Yoga N Da Hood, an organization that translates wellness into a language that people in our community understand. We make yoga accessible by teaching in parks, recreation centers, schools, and churches. Last year we reached more than 3,000 people by offering free yoga and mindfulness in ways the hood can relate: We offer Trap Yoga, Beyoncé Yoga, Yoga with African Drums, and so much more. We designed yoga nidra stories written for children of color and we produced a curriculum that teaches children and educators how to eliminate stress, thrive through trauma, and incorporate mindful movement into everyday life. We’ve grown from Kiest Park to five parks, 27 schools, and a mega church.
I’ve also had the opportunity to teach the power of changing your mind to change your life at workshops, universities, schools, corporations, and other cool communities around the world. I relish the opportunity to partner with you in making wellness accessible to everyone.
About our Author
EBONY SMITH is a Dallas-based, trauma-informed yoga teacher and yoga therapist, mindfulness instructor, neuro-linguistic programming practitioner, certified wellness coach, and motivational speaker. She is the founder of Yoga N Da Hood. Visit yogandahood.com for more information.
Yoga Transformed Me After Depression
Brad Wetzler found himself over-medicated, in a fog, and uncomfortable in his own skin. But yoga reminded him how to open his heart and feel whole again.
When I turned 38, I found myself in a bind. The intermittent depression that had haunted me since my teens had become more frequent and severe. I was taking a lot of medications to treat it. Antidepressants, first. When the drugs didn’t relieve my pain,
I pleaded with my psychiatrist for a higher dose, and then to try another, stronger med. And then another. Until I took 12 different meds, 25 pills per day. I’d been a successful magazine writer and editor who’d traveled the world on assignment for the New York Times, Newsweek, and more. I’d been an intrepid traveler to remote and extreme places. The drugs stole it all from me. I disappeared into a fog. The drugs caused me to slur my speech. I tripped when I walked. I couldn’t ride a bike without falling over. It was so bad that my wife hid my bike. I went to bed. For seven years.
And then my life really began to unravel. My 15-year marriage to my journalism grad-school sweetheart ended. My mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. A dear friend whom I considered a little brother killed himself with an overdose. I was estranged from my real brother and father because of my anger about old issues. The worst part: I couldn’t feel a thing. I was cut off from my heart and couldn’t cope with the quickening changes. What do I mean?
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Looking back, I now see more clearly what happened. The child of an alcoholic, I’d grown up to be an addict, too. Instead of drinking, which I feared, I numbed out with prescription drugs. The drugs I took prevented me from feeling the very thoughts and emotions that I needed to heal. The drugs blocked fear—and fear is the gateway to growth. The drugs crushed empathy. I couldn’t feel the pain of others, let alone my own. I blamed everybody for my problems—for my divorce, for my floundering career, for my tough family dynamic. The drugs had become a steel cage around my heart. I thought about ending it all. I bought a gun.
And then I rediscovered yoga, which I had abandoned years earlier. After a months-long pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where I tried to re-ignite the Christian faith of my youth. I realized something big. No external messiah—not a pill, not Jesus—was going to save me. I would have to save myself. So, I decided to reengage with yoga. In my first class back, while standing in Warrior Pose II, I remembered the energy and confidence that yoga had brought me in my 20s. While lying in Savasana (Corpse Pose),
I remembered the emotional peace, the refuge, that a daily practice provided. I wanted that back.
It took a couple of months to reestablish a regular practice. And then I committed big time: six days a week. No questions asked. I made a decision. Every morning I woke up with a single intention: if I got to yoga, it was a good day. Nothing else mattered. I settled into a vinyasa practice. It took a few more months for yoga to begin to really work on me. But flowing moved energy. Sitting in uncomfortable poses caused me to reflect on my own escapism from pain, the reason I had gotten on the drugs in the first place. My yoga teachers’ daily wisdom reintroduced me to the philosophy of ahimsa—not harming others, but especially not harming myself.
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I saw the benefits. Yoga regulated my nervous system like no drug I’d taken. The depression and anxiety that had been so prevalent in my 30s lifted. It healed my body, too. The pain went away. More importantly, my heart began to open. Yoga led me to explore other spiritual practices, including meditation. And I found a new way to be in my skin. Today I take a mild antidepressant. But yoga gets the credit for showing me the way.
Sometimes the lost years gets to me. Seven whole years lost forever to a fog. Sometimes I feel sorry for myself and I find myself alone and sobbing. And when that happens, I know what to do. I grab my mat. I get to yoga. In my wallet, I keep a scrap of paper with these words scrawled on it: Get to yoga. Yoga saves.
About our Author
BRAD WETZLER is a journalist, writing coach, and yoga teacher in Boulder, Colorado. Learn more at bradwetzler.com.
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