Erin Schoen Marsh
Always the Big Girl
Updated: Jan 26, 2018
Practicing Ashtanga yoga as a tall, curvy practitioner has its hurdles.
Teaching and practicing yoga with a bigger body has always been challenging, but now that I’ve fallen for the Ashtanga practice, I am reminded daily that I am larger than the average woman--especially the average Ashtangi. Ashtanga practitioners like to say our underlying issues are brought to the mat through daily practice, and this has certainly proven to be the case with my body image issues.
All of my life, I’ve been the “big girl.” Playing sports, my size was usually helpful. In basketball, I was starting center because I was tall and solid. My coach used to joke that I was so talented at defense because girls would just “bounce off” of me.
In volleyball, I was one of the few girls to make varsity my sophomore year, and I had the skills and size to play both back and front row (an uncommon feat in the volleyball world).
As for my personal life, my thick stature proved less advantageous. Boys generally weren’t interested in me since I towered over most of them, and once they did finally catch up in height, I was never as petite and adorable as my girlfriends. Being smart and sassy probably didn’t help either.
After someone close to me told me at 10 years old that I could “stand to lose a few pounds,” I started dieting. I was never overweight since I played multiple sports, but I was always thick. Dieting led to anorexia, and by age 14, at 5’8”, I was down to a size 0 and just over 100 pounds.
Most of the influential adults in my life raved about how great I looked, despite my thinning, dull hair and unusually pale skin and sunken eyes. To them, I was skinny, and skinny is good.
My father eventually called me out. As he was dropping my brother and me off at our mom’s, he casually remarked that I was “getting too skinny” and “needed to eat more.” My father had many flaws, but one of his strengths was that he never said anything to me about my size--he only ever said I was beautiful--so this came as a surprise.
A few months later, my dad unexpectedly died. I don’t think I ever consciously decided to change my eating habits (or lack thereof), but when I was faced with the choice to eat or not, I was reminded of my dad’s admonition, some of the last memorable words he said to me, and I slowly began to eat more and to gain back healthy weight.
I don’t have many photos from my eating disorder days--I avoided the camera as much as possible--but once my eating habits improved and I gained weight, ironically I had the confidence to be in front of the lens again. This photo was taken over a year after my dad died, and I had gained about 25 pounds from my lowest weight. Over the next year, I would gain another 15 for a total of 40 pounds over my anorexic weight.
Over the last 20+ years, I have worked diligently at changing my perspective on food. I gain weight easily and lose weight with great difficulty, which has forced me to eat healthfully and workout regularly. I’m gluten and dairy free, and I generally avoid sugar and meat. I feed my body whole, plant-based foods so that I function best and feel good.
It’s a struggle to not focus on food or obsess about my weight, but my family and yoga have helped me keep my priorities in focus. They remind me that life is so much more than a jean size or a number on a scale. I don’t want my kids to waste their energy worrying about such superficial matters.
Before having kids, yoga started my inner work. My friend’s mom introduced us to yoga when we were teenagers, and I practiced intermittently over the years. About 10 years ago, I began a consistent practice, which eventually led me to take yoga teacher training. I’ve been teaching yoga now for almost 6 years.
Teaching yoga as a curvy girl can be challenging. When I tell people I’m a yoga teacher, the response is usually the same: a quick, involuntary once-over and a surprised, “Oh! You’re a yoga teacher?” They usually catch themselves and then follow with something like, “That’s so neat!” Translation: you don’t look like a yoga teacher.
When I have taken classes at nearby yoga studios, places where most don’t know I’m a yoga teacher, I am inevitably faced with shock when I pop into an advanced pose. I remember a group of young girls exclaiming, “You’re so good!!” I don’t know if their astonishment stemmed from my age or my size, but it was clear I had exceeded their expectations.
While some may be judgmental of my size, many of my students are comforted by the fact that all sizes can practice and teach yoga. I like to think I make yoga less intimidating, and I hope I encourage women to believe we can all be yoga badasses.
While I truly believe that yoga is for every body, practicing Ashtanga daily has challenged that idea. My size makes every pose even more difficult than it already is--every bind and every arm balancing pose in particular. I need to become even more flexible to get around my girth and to twist my boobs out the way. I need to become even stronger in order to lift and balance my large hips and booty.
It’s frustrating to watch younger, thinner women who have been practicing for less time soar past me. I am reminded to keep my eyes on my mat and focus on my own practice, but it’s difficult to not become disheartened, especially when you have amazing Ashtangis like Hope and Diana practicing next to you (two of many amazing yogis who inspire me).
Since I am taller and heavier than my petite instructor, she kindly let me know that she won’t be able to help me with backbend dropbacks or pull-ups, so I need to figure it out on my own. While I was thankful she addressed this fact--I was wondering why she was helping everyone else in class but not me--it was also embarrassing to realize I was the biggest female practitioner in class. I’m not going to lie: I thought about quitting, but I realized I will get this, too. It may just take more time without the help of an instructor.
Sometimes I think I’m just not made for Ashtanga--my strong, thin friends are. Flexibility and strength will come with practice, but my size will remain the same. Even if I could manage to lose another 15 pounds, I will always be tall and thick. It’s my lot in life.
But the goal of yoga is not the pose. I will not be a better person once I can jump through and back, and I will not be a better yoga teacher once I can bind in supta kurmasana. (That's not me below--that's my girl, Hope.)
I will, however, be a better mother and woman once I can let go of my body image issues, and being forced to confront those struggles daily on the mat will either break me or make me stronger. Yoga taught me to love myself despite my flaws; Ashtanga is teaching me that I must face those demons before I can truly love and accept myself.
I’m healthy, strong, and smart. I have a beautiful family and a happy life. Being curvy should not be a source of contention or a reason to make me sad. Both of my kids are solidly built and top of the charts for height. If I want them to grow up believing that their size is a blessing not a curse, then I need to believe it myself.
My mantras: Practice and all is coming. Breathe.
Yoga photos by Mary Wyar Photography.
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