You may even find yourself swamped in a glittery sea of them, depending on where you are. Self-proclaimed mythical creatures with an incredible yoga practice that makes a beginner want to give up then and there.
Fully grown, fully bendy women, doused in designer mala beads and describing themselves in fairy tale rhetoric.
I was one of them.
Sans rhetoric. But the intent to be a rockstar yogi? That glitter-coated ego? That was there all right.
But dig a little deeper and you might find that same yoga culture is ironically steeped in some arguably non-yogic ideals:
- materialism and elitism (who has the shiniest tights / strappiest yoga bra?)
- competition (what? you can't do a press up handstand? After all this time practising?)
- weight stigma (people in larger bodies tend to be less inclined to attend yoga classes for fear of body shaming and further weight stigma, which damages health)
- ableism (ditto folks with physical impairments)
- white supremacy (yoga has historically been least accessible to black and brown people)
- vanity - and maybe even a little narcisissm. And you can't deny that all this glitz makes for some hella entertaining yoga media.
What ever happened to the true meaning of yoga, unity?
People are fascinated by extreme contortionist yoga, or what I've been heard described as "show-off" or even "fake" yoga. A yoga culture that seems to say Be Bendy! Yoga Harder! Look Awesome! The subtext? You'd better be white (or at least partly white), thin (or lean, or strong, or whatever), fit, rich, and beautiful, or else nooooo one is going to give a toss about your Instagram account.
Hot + BEndy = Likes
The attraction to the more outward, showy aspects of yoga parallels the general western tendency towards doing, competing, achieving, acquiring.
I've been guilty of this. Throughout my twenties I was always drawn to the more active, embodied aspects of yoga and yang practices. Vinyasa flow riddled with inversions. I would teach intense flow classes with no shortage of arm balances and challenging variations. I still post the odd yoga pic or video, and I still find it fun - but it's far less often, and more physically accessible - these days.
I would froth at the prospect of practising Solar AcroYoga with an emphasis on the acrobatics, instead of the softer lunar or restorative practices.
I embarrassingly labelled myself a handstand addict. I was labelled by one of my teachers as a rainbow unicorn... and I liked it. I was in the in-crowd. I openly admired the weapon-like bodies and austere practices of hard core Ashtanga yogis.
Well shit, way to scare the hell out of people who are totally new to yoga, or people who just want to stretch and relax a little without having a whole lotta upside-down glittery ass in their non-inverted faces.
Little wonder there is such a homogenous group of yogis in the social media eye, and yes in some of the large well-oiled yoga studios too. What I want to know is:
Where are the fat people?
The people with physical impairments?
The people living below the poverty line?
The black and indigenous people?
The trans people?
The old people?
I think that to some extent, the unicorns and mermaids have scared them away. And that is a great loss. Because yoga is for everybody, and for every BODY.
Balance is key
They can be off-putting for people who identify with one or more marginalised groups. People who are not mermaids. Or unicorns. This isn't the fault of the unicorns, but it IS something we all need to be aware of.
The other thing about yang practices is that they can eventually be injurious and un-grounding to yogis if not balanced out with plenty of yin yoga, restorative yoga, and frankly just off-the-mat yoga practices including meditation and deeper self-study (svadhyaya). All the introspective stuff that isn't insta-worthy.
This has been a hard pill for me to swallow, because I was always that person who would NEVER go to a restorative class ("Too slow! Too boring!"). But swallow it I must. Because I'm no longer 24. And being amazing at yoga poses is no longer the most important thing in my life - not even in the top 50.
In the last two years I've taken a big step back from yoga as it exists on the Gold Coast. Long-term wrist injuries from lactation hormones circulating through my body and RSI from years of handstand abuse has forced me to step down from being a yang machine. I must admit I've been disillusioned by yoga culture and how it has manifested here. And there's nothing like having a kid to force one to take a break from yoga. Becoming a mum has radically changed my life and and made me rethink my entire approach to yoga.
Yoga has taught me to sit with uncomfortable truths - the truth that the yoga I knew and loved was inaccessible to many people, and wasn't serving me in the way a broader, softer approach perhaps could. I felt it was too deeply steeped in yoga culture, which really has nothing to do with actual yoga.
Throughout my late teens and twenties, I could wax lyrical about the yamas and niyamas. I meditated. I was mindful when I remembered to be. I've done plenty of karma yoga. But those things always comprised the smaller part of my practice, with the physical practice taking a large chunk of my yoga life. Coming into my thirties, I'd like those proportions to be reversed.
Yoga taught me to bring compassion to what was revealed to me through the trials and tribulations of early motherhood. And to have compassion for myself for not being able to, and no longer wanting to do handstands all day long.
Nowadays, sitting on the floor in crossed legs and walking my hands forward is a HUGE accomplishment in time management. And it still feels awesome. It's better than 1000 handstands, because it's enough. Getting to a beginner's class is enough - more than enough, it's heaven. I no longer take for granted the free time that I have. I am slowly reclaiming my yoga in a very different way.
Thankfully, there are movements that cater to marginalised groups - they're just a little more challenging to find. Being a body positive dietitian I adore Fat Yoga.
Fat Yoga was founded by Sarah Harry when she got sick of being body shamed in her yoga class. She describes it as "yoga for bodies that may not fit into a traditional yoga space." And thank goodness, it's about time.
Beginner's advice from a Unicorn in remission
Find a beginners class or a teacher or studio that's minimal on all the fancy extras. A place where people in all bodies come to practice. Gyms are surprisingly good due to the variety of classes they offer and the resultant lack of emphasis on yoga culture.
Find a place to practice where yoga is just something you do, not who you are.
Nowadays I'll take my sparkly ass and sit down in a forward bend for just a minute, or do a simple downward dog. And I feel like a rockstar anyway. I'm a mf unicorn in remission. I'm doing downward dog with NO harder variations, and it's fucking fantastic.