It’s Your Yoga Teacher Here and I’m Begging You, Please, Take Up Space
Updated: May 19, 2019
I try to see if I can change my perspective once a day. Often, it’s usually something small and mundane; like yesterday my eyes studied a poster that I have had plastered next to my bedroom windows for two years. The poster is my favorite: a watercolor depiction of a western Chinese giant panda smoking hookah and exhaling a cloud of rainbow smoke. I focused my gaze on all the color hues of blue dominating through. Then (to switch perspectives) I searched only for the red hues, making red the subjugator. Upon other occasions, I find that my small, daily goal of changing my perspective manifests itself into changing my perspective on life. One of those moments occurred two months ago; I was in the midst of teaching a vinyasa yoga class at 11am on a snowy Tuesday and I offered a verbal cue that made me pause abruptly in the middle of my own teaching.
I was instructing a group of 15 bodies, 14 of them women. Almost every yoga class I teach is predominantly female, a statistic I am consistently trying to change. Every body, male or female, can benefit from strengthening and stretching the muscles, lengthening the vertebrae, finding their body’s proper alignment, breaking down fascia, tearing apart old scar tissue, and moving their body through the three planes of motion–or in other words–practicing yoga. During that snowy Tuesday class I instructed a child’s pose after a warrior sequence: a pose one does face down, knees bent out wide, big toes touching, with the forehead down on the mat. The arms reach forward, shoulder distant apart, allowing the ears to melt next to the biceps and for the palms to firmly plant down, reaching towards the top of the mat. In all honesty, if you saw someone strike a child’s pose in the middle of a grocery store it would look like the most ungraceful of breakdowns. They would find the floor, turning their back bodies into some type of rock formation, their limbs becoming just a puddle of arms and knees. Despite how unfamiliar child’s pose may look to the non-yogis among us, the pose does wonders for the body: stretching the hips, thighs and ankles, and passively stretching the core (the muscles in the front and back body) while grounding the third eye to Mother Earth. My spine always feels an inch longer after I linger a few minutes in child’s asana (Sanskrit word for pose).
During that vinyasa class, I wanted a particular child’s pose I called to spice things up for my students, especially the newcomers. So, I added a side body bend–a balasana (Sanskrit for child’s pose) variation. I began to guide them through the slight adaptation of the pose; I cued them with my words and demonstrated on my own body. I started to verbally cue, “Exhale–press into both palms; inhale–gently pick up your forehead; exhale–slowly walk your hands to the top right corner of your mat, as slow as a turtle in slow motion, hot potato hands, see how many handprints you can make before you reach the right side of your mat; inhale–until both arms stretch out towards the right side of your mat or beyond; exhale–relax the forehead back down, resting your ears between your biceps which are shoulder distance apart.” Right before most of my students’ foreheads landed on their mats I offered a cue that may have transformed their yoga practice that day, but it most definitely transformed my philosophy of society as a whole– altering my perspective of life.
“Now, don’t worry if your hands extend out beyond the top right corner of your mat,” my instructional tone of voice complimented well with the song, “Gooey” by Glass Animals that was playing through the speakers. I was stoked with the playlist I made for class that day as I find music to be synonymous with magic. My students and I both exhaled together as the song was in the middle of its riff. I gave them the final cue of the pose, “Do not be afraid to take up space.” I allowed the words to float on the tide of everyone’s inhales and exhales. I gave the cue once more, perhaps more for myself than for my students–an act I seldom partake in–using the class I’m teaching for my own benefit.
“Do not be afraid to take up space,” I have instructed this cue many times before amongst several class styles to a wide variety of ages, abilities and mindsets. Do not be afraid to take up space, do not be afraid to take up space, do not be afraid to take up space. I would estimate approximately 400 human bodies have heard me give this cue in my four years of teaching yoga. But this time my own cue vibrated with me on a different level, and I heard my own words resonate from a perspective I had never tuned into before.
Since I was a young girl I have always been told to be smaller, to not get in the way, that femininity is associated with fragility, how a girl’s role in this world is to see how small a space her body can occupy. Marketing advertisements trying to convince me to wear tiny, cute and dainty dresses along with shirts, tank tops, and pants all the same. They reinforced the idea that barely there mini-skirts were the best skirts. I didn’t buy into any of this. My kindergartner self felt restricted in these tight articles of clothing, telling my mom in the dressing room that I didn’t have space to breathe, let alone, do a cartwheel. My own silent protest was in the act of me wearing my brother’s baggy hand-me-down shirts and denim Levi jeans. I’d sleep in my daddy’s old comic book shirts instead of wearing mainstreamed pajamas. My Barbie backpack for school couldn’t hold as many books as my older brother’s charcoal one nor as much as my younger brother’s army green one. As I grew, weight loss supplements were seen as the golden ticket for us pubescent girls. I mean who wouldn’t want to lose 10, 20, 30 pounds, in a month? To lose all the space we take up?
In school I would raise my hand with my elbow bent as much as it possibly could or hope just a simple flick of the wrist would catch my teacher’s attention. My confused teachers would call on me, speaking my name as a question, asking if my hand was meant to be raised. When I went out in public I noticeably sensed how small I tried to become–my shoulders rounded, my chin dropped, my gaze narrowed to have a staring contest with the ground, my legs stayed as close together as possible. It was once my daily goal to see if my ankles could stay kissing together while having a gap emerge between my thighs–the larger the gap, the better.
As I matured into a young woman, I would notice the difference in spatial preferences when I traveled to different cities and countries. On public transportation the amount of times a man is spreading his legs wide open taking up three seats (the epitome of manspreading) while a woman is shouldering herself so close to a window that I can almost see through her as well, is insane. The juxtaposition is virtually palpable. Out of the 20+ countries and 40+ cities I’ve been to, America is close to the top of the list for being the worst. The message of not being allowed to take up space–starting with one’s own physical vessel of a body–surrounds us, especially us women.
This message intensifies and multiplies feverishly in city spaces: New York, London, Hong Kong, Washington D.C., Beijing, Manilla, Tokyo, Paris, Athens. Amid my travels I’d offer up Asia as the embodiment of the “don’t take up space” culture. When I lived in Hong Kong the only cultural difference I could never adjust to was full grown men body-checking me on the sidewalk as they passed by without even muttering a “sorry” or an “excuse me,” let alone a pause to acknowledge the other human body they’ve just pummeled. And yes, for those that don’t know, English is a national language in Hong Kong–their lack of apologizing doesn’t stem from their lack of English. Their English tongue is stronger than most college students I’ve taught in America enrolled in English 101. If you ask Hong Kongers (what Hong Kong natives call themselves) they will say this habit has been infiltrated from the Mainland Chinese and a Hong Konger knows better than to shoulder slam someone.
Most days in Hong Kong I was a sardine, taking the MTR to and fro. I, an American woman raised by an Irish immigrant mother and a Native American rooted father, quickly realized space is a luxury in this world. But also, it is society which dictates who is worthy of taking up this lavishly allotted space. Though men are most definitely affected by this spatial dilemma, the majority of nations across the world–even right here in the beloved country of America–maintains a belief system that space is something women have to prove they are worthy of being in.
If we are conditioned to think we can’t be of or in space, then we are on a surefire path to much larger issues. If one can’t take up space, how can they see themselves owning an apartment or a house? If a person can’t be of space, how would they feel secure enough to negotiate for a job against someone who is taking up all the space already? If one’s own body isn’t permitted space, neither is their ego. And while bearing too large an ego is highly detrimental, having no ego at all could be just as damaging, or even worse so.
7 million women in America suffer from an eating disorder, as do 1 million American men (Eating Disorder Statistics). Those are 8 million people suffering from a preventable disease–a disease that should never exist in the first place, but it does, partially deriving from society’s heavily flawed perceptions. Taking a look at just my closest female friends–aged 10 to 70–all have negotiated eating habits, 90% of my friends have struggled with either bulimia, anorexia, binging and purging, or over exercising. In some cases, I have friends who have done all of the above. Sadly, my brain, stomach and mind were no strangers to eating disorders either.
On the flip side, I know women who never compensate for their space and are comfortable owning the bodies they’re in. I even know women who at times take away space from other men and women. The thing is that most people, men and women alike, aren’t taking away other’s space in a deliberate, methodical, maniacal way. It’s so minute, it so seamlessly blends into our culture, that half the time they don’t even realize what they have done.
The biggest problem I observe with males in my classroom more often than not is their lack of proprioception. The majority of male students who are yoga newbies have zero spatial body awareness. Having no idea where their bodies are in space, they can’t locate the ceiling, their left finger, the back of the room with their eyes opened and it gets even worse when the eyes come to close. It signals to me as their teacher that they aren’t in their bodies or in their minds at all.
It fascinates me: how are there so many human bodies walking, working, driving, being parents and friends, owning successful businesses, being lawyers or CEO’s while all the while they have no clue where their body is in relation to space? What terrifies me even more is the amount of people that walk into my class who haven’t the slightest clue about who they are on the inside, deep down. However; when these wander lost bodies show up in my classes, I am so grateful. “Ahh,” I say to myself, “they at least know that they don’t know, and now I can teach them,” I think positively, “I can introduce them to their self. Self-worth, self of space, self of spirit, and most of all, self-love.”
I consciously try to help the people who encounter my space by giving them space to be themselves, no matter how inflexible, limber, enlightened, close-minded, stuck, free, broken, healed, lost, found, happy, sad or human they may be. There is something to say for not invading others’ space, it’s another thing altogether to save space for someone who doesn’t have the ability to make their own space in this world yet.
To see the way men and women place their mats down is also a very revealing action. Women tend to shy from the front of the room, they like to hide away tucked in the corners or back rows. They will roll out their mat very cautiously and put all their props as close to them as possible as if they are apologizing for not only having a body, but the materials it takes to do yoga as well. They feel as if they have too much, they are afraid to grab an extra blanket or strap until I give them permission to do so. Again, this paradigm is not absolute but from my general teaching experience a man who walks into my yoga space will grab their props, roll out their mat and towel, set down their water bottle, have no issue surrounding themselves in a mountain of blocks and straps and doing this all in one fell swoop.
Men and boys feel comfortable to be in my yoga class once they have left the public eye, walked through the door and are in the privacy of a yoga studio and yoga-minded women. It is the women and young girls who sometimes need my reassurance throughout the entirety of class–that this space is safe, there is no judgment here. People–whether it be man or woman–who enter into my class and are easily able to claim a piece of hardwood floor as their own also tend to be the ones who are spatially unaware of their surroundings. Furthermore, and more pernicious than being spatially inadequate, is that they likely tend to be the ones unaware of the human being who lies within their very own vessel of skin.
Space is infinite, but it is often a forgotten viewpoint that space goes inward, it breaks down to become the smallest electrons and atoms that make up our particle driven world. The universe of our mind and knowing our authentic selves helps create the most beautiful space in the outer world, a world we all share. This planet is as sacred a space as the mind we have sitting between our own two temples. If the space inside us and the space outside us can cohesively integrate and flow into every other spatial being and realm, then a divine union of life on Earth isn’t just a far-fetched yogi ideal or a saying a granola-crunching hippie rattles off to sound ‘worldly.’ It is a reality. A reality we all have the ability to produce.
Now, every time I teach a class (which currently has been around a dozen times a week), I share the words, “Do not be afraid to take up space,” to every soul I encounter. I sprinkle that cue around like stardust. I may say it 5 or more times in a class; it’s a cue that fits every pose. I speak it with gentle power to myself as I go about my own days. It is my moving mantra. Do not be afraid to color outside the lines, especially when those lines are a rectangular yoga mat on the floor. There is enough space in this world for all of us. The key is to remember you are worthy of the space you take up, and to allow others to feel worthy of theirs.
“Eating Disorder Statistics.” Eating Disorder Information and Statistics,
Kelsie Doran is a 200 hour RYT and a yoga teacher at the wonderful EssentialZen. She also teaches English and writing and loves when she can combine all her passions.
Find her on the schedule at EZY by clicking here.
Read more of her writings and all things yoga and health on her site kelsiedoran.com