Learning to take up space

I am lying on my back, knees folded over to the right side of my body, bent into a foetal position. My head is twisted over to the left, my arms outstretched. There is a long pull of muscle stretching all the way down my left side. “Breathe into the space you have created,” the yoga teacher instructs. “Occupy that space. Take up that space. Breathe into it. Own it. It is yours.” I breathe deeply, taking my time, allowing the rise and fall of my lungs to deepen, slowly exhaling into the new space, taking it up…

For many years now I have been substantially aware of my body in space, but less aware of the internal notes of my body. Mostly I am okay with/in my body. My body works for me but I am conscious of it, of its size, its ‘soft animalness’ to quote Mary Oliver, and I know this because I spend a lot of my time making myself less, making myself appear smaller, trying to not take up too much space. More space than I should. I learnt early on to wear black, to cross my legs neatly, to gesture lightly, to not talk too loudly, to keep controversial opinions to myself, to sit neatly in the bounded area of a seat on public transport, to not eat in public when walking, to not draw attention to myself in anyway. I learnt that the space I occupy is given only when I take up no more of it than a regular//normal-sized person.

I have absorbed all the public health messages about how being fat is terrible for long term health. I’ve internalised advertising that tells me my worth is directly proportional to my size. It does not help that I grew up in a place where whiteness, purity, thinness were held up as key elements of the female form. I was often told as a young women, by men, that men would like me more if I was thinner, that I would be sexier if I lost x number of kilograms. As if ensuring that men liked me was the sole purpose of my existence. That my body was not acceptable until it appeared visually in a particular way.

All of this has meant that I take up space in the world with the conscious fear that someone will notice. Or that is how it was before yoga.

I went back to yoga mostly because I had to stop playing netball. I have done yoga throughout my life. When we were little, my mom had a Jane Fonda book of yoga that included poses for children. The poses all had fantastic names: downward dog, the lion, cat, cow, cobra, tree… We would take the book outside onto the grass and try our hand at balances, or perform wheel pose with ease. At university we used to go to yoga before going on nights out, offsetting our alcohol consumption through vinyasa flow classes. I’ve dipped in and out of yoga a lot since then, mostly depending on whether I could afford a class. Once my PhD was finished, I had a steady enough income that meant I could go to yoga regularly, but I never really got around to turning up for class. I was in that fog of depression that makes everything seem an insurmountable task and so it was not until the other avenues for exercise I had ceased (because of a knee injury) that I persuaded myself to get back on my mat.

I needed an exercise that was slow enough I would not do further damage to my knee, and would allow me to build strength in my legs before the surgery. Yoga was it. I sought out yoga classes where the movements were slow enough that I didn’t have to worry about my knee moving out of place, but which focused on strength building and raised my heart rate.

I began to be amazed by what I could get my body to do, how it could twist, bend, halve, straighten, hold. The more I practiced, the more strength I built, and the stronger I felt, the more I felt empowered to occupy space.

I have learnt over the years that yoga is less about how it looks, and more about how it feels. The idea is empowering. Imagine being focussed on the details of how you feel, how your body moves, rather than how it looks. How liberating!

A few years ago, I was in upstate New York for part of the summer. A mentor-friend was taking yoga classes in the local village. “It is so interesting,” she said to me one day, “I’ve spent so much of my life in my head and now finally, I am beginning to listen to my body and it is changing everything.”

At the time I did not understand what she meant. What did that mean, she was listening to her body? My mother and sister have accused me for years for not paying enough attention to my own body, of not being self-aware, down in my bones.

But regular yoga classes and some more in-depth courses have changed all that. Suddenly, I am no longer trying to look like an Instagram-worthy yoga teacher, long and lean, pretending that yoga will produce a body type I have been sold into accepting. I am paying attention to the internal cues in my body. I am breathing into internal spaces. And I am learning to occupy external ones.