The “This Is What a Yogi Looks Like” series is a collaboration between the Yoga and Body Image Coalition and Yoga International based on the YBIC campaign and their continued work in challenging stereotypes, growing community, working collaboratively, and highlighting the diversity of yoga practitioners and yoga practices.
I was introduced to Dianne Bondy by my Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery, and Loving Your Body co-editor, Anna Guest-Jelley, in early 2012 when the book project was getting underway, and we invited her to share her yoga and body image story. In March of that year, Dianne Bondy published Yoga: Not Just for Young, Skinny, White Girls and helped drive the conversation about yoga, body image, race, diversity, inclusivity, accessibility, and yoga imagery forward.
Since then, she has become a major contender in combatting the contemporary “yoga body” stereotype, shifting the current yoga landscape and presenting people with new ways of looking at yoga practitioners and the practice of yoga. I’ve had the pleasure of working with her in the formation of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition in early 2014, sitting down with Yoga Journal and Lululemon to discuss yoga and body image at The Practice of Leadership panel held in San Diego the summer of 2014 at Yoga Journal LIVE, as well as many other projects and events aimed at creating inclusivity and accessibility through our shared love of yoga.
Recently, I sat down with Dianne to talk about what’s changed and where the #yogaforall movement is headed.
MK: In Yoga and Body Image, you talk about your on-and-off relationship with yoga, a relationship that started at three years old beside your mother in secret because it was, as you describe "the anti-culture—especially for people of color, who felt that yoga was something to be feared." You also express your unhappiness at giving up your practice when you entered college, another time you were "reminded again that black folks did not do yoga." What is your relationship with your practice like today? And what does your practice look like in the day-to-day?
I am always questioning why I believe the things I believe. I am asking others to do the same.
DB: Today I teach yoga, and I found that when I started teaching, my physical practice fell off a bit and my focus shifted. Because I train people to become yoga teachers, I spend a lot of time studying the philosophy of yoga. The teaching and philosophy of the asana, and the teachings of yoga in general, have changed the way I look at the entire world. I practice more of my yoga off my mat. The shift for me has become about taking action and changing all kinds of perceptions people have about each other. My yoga has become about activism and making real sustainable change. It started with the practice of compassionate self-study and a better awareness of the world around me. I am always questioning why I believe the things I believe. I am asking others to do the same. How has social conditioning dimmed my perception of what is important in this life? The physical asana has become less important than the impact the philosophical teachings have on the practice. Each day I start with meditation, personal affirmation and goal setting, and about 10 minutes of asana. It helps me stay focused on what's important in my day-to-day life.
MK: What do you think your life would be like without your mother's introduction to yoga and your long-standing practice?
DB: Without yoga practice, I wouldn't be as happy as I am now. I don’t think I would be as passionate about social justice. I wouldn't have my santosha practice, and I think I would be more concerned with superficial things, external things that don't feed my soul or sense of well-being. I certainly wouldn't have become so self-aware. My yoga ignited my passion for social awareness and justice, and I’m grateful for that.
MK: You describe your practice as the vehicle for changing the way you saw yourself. How does your practice continue to feed your relationship with self/body?
DB: My practice shows how powerful my body is and fuels my appreciation for all it does on a daily basis. I am almost 46 years old and I know how blessed I am to live in a body that's able to function as I want it to. That sense of gratitude has been illuminated with my yoga practice. Yoga has taught me how to be grateful and see things as they are. I am blessed to live in this body and I need to honor and love it. This is what my practice continues to teach me, and my daily practice reaffirms who I am by allowing me to connect with my spiritual side.
MK: In your chapter in Yoga and Body Image you describe feeling compelled to be the change even as people asked you, "You teach yoga?" We've certainly come a long way since we met when the book was in its infancy, and lots has changed since we were featured panelists at The Practice of Leadership panel in San Diego. How do you feel about the changes that have happened in the last few years?
DB: I think we have become far more aware of and vocal about the need to change ideas around the striving for perfectionism and how that mentality negatively impacts our body image. I certainly see more larger bodies being represented in current fitness and yoga culture. I am grateful for more dialogue around body positivity. For a long time, the only image of a yogi we saw in mainstream yoga culture and media was the same image we see in the fashion industry—thin, young, able-bodied, and white. This image spilled over onto the yoga mat. I found that most teachers were only interested in teaching to able-bodied, fit students. Now, more teachers seem to be interested in offering more inclusive and diverse classes, and this change is exciting. We have seen the rise of new yogalebrities in larger bodies. We have also seen more attention given to health and different body sizes. A shift is happening in how bodies are being viewed. Our consciousness around diversity within yoga has definitely changed.
MK: In your Yoga and Body Image essay, you state, "The key to bringing diversity to yoga is to have a diversity of teachers. Inclusion on the yoga mat means everyone is welcome—to teach and practice." And we both know that this also includes representing more diversity in yoga imagery as well. While it’s still not the standard practice as of now, we have seen opportunities grow for yogis that don't fit the "yoga body" stereotype. What were some of 2015’s highlights?
DB: First of all, I loved seeing fellow Yoga and Body Image contributor Chelsea Jackson on the cover of a major yoga publication. Usually, when we see a person of color doing yoga in the media, they are an established yoga celebrity who fit into a fairly one-dimensional mold.
It’s also been amazing to see how many people have been moved and inspired by our stories in Yoga and Body Image and how much the Yoga and Body Image Coalition has grown. People have been hungry for a broader sense of community and conversations on inclusivity. The success of both reflects that.
I’ve also been impressed by Yoga International’s dedication to increasing and diversifying the imagery of yoga. It’s a hopeful sign of things to come.
I was also proud to participate in The Accessible Yoga Conference, an organization that is changing the purpose and experience of yoga conferences, one that is diverse and inclusive.
And, finally, I am happy that Jessamyn Stanley has become so popular and widely recognized. She’s an unlikely yogalebrity and a symbol for the diversity that exists within yoga culture.
MK: And can you share some of your personal highlights of this past year?
DB: I have had an extraordinary experience having my voice amplified and that’s because of the solidarity and comradery in the yoga community from my peers, colleagues, and friends. As a result, I have had the opportunity to share my yoga and be a voice in the yoga and inclusion movement. Who knew being an outspoken, fat, black yogini was going to be a real thing? I have been very proud to be included in this movement.
My highlights include: being a keynote speaker at the Race and Yoga Conference at University of California Berkeley, being a presenter for Yoga International’s digital yoga conference, the success of the Yoga for All Online Teacher Training, my recent photo shoot and mini-documentary for Gaiam, and the commercial I shot for the Canadian plus-size clothing company, Penningtons.
It has been an incredible journey and I am so proud to have been included. It is nice to be seen and have your work validated.
MK: How is the yoga industry improving around these issues?
DB: I think the yoga industry is starting to take notice of their impact on current yoga culture. Some companies are more conscious of the messages they are sending to consumers of yoga. They are shifting their yoga campaign to be more inclusive and diverse. I am excited to see how companies like Gaiam are stepping up and featuring yoga teachers who are making a difference in their communities and the world through their yoga campaigns. It is great to see a large company take the initiative to make change.
MK: What areas still need improvement?
DB: I think it is important for the industry to realize that yoga teachers and practitioners are all different. We are a cross-section of real-life people. Big bodies can be strong and flexible, and they also have different abilities. Just because we see a fat body doing a complicated arm balance doesn't mean that all fat bodies can do the same poses. Fat bodies are fat in different ways, and the same goes for thin, fit bodies. Not all yoga teachers can execute complicated poses, and that's not the point of asana. The media needs to be okay with showing fat or larger bodies doing “simple” poses (or any body doing “simple” poses, really). We must learn to celebrate each practitioner and teacher as the unique person they are and celebrate what they bring to the practice.
I have been so thrilled to see Jessamyn Stanley rise and become a symbol of diversity and inclusion but, unfortunately, the media tends to celebrate and only focus on her ability to do difficult asana well. In many ways, to many people, these images become the benchmark for the rest of us in larger bodies. I have found that there is an expectation that my 45-year-old big body with shorter limbs and large breasts is expected to do what Jessamyn’s long-limbed 20-something body can do.
It’s really not surprising that media outlets want bodies that can perform incredible physical feats because these are the images we’re saturated with and have influenced our concept of yoga practice and yoga practitioners across the board. But we must remember that bigger bodies are capable of many great things in asana—but each practitioner is different, as is true for all practitioners of every size. And I’d like to see more diversity in the ways we represent larger-bodied yoga practitioners. Diversity is just that—diverse.
Creating an actionable shift toward change is the goal of the body positive and inclusion movement. It is important not to lose sight of that.
We also need to watch that the new message of body positivity and diversity is not being co-opted for personal or financial gain. Body positivity and diversity cannot become a personal brand for a yoga teacher or company who isn't doing the work of supporting the movement with concrete action. Creating an actionable shift toward change is the goal of the body positive and inclusion movement. It is important not to lose sight of that.
MK: Do you have any predictions for next year?
DB: The movement will grow and people will continue to become more aware of the impact that yoga has on shifting perceptions and creating change in the culture. Companies and brands will try to co-opt the message, but the movement, those of us with the largest stake in progress, will be watching and redirecting those efforts toward authentic change.
MK: What do you have coming up in 2016, and where can people meet up with you if they want to practice or study with you?
DB: I have been blessed with lots of opportunities to share the teachings of yoga:
January 8: Yoga For All 200-hour YA Teacher Training, Windsor, ON
January 15: The Santosha Project Ecourse at DianneBondyYoga@gmail.com
February 8: Yoga and You—The Study of Asana, Yoga Philosophy, and Self-Study, St. Clair College, Windsor, ON
March 11-13: Yoga For All in Madison, WI
April 1-3: YogaMind Conference, San Francisco, CA
April 15-18: Minneapolis Yoga Conference
May 13-15: Yoga Service Council Conference at Omega
June 3-5 and 10-12: Yoga For All Teacher Training at Green Tree Yoga in Los Angeles, CA
July: 30-Day Yoga For All Yoga Teacher Intensive, Windsor, ON
September 2-4: Floyd Yoga Jam, Floyd, VA
September 16-18: Accessible Yoga Conference, Santa Barbara, CA
September 30: Yoga For All Weekend Intensive, 314 Yoga, St. Louis, MO
October 21: Yoga For All Weekend Intensive, Fusion Works with Marcia, Bermuda
Dianne Bondy is an Author, Motivator, Risk Taker, Educator, Yoga Teacher, and Leading Voice in the Diversity in Yoga and Yoga of Inclusion Movement. With over 1000 hours of yoga training in diverse modalities such as yoga therapeutics, restorative yoga, meditation, and Anusara Yoga – Dianne truly believes that yoga is for all! She is passionate about creating a more diverse playing field in the yoga community and is a highly recognized voice in the Diversity in Yoga and Yoga of Inclusion movements – where all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds are recognized and embraced both on and off the mat. Dianne Bondy is an E-RTY 500 with Yoga Alliance, with extensive training in yoga therapy. She is a regular columnist for Elephant Journal and Do You Yoga, has been featured in Yoga Journal magazine, and appears as a guest author in the books: Yoga and Body Image, and Yes Yoga Has Curves. She is the founder and Managing Director of Yogasteya virtual online yoga studio that specializes in yoga for all shapes, sizes, and abilities. The goal of Yogasteya is to empower people through yoga. She developed and continues to teach the Abundant Bodied Yoga Teacher and Yoga for All yoga teacher training programs, runs retreats and workshops internationally and is a founding member of the Yoga & Body Image Coalition. To learn more about Dianne, check out her website and connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.