I’m in a circle of yoga teachers gathered comfortably on soft seating, but we’re not here to do yoga. We are, however, surrounded by snacks — a bowl of Luna bars and SunChips by the entrance, a pile of Tim’s Cascade on the sign-in table, assorted fun-size candies within arm’s reach.
This is Opal: Food + Body Wisdom, an eating disorder-recovery center in the University District, and we’re at the third quarterly workshop that Opal has hosted for yoga teachers in hopes of facilitating a healthier, more inclusive community. The organization even has multiple yoga teachers on staff to lend their expertise to both.
We spend two hours dissecting our experiences with yoga, health and our relationship to our bodies. Opal provides work sheets on Health at Every Size (HAES) framework, which advocates looking beyond weight as a health indicator. We discuss Instagram posts from different yoga studios and teachers like a book club. We ask each other: What words or phrases do you want others to use when describing your body? What words or phrases do you not want used to describe your body?
As Opal has found through the individual and group yoga therapy offered to its program participants, yoga can be extraordinarily helpful in eating-disorder recovery. In the outside world, though, it can be a minefield. It’s a culture where yoga teachers are all but required to be on Instagram. Studio promotional materials are filled with thin, white women in pretzel shapes — and even get swept up in fad diets du jour. Cues for poses can include everything from subtle fitness-culture dog whistles like “flat stomach” to a teacher referencing burning off the calories from dinner.
People come to yoga for a variety of reasons, but more often than not, they’re being sold the idea of weight loss — the body you could have, not the body you’re in right now.
Speaking with me after session, Opal therapist and yoga teacher Lauren Donelson said for her, teaching yoga is about “connecting with present moment sensations you’re experiencing — what’s actually going on in your body instead of what the culture tells you that you should think about your body.”
“There’s a lot of shame in the general public class,” added Donelson. “I would never want yoga therapy at Opal to feel like that. I want everyone to be in yoga therapy and feel like it’s accessible and their body is welcomed.”
The damage is something Opal’s therapists have seen firsthand.
“We have clients that have used yoga for compensation, which is our word for burning off, like punishing,” Donelson said. “I feel like a lot of times it’s then met with avoidance [at Opal]. They’ve been hurt by this thing that maybe they originally loved and then when they got into it, it became this obsession … and then it kind of swings the other way, where I don’t want to have any relationship with this.”
On the other side of the coin, some people who don’t see themselves reflected in the yoga community — like people in larger bodies — might “feel inadequate or like they can’t participate,” said Donelson.
So let’s say someone has a positive, healing experience at Opal, or another studio with an understanding teacher. Where does a student go next?
“If they’re learning yoga [at Opal] and it’s an important part of their healing and they go to the studio across the street and are immediately given cues that bring them back to where they were before … that’s damaging,” said Camille Dodson, another Opal employee and yoga teacher.
“There aren’t a lot of places I feel like we can safely send our clients, especially clients that are likely to experience size-based oppression,” added Kendra Appe, a therapist at Opal — also yoga teacher-certified.
That doesn’t mean that teachers don’t want to learn. While Opal had been offering yoga therapy for a while, Appe first had the idea to bring other teachers in after a yoga teacher started asking questions about her work as a therapist. “That kind of got me thinking, we have a lot of knowledge here, and yoga teachers here, and we’re in a perfect place to share and create that space,” said Appe.
The group that’s gathered in this circle signed up to be a part of that conversation. Meaghan Halverson teaches trauma-informed yoga — a teaching modality that acknowledges the effect of trauma on the mind and body — to refugees, and recently started teaching yoga to people in recovery from eating disorders at the Center for Discovery in Bellevue.
“I was curious to educate myself about particular best practices for teaching yoga in the [eating disorder] population where body dysmorphia, dissociation and associated medical issues profoundly influence an individual’s experience of their body,” said Halverson. “I was also interested in meeting other teachers who use yoga as a therapeutic healing modality and not necessarily as an exercise or fitness regimen.”
Looking at the way body-negative messaging is perpetuated in Western yoga practice, said Halverson, “is a conversation that deserves attention in yoga communities that consider themselves responsible stewards of this practice.”
Virginia Alcalde, who also teaches at Center for Discovery, told me she felt “empowered” by sharing with other teachers. “This is meaningful to me because yoga helped me heal myself,” said Alcalde. “I want to share that with others.”
This is the whole idea of calling in yoga teachers to talk to each other. “When I was teaching full time, I didn’t have this,” said Donelson.
Teaching yoga, she said, can be isolating. Often teachers are freelance, and jump from studio to studio, with no central water cooler to discuss concerns. Her hope for these workshops is to create a community that’s talking about these issues long term and bringing concerns that they want to work out. Opal will continue hosting quarterly workshops for everyone who wants to come — ideally, the staff told me, with some repeat visitors. They even started a Facebook group to keep the community going.
For what it’s worth, the teachers who spoke with me after class are planning to come back. “The first time I felt comfortable in my own skin was during a yoga class,” said Jenny Wade, a former Opal employee who now teaches a body-acceptance practice through Haven Yoga, “and so I’m passionate about continuing to learn about how to make my yoga classes accommodating to all bodies.”
That doesn’t just mean bodies that have specific trauma, said Madeline Young, another Opal therapist who also teaches yoga. Everyone has the potential to benefit from a conscientious teacher. “If you’re working with human beings you’re working with some level of trauma, whether it’s capital ‘T’ trauma or not,” she said.
An earlier version of this post misspelled Meaghan Halverson’s name and contained inaccurate information about where she works. She teaches at the Center for Discovery in Bellevue, not Tacoma.