The thing about yoga on Instagram is that – much like everything else on social media – it doesn’t quite reflect reality. I'd hazard a guess that 98% of the #yoga images you see are of a thin, white (but tanned), naturally flexible, 20-something girl in a bikini, on a beach, doing some variation of an arm balance or inversion.
Which is totally fine for what it is (and I really love some of those pictures) but that kind of yoga-for-show isn’t all that yoga is about.
Full disclosure: I currently live on a beach, where I practise and teach yoga, and I fit into all the categories above (minus the age, shhh). But I don’t often share that kind of image, because I don’t think it makes anyone feel better about their own yoga practice, or self. Maybe someone looks at it and is inspired to try a particular pose. Maybe. Gain from it personally by all means, but let the primary motive – or genuine intention – be outside of yourself.
Which is where the 2% of #instayoga that I like comes in. The people who aren’t trying to show off about their own skill level but rather focus on teaching, guiding, or making their audience feel more human and less alone. The people who promote body positive yoga (#BoPoYoga). Firm fact: We don’t see enough different body types or ethnic backgrounds in yoga studios, advertisements, or online. Anything that helps challenge that status quo is very welcome in my feed.
Recently, a strain of accounts and hashtags combining these two things I like has caught my eye.
33-year-old Melissa Latimer was 15 when doctors told her she had synovial cell sarcoma, an extremely rare and fatal form of soft tissue cancer. Just two days later, the lower portion of her right leg was removed.
A natural athlete, Melissa quickly recovered physically and – remarkably – was back to playing basketball with her high school team within six months. Her mental and emotional recovery, however, took longer. “I would get looks of 'Sorry' or be made fun of, a lot," she said. "People, myself included, just didn't know how to respond to an amputee. I really let the stigmas of society affect me.” Every challenge thrown at her was met full on, however, “I lived a life where I was almost scared of being open with being an amputee.”
That was until 10 months ago, when she discovered yoga. “Now I'm the complete opposite,” she says, “I’m proud of who I am and not afraid to show my body. It completely changed my life. Physically, I'm much stronger, and have learnt so much about working with my prosthesis, rather than just living with it. But emotionally and mentally it has had an even greater impact.”
Marsha Therese Danzig, M.Ed, founder of Yoga for Amputees and author of From The Roots, lost the lower portion of her left leg in 1976 to Ewing sarcoma (a cancerous tumour). For almost two decades she has been teaching and training others in yoga, and believes that it “offers amputees a way back home to their essential wholeness”. Physical benefits – increased strength, stability, balance, stamina – aside, the more spiritual elements of yoga (meditation, mantra, breathing, relaxation) are, Marsha explains, "medicine for the soul for amputees' grief over limb loss, identity changes (body image and sexuality), pain and mental fatigue, and drastic changes in lifestyle.”
28-year-old Kat Hawkins lost both her legs below the knee when she contracted meningitis during university in 2008. Four years ago, she began practising yoga in her room at home. “It helped immeasurably with my balance and walking – more than any other form of physio or exercise I tried,” she says, “but it also really helped with processing emotions and what's going on in my life.” After experiencing the holistic benefits of yoga first hand, Kat started an Instagram account – @amputeekat – using the hashtag #amputeeyoga. “I wanted to connect with other amputees and give them some advice and confidence to try yoga,” she explains. “I wish Instagram had existed in the way it does now when I lost my legs. I craved physically active young female role models to look up to, and the chance to talk to them directly would have really helped me come to terms with what had happened.”
Kelsey Koch, 24, who has been an amputee for most of her life, first tried yoga a little over a year ago, after receiving an ‘active’ leg. “Yoga undoubtedly changed my life,” she says. “I have found my passion, and am able to share the importance of the practice with so many individuals. Even as teachers, we are still students and are constantly learning every day. This practice has given me such self-acceptance as an amputee.” Melissa echoes this sentiment: “It's helped me so much, and every day I gain more confidence. My love for myself since starting has increased significantly, and will continue to grow – that excites me the most!”
As anyone who has tried yoga knows, it feels different from regular gym exercise. Physically, you stretch and strengthen rarely used muscles, and get into the fascia (that sheet of connective tissue that stabilises our muscles and organs). But mentally and emotionally you also stretch and strengthen some rarely used parts. Yoga works on calming the nervous system and the thoughts, to bring the body and mind – and soul, if you believe in that – into one (the word 'yoga' means union in Sanskrit). And developing a physical yoga practice very often goes a long way to show you just how much you’re capable of in other areas of your life.
This last point is something all the women focus on. “Part of the reason I post my life on Instagram is to try and inspire other amputees,” says Kelsey. “I want every individual, able or disabled, to know that they can do whatever they set their mind to. My hope is that my journey could give another amputee strength and motivation to be whoever they want to be.” “Putting myself 'out there' on Instagram wasn't easy for me,” says Melissa. “It took a lot. But one thing that I'm passionate about and feel that I'm here to do, is help other amputees to feel confident – to show them that loss of a limb doesn't need to mean loss of life. And nowadays the best way to show that is social media.” Both women are bringing their yoga gospel to real life: Kelsey recently completed her yoga teacher training and opened her own yoga studio, Serenity Yoga, in her hometown of Grand Blanc, Michigan, and Melissa is currently training as a teacher with her local yoga school.
Online, the response has been overwhelmingly positive – and the number of amputees turning to yoga and putting their practice on Instagram is growing – but all the women expressed some reservation about sharing their lives. “I sometimes get a bit nervous posting,” says Kat, “I want conversations to happen about the human body, what it is and what it's capable of, and what we think of as 'beautiful', but sometimes that invites unwanted attention from people. A lot of people who are attracted to amputees think it's ok to bombard me with sexual comments.”
Internet creeps aside, Kelsey, Kat and Melissa all agree that there is now less stigma and more awareness around amputees. However, Kat says, “I think there is so much more that can be done to give coverage to amputees, especially women. A lot of what you read or see is what we like to call ‘inspiration porn’ in the style of ‘look at this amazing woman’, even though you've just left the house to go to the shops and you're knackered and hungover and your dress is tucked into your pants!” This Daily Mail-esque approach shows how far we still have to go to end our proclivity to draw a line between ourselves and those we perceive as ‘other’.
However you look at it, though, these accounts and the pictures on them are inspirational. These women aren't just putting up pictures of themselves looking absolutely amazing (which they do, btw), they’re doing it to help others. Which really makes a yogi.
Original feature on Refinery29UK
Some of my yoga or body image related writings