When do you speak up?

I went to a class on Sunday at my yoga studio that distressed me.

The studio usually teaches a diversity of yoga styles, with an emphasis on “listen to your own body,” safety and many modifications. There’s usually music, and sometimes a sweaty flow, and a lot of options for slower or more reflective practice. It’s not a spirituality-forward space, but it’s definitely a spirit-forward space: it’s supposed to be a place to reconnect to your own sense of self, to re-energize.

Well, this class on Sunday was jarring. The studio owner had reached out to an experienced ashtanga teacher to see if it might a fit for what the community wanted. Since I began my yoga journey in the mid-90s with ashtanga, I was excited about it.

Ashtanga is generally a more intense, flowy yoga practice, with a set sequences of postures with vinyasas (flows) between them. If you have ever been to a class where you started with about 5 sun salutations, then progressed through 5 repetitions of standing poses, then moved on to seated poses, all with flows of chataranga/up-dog/downward dog between poses, it was probably influenced by ashtanga.

Because of all the vinyasas, ashtanga is, by nature, one of the more athletic branches of yoga. But even back in the 90s, when there was a lot more emphasis on following the teacher and less focus on “do what your body can do” (yo, conditions that created Bikram!), all of my teachers (thanks Pat Harada Linfoot!) encouraged us to slow down, to focus on alignment, to push ourselves to the edge of comfort but never to the edge of safety. Ashtanga was a safe place to build strength and trust in my own body.

Well, not this guy on Sunday. The class was supposed to be an exploration of the primary ashtanga series. The teacher came in, didn’t introduce himself or assess who was in the room or ask about injuries or yoga experience, then spent about 5 minutes talking about ashtanga breathing. Then he dived straight into five super fast sun salutations, calling out the timing in a sing-songy mix of English and what I can only assume was fake sanskrit.

Now, I can sort of keep up with this — if I want to. But there was a guy on the mat next to me I’d noticed when I came in. A big guy, with a big belly. Like many yoga studios in Toronto, mine is heavily populated with 30-40-something white thinnish women. I made up a story about what it took for this guy to come into this studio, assuming he knew he wasn’t the typical body. I was rooting for him.

Within about three minutes of the fast-paced sun salutations, my neighbour was lying facedown on his mat. He went into child’s pose for a minute, then tried once more to do a flow, then gathered up his things and left. Not a word from the “teacher” about adapting to your own pace or body.

I burned with fury.

No one should ever leave a yoga class feeling inadequate. Or — I made up — shamed. I wondered how likely that guy would be to ever come to another class, when his experience was erased, invisible, his body found wordlessly inadequate.

I wanted to leave myself, but I was also curious. (Also, i had brought so much stuff with me into the studio that gathering it all up would have made an unnecessary ruckus).

The class didn’t get better. When the “teacher” had us doing shoulder stands in lotus (no effing way, dude, and I’ve been doing yoga since 1996), and tried to get us into headstand without any builds, I realized something. Twenty years ago, I would have felt inadequate, shamed, incapable. Now I was just mad. This teacher was unsafe. I felt unsafe. I can make my own choices, but I don’t like being in a space that’s inherently unsafe. It pisses me off.

When I left the class, I reflected for a while, then I opened my computer and wrote to the studio owner. Pretty much everything I’ve said here — I love ashtanga, would love it if the studio did more, this guy was unsafe and — frankly — a little creepy. I worried I was overstepping. I worried that other people in the class might have just been happy to be sweaty and not paying attention to the things I was noticing. I worried that if the studio owner reacted badly I’d have to find another yoga studio, and I didn’t want that.

And you know what? The studio owner was BRILLIANT. She thanked me, she apologized, she commiserated, she explained her thinking and told me the actions she would take to monitor the two additional classes she’d committed to with this guy.

I felt safe again. Grateful that I feel so much clarity about what is good for our bodies and our souls. And grateful that I feel confident to use my voice.

When have you spoken up about something that upset you in a fitness space?

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who seems to be doing nothing but yoga and walking these days, and that is a-ok.

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