fitness · yoga

Competitive yoga: oxymoron, abomination or just a thing? You make the call

We at Fit is a Feminist Issue have a wide variety of personal viewpoints on yoga. I’m a huuuge fan myself, and have been immersed in it for the past four years or so (I’ve practiced off and on for 30 years). Tracy does yoga and meditation regularly and has even done the 108 sun salutation practice (108 Sun Salutations– Oh My!) Cate, inspired by Tracy, did 108 sun salutations on Christmas morning while on vacation in Australia (108 Sun Salutations on Christmas Morning). Christina has done yoga challenges, Mina has contemplated her toes during yoga, and several of our bloggers have tried goat yoga (for a compendium of our goat yoga posts, look here).

But nowhere in the vast oeuvre of Fit is a Feminist Issue will you find us discussing competitive yoga. Why not, you might ask? Don’t we have a responsibility to cover topics of import and relevance to the community? Indeed, we do. So, let’s settle in, breathe, and begin.

What is competitive yoga? It’s hard to get a neutral explanation; even its Wikipedia page is disapproving. So here goes: competitive yoga is a sport in which participants do yoga asanas, or poses, and are judged on them. The poses they do are very advanced or are extreme modifications of advanced poses, requiring flexibility and strength well beyond what any yoga practitioner needs or ever demonstrates in a class or workshop or retreat.

Pictures will make this clearer. Here are some:

Competitive yoga seems to combine yoga asanas with contortionist performance. That’s cool; it’s not what my body can or wants to do, but y’all go!

However, using the word “yoga” upsets a lot of people. In a Yoga Journal article on a documentary about competitive yoga (because of course there’s a documentary about it), yoga teachers expressed their unhappiness about it.

“I think competitive yoga is a form of misappropriation if they’re calling it yoga and making it look like they’re really doing yoga and competing,” Breaking India author Rajiv Malhotra says on-camera. Other yogis agree with him, suggesting that the focus on a mere three minutes of asana leaves out the spiritual side of the practice. “The word yoga competition becomes so offensive, because yoga is much more than posturing,” adds New Jersey yoga teacher Loretta Turner.

I haven’t seen the film, but we can all access it here.

I’ve been thinking this week about the idea of trying to perfect a yoga pose– being in competition with others, or even yourself. I admit that I do this often in yoga classes myself. I try to stretch more deeply, get those palms on the floor, straighten those legs, intensify that lunge, you name it. My friends have joked for years that I am competitive even in yoga class. I get the joke, and there’s truth in it.

What I love about my own approach to yoga, is that my efforts– for more intensity, for trying modifications, for stretching myself (literally), are about ways I want to feel, not ways I want to look. And they are all about what’s going on in my own body and mind and heart and feels.

On Friday I went to my absolute favorite yoga class– gentle and restorative yoga– with my favorite yoga teacher Liz Reiser at Artemis, my local and beloved yoga studio. My sister Elizabeth and niece Grace went with me. We all had different experiences there, as we have different bodies, different body and yoga histories, and were in different emotional and physical states that day. That day, when we did yoga nidra, an extended deep relaxation, I did it with my legs up the wall, not a standard pose for yoga nidra. It can feel uncomfortable, and you need hamstring flexibility for it to work. But I have that, and that evening it works blissfully. I felt calm and settled and relaxed and quiet. It was wonderful.

My sister and niece lay on their backs with legs on bolsters, covered with a blanket. It was good and okay for them, respectively.

I would not call my Friday experience competitive. I would call it attentive to the variations of life. Sometimes you are in the zone. Sometimes you are distracted. Sometimes you are injured or otherwise tender. Sometimes you are annoyed or distracted (maybe by goats). What I love about yoga is that the goal is to realize where you are, and do what you want and feel like you need to do. And you’ll have some experience or other. And that’s what winning is in yoga– have the experience you have.


What do y’all think about competitive yoga? Working on super-hard poses? Not working on them? Is this inspiring, off-putting, amusing? I’d love to hear from you,

Guest Post · yoga

Vulnerability and Naked Yoga, Part 2 (Guest Post)

by Ellen Burgess

Last week, I wrote about my sailing adventure during my holidays in the first week of June.  As if the sailing this wasn’t enough excitement for one week, the day of my holiday, I boldly ventured out to an old friend’s yoga studio in Toronto to practice Naked Yoga for the first time.  Yep, that’s right, yoga in nothing but my birthday suit… TOTALLY STARKERS that is!

Upon my arrival, I greeted my fellow yoga practitioner (Don), who I had not seen in over 15 years when we did our Moksha Teacher training together. At that time, he had invited me to live in his house for a month, so we got to know each other quite well.  I was happy to see him after such a long time, and we chatted enthusiastically as he showed me around his hot yoga studio. He explained that the purpose of this class was essentially to reduce body shame and build strength and community through vulnerability that comes with practicing yoga with no clothes on.

“Right on”, I said, in my most hippy like voice, (secretly thinking, this sounds terrifying, but “bring it on”)! After all, I had already bragged to my friends that I was going to try this, so there was no backing out now.

Don had us all assemble in the practice room in a rectangle with our backside to the wall with the mirrors covered (thank goodness).  We were asked to disrobe when the lights went off and that, if at any time we were uncomfortable, we could lie down on our mats with a towel covering our body. 

Then he turned off the light and lit a single candle.  All I could see was the silhouette of a man in front of me.  I peeked around and sure enough, everyone was taking off their clothes, so I thought I better get with the program, so to speak. This was a silent class with series of 26 simple postures, so Don just named the postures when it was time to switch, but provided no other instruction.    Don also aligned himself in the rectangle with the rest of us and did not move around the room.  I strategically positioned myself several bodies away from Don.  Why? Well I guess I forgot to mention that Don is hot.  Yep… that’s right.  Upon reconnecting with him, I quickly realized that he was still as hot as ever 15 years later, so I didn’t want to be caught peeking!

I was actually surprised at how “raw and exposed” I actually felt once I had my clothes off. That may sound like a no brainer, but at the age of 55, I thought I was comfortable being naked anywhere, anytime. I had skinny dipped, slept in the nude in a room full of other people, not to mention disrobing many times in front of others during the wilder days of my youth. However, once my clothes were off, I felt a distinct flushing of my chest, just around my heart chakra and I began to sweat more than usual. I wondered if I experienced intense feelings in this area because my chest was always a source of body shame when I was growing up.

First we did pranayama breathing then moved into half-moon posture and then eagle pose.  By the fourth posture, I was really over being naked.  However, as we moved through more rigorous postures, such as downward dog flows, I really noticed some “base and raw” sensual feelings throughout my body. I wondered if this is how our caveman/woman ancestors felt. 

And then poof, it was over!  We showered and then I went out to the lounge and caught up with Don for an hour and a half before driving back to Guelph.

What was particularly interesting about our chat was the fact that I disclosed more about myself to him in those 90 minutes than during the entire 30 days I lived with him in 2004. And so, as I headed back to Toronto, I felt a more heart felt connection with my friend as it seemed our emotional intimacy had deepened significantly.

So maybe, just maybe, through a jam packed week of sailing and naked yoga, I am becoming more vulnerable through sport, which was the goal at the onset. 

On a final note, I must add that the REAL test of my willingness to be vulnerable is to be more emotionally vulnerable with those closest to me; by first being more honest with myself and then, by being more forthcoming about my true thoughts and feelings.  I am the kind of person that is will to try just about any new activity, but that is typically where I draw the line.  Emotional vulnerability is FAR MORE DIFFICULT for me than naked yoga or sailing, because I am required to put “my heart out there” without no guarantee of the response, and that really scares me. However, as Brene Brown states in her film “the Call to Courage”, “If we want to know love and connection more deeply (with both ourselves and others), we must choose courage over comfort”.  I’ll keep you all posted on my progress!

Ellen Burgess is from Guelph, Ontario and is a runner, yoga practitioner, meditator, and cycling enthusiast.  She is currently fulfilling her career dream working as a mental health RN within the greater Wellington community. 

fitness · yoga

I have a yoga crush on Jessamyn Stanley

If you haven’t heard of Jessamyn Stanley, today’s your lucky day. Let me introduce you…

Content warning: some of her quotes include copious profanity, which I will coyly edit with **s. Not sure why, but I figured I would. So know those words will be there, and you’ll know what they are, but there will be a little editing.

Now on to the post proper.

The world is complicated.

A very cute cartoon ghost saying "duh".
A very cute cartoon ghost saying “duh”.

Likewise the world of yoga. Especially the world of commercialized western yoga. As some bloggers have pointed out (definitely read this article if you’re interested), it tends to look like this:

A group of white women, dressed all in white, seated on yoga mats.
A group of white women, dressed all in white, seated on yoga mats.

There are a few worries that this picture provokes for me:

  • the extreme whiteness of yoga here in North America
  • the extreme thinness of yoga here in North America
  • the Westernization/appropriation of yoga here in North America

Jessamyn Stanley takes aim at all three of these things, and she obliterates them in one fell swoop. Or rather, one swell soliloquy, found on her FB page:

Short story- yoga is not about practicing yoga postures perfectly it’s about peeling back the layers of bullsh*t that envelop all of us.

That means I DONT GIVE A F**KKKK if you follow along perfectly with the sequences… Literally couldn’t care less.

You can legit spend the whole class in #corpsepose and I will be so happy for your *ss because we’re not in a dance troupe and this isn’t synchronized swimming or any sh*t where we need to move in tandem. You just do what you need to do and we gon be alright.

Yoga is not exercise.
Yoga is not fitness.

Don’t bring fitness bullsh*t to my yoga class and we’ll be square.

YES. I am living for this.

We’re not in a dance troupe.

Modern dance troupe at work.
Modern dance troupe at work.

This isn’t synchronized swimming.

Synchronized swimmers, looking up with arms raised out of the water.
Synchronized swimmers, looking up with arms raised out of the water.

So if yoga isn’t fitness and it isn’t exercise, then what should we look for? Jessamyn says it’s not anyone’s job to serve as our inspiration.

What authority do I have to intentionally inspire? I’m just like anyone else. I wake up, I fall down, I make mistakes. I’ve got wildly contradictory and problematic opinions. I’m vengeful and I can be quite spiteful. I’m jealous, and I allow my jealousy to cloud my judgments.

And yes, I practice yoga. I practice yoking the light and the dark in life. And yes, I’m shamelessly fat.

But my goal is not to inspire other people. I don’t think desiring followership is in the best interest of any yoga practice, let alone mine.

(Honestly, I think the best way to inspire people is to mind your f*cking business, drink water, get some sleep, and keep your spirit moisturized.)

Most excellent advice, in my view.

Jessmyn’s book Every Body Yoga, is great, with lots of honest stories and good tips about how to put together a yoga practice that works for you.

The cover of Jessamyn's book, with her doing a hard yoga pose.
The cover of Jessamyn’s book, with her doing a hard yoga pose.

But her FB page and Instagram feeds are presenting, confronting and sharing ideas about self, size, love, acceptance, acceptability, breaking with conventions, and instigating new conventions. Here’s an example:

Jessamyn, in a bra and panties standing beside a stereo. Her quote: Is being fat and black only chill when it makes other people feel good about themselves? #fat
Her quote: Is being fat and black only chill when it makes other people feel good about themselves? #fat

And this:

Jessamyn Stanley, covered in green and yellow paint, on her yoga mat.
Jessamyn Stanley, covered in green and yellow paint, on her yoga mat.

The quote with this picture is long, and worth reading:

I tend to revel in anger. Especially when it’s justifiable. My anger manifests as a fiery weapon & I gleefully burn away everything in my path. But maybe yoga is supposed to help manage my weapons before I accidentally hurt myself. Digging into Audre Lorde’s “Sister Outsider” for @spirithouse_inc’s Harm Free Book Zone has got me ready to amp on everyone in my life who refuses to admit that they’re complicit in upholding white supremacy. Although, if I’m being completely honest, I’m mostly just angry at myself. Angry that I am complicit in white supremacy. Angry that I officially spent my entire adolescence and young adulthood trying to buy into a system that will never let me in. Angry because, much as I loathe it, I CONTINUE to actively buy into this sh*t every day. And I think it would be quite easy to never do any analysis of this emotional circuit.

But yoga is a hand at the nape of my neck and it’s literally pushing my face into the mirror of truth. And I’m really f*cking grateful for that. Because while I’m actually quite happy with my anger (frankly, it arouses me), if I keep lighting everything on fire a b*tch will be burned alive. And why you use a perfectly good blaze to burn down your own ship, Jessamyn. #yoga

Yes. I’m listening, Jessamyn. Keep talking.

Hey readers, do you have any online activity crushes right now? Who am I missing out on? Let us know.

Crossfit · running · weight lifting · yoga

Tracy is taking suggestions…bring ’em on

mage description: Tracy's shadow on sidewalk, dry mud beside, running shoes and lower legs visible in bottom left corner.
Image description: Tracy’s shadow on sidewalk, dry mud beside, running shoes and lower legs visible in bottom left corner.

I’m bored with my workout routine. It’s not that I don’t like the things I’m doing. I’m getting stronger in personal training. I love yoga and feel as if I don’t do enough of it these days. And I’m itching to get back to running after my back injury took me out of it for more than a month and I’ve only just dipped my toe back into it since then.

But I feel as if a change is in the air. As much as I’m enjoying personal training, there have been quite a few developments in resistance-training these days, with more small gyms popping up offering different kinds of weight training in more of a group-class setting. One example, that I’ve not yet tried but has been recommended to me is Revkor. We have a studio here in London, and the idea of resistance band training intrigues me.

Another option, which I also have never tried, is something along the lines of CrossFit. My friend Tara has been going to a gym downtown where they do that sort of group workout and she is loving it.

I’m kind of old school and worry that if I’m not hitting heavy free weights in a gym setting I won’t actually get stronger. But at the same time, with my 14-month leave coming up, I feel as if I might need some more opportunities to be around people, and that these group workouts at specialty gyms might be just the thing. And though not cheap, they’re cheaper than personal training.

I’m also planning to spend the summer doing 10K training, 3-4 times a week. And I want to up my yoga classes from once a week to 2-3 times a week. At least that’s what I’ve got in mind.

But I’m open to suggestions. Have you tried anything lately that’s different and that you’re so jazzed about that you want to encourage others to give it a go? If so, please tell me about it and why you’re attracted to it.

accessibility · aging · fitness · yoga

Sam has become “that person” in the fitness class!

Years ago I remember watching a woman in a yoga class at the Y who seemed to be just doing her own thing.

The instructor would tell us what to do and sometimes free spirit lady followed along and at other times not. I was puzzled. Why even come to class if you’re not going to do the thing the instructor is doing? What’s that even about?

Zoom ahead twenty years and OMG I’ve become that woman in yoga class. I was at bike-yoga at the university. The instructor kept demonstrating postures I can’t manage. Some are ones I’m positively told not to do. Instead whenever the pose was one of the forbidden/impossible ones I did my own thing.

My knees were happy. I was having a good workout. But some of the university students looked at me in a funny way. I think they thought I didn’t hear or see what I was supposed to be doing. And then it dawned on. I was free spirit yoga lady.

I’m okay with that. I’m with Cate that knowing your body and what it needs and doing that is one of the joys of aging.

How about you? In group fitness classes do you ever do your own thing? How does it feel?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
fitness · yoga

Gonna fly now (sort of): aerial silks yoga and me

Last week was my spring break. I wasn’t traveling anywhere warm, so I decided to create my own heat through some new physical activities. I blogged about parkour class already, and am here to testify that you can work up a serious head of steam in a one hour class. 

Another class I’ve had my eye on has been aerial silks yoga. It’s basically yoga done with or in a silky nylon hammock that’s suspended from the ceiling. There are also loop handholds for more acrobatic moves.  

The yoga studio with an array of yoga hammocks, mats underneath them.
The yoga studio with an array of yoga hammocks, mats underneath them.

I went to a beginner class, required before attempting serious flipping around. I was the oldest person in the room by at least 25 years, I think. I was also the heaviest. I checked out the weight limits for the hammocks— they can hold 1000 pounds. Yay engineers! 

There seem to be two ways the silks function in these classes:

1) as a hammock. There’s helpful instruction for getting in and out of it (including backflipping with legs going over the head, feet landing on the ground. I tried it and it actually worked). You sit or lie down, with legs in many different configurations. For restorative classes the hammock turns into a cocoon, which may or may not feel soothing (I didn’t particularly enjoy being closed inside, but many people love it). 

One of my classmates lying in a purple yoga hammock.
One of my classmates lying in a purple yoga hammock.

2) twisted or bunched up, serving as a seat or swing or bind. We did downward dog this way, swinging forward and backward , then sat on the silk swing and lifted our legs to hang upside down. The instructor gave clear and very specific step by step instructions,  demoed the more complicated-looking moves, and came by to help us, making adjustments.

Some classmates getting into hammocks, with the one on the right bunching up hers.
Some classmates getting into hammocks, with the one on the right bunching up hers.

Some things I liked:

  • the novelty of using the hammock for movement 
  • Hanging upside down
  • The intense core exercises (at least in principle…)
  • Flipping around generally 

Some things I didn’t like:

  • The swaying motion of the hammock—I tend towards queasiness and sometimes felt vaguely so. This is common in their classes, and they have Altoid mints strategically placed all over the studio. Popping one took care of it for me.  Again YMMV. 
  • The lack of yoga-ness in the experience. Of course, it was my first time, so I was more preoccupied with getting this leg over there or making sure my hands were properly positioned on the silks than cultivating mindfulness. But, it just didn’t seem geared toward the body awareness I get in yoga classes. 

In the ropes yoga classes I’ve taken at Artemis, my local beloved studio, there’s a lot of instruction and demo to help you use the ropes to get in position. But once you are in position, the focus turns to the body— where you are in space, how you can choose to shift in small ways to feel differently, and how you might respond internally to the physical state you’re in. This is really why I love ropes yoga— it takes over some of the work my body usually does so I can shift my awareness and explore gravity, weight, weightlessness and the feelings those things provoke. 

I bought a two-class pass for aerial silks yoga, so next time I’ll try out their deep stretching class.    Will report back.

Readers, have you tried aerial silks yoga?  Ropes yoga? What do you think?  I’m feeling more than meh but less than whee.  I’d love to hear about your experiences.

fitness classes · yoga

Live music vs. live goats in yoga class: which is better?

Catherine on 6 ways live music is better than live goats in yoga class:

  1. Goats don’t have fingers, so they’re not adept at playing either keyboards or cello.
  2. Musicians don’t stand on your back during crocodile and plank pose.
  3. Musicians (for the most part) poop in private.
  4. Reproducing music for at-home yoga requires only a CD or mp3; reproducing goats for at-home yoga is a much bigger commitment.
  5. The kind of chanting goats do doesn’t conform to any Sanskrit texts I know of.
  6. Musicians might be bad but goats can be really baaaaaaaad…
The actual bass player who played for my yoga class (although this isn't my yoga class).
The actual bass player who played for my yoga class (although this isn’t my yoga class).

Sam on 6 ways live goats are better than live music in yoga class:

  1. Goats make me smile, especially when they stand on your back during child’s pose. Musicians don’t do that.
  2. Goat yoga feels less serious and more playful. Yoga with music might, for me, feel more like a performance.
  3. Baby goats are clumsy (like me!) and live music is usually rhythmic and orderly.
  4. You don’t get to feed the musicians bottles and tuck them into bed after yoga and the farm I do goat yoga at lets you do that with the goats.
  5. Goats provide excellent distractions when the poses are too hard.
  6. Goats sometimes nibble on your yoga clothes so everyone wears scruffy old clothes not pricey Lululemon matching outfits.
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Bottle feeding a baby goat

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So many goats

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