I squeeze out.
“Deep breaths in and out” she repeats.
Seriously, I am suffocating over here.
I’m in a shoulder stand and my boobs are cutting off my airways as they flatten my larynx. I’m wheezing my way through this shoulder stand.
A few days later I’m doing yoga with a friend and find myself in Karnapidasana (aka Knee to Ear Pose). My friend repeats “Breathe”, and once again my tits are trying to strangulate me.
My boobs are big. They are by no means porn style ginormous, but they are ample. My gynaecologist refers to them as cosmetically great, medically challenging. This means they are cartoonishly round and firm, which looks great, but make them too hard and dense to detect anomalies like breast cancer.
As far as I can remember I have had a strained relationship with this part of my body. I distinctly remember when I hit puberty at around 13 or 14 and taping my chest down with gaffer tape to impede the imminent changes that were upon me, and with it the uncomfortable attention they seemed to slowly garner. Puberty was a mournful affair for me, where the tomboyish girl I was, was confronted with the woman I would eventually become.
I was athletic growing up and much of my pre-teen identity was linked with my athleticism. I distinctly remember my body changing at 14 marked when the gymnastic routines my boyish frame executed with ease, became awkward and my centre of gravity was off. I felt as if my body had betrayed me.
I have always needed physical activity and movement – from the hyperactive child I was to the restless adult I have become. I would look on at my flatter chested athletic friends or former roller derby team mates and feel deep seated jealousy. They were not impeded by their own body, they didn’t get same unwarranted attention or remarks, they didn’t need to strap down their chest just to go for a run.
I often find myself dealing with this same resentment when I’m practicing Yoga or when I see the plethora of ‘Yoga Bodies’ promoted in mainstream media. Why? Simple, many asanas do not always take the female anatomy into account. Let’s be frank yoga, though in the West practiced predominantly by women, is an intrinsically male practice. It was originally designed with the male physiology in mind, with many famous and iconic purveyors of the practice to the West, from BKS Iyenger to Sri K. Patthabi Jois, being men.
Asanas that require twists or forward folds require me to literally reposition my breasts, taking me out of my flow and focused breathing, triggering a moment of mild annoyance and if I’m honest a little bit of self-directed animosity. When in shoulder stand, I feel like the frustrated 14-year-old that fell off the beam during a standard beam routine 22 years ago.
Yet I welcome this moment. This moment uncomfortable and is an important part of my yoga practice. It is a moment that makes me startlingly aware of the negative self-talk I direct at my own body. A body that is my house, fights off infection and allows me to experience and interact with the world. I become aware how I succumb to an unsettling form of negative compartmentalisation and fetishizing of my own body.
I approached Tatjana once after class and asked her on her opinion. How could I streamline my practice so when moments like this arise, I wouldn’t chastise but instead accept myself? Tatjana kindly told me how to adjust my yoga mat to create a ledge for my neck to dip into, in order to create space between my neck and chest. Voila! I could breathe again. I could breathe and I didn’t mentally flagellate myself.
Whilst navigating the internet recently I came across Queer “Fat Femme” body positive yoga teacher Jessamyn Stanley, who actively challenges preconceived notions of what a ‘Yoga body’ should look like and do. It was a gentle wake-up call to the limited dogma I had ingrained in my mind about what my body was and wasn’t capable of. One quote on her website really hit me like a mental sucker punch.
“Your body is not standing in your way. Only your mind is standing in your way”
It’s true. The irony that my breasts are suffocating me both physically and metaphysically is not lost on me. I have made an enemy of a part of me that was never really in my way to begin with. I had chosen to perceive my breasts as a separate entity to myself.
Tatjana asks us to set an intention before we start our practice at the beginning of class. Normally I like to counter balance my competitive mindset, with intentions such as be playful or stay present. Maybe it’s time to set the intention to be kinder, more accepting and let go of that frustrated 14 year old.