by Kayla Sosa | photography by Two Eagles Marcus
A growing section of the yoga community is exchanging focus on the superficial benefits of the practice for a culture that honors diversity in terms of size, gender, race, ability and income.
One of the leaders of this movement is Dana Falsetti, known on Instagram as @nolatrees. Nationally-recognized and backed by a hefty social media following (342.5 k followers and counting), she is a yoga teacher and activist on a mission who teaches workshops across the globe.
“It’s my intention to create a space that truly feels inclusive to all people and is welcoming and safe,” Falsetti expressed. “And I think that the safety aspect is one of the most important parts that is really easy to overlook.”
Falsetti grew up not seeing anyone her size represented in media: She mostly saw thin, white women. She encountered the same depictions when she first started doing yoga in college. She says that feeling changed her life and dictated her work moving forward.
“That’s an inaccurate representation of who practices yoga,” she said. “Everybody practices or can practice yoga, in a variety of different ways. I’m not the first to say this— it has been said many times before me
—but diversity is a fact and inclusion is a choice.”
In addition to promoting diversity in yoga on her Instagram and in her classes, she hosts Deep Dive Podcast (@deepdivepodcast) and launched her own yoga subscription platform: Practice with Dana
Both her podcast and subscription services are aimed at breaking the barriers to access. On Deep Dive, Falsetti speaks on issues of equity and inclusion, sexuality, self-worth, white entitlement and activism, to name
a few. She also opens her platform to other like-minded activists to discuss topics in a conversational format.
Falsetti’s new yoga subscription platform offers memberships starting at just five dollars a month.
“I am trying to fill the gaps in the wellness world that I see as problematic: inaccessible pricing and yoga spaces that are riddled with diet culture and shame,” Falsetti expressed. “It’s a space where people can actually take inclusive classes, meaning there’s something for everyone on there.”
From wrist-free practice to chair yoga to arm balances, there’s variety of classes available on the subscription. The goal is not for everyone to subscribe for five dollars a month, but for those who can afford to pay more to do so, in turn opening the door for those who can’t afford more.
For all of us in West Michigan, Falsetti gives a word of advice: “No matter how many places don’t feel like they’re for you, or no matter how much people judge you…or are fearful of what they think., at the end of the day, being able make the decision to show up for yourself, not in spite of all of those things but just as all of those things exist, is one of the most powerful things that you can do.”
In our own city of Grand Rapids, a handful of yoga teachers are advancing our perceptions of health and wellness by promoting diversity in their practices.
Anybody Yoga GR, @anybodyyogagr
“The yoga I teach is body positive, which for me means it’s weight-neutral, free of diet culture — or fitness culture BS as I like to say,” Emily Martin divulged.
Much of Martin’s training has been incorporating mindfulness into yoga, adding to the physical benefits of the practice, which includes increased cardiac and respiratory function, improved metabolism, strength and flexibility. She completed yoga teacher training in February of 2018 through Grand Rapids Healing Yoga, and her instruction included a 100-hour trauma-informed yoga therapist certification.
“For me, that trauma focus ties in so much to the body image stuff, because I came to understand my experiences growing up fat are a sort of trauma,” Martin said. “I didn’t feel safe in my body. People told me my body wasn’t OK, and I learned to be really detached from it because there was so much shame there.”
Martin has reclaimed her body as a yoga teacher and practitioner with the intention of being thoughtful in her practice and not limiting herself or her students. Often, she will show different variations of a traditional yoga pose, for example with props for assistance, like a resistance band or a block.
“We get really attached to the way poses in yoga should look, but what if you tried it in a different way, what would you experience?” Martin said.
“It’s all about taking time to be with your body on your mat, be curious about what’s happening. You can do that whether your body is in the traditional version of a posture or a variation of it.”
The Yoga Zen
Pettengill, 67, is a Caledonia-based yoga teacher and teaches her classes in what she describes as a “more adaptive way.” She teaches a yoga for Parkinson’s patients and even took a course in modifying yoga for those with multiple sclerosis.
“I’m trying to cater to what people are dealing with,” she expressed.
Many of Pettengill’s students are older women, and she stays conscious of any physical limitations they may have, even ones they may not be aware of themselves, such as Osteoporosis.
“I’ve done a lot of research on Osteoporosis,” Pettengill said. “It’s a silent, unknown disease. [People aren’t diagnosed] until they break something or their doctor notices a change in their height. If you go to a normal yoga class and you do a pose, depending on your condition, you could break a bone.”
Pettengill said the generation of baby boomers were “exercising themselves silly” and now they’ve got “issues with the tissues” that have them turning to yoga.
“What happens as you get older?” she posed. “You get stiffer, and you get arthritis. And so yoga helps with flexibility and it helps with strength.”
While she agrees doing different variations of yoga is good and fun, its best to avoid trends and find a practice that resonates with you.
Irationz Yoga, @precious.irationz
After completing her yoga teacher training at Passion Yoga School in Costa Rica, Precious Dandridge realized that yoga has more to do with mental and spiritual well-being than physical well-being.
“For me in particular, it’s more so of the mind and the spiritual aspect of it,” Dandridge said.
“Even though I’m a certified yoga teacher, I’m not the most flexible person in the world, and I actually take pride in that. When I’m teaching beginner classes or when I’m having one-on-one sessions with people who’ve never done yoga before, they can see you don’t have to be able to put your leg over your head just to be able to do yoga.”
Dandridge emphasizes that yoga is really only about your own personal practice and how it affects you physically, mentally and spiritually. She said she learned a lot from her teacher in Costa Rica.
“She would have us practicing a very intense form of yoga, such as Kundalini yoga, or just something that is really fiery and challenges you,” Dandridge said.
“She would say, ‘You can be mad at me, you can hate me, you can cuss me out in your head, but pay attention to your thoughts. Listen to your internal dialogue.’”
Dandridge leads a Goddess Sister Circle, a gathering of women hosted twice a month during the Full Moon and New Moon. Sister Circles are hosted all over the world as a part of the Global Sisterhood, a group that works to empower women to change the space around them for the better.
“It’s mostly African American women because we don’t have that type of circle for us in too many places,” Dandridge said. “And so I felt that it was my responsibility to create something like that.”
In the group, Dandridge leads discussions and teaches various aspects of meditation and getting in tune with your body. On the full moon, the women talk about things they want to release that month, and on the New Moon, they talk about the things they want to manifest.
Dandridge hopes to teach people the Eastern philosophies that are innate in yoga —and that it isn’t all about getting fit.
“Yoga is for everybody,” Dandridge said. “The Western world has really tainted the view of yoga, making it seem as if you have to be in your 20s and weigh 100 pounds. We have to get out of that mindset and back into the traditional practice of connecting within the higher version of yourself.”