Taking Up Space: Claim your place in the world.

By Maggie Salem

Yoga instructor Maggie Salem practices virabhadrasana, or warrior pose. Salem says yoga has helped her heal physically and emotionally. Photo by Aaron Eisenhauer

The word “yoga” means “union:” the union of the physical and the mental, the gross and the subtle, the external and the internal. For me, yoga has become a union of my body to my self.

When I began my yoga practice, my excuse was purely physical. I had the normal aches and pains that come along with adulthood. At the time, I was unaware of the emotional aches and pains I would have to work through. 

During young adulthood, I was always considered confident by my peers. As a plus-size woman, I suppose it was surprising to my thinner acquaintances that I had confidence, but I dressed well, walked tall and had no shame. What they didn’t know was my confidence came from a place of wanting to be seen, heard and taken seriously. Women are told by society we should strive to be smaller and fit into a box prescribed by runways and movie screens. As a woman whose body does not fit within that box, it felt necessary to prove my worth by being proud of my curves. That pride overflowed into my personality. I was self-assured and boisterous in my interactions. 

That changed when I entered into the “real world.” Suddenly, I was shaken by anxiety and panic attacks. I felt as though society was giving me a new box to fit into as I stepped into my roles as a teacher and wife. With these new challenges, I lost my sense of self. When my body started to feel pain, it was a direct connection to the emotional pain from which I was suffering. Yoga brought that to light and allowed me to find my self again.

My very first experience with yoga was not entirely pleasant. I was the only fat girl in a very full class. We had no props to use other than a yoga mat, and I felt as though I had to contort my body into shapes that my belly, thighs and breasts wouldn’t allow. I felt claustrophobic and out of breath. When I decided to try it again, I went to a yoga studio rather than a gym. In the studio, the instructor specifically held space for me. I got individualized help and was able to feel much more comfortable in my body while using props to assist in the poses. 

Feeling comfortable in my body allowed me to be able to go deeper in my practice and address the internal issues I had been ignoring. I realized I had been diminishing myself to try to fit in societal boxes. As a people pleaser, I found myself ignoring my needs in favor of the needs of others. Listening to and honoring the needs of my body in a yoga pose transferred to listening to and honoring the needs of my self. I decided to allow myself the space I needed to thrive instead of confining myself to the miniscule boundaries of others’ expectations. 

I am eternally grateful for the insight I’ve gained from my yoga practice, and that is why I became a yoga teacher. As a fat woman, I used to think there wasn’t a place for me in a yoga class, so because this journey has been so transformative for me, I want other fat women to see me and know there is a place for them, too. I want people of all shapes, sizes and abilities to know yoga is for them. Everyone is capable of receiving the benefits of a yoga practice: to learn to love and appreciate your body, and in turn, to love and appreciate your self.