Making Body Diversity in Aerial Yoga Visible

By Dr. Jamie Marich

When Yoganonymous published a blog in April 2015 on the things I learned about myself practicing aerial yoga, there was a small outcry amongst people who follow my writing. The complaints were about Yoganonymous’ choice of a stock photo that accompanied the blog. Much of the blog focused on my challenges as a plus-size woman who is not very athletic or coordinated finding my center, and ultimately a big part of myself, through the practice of aerial. Yet the image that was chosen still had that perfect yoga stock photo feel. Although the woman in the picture was muscular as opposed to railing thin, there was still an air of perfection about the image that didn’t quite match the story I shared in the article. When I asked Yoganonymous about their choice of image I was initially hesitant to accept their explanation that there weren’t any suitable images (in terms of photographic resolution) that were usable. Yet when I did some of my own searching through the land of yoga stock photos specific to aerial yoga I discovered that Yoganonymous had a point—so I decided to take matters into my own hands.

a blond short haired plus sized white woman is doing a handstand supported by aerial yoga straps. She is in a class with others.
Photo by Natalie Mancino Hathaway

Natalie Mancino, a high school acquaintance who I’ve stayed connected with on Facebook is a master photographer based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Natalie chimed in to the social media debate in my circle that followed the original blog’s publication and voiced that she would be more than capable of producing a commercial-looking, high resolution shoot at our friend Jennifer Neal’s studio in Youngstown, Ohio, Eos Whole Fitness. From there, Natalie and I devised a plan to open up the photo shoot to any member of our local aerial yoga community who wanted to participate. Natalie agreed to make the photos available for complimentary use by any blog or media outlet to use under a creative commons license, a serious sign of her commitment to make yoga’s portrayal in the media more diverse and more indicative of the types of students that come to studios for classes.

The only criteria we set for coming to the open shoot is to have a willingness for the images to be shared publicly in support of our mission to change the landscape of a how a practice like aerial yoga is portrayed. We did not attempt to define body diversity and did not turn anyone away. In the invites to the community here in Youngstown I simply suggested that you come if you believe that who you are or how you look isn’t generally portrayed in yoga photography. What jazzed me the most about the photo shoot was what motivated the women you now see in the photographs to participate. The common theme that rang out was to celebrate the benefits that aerial yoga has brought to their lives together with a desire to have regular people, not models, featured in yoga photography:

  • Nicole N.: “I’ve seen my body change so much since I started aerial yoga. Honestly my body feels tense when I don’t do it—achy, tense, just “holding.” I still have some softness and pudginess in my belly—I don’t think that’s going anywhere soon—but it doesn’t matter. I do this for me.”
  • Roxanne: “It’s important for everyone to know they can do this. I’ve had a back injury since ’03 and aerial yoga helps my back more than anything. It shows you a strength you never thought you had.
  • Michelle: “Aerial makes me feel taller and stronger. If one person sees a photo they can relate to—you can then feel like, then I can try it.
  • Emily: “I came today because women are self-conscious about their bodies. Aerial yoga gives me a confidence boost because the things we do here can take us out of our comfort zones.”
  • Anna Marie: “My favorite thing about aerial is that even though I’m not skinny and scrawny it makes me feel so beautiful and graceful and strong.”
  • Gwen: “So many people my age (near 50) don’t want to try something like aerial yoga. I’m 20-30 years older than people in most yoga pictures. Their bodies haven’t been through the war yet. People like me often don’t give things a try and are missing out of real yoga because they are judging themselves based on the yoga porn.”

 

a plus size white woman with blond hair hangs upside down on silks in an aerial yoga class
Photo by Natalie Mancino Hathaway

Two of the participants, Kayla and Nichole A. came forward for the shoot because they feel that people with extensive tattooing are not sufficiently featured in yoga stock photography. Nichole shares, “Tattoos are part of our culture but still stigmatized in general. It took me 10 years to come out as having open tattoos at work. People need to be okay with doing things that doesn’t fit the mold in pictures. And when it comes to pictures—media in general tends to objectify women, putting us into a box and photoshop the f*$k out of us.”

Although we were open to having male students come and take part in this photo shoot, only women from the studio aerial community responded to the invitation. As a result, the entire shoot turned into a real celebration of feminine beauty and power with the great intention of giving a big middle finger to photoshopping! Two members of the community came forward to participate in the shoot with their young daughters. Such participation deeply moved me not only because of the obvious mother-daughter bonding. Think about the messages of empowerment that these young ladies may receive through being supported and celebrated by a yoga community that celebrates their strength exactly as they are. As Elizabeth, one of our models, shares: “I didn’t come to aerial yoga to lose weight, I came for flexibility. Like many women starting this of course I was concerned by how much the fabrics held; I came in at about 250 pounds. But I came to learn that they are designed to support you. I had fibromyalgia when I started aerial as well as multiple back surgeries. Aerial yoga has been what’s helped the most. Anybody can do this. You can start at any level.” Elizabeth has subsequently share the practice of aerial yoga with her nine-year-old daughter, Angie. About her experience, Angie remarks, “It makes me feel happy, like I can do fun things like being in the air. It feels nice.”

Kim, our pregnant model, is a walking testament to the benefits of aerial yoga. Although aerial yoga is generally not recommended for pregnant women, she continues to practice with her OB-GYN’s clearance and necessary modifications from our teacher Jennifer. In the pictures Kim is seven months pregnant, and she notes that through practice both aerial and grounded yoga during this pregnancy, she is not on bed rest like she was during her first pregnancy. Moreover, her blood pressure is under control. Kim shares yoga practice with Meadow, her three-year-old daughter, noting, “She’s been doing yoga about six months now—she even has her own mat and block.”

a group of 5 plus size women upside down hanging from silks in an aerial yoga class
Photo by Natalie Mancino Hathaway

Seeing these mothers and daughters practice together was an unexpected inspiration for me derived from this photo shoot experience. Working with these women to bring such beautiful photographs into the public eye is a great joy, and I hope that we can do even more shoots in the future celebrating an even wider range of diversity as only a small sampling of our Youngstown aerial community is represented here. For me, one of the great barriers to giving grounded yoga practice a try was seeing the traditional media portrayals of yoga blasted at me. As I’ve shared in other writing, my only image of modern yoga, for many years, was that of Madonna and her ripped arms that she credited to yoga practice. When aerial yoga first came into my town some of the same barriers resurfaced in my mind, although I’d taken up a grounded practice years before. I echo Elizabeth’s sentiment that anybody can do this—that you can start at any level and modify. I know that many people with physical disability’s have expressed concern to me as well because of the portrayed acrobatics involved, which is why I’ve taken great care in this shoot to feature some of the elements where you use the fabrics as a prop for stretching as opposed to a mechanism for taking flight. There are always modifications that can be made. My hope for you is that you find a studio community where your right to make modifications and be who you are bring celebration. All of the women in this photo shoot are grateful to Jennifer Neal, aerial teacher and owner of this beautiful space, for celebrating us, and it is my fervent desire that anyone seeking out a yoga practice, grounded or aerial, who may be feeling uneasy due to body issues, will find their Jennifer.

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Jamie Marich, Ph.D., LPCC-S, LICDC-CS, RMT travels internationally speaking on topics related to EMDR, trauma, addiction, and mindfulness while maintaining a private practice in her home base of Warren, OH. She is the developer of the Dancing Mindfulness practice. Jamie is the author of EMDR Made Simple: 4 Approaches for Using EMDR with Every Client (2011), Trauma and the Twelve Steps: A Complete Guide for Recovery Enhancement (2012), and Trauma Made Simple: Competencies in Assessment, Treatment, and Working with Survivors. Her new book, Dancing Mindfulness: A Creative Path to Healing and Transformation is scheduled for release in 2015 with Skylight Paths Publishing.