In partnership with photographer Jaimie Baird, writer Lauren Lipton wrote Yoga Bodies: Real People, Real Stories, and the Power of Transformation, a collection of interviews with yogis of all shapes and skill levels. Here, we share an excerpt from the introduction and eight of the moving stories from their book.
If you’ve tried yoga, you may have experienced what I call the yoga buzz. Leaving the studio after class, maybe you found yourself unexpectedly happy, thinking, “Everything is exactly as it should be.” In this enchanted state, the world, even with its suffering, heartache, and aggravation, feels miraculous. The feeling doesn’t last forever; inevitably, honking horns and arguments and “your call is very important to us” sneak back in to mess with your yoga buzz. But you can get it back whenever you want, just by returning to your mat.
You don’t have to be athletic and flexible, or any particular age, shape, or size (or, as you’ll discover in these pages, even human). You don’t need to embrace Eastern spirituality or chant in Sanskrit. You need not wear yoga pants, eat kale, or spend years perfecting your poses—or, in Sanskrit, asanas. There’s no rule that you have to say “asana.”
You definitely don’t have to have a “yoga body,” at least not in the ungenerous way the media often defines it: sexy, skinny, and able to contort into impossible positions. The superstar yogis you see in magazines and on the internet, the women and men who backbend on paddleboards and handstand on cliffs, are extraordinary talents. Some of them are in our book. And they would be the first to tell you that they don’t own the term “yoga body.” They believe, as does anyone who has absorbed the lessons of yoga, that every body is a yoga body. Already. We’re born that way.
By the same notion, there is no single definition of yoga. As you’ll see in this book, yoga invites each of us to define it as we wish.
The yogis in this book are on their own journeys. A few are beginners; some teach yoga for a living. If you know your yoga, you may spot some imperfect poses. That’s also part of the message of Yoga Bodies. Each of these images, by photographer Jaimie Baird, captures one yogi in one pose at one moment in time that is now long past. “Perfection,” if it even exists, is elusive.
But each of these yogis is divine and beautiful. So are you. So is everyone. We’re in this together. We are all yoga bodies.
“My father helped change how I saw all of this. He does not care about the weird world of internet publicity and did not acknowledge my internet presence—he still doesn’t. But last year, I found myself in this big media bubble. I was on Good Morning America and in New York magazine.
After I began to get mainstream attention, my dad said, ‘It seems like you need to do this, Jessamyn,’ and offered to pay for my teacher training. It was the most incredible, life-changing experience I’ve ever had. I’m kind of the anti-yogi and maybe went into the training somewhat jaded. By the second week, I was, like, crying. I was doing a partner exercise with a girl a lot smaller than me. I kept apologizing for putting my body weight on her: ‘Oh, I’m sorry. Oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’
She finally said, ‘You know you don’t have to apologize, right?’
I said, ‘I guess I’m apologizing for my own existence.’
Then I thought, ‘Oh, my god, I really think that.’
I cried all the way home. It was the most cleansing experience. I have issues with being fat. I have issues with my blackness. I apologize because I cannot accept my own existence. So many people feel the same way. I have told this story so many times, and someone always says, ‘I feel that.'”
Chad + Jyll
Jyll (left): “One reason I do yoga is so I don’t punch somebody in the throat. When I was younger, I would get so angry I would have nosebleeds.
Inconsiderate people, liars, people who are self-absorbed—they’re the worst. I do yoga so when I’m confronted with somebody like that I can stop, count to 10, and say, ‘How may I help you?’ I’m still getting there, but it’s definitely easier. I can let things roll now.”
Chad (right): “My son just doesn’t want to do what Daddy wants him to do: ‘No, you cannot wear just your underwear to school today. You really can’t. And Daddy has to teach a yoga class in forty-five minutes, and we really need to get this show on the road.’ My son knows all of this and doesn’t care. Sometimes I lose my patience and get frustrated. I have to step back, breathe, try not to react, and calmly try to put this kid’s socks on.
Change—to me this is what yoga is all about anyway. Yoga is not living in some idealized state. It’s about rolling with the punches and hopefully applying whatever techniques we’ve picked up along the way. Let’s be very clear that what you do on the mat for 90 minutes is just one very small part of it. If you walk around the rest of the day disregarding others, you’re not doing yoga.
You’re just doing gymnastics.”
Leo + Jim
Leo (left): “When I was 24 and told my mom I wanted to change my name to Leo Rising, she said, ‘Absolutely not.’ But Leo Rising is who I am. It’s my adult name. Now the only people who know my birth name are people who have known me for years.
In astrology, your rising sign is your personality sign. It represents the best qualities that you present to the public, whether you’re aware of them or not. My name is my biggest affirmation: Leo, rise. Leo, go. Leo, show up. Astrology, mantras, chakras, the power of manifestation—those things are real for me. I feel like I’m a mystic, that I have always had the ability to sense other levels of consciousness.”
Jim (right): “For people who possess the gift of sight: Just remember that it is often your attachment to what you consider beautiful that defines your experience. The blind yogi must work to develop an evenness of mind that transcends the polarities of right/wrong, beautiful/ugly, adequate/deficient.
Sighted people see my disability and then graft onto it their own opinions of blindness. Nearly all of the time, those judgments are not positive. There is no changing them, no matter how those of us with disabilities may try. It is we who must dive deeper into ourselves with the faith that we might one day revel in our own world of beauty, free of external evaluations, whether positive or negative.”
Rudra + Taryn
Rudra (left): “A yoga ashram is like a commune. It’s group living for people who follow one particular spiritual teacher and who want to immerse themselves in their yoga practice. Most ashrams are kind of like a summer camp, in that any layperson who wants to can visit and learn about the teachings. Some people commit their life to the ashram and become a swami, which is a monk, or you can commit yourself to it for just a short period of time.
I am the manager of the Integral Yoga Institute ashram in New York City. Our building, which is connected to a yoga school that’s open to the public, has 12 dorm rooms for people who live here full time, including me. I teach yoga, provide spiritual counseling as an ordained interfaith minister, and do administrative duties, and in exchange I get room and board and a clothing allowance; the other people pay a modest room and board. We practice yoga together and have a meeting on Friday nights, and then the rest of the time we’re out in the city working regular jobs. One guy here is a waiter, another is a financial adviser and yoga teacher, and one woman is a dance teacher.
When we have a space available, there are plenty of people who want to move in—these are affordable rooms in the middle of Greenwich Village, where rents are usually sky-high.
I’m known as the gatekeeper, because it’s my job to let people live here only if they really, really want to commit to the ashram lifestyle. If somebody expresses interest, I say, “Why don’t you start coming to classes for a year and then talk to me again?” When you live in the ashram, you have to wake up every morning at six for meditation. When I first moved in, my initial thought was, ‘I could never do that,’ but now I’m doing it every day.”
Taryn (right): “I have always been very hard on myself. I grew up with an internal voice that constantly questioned my own worth. The day-to-day information I received from my friends and other people was so much the complete opposite of what that voice told me that eventually I started to think, ‘Either everyone is just trying to make me feel better, or there is something wrong with the way I see myself.’ When did I realize this? I don’t know—three days ago? Really, it’s still a work in progress.”
“In yoga, when you’re in a challenging pose, you’ve got to surrender to it. If you get yourself worked up, it doesn’t help. So you breathe and redirect your energy.
The intention behind yoga is that we’re trying to connect with our highest self, the part of ourselves that isn’t our ego.
This is what the yoga teaches you: You’re strapped into this airplane seat, you’re not going anywhere for 20 hours, and this is your reality. There’s nothing you can do but find some calm and just deal with it. I’m really lucky to know to take a deep breath and remind myself that we’re all doing the best we can.”
Excerpted from Yoga Bodies: Real People, Real Stories and the Power of Transformation, by Lauren Lipton and Jaimie Baird, with the permission of Chronicle Books. Copyright © 2017.