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How LGBTQ Yoga Can Heal A Community

flickr/Chase Cheviron

For LGBTQ people, mainstream yoga culture can be alienating. But a community-specific practice can heal more than the body.

As a chubby, gender nonconforming queer I’d always been the odd duck in yoga class.

For 10 years, I’d used yoga to relieve back pain or pause anxiety, but self-consciousness kept me from connecting with it on a deeper level. I didn’t go to yoga studios often because I couldn’t afford to, first and foremost. But when I did attend classes, I felt invisible.

I was chubby and inflexible, barely able to touch the ground in a forward fold, nevermind execute an arm balance like crow pose. I practiced in loose pants and old t-shirts that flew up to expose my round stomach, because leggings and clingy yoga tanks felt invalidating. Every time a yoga teacher used gendered cues, mentioned upcoming yoga retreats, or offered the class an opportunity to practice handstands—something that seemed to come easy to the bendy, leggings-clad yogis that packed most classes—I was reminded anew that I was an interloper in yoga land.

I stuck to the back of the room, hyper-aware of everything from my smelly feet to my attempts at chaturanga, and scurried out of the studio at the end of class. Boston may have been a cosmopolitan city, although a highly segregated one, but this ancient practice of Hindu philosophy felt like it was reserved for skinny, wealthy, white women who had their shit together and could afford to invest in personal, physical, and spiritual development.

When my local yoga studio began offering LGBTQ community classes, the $5 price tag got me in the door. The class was a collaboration between a yoga studio I’d visited occasionally and my local LGBT center that offered AA-type support groups and youth programming. While these programs are needed by many LGBTQs, the center didn’t exactly offer social opportunities for adults. I didn’t expect much from the class, but I never turned down cheap yoga—and I wanted to support the attempt at adult programming.

Every time a yoga teacher used gendered cues, I was reminded anew that I was an interloper in yoga land. Click To Tweet

The LGBTQ community class was a beginner-level class. I recognized many of the people in the room from previous events at the center (I’d moved on from Boston a couple years earlier) . The yoga teacher talked my fellow yogis through poses I knew well. While she explained the body mechanics of low lunges and forward folds, she emphasized breathwork and tuning in to the body. Through mentions of the chakra system and, in later classes, of Ayurvedic doshas, she maintained a cultural connection that, as yoga has become more popular in the West, is too often lost or appropriated, like those “Namastay in Bed” tees.

These concepts weren’t new to me, but here, surrounded by queer and trans folks, I made a new connection to them. I appreciated this teacher’s brief explanation of her own yoga journey. She began practicing yoga as rehabilitation of an old injury. She felt relatable. She couldn’t do yoga perfectly, either.  

There was no default to gendered language, something mainstream yoga teachers used without a second thought. I’d become accustomed to these cues and developed my own workaround: Rather than take the recommended hand position for men or women, I would switch my grip midway through the pose. It was my way of coping with a system that used hand positions, pose recommendations, and different terms for male and female yogis to center, without space for fluidity, the gender binary.

But here, as we flowed through sun salutation, something shifted. Surrounded by other LGBTQs, I felt seen and uplifted in a way I’d never been in yoga class.

It hit during savasana — THIS was what yoga was all about. It was about feeling connected to my body and to my community. And if all this happened during one class, what else could an LGBTQ-affirming yoga practice heal?

For too many within LGBTQ communities, the body is a site of shame, not pleasure. External pressure to adhere to unrealistic beauty standards — namely preferences for thin, gender-conforming bodies — lowers self-esteem. Calls for “no fats, no femmes” on personal ads, or the continued use of the transfeminine body as a punchline in entertainment, make many of us feel invalidated.

When children grow up hearing transphobic and homophobic slurs, their body image suffers and they internalize shame. Long after coming out, LGBTQs bear the scars of stigma.

In a Chapman University study, 77 percent of gay men felt they were judged on appearance, and 51 percent of gay men expressed interest in cosmetic surgery. Pressure from romantic partners, friends, and media to conform to unrealistic beauty standards leads gay men to experience higher rates of eating disorders and body dysmorphia than their straight peers.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that lesbian, bi, and queer-identified women are exempt from pressure to be thin, as the assumption is women only attempt to be thin to adhere to the tastes of straight men; however, some studies suggest that with greater acceptance of LGBTQs comes increased pressure to conform to heteronormative beauty standards.

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This seems true for LGBTQ youth. Sure, they’ve come of age in the era of gay marriage, but they still face discrimination — and employ unhealthy coping mechanisms. A joint survey of 1,000 LGBTQ youth from The Trevor Project, National Eating Disorder Association, and Reasons Eating Disorder Center found that 71 percent of transgender youth and 54 percent of all LGBTQ youth had been diagnosed with an eating disorder. After trans youth, cis female LGBTQ youth had the highest rates of eating disorders.

Trevor Project CEO Amit Paley writes in the study’s introduction that, “The unique stressors that LGBTQ-identified people experience, such as coming out and harassment in schools or the workplace, can impact levels of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and unhealthy coping mechanisms,” from eating disorders to substance abuse.

These stressors carry lifelong consequences. Almost half of transgender adults report depression or anxiety, compared with 6.7 percent and 18 percent of the general U.S. population, respectively.

“While the main reason [for] mental illness and depression amongst trans and gender variant people is due to the lack of acceptance and social ridicule…it cannot be denied that the actual physical [gender] dysphoria most certainly plays a large part,” notes Rebecca Connolly, an Advanced Clinical Practitioner and member of WPATH, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health. Connolly adds, “The vast majority of trans people have huge degrees of body dysphoria purely, because [their body] does not match the internal representation of who they are and how they express themselves.” While gender-affirming surgeries are available, they’re not accessible for all who want them, nor do (or should) all trans folks want surgeries.

There also continue to be few professionals nationwide who have the knowledge to address LGBTQ mental and emotional wellbeing. In a 2015 survey of 452 transgender adults living in Massachusetts, nearly one in four respondents had experienced discrimination in a health care settling — and were more likely to postpone or avoid seeking care as a result.

“A huge struggle that my trans clients face is being able to feel safe in their own skin without the world judging them,” says Bernard Charles, an LGBTQ lifestyle coach who uses meditation to heal LGBTQ body image issues.

In the face of a lack of bias-free, gender-affirming care, many LGBTQ folks have turned to self-care tools like yoga to fill the gap. While yoga has long been known as a stress reliever, it has potential to heal body image issues, too. Studies have chronicled how yoga lowers stress through improvements in heart rate, respiratory rate, and systolic blood pressure. Yoga activates both the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the nervous systems. Flowing sequences like the sun salutation stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, while seated meditation boosts the parasympathetic nervous system.

LGBTQ-affirming classes, such as the one I’ve been fortunate to find, are more welcoming of diverse bodies, genders, ages, and abilities. Sally Morgan, a lesbian yoga teacher, says, “[speaking] as a lesbian… the yoga community is not particularly inclusive and I know some of my lesbian friends with bigger bodies are very self-conscious in yoga classes because they don’t fit the stereotypes of yoginis.”

In the face of a lack of bias-free, gender-affirming care, many LGBTQ folks have turned to self-care tools like yoga to fill the gap. Click To Tweet

Morgan, who trained in Phoenix Rising yoga, notes that specific styles of yoga may work better for healing trauma. In her work with trauma survivors, Morgan avoids hands-on corrections (which may be unwanted) in favor of clear directions that avoid “yoga jargon.” Rather than gendered cues — common in traditional yoga classes — LGBTQ-affirming cues are open-ended, so participants can decide how to adjust their bodies.

Jacoby Ballard, a New York City-based yoga teacher who offers Queer and Trans Yoga classes, acknowledges that mainstream yoga classes often center a particular experience—the young, affluent able-bodied white women with whom I’ve shared many an om—and this makes the practice inaccessible for folks who can’t afford it, don’t feel welcome, or are disrespected when they show up on the mat. Ballard speaks to the LGBTQ lived experience in yoga practice by addressing homophobia and transphobia in meditation and highlighting savasana as a time to release inner shame or guilt.

Yoga’s power to heal a negative body image lies in its focus on movement that draws participants out of their minds and into their bodies. While remaining in a pose, students may be encouraged to ground, balance, or soften. Strength, stability, and emotional release come through focused movement. Playful poses lighten the mood, helping participants find fun in their bodies. Yogic breathwork grounds participants in the present moment, which can pause anxious thoughts.

With regular practice, yoga changes fascia, tones muscle, and increases balance. As it becomes easier to move, people feel better in their bodies.

Morgan structures yoga classes to lower anxiety, increase relaxation, and remain sensitive to trauma in her students’ pasts. Says Morgan, “We…spend nearly all of the class on the floor as a way to help people feel more supported literally and emotionally….I use cues such as ‘Where is there dark in your life?, Where is there light in your life?, What is the message from the dark?, What is the message from the light?’….Sometimes this look inward prompts journal entries, which can further foster healing.”

As connections are made explicit in yoga classes, participants can return to them at home. As Morgan says, yoga “causes one to look inward and to find a quiet place of peace in the mind and body. Once a person learns this skill, it can be applied in any situation in life that is challenging.”

What keeps LGBTQ people from feeling comfortable on the yoga mat isn’t yoga itself, but the mainstream culture that’s been built around yoga in Western societies, which focuses on hetero- and cis-normative body images as the assumed goal. But when those structures are stripped away, yoga can become a place to heal.