Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
I have stood more than 6 feet tall and have carried more than 200 pounds since middle school—when my friends and family called me Chub and Fat Matt. They made comments about my “husky” pants and how it looked like I’d swallowed a bowling ball. It may have been intended as a good-natured ribbing, but I felt hurt, ashamed, and unattractive. In fifth grade, I started sucking in my round belly so it was a less-obvious target for ridicule—a habit that still endures four decades later. As a teenager, my body shape didn’t fit into popular clothing such as IZOD polos or Levi’s denim, and the other guys teased me for wearing oversized, generic brands that still ran too tight. As a result, even now, in my 50s, despite being way more grounded and at ease in my life, I still struggle with insecurity related to my body.
Over the years, poor self-image has caused me a great deal of anxiety. In all sorts of social situations, I often contend with a maddening inner dialogue that drowns out any chance of being present and carefree. I constantly question how I’m being viewed by others: Do they see a nurturing, caring, silly-hearted individual—or simply my large frame? The paradox of my struggle is that I want to be seen but not noticed. Appreciated and not judged.
Of course, women have been objectified and subjected to unattainable ideals of beauty for centuries, to catastrophic effect. Airbrushed magazines and, more recently, filtered Instagram photos have only compounded the pressure they experience to look a certain way. Since the 1960s, women have spearheaded movements around body positivity and fat acceptance to tear down impossible standards and empower people to share their experiences and feel comfortable in their own skin. In men’s circles that I’ve come in contact with, it’s a much different scene. Plenty of guys joke about dropping their beer guts or bulking up, but body-image sensitivity isn’t a very common—or comfortable—topic, despite research suggesting that many men also deal with immense pressure to achieve a lean and muscular figure. There are still a lot of us who feel too embarrassed to discuss our anguish in relation to our bodies. Until I found yoga, I certainly hid my angst.
Five years ago, I was looking for a new exercise routine when a friend invited me to a Bikram Yoga class. I’m not fond of hot, humid conditions, so practicing yoga in a 105-degree room with 40 percent humidity was the antithesis of an ideal workout environment for me. Nevertheless, my friend offered persistent but kind encouragement, so I gave it a try.
I had fears about contorting my body into unfamiliar postures in a sweaty room. But that trepidation seemed mild once I arrived at the studio and saw six or seven men, well toned and without shirts, casually sitting on their mats. I immediately began comparing myself to them. My self-loathing inner critic quickly raised his voice. The thought of exposing my soft upper body terrified me. I imagined the others shaking their heads, sneering in disgust. Plagued by shame, I wore a compression shirt to each class, convincing myself that it masked the body moving around beneath it.
One day, after I’d been practicing for about three months, a teacher complimented my Triangle Pose. As others took a peek at my form, my heart soared. In that moment of affirmation, I realized that no one in class was paying any attention to my stomach. I started focusing less on how I looked and more on my movements—particularly in poses that naturally brought awareness to my belly, such as Half Moon Pose. Slowly, I began moving without self-judgment. I became more forgiving of my body, which translated into trusting myself in challenging asana such as Warrior III and Standing Head-of-the-Knee Pose.
See also Male in the Modern World.
In 2016, I’d been practicing hot yoga five days a week for two years, and I felt increasingly confident on the mat. I wanted to take a break from the heat and try something new. An inversion workshop led me to a new studio where I started regularly practicing vinyasa flow, Yin Yoga, and Restorative Yoga. I felt so good about expanding my practice and discovering the other limbs of yoga that I completed three of four yoga teacher trainings in two years while I was working full time as an attorney. By September 2017, I was leading several classes a week.
Even with all my personal growth, it didn’t take much to trigger old patterns of negative self-talk. One afternoon later that year, I casually mentioned my new hobby to a colleague. “That’s interesting,” she said. “I never would have thought you taught yoga.” And just like that, my self-confidence came crashing down. I didn’t ask her what she meant. I just assumed that she was incredulous that someone who looked like me could be a yoga teacher.
I may always experience pangs of insecurity or self-judgment, but I’ve learned to lean on spiritual poet Mark Nepo’s concept that life is a practice of return. When we face setbacks or lose our way, the challenge is to return to what has heart and meaning. For me, it is a daily practice of yoga and meditation, which has opened me to the possibility of self-confidence and an enduring self-love. When I practice or teach, I find sanctuary, a space in time in which I can move beyond the surface friction of my thoughts and connect with the idea of wholeness. Yoga has revealed that there is room for me—in the community and in the world—just as I am.
Last year, after soul-searching and lengthy conversations with my wife, I walked away from a 26-year career as an attorney to teach yoga full time. Today I am far more comfortable talking to people, particularly men, about my challenges with body image. Often it clears a path for them to share their own cloistered pain about desirability and lack of confidence in social settings. I want to create safe spaces for students to embrace, love, and care for themselves, just as they are. Of course, this starts with me.
About the author
Matthew Lyons is a yoga teacher in Washington, DC. Learn more at matthewdlyons.com.