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As a large-bodied black man, I had to find my own way in yoga and my own way in the world.
My yoga practice began when I was going to massage school. I kept hearing about its benefits and finally decided to give it a try. I had actually tried yoga once before at Integral Yoga on Fourteenth Street. In those classes, we would do a pose, then lie down, do a pose, then lie down, and so on. I thought it was interesting—relaxing—but it didn’t really “stick” for me and I hadn’t been back. But that’s what I thought yoga was, so when I went to Jivamukti Yoga for the first time, the class basically kicked my ass.
I had never seen jump-backs before. I had never seen jump-throughs before. After the first Sun Salutation A and B, they all went into handstands in the middle of the floor, and I was pissed. I was a martial artist, I’d done dance and all sorts of stuff, and I said to myself, “I’m going to come back here afterward when I finish school because I refuse to let anything like this kick my ass.”
I finished massage school, and I wanted to go back to Jivamukti, but I didn’t have much money, so I decided I would try to do an exchange. I was told I could do karma yoga: If I cleaned up the studio, I could take classes in exchange for my work, but then the manager asked me how many times I’d taken classes. I told her only once, a year back, and she thought because I wasn’t a regular, I couldn’t be a karma yogi. At that very moment, she got locked out of her office and asked me if I could unlock her door. I asked her if she had a butter knife; she found one and I was able to open the door, and she agreed to let me do karma yoga!
I’ve been telling this story for close to twenty years now, and I never really realized until about five years ago how incredible that moment was: the door literally closes, I open it with a butter knife, and it opens me up to this system of yoga. That moment changed everything. I went to Jivamukti pretty much every morning, and that was my introduction to doing yoga.
Practice and all is coming
Now, I wasn’t able to do all of the stuff other people were doing. Nobody but me was using blocks. And at a certain point I realized, I can’t do any of this shit. So I’d ask teachers, “How do I do these poses?” They said I should get more involved and to keep on trying, but that wasn’t really working for me. I considered taking Jivamukti’s teacher training because I wanted to understand what the teachers were thinking, but in the end, it was just way too expensive. I was only just beginning to build my massage practice.
But I wanted to explore yoga and I really wanted to explore working with props. With my background in massage and anatomy and my experience with Jivamukti, The cofounder of Jivamukti, David Life, recommended Sivananda teacher training, I went and it was interesting, but with my background in massage and anatomy and my experience with Jivamukti, I had a certain way of thinking about movement, and I didn’t understand the system there. I was happy with some of what I was getting intellectually, but I was very frustrated with what I was getting physically. What I really wanted to know is why people are doing certain things. Why do we have to do a Sun Salutation that way? What is the idea behind it? What is the purpose of a handstand? What is that doing for me? Ultimately, I felt discouraged because I wasn’t getting the answers I needed.
For a year afterward I didn’t go to any yoga classes, I just practiced on my own in the mornings, but at a certain point I got stuck; I couldn’t go any further. Luckily, I knew a yoga teacher who needed massage therapy and we started doing exchanges. We worked together for about a year, and then I did her teacher training, which was an amazing experience because she brought different yogis in to talk about their process. It was exactly what I needed.
After the training, I really wasn’t thinking about becoming a teacher. I thought there was no way that anyone was going to hire a big black man to lead a yoga class and that my practice of yoga was very different from anything out there. I needed to go through different yoga practices, experiencing different modalities of yoga, to find my way into my own practice.
How I Started Buddha Body Yoga
Eventually I studied with Leslie Kaminoff, who was working about three blocks away from me at the time. I did his Yoga for Anatomy course, and I learned why the breath is important and about the bandhas, the whole bit. And I took all of that and ran with it. I took what he gave me and I played with it, with my own body and with people I was working with. I started giving free private lessons because I wanted to understand what was going on in people’s bodies. My curiosity soared.
At the time I was the only big person I ever saw in any classes. Iyengar, vinyasa, you name it. I would bring my own blocks and my own bolster. The teachers would look at me like I was absolutely crazy, but then they left me alone, which was good. I got to know the routines and the flows, and I eventually started teaching. More and more people came to me. And that’s how I started my studio, Buddha Body Yoga. And then I was featured in an article in The New York Times, and the studio and my teaching began to gain recognition.
There were only a few people who were doing what I was doing then: teaching yoga for plus-sized people. And I wanted people to understand that I was committed to working with them where they are so they can develop their skills and have their own practice. It’s a process and the end was, and still is, not as important to me as that beginning and middle. Process is of the utmost importance.
The power of yoga
Yoga is powerful. I have done and still do therapy. I’ve done Al-Anon, Overeaters Anonymous, ACOA. I’ve done Gestalt. They all gave me tools to deal with certain things, but yoga opened me up in a brand-new way. At Jivamukti, I sometimes did two classes back-to-back. One day after I did two classes I walked out of the school, and I felt like something had left me. Something emotional, something really deep had left me. I don’t know what it was, but I chilled out and let myself be who I was. I never forgot that. I’ve had little bits of that ever since.
It was an awakening, an awakening of the body sense rather than the mind sense. Because the body holds so much information, so much memory. With even a short amount of time to practice, you can recharge your way of thinking.
What I’ve learned over the years is that yoga is not just about the poses. Meditation is the key. Take five or ten minutes, every three or four hours, every day. It’s a great way to reorganize your intentions. It alters your belief systems of who you are and what you have and how to live. The resilience part of yoga is making time to do your practice. It’s a conversation that happens with your body, and I’m not talking about in yoga and meditation classes. People have no problem going to class and letting somebody lead them. The challenge is for them to do their own practice. If you’re not doing your own practice, if you’re not playing with what’s going on with your own body, you’re watching television with your body as the television.
What I’d love for my community
I’ve seen so much change over the years in yoga, so much success. There are people out there now who are doing the plus-sized work. It’s amazing, but what I’d really love is for us all to be together and talk about the physicality of yoga. There are some things that I’d love to rave about that we’re doing and other things I’d love to challenge the community on to see if I can get them to change the way they’re thinking about yoga, to move from the old paradigm to a new one.
I have questions for the community. Like are we engaging with our bellies in our yoga? Or are we using our arms and legs to avoid the belly? How are plus-sized people using the bandhas? That could be a whole conference. How do we get these areas to work and relax enough so the practice doesn’t hurt our backs? The hips, the butt, and the belly work against us and support us at the same time. Imagine being able to play with your inversions to help you with your high blood pressure. Playing with rolling to rid the gas from your large intestines. To fart in your yoga class. That’s what I want to talk about.
Have I had trauma in my life? Yes. I’d say most people of color in America and most people of size have trauma in their lives. Does it define me? Yes. It does define me, but how I use it defines me more.
Excerpted from Embodied Resilience Through Yoga: 30 Mindful Essays About Finding Empowerment After Addiction, Trauma, Grief, and Loss compiled by Kat Heagberg, Melanie C. Klein, Kathryn Ashworth and Toni Willis (reprinted with permission, Llewellyn Publications, September 2021).
About our contributor
Michael Hayes, the proud owner of a “Buddha body” and Buddha Body Yoga in New York City, has more than twenty years experience teaching yoga and has studied extensively in the following traditions: Iyengar Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, Thai Yoga, Om Vinyasa Yoga, and Yoga Anatomy. In addition, Michael has traveled regularly to Thailand to study with master teachers. His class will benefit anyone regardless of their individual anatomy, flexibility, age, or yoga background. Michael has also practiced massage for more than twenty years as a licensed massage therapist.