Charlie Merton tells her honest and empowering story as a ‘curvy girl’ discovering yoga and then becoming a yoga teacher. Charlie will be a part of the panel discussing yoga and body image on 8th September, kicking off Melody Moore’s weekend of workshops on inner beauty and self-love.
I have always been a curvy girl, some would say chubby – I personally prefer the word voluptuous. Even at the age of 13 I remember hating my batwing arms, and despite all my progress in other areas I still don’t ‘love’ them. Throughout my life I have always battled somewhat with my weight and my perception of myself.
Yoga found me when I was 21, I remember my first yoga class, walking in and being the biggest girl in the room (by that I mean waist size, as I am only 4’11” tall) – I was massively self conscious, wearing baggy clothes to cover everything which, seemed to make me stand out even more over the other women in the room who were wearing little sports tops and leggings to show off slim figures. When I eventually managed to mentally get out of my own way, I loved the class, it was a dynamic class ‘power yoga’ – I loved the challenge of it, I found it tough but it appealed to my need for exercise. I felt great after the class, and started going on a weekly basis. I soon realised I had a natural flexibility and my strength and stamina began to increase as time passed, my awareness of my size however did not, every time I walked into the room I was faced with the fact that, I felt huge – it didn’t help that it was a mirrored studio and the teacher had us facing our reflections. I hid at the back but couldn’t avoid seeing myself in contrast to the other women, I remember thinking one day that ‘I looked like an olive surrounded by toothpicks!’.
“There is a destructive myth buried deep inside the Western yoga practice that – we should achieve a model shape in each pose…”
Years passed and as I continued my physical practice of yoga, I became increasingly more interested in the wider aspects of the discipline. I had always been a deep thinker and had ideas which aligned with more esoteric beliefs – having trained in healing and energy medicine, I had knowledge in the energetic body and the way of the universe, the teachings of Vedanta (yoga philosophy) seemed to fit in so well for me, filling in the gaps of what I felt was missing. Meditation became a strong daily practice and I started to understand what yoga was really about. It wasn’t about having a slim body that could bend into any shape, in fact, yoga isn’t really about making shapes with the body, and looking ‘good’ in those shapes – otherwise it would be a making shapes class! (not denying that to some people, that is what it is!). Sri Pattabhi Jois says, “Yoga is an internal practice. The rest is just a circus.” The postures are a way of getting you connected to your body, as Bernie Clarke encourages the mantra “we don’t use our body to get into a pose, we use the pose to get into our body.” How you feel in the pose is much more important than how it looks. “When you come into the pose, drop your expectations of how you should look or be. There is a destructive myth buried deep inside the Western yoga practice – that we should achieve a model shape in each pose.” (Bernie Clarke).
becoming a teacher
After 8 years self-practising I decided to undertake the Sivananda TTC (Integral Hatha yoga teacher training), with the intention to enhance my own knowledge. I had become fascinated by this ancient science that had transformed so much in my life. I NEVER had the intention to teach, and even now I don’t really know how it happened, covering classes for friends on an ad hoc basis and teaching at the Sivananda centre in London. My practice continued to develop as I studied other practices of Yoga; Yin, Kundalini, Vinyasa, Dharma Mittra etc.
After I started teaching, I returned to India to teach at a friends retreat centre in Kerala and have a break myself, I was participating in an all levels, dynamic Hatha yoga class taught by a local Indian man. It was a great class, strong for the body and mind with a lot of advanced postures. There were a number of participants who seemed less familiar with the postures and were cautious or perhaps anxious moving into some of the inversions. After the class, the teacher came over to me and said, in a very kind voice with pidgin English, “it is very nice to see someone so fat be flexible and strong in the postures, it was good for the other students to see, thank you for coming”. It’s one thing to call yourself fat and know deep down that you are, but hearing other people say it, is another matter, hurtful and TRUE. With that in mind, as I am sure you can imagine, my usual reaction to hearing the dreaded word fat would be to bristle and get upset internally, or maybe even externally. Thankfully, before I had chance to respond, my initial shock at the bluntness of his comment actually made me take a breath, step back for a moment and reflect on the intention behind the comment, I realised, this wasn’t delivered as an offensive comment or judgement about my size, in fact, the teacher was complimenting me and making the valid point that: anyone can do yoga, no matter what size, shape, age, physicality, colour, religion…etc.
Not long after I returned from this trip to India, I was back in London and teaching the advanced class at the Sivananda London centre – I had a shocking interaction with one of the Swami’s (Monk following the yogic path of renunciation), he asked me what it was like for me being a fat yoga teacher and asked me how it is possible that I can do many of the advanced postures when a lot of the ‘fit’ women cannot. I was both shocked and upset by this, as he was supposedly living by the teachings that Yoga is not purely a physical practice and that the body does not have to limit you. Your mind is the limitation. Swami Vishnu Devananda teaches ‘Unity in Diversity’, and that was a teaching I held dear, as I felt like I could somehow fit in to this world of yoga, even when I did not seem to fit the media image of a svelte bodied yogi. It took me some months to really process this, but made me more determined to get out there as a curvy yoga teacher, who is strong and flexible to show and inspire people of all shapes and sizes that, YOU CAN DO IT. Yoga is for EVERYONE (and I am glad to say that Swami, is no longer a Swami).
“Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that we are all individuals and we are ALL perfect, we get caught up in the idea that yoga is a function of beauty, when yoga is an expression of beauty, discipline, sacrifice and love. Yoga teaches us to feel within our hearts and experience with our bodies. Remember everyone can do yoga. We breathe, we feel, we stretch, and we connect fully to ourselves, even if we don’t look like a supermodel.” (Dianne Bondy)
Charlie Merton is a yoga teacher and musician. After discovering yoga in 2003 she has gone on to teach and empower many, sharing her message of self-acceptance and body-love. She teaches throughout London and will be teaching at triyoga Shoreditch from October 2017 and will be joining us as a panelist for the evening for the dichotomoy of yoga + body image: panel discussion + embrace film screening. book now