It was the Sunday morning of my recent yoga retreat in Puerto Rico and our agenda for the day included a hike through the El Yuque Rainforest. This was the fourth day of the retreat and I felt completely safe and comfortable with the dynamic and eclectic group of 10 women who were sharing in this adventure with me. I had also done many yoga classes and events with our retreat host, Deanna, and I trusted her implicitly. I would literally follow Deanna over a cliff—that was until we were 15 minutes into the hike and I found 20 feet of rushing water standing between me and the other side of the rainforest.
I saw Deanna and the rest of the women waiting for me on the other side and I burst into tears. All my fears and anxiety about my body came rushing to the surface, and I was frozen in place.
Three years before that trip, I had a similar moment while walking around my neighborhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. I was a few weeks out from ending a relationship and spent many evenings walking through my neighborhood to clear my head. One evening, I walked slowly through a crosswalk to get back to my block when a particularly impatient driver yelled out her window, “Get your fat ass across the street!” I was so stunned that I froze like a deer in headlights in the middle of the street. I couldn’t believe that this stranger had the nerve to insult me like that. She had no idea what I had been going through and that it was a miracle that I had any shred of sanity at all in that moment.
When I finally made it back to my brownstone, I stood outside my gate for a long time. I knew that there was a huge gap between what the world saw of me and how I truly felt about myself on the inside. Most people could depend on me to be consistent, reliable, trustworthy, engaging, and inspiring. While I could show up that way for everyone else, I rarely showed up that way for me. I enjoyed lavishing love on everyone else, but I didn’t know how to reflect that same love back on myself. I desperately wanted to close that gap and start learning how to love myself.
I found the first key to that answer a few days later when I went on another evening walk and stumbled upon a new vintage shop a few blocks from me. When I went inside, I was greeted by another customer, a beautiful woman dressed in elaborate African garb and a gorgeous head wrap. She came up to me boldly and said, “I know you don’t know me, but something is telling me to tell you that you made the right decision to leave your last relationship and come back home.” I have no idea how this perfect stranger knew my life and knew the right words to say to me, but I was relieved that she confirmed that I did the right thing for me. I knew that I often found myself in relationships where I didn’t love myself or where I was connected to people who didn’t love and treat me well. Her words allowed me to realize that I already took the first bold step and now I could continue taking more baby steps towards my healing.
After that transformative moment, I kept the new vintage shop on my route during my evening walks. A few weeks later, I discovered that they would soon offer yoga classes in the back part of the shop. I was excited because I never felt fully comfortable at a gym as a plus-size woman. Yoga seemed like a great alternative that didn’t feel like exercise to me. I signed up for my first class in August 2015 and after that, I was hooked. It felt good that I didn’t have to have the perfect body to do yoga. I was also relieved to be in a studio with all kinds of bodies, shapes, and ethnicities. I loved that I could just be me. I signed up for my first class in August 2015 and by the top of the New Year, I signed up for a monthly membership.
Before I knew it, I was taking up to six yoga classes a week. There were some days when I even took two classes. As my yoga practice helped me create a new relationship with my body, it also helped me create a new relationship with myself. When old thoughts would pop up about not being good enough, not lovable enough, or not skinny enough, I could begin to affirm myself for holding a pose a little longer or trying a new trick or just simply showing up on my mat.
Through every class, I began peeling back layers of self-hatred and body shaming. I began seeing that I was bigger than my body. There was a divine writer under there. There was an amazing sister, auntie, and friend who was loved, loving, and lovable. I didn’t have to keep heaping shame on my body. I didn’t have to settle for any person or any behavior that didn’t serve my highest good.
The absolute best part of this journey was finding and falling into a community with so many beautiful people. One of the things that I absolutely loved about my first yoga studio was that there were so many diverse people with diverse abilities in every class. I didn’t have to feel any shame about not being able to hold a pose or not transitioning as elegantly from one position to the next. We were all learning and growing into loving ourselves and our bodies together. Yoga became a necessary balm in my life that helped me to see myself more clearly.
Three years and nearly 350 classes later, I made the bold decision to sign up for a yoga retreat with one of my favorite teachers, Deanna. I was wound up as tight as a rubber band before the retreat with deadlines and anxiety—I even thought twice about canceling the trip. But I encouraged myself to keep my commitment, and from the second I arrived at the airport on an early Thursday morning, I knew I had made the right decision.
I easily created warm and authentic bonds with the 10 women who were sharing this journey with me. I was so happy to see such a range of women of all ethnicities and body types on the trip. Each morning, we greeted the Puerto Rican sun with an engaging and invigorating yoga practice and nourished our bodies with the most amazing food from our host in the surfer town of Luquillo. After very full days of beaching and exploring the island, we settled into gorgeous evenings of good food and good girl talk.
When we ventured out on a hike through the El Yuque Rainforest on our fourth day, I was ready to take on this new physical challenge. I allowed myself to take my time and to even fall a few feet behind the rest of the group. I wanted to allow myself to just be. Everything was all good until I got to that 20 feet of rushing water. I froze—I didn’t want to fall face first into the water. I didn’t want to be the fat girl who slowed everybody else down. I felt like I was back at that crosswalk in Bed-Stuy three years prior, and I didn’t know how I was going to get to the other side. I had conquered so much since embarking upon my yoga journey, but here I was, stuck again in my own swirl of fear and self-doubt.
Before I could lock myself in fear, one of the women in our group, Rachel, came back across the water and said, “Leah, I’m going to hold your hand and help you.” Initially, I was embarrassed that I needed help walking across a distance that was the equivalent of a wide New York street. But I quickly got over my pride and I held on tightly to Rachel’s hand. It took us about 10 minutes to cross the water, but I was ever so grateful for her being with me in that moment of fear.
When I settled on the other side of the water, I realized that Rachel’s guiding hand was a perfect demonstration of what yoga has been for me—this beautiful practice that has helped me continue to cross into higher, deeper, and more profound versions of myself.
Just like a trusted school safety guard, we all need something or someone to help us cross from one chapter of our life into the next. Yoga has been that perfect crossover tool for me. Maybe it’s Zumba or running or biking or meditation for you. Whatever it is, it’s essential for all of us to tap into those tools, practices, and resources that help us see ourselves beyond our own limitations. And if you’re lucky, you will find the right people who will ensure that you never have to cross any road in your life alone.
Special thanks to Deanna Green of the Shambhala Yoga and Dance Studio for hosting such a fantastic yoga retreat, Molly Jones of the Love, Soul, Beautiful Guesthouse for the amazing accommodations and delicious food during our stay, and Dia&Co, and especially my favorite Dia Stylist, Ashby Vose, for the beautiful yoga gear that kept me cool and comfortable during my Puerto Rican adventure.