When journalist Lauren Lipton found yoga, she felt called to recruit the whole world onto the mat—but quickly discovered there was one thing standing in her way.
“Most of what you see in the media are super-fit, super-bendy young women in advanced poses,” she explains. “Not surprisingly, people will say, ‘I’m not flexible enough to do yoga,’ or, ‘I’m a guy,’ or, ‘I’m too old.’” Lifestyle stereotypes also abound, she points out—like the idea that you have to eat tons of kale or swear off your religion if you want to get your down dog on.
In an effort to prove that the practice really is for everyone—and that its mental and emotional benefits transcend the physical—she set to work on Yoga Bodies, a collection of portraits and stories from more than 80 devotees of all levels, backgrounds, shapes, and ages. “I tried to think of every possible reason why a beginner might not give yoga a try,” she explains. “Then, I cast yogis from as many walks of life and with as many diverse experiences as I could find.”
Some were Lipton’s friends and some were her classmates at Pure Yoga in New York City. Others, like instructor Jessamyn Stanley, actress Naomi Watts, and 92-year-old yogi Bunny Grossinger, were on Lipton’s list of asana idols. “The yogis in this book look like the students you might encounter in any New York studio, but they go well beyond the prototypical super-yogis you see on Instagram,” she says.
A powerful portrait shot by Jaimie Baird (the brilliant artist behind all those insanely gorgeous snapshots of The Class by Taryn Toomey) accompanies each subject’s personal ode to yoga. The photographer swears the book changed her perspective on the practice, and she’s pretty certain it’ll do the same for whoever flips through its pages.
“I walked away with a really profound respect for yoga,” Baird proclaims. “I realized that it’s not about nailing poses, and no matter who you are, you can try yoga. It doesn’t have to be intimidating.” I’ll (sun) salute to that.
Scroll down for exclusive, never-before-seen photos of some seriously inspiring yogis—a few of whom you might recognize.
“The first time someone suggested I use the ladies’ locker room was at my yoga studio. The women there knew I am transgender. I practice in a sports bra, tights, and nail polish, but I was so scared to take that next step and use the ladies’ locker room…The studio manager said, ‘I’ll walk in with you if you want.’ She and I went in there together, and I kid you not, the women came up to me and said, ‘Congratulations!’ At least six or seven of them gave me hugs. They said, ‘Look; you’re one of us now.'”
“I was on a flight, and there was a baby next to me. The baby was not having a good flight, which meant that no one was having a good flight. This is what the yoga teaches you: You’re strapped into this airplane seat, you’re not going anywhere for 20 hours, and this is your reality. There’s nothing you can do but find some calm and just deal with it.”
“I am a fiery person who has a lot of emotion I want to move out of my body, and yoga was one of the first things that helped lead me to a place of release. Yoga was my first experience of using my body while controlling my breath, connecting the two into what felt like a moving meditation.”
Adesuwa and Esosa
Adesuwa: “Yoga is a lot like life. At the beginning, you’re not that good at it, but the more you do it, the better you are. That’s what I was trying to explain to Esosa, but she kept saying, ‘I just don’t like yoga. It really isn’t for me.'”
Esosa: “I like workouts that get my heart racing. But I love my sister, and my sister loves yoga…so I took a basic introductory class. At the end, I had almost a natural high. It was awesome. I was like, ‘Oh, all right, I get it.'”
“I was diagnosed with bone cancer when I was five years old. Then, when I was thirteen, it happened again. Twenty years after the chemo, my kidneys just stopped working, and I had to start going in for dialysis. I had done some yoga on and off, but it was in dialysis that I had this miraculous calling to help people understand that they’re never separate from their essence.”
“I have issues with being fat. I have issues with my blackness. I apologize because I cannot accept my own existence. So many people feel the same way. I have told this story so many times, and someone always says, ‘I feel that.’ That is the reason to teach yoga—to help others acknowledge these things and move past them.”
“No matter who you are, even if you’re the most beautiful, richest person in the world, you’re still going to experience feelings of self-judgement and insecurity, because you’re human. The point of yoga is to develop compassion for yourself. That’ll help you develop compassion for others.”