“Am I an athlete?” Dolly Singh mused when we asked her to tell us about how her social media presence has helped change the perception of curvy female athletes. “I know I’m strong. I have stamina, and I’m trying to build on it. Am I athletic?”
Singh might be the most famous curvy yogi in India. Her Instagram feed is full of pictures of herself doing yoga poses in her living room, and has connected her with followers from across the globe. But Singh wasn’t always doing downward-facing dog next to her couch. She took a few different paths before finding the activity that ultimately fit: online yoga classes.
Yoga: Getting In and Getting Online
When she injured her ankle 5 years ago, Singh began exploring different exercise programs, and yoga seemed at first like just another short-term thing. Three classes in, however, Singh realized this might be something more. Her “initial boost” came from her instructor, who praised her and encouraged her to push herself. “He used me as an example, and told me things like, ‘Hey, you’re doing really well’ and ‘you have good strength in your body.’" But what really appealed to Singh was how immersive yoga was. “You’re one with your mind, your body, your breathing, your heart.”
After a few months, however, Singh’s teacher had moved on. His replacement didn’t really understand her body or her desire to be challenged. “I’d request variations, but he was traditional and wanted everyone at the same level.” Singh, who jokingly suggests that impatience is her trademark, had gotten bored. “My body wanted a little more, to be pushed a little more,” she explains. Yoga classes weren’t doing it any longer. So, she quit and got back to running.
Soon she realized that she had been missing yoga--a lot. Instead of going back to classes, she tried a few personal instructors. But, Singh says, these instructors often told her she would need to lose weight in order to learn more. “They had no clue about my practice, and only assumed based on my appearance that I couldn’t do particular poses. It actually made me very angry,” she says. Her instructors’ reactions had nothing to do with actually assessing what Singh was capable of, but rather what they assumed larger bodies were capable of in general.
Finally, Singh got fed up.“I was like, I’m not going to listen to this!” She started exploring yoga videos online one day at work. Thinking she’d give one of the online instructors a shot, she went home and practiced with a video. It completely changed her life. “It was the most fabulous practice because I felt like my teacher was in the house with me.” Online yoga not only allows Singh to practice when and where is most convenient for her, but gives her access to many teachers and forms of practice, from Bikram to Vinyasa. Above all, it gives her the opportunity to explore. She can find the teachers she likes and choose from styles that work best for her.
Online yoga has given her the opportunity to learn about her own body every day. “It’s been a journey from fear to fearlessness about myself. I’ve discovered my own strength, I understand the symmetry of my body and the large effect of miniscule alignment changes.” There are pros and cons of the online route, though, says Singh. “If I want to understand the deeper principles of one form of practice, I’ll go to a class. But I’ll have more clarity going now than I did when I first started. I know myself and what I’m capable of now.”
Strong Body, Strong Mind
Singh has reaped other benefits from daily yoga practice in addition to a deeper understanding of her own potential. “I’m doing yoga because it’s age reversal. I want to look like this when I’m 60!” she quips. And she’s only half joking. By practicing daily, Singh says, she’s become stronger: “My core, my back, my wrists have all increased in strength,” she notes, “my shoulders and hips are open, and I have a sense of balance and symmetry.” It’s also made her more attentive to how different actions affect her physically. For example, she has become more attentive to how food impacts her flexibility during yoga. “I’m careful about what goes into my body now. Spicy, oily, and sugary foods decrease my range of motion, so I’ve begun to eat differently.” Singh is less concerned with her weight than with her holistic well-being, opting for organic, locally grown food when she can and trying sugar substitutes. “I respect my practice, and I want to make it stronger and more beautiful.”
“My body, which was actually a taboo, has now become my strongest point, all thanks to yoga. But it’s taught me much more.” Yoga has also made her mentally stronger. “I try to grow stronger everyday by learning about my weaknesses and converting them into strengths.”
“I’m stubborn,” Singh tells us. She harnesses her natural mental strength--her stubborn streak--more positively as consistency. She swears by incorporating movement into her everyday routine. What kind of movement? “Anything that makes you sweat!” she laughs. But it’s not enough to do it once in a while. “Commitment is key,” she explains. “You have to do it everyday, or five days a week, and make it a habit. It’s just like brushing your teeth or eating breakfast. It only works if it’s a habit; there’s no shortcut.”
Yoga has also encouraged her to slow down and enjoy the smaller things. She began to change where she had been expending her mental energy. “It’s been one of the most liberating experiences. I stopped caring about all the things I really didn’t need to, all the shackles I had in my mind with respect to my body, the way I look, my size, or what I can or cannot achieve.” Instead, Singh does what she can and keeps reaching for her own goals. In general, she tells us, her life has become more peaceful thanks to yoga. “It’s made me more open, more receptive to people; I give more thought to everything.”
Your Size Does Not Define You
Singh emphasizes that her yoga career is not about losing weight. Instead, she views it as a way to challenge herself. “I stopped weighing myself,” she explains, “because when I’d step on the scale and realize I hadn’t lost any weight, it was so troubling.” She’d rather focus on her practice and measuring her progress by which new poses she can tackle or how many poses she has mastered. Noticing that she’s able to master a headstand, for instance, is much more rewarding than a number on the scale. At the end of the day, Singh says she chooses to focus on what makes her happy. “My weight does not define anything for me. My scale doesn’t make me happy. Playing on my mat everyday makes me happy, so that’s what I choose.”
Singh has channeled this mentality into a hashtag she uses often on her Instagram posts: #yourbodyisnotyourlimit. Instead of approaching a pose or activity from the perspective of what she can’t do, she focuses on what she’s capable of. And this has little to do with size. “I don’t look at myself as a bigger bodied person trying to do something,” Singh is clear to point out. “On my mat, I’m just a person trying to learn something new.” Through her social media posts and her outdoor yoga practice, Singh has come to be a beacon of body positivity in India and around the world. “We’re bombarded with tall, fair, slim bodies as the standard of beauty, and anyone who doesn’t fit feels alienated. But it’s more about body confidence.” Singh makes it her mission not to succumb to the insecurities we all face.
But Singh’s view is broader than merely shifting from thinner to curvier bodies as the new standard for beauty. Perhaps better described as “body confidence” or “body inclusivity,” she is adamant that we appreciate all different kinds of bodies as beautiful. For Singh, this is not merely an issue of weight. “It’s not just a function of bodies; it’s a function of gender equality; it’s a function of society,” she explains. And Singh is helping to change society, one Instagram photo at a time.