12 Rockstar Yogis Who Are Leading The Body-Positive Movement
Women have historically borne the brunt of body shaming by mass media, but the topic of body image is actually universal; encompassing all shapes and sizes, races and faces of women (and men!) everywhere. The inner critic spares no one.
For the past year or more, the yoga community has come together to lead a pivotal crusade, helping to reshape the false image of what a yogi is supposed to look like. At the forefront of this movement is a broad spectrum of yogis — eclectic, inspiring, dedicated and fearless — transcending what it means to be healthy and empowered.
The champion behind many of them is renowned photographer Robert Sturman, a thought leader in the body image rebellion. His powerful, compelling portraiture captures the inner essence of his unique subjects, each with their own remarkable story, several of whom are featured in this article.
There are many strong voices behind this rising acceptance of diversity in yoga studios. Here are 12 of them.
1. Yulady Saluti
After 26 surgeries, Colombian-born @yulady sees her body as a roadmap of the last 10 years of her life, her scars a testament to her character and grace. She lived with a colostomy bag for almost five years after an ileostomy procedure, and is also a breast cancer survivor.
Her yoga practice has been crucial to her healing — allowing Yulady to see herself as a pure and perfect being. She recognizes the beauty in everyone.
Yulady beautifully demonstrates her personal power in Tree Pose (Vrksasana), as photographed by @robertsturman in New Jersey.
2. Jessamyn Stanley
A self-proclaimed "yoga enthusiast and fat femme," 27-year-old @mynameisjessamyn has built quite a following in Durham, N.C., and beyond, with her strong stance on body positivity. Her mission is to teach other women to love themselves as she has learned to do so.
Her Instagram page is visible proof that every type of body can achieve every kind of yoga pose. Jessamyn is strong, flexible and inspiring — her love for yoga is an extension of her love for herself.
Holding a Forearm Stand (Pincha Mayurasana) on the sand is no easy feat, but Jessamyn shows that with patience and practice, fear can be overcome and anything is possible.
3. Emily Nolan
Through years spent battling eating disorders and body shaming, fluctuating from a Size 0 to a Size 16, @mykindoflife_em finally realized that happiness does not come from being a certain size — it comes from within.
Now the plus-sized (role) model is on a crusade to encourage women to "go topless," by not being afraid to take their shirt off in a yoga class. The mindbodygreen contributor is also one of Athleta's "100 Women To Watch In Wellness," sharing her personal story around with world and inspiring self-confidence in women through her message and with yoga.
With her shirt proudly off in Tree Pose and palms at her heart, Emily's authenticity is evident.
4. Lockey Maisonneuve
As a survivor of breast cancer and victim of childhood sexual abuse, @lockeymaisonneuve is the essence of bravery and perseverance. Her journey has been a long process of learning to let go, and has empowered her to approach life with strength, grace and beauty.
After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, Lockey underwent chemotherapy, bi-lateral mastectomies with saline implant reconstruction, and radiation. She saw yoga as a path toward healing and realized the practice can be a tool for other recovering cancer patients do the same.
The Newark, N.J., yoga teacher and founder of the "Let It Go" workshop helps other cancer survivors in rehabilitation regain control over their bodies after the arduous treatment of chemotherapy.
Lockey's scars are a powerful, beautiful reminder that no matter what life has in store for us, it's what shapes us into who we truly are. Portrait by @robertsturman.
5. Cami Cote
Perhaps one of the original pioneers of the modern body positive movement, @yogacami collaborated with Robert Sturman back in 2013 for the "I Am A Yogi" project.
And while the founder of River City Yoga in Missoula, Montana, admits that while the path toward self-acceptance isn't easy, it has changed her life for the better and filled her with love.
"The biggest lesson I have learned through my yoga practice is that I can not let others determine my practice or what I should or shouldn't do," she writes on her website.
Standing tall and proud in this expansive back bend captured by @robertsturman, Cami opens her heart to infinite possibilities.
6. Tommy Valencia
@tommy_valencia is no stranger to yoga. But when he suffered a rare aortic dissection during a yoga class in 2012, he refused to let the incident get in the way of his practice.
After multiple surgeries, partial kidney and lung failure and lower extremity ischemia that resulted in the amputation of his left leg, his optimism remained. During Tommy's long road to recovery, his continued passion for yoga led him to a remarkable feat — a recently completed 200-hour yoga teacher training.
"I did not survive all of this to go back to being who I was before, or doing what I did before," he said proudly of this accomplishment. "My yoga practice has provided harmony to my life and allowed me to let go and fly."
Tommy takes flight in a headstand (Sirsasana) in the Santa Monica Mountains with his friend @robertsturman, in his first hike since losing his leg.
7. Dan Nevins
Veteran @dannevins lost both of his legs during the second war in Iraq. The now retired Staff Sergeant was in an 18,000 pound vehicle during a major blast that sent the truck into a ball of fire.
In an interview earlier this year with ABC News, he said, "I could feel and hear the truck disintegrating around my body. When I opened my eyes, I realized that I was ejected from the vehicle, but my legs were caught around the twisted and burning metal that used to be the floorboard and undercarriage of the truck."
He is part of the Wounded Warrior Project, and yoga has been integral to his healing. The Baptiste Yoga teacher will also attest that the loss of his legs could be the greatest lesson for his students.
"You don't change the world to change your life," he said. "You change your life to change the world."
During Yoga Journal LIVE! in San Diego last month, Dan showed @robertsturman that he can stand tall and proud on his hands in Adho Mukha Vrksasana.
8. Dana Falsetti
For most of her life, Dana, aka @nolatrees, struggled with trying to lose weight, only to gain it back again. She couldn't find a way to accept herself, and would slip into depression and bouts of binge eating.
But in her sophomore year of college she finally hit a turning point, and began a leading a healthier lifestyle. Yoga found her shortly thereafter, initially as a source for "working out." So she forced herself to go almost every day for three months, until suddenly, she found that she no longer had to force it.
She writes on her website, "Through my practice I have accomplished more with my physical body than I ever imagined, but more importantly I feel like a completely different person inside." She's also teamed up with @mynameisjessamyn and is leading yoga workshops around the country.
On a beach in Firefly Pose (Titthibasana) this New Orleans native is looking strong, happy and aspirational.
9. Kathryn Budig
As one of the most successful yoga teachers in the world, longtime mindbodygreen contributor and Under Armour athlete @kathrynbudig knows all too well about what it's like to be body shamed.
And though she's strong and healthy, and considered a normal body size and type, that doesn't mean she hasn't dealt with the same harsh narrative that plays over and over again in the minds of many women.
But as she shared during this year's revitalize event, she's a real woman, just like everyone else, and there's no body type that is better than anyone else. "Any scar, or ripple, or imperfection — this is your meat suit, my friends. This is your body," she said.
At Wanderlust in Vermont last month, Kathryn looked fierce with blue tribal markings and a powerful Eagle Wrap.
10. Valerie aka Big Gal Yoga
Using the hashtag #selflovingyogis, @biggalyoga's practice is all about learning to love yourself — encouraging women of all shapes and sizes to appreciate and accept their bodies as they are.
The Bay Area yogi believes that with enough determination and patience, anything is possible. Her practice is an exploration of knowing when to push yourself, and when to back off.
As an ambassador to the Colorado body positive clothing company @fractal.9, Valerie is on a fast rise in the yoga world.
With one hand on her heart as a symbol of genuine love for herself, Valerie's One-Legged King Pigeon Pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana) is effortless and poised.
11. Just Smile And Nod
@justsmileandnod has built quite a name for herself without revealing her name at all. The yoga and photography enthusiast lets her pictures do all the talking, using split-screen effects to tell the the story of her progress through yoga.
Her blog, "Adventures In Fat Yoga," has more on self-love and learning to let go, offering advice to other women who are on a similar healing journey.
"There are no bad foods," she writes in response to a reader who asked about oil and fat. "Associating emotions with foods go hand-in-hand with disordered eating."
As an update to her progress of achieving Pigeon Pose, she uses a block to deepen the hip-opening effects of Sugarcane (Ardha Chandra Chapasana). "Though I was unsteady and looking for balance today, this felt delicious in my hips," she wrote.
12. Brigitte Kouba aka Gigi Yogini
Last year, @gigiyogini teamed up with the Yoga and Body Image Coalition to change the misrepresentation by mass media of what a body, or yoga body in particular, should look like.
The campaign, "This is What a Yogi Looks Like," is a celebration of the diversity of yogis everywhere.
As a yoga teacher and contributor to mindbodygreen, Yoga Journal, Mantra Magazine and more, Gigi Yogini's philosophy fosters confidence, courage and compassion, both on and off the mat.
She's also deeply immersed in spreading her empowering message, hosting Love YOUR Yoga Body around the country because, "Every body is a yoga body."
In this Crescent Lunge variation, Gigi Yogini holds her head up high and lifts her heart, a clear indicator that her inner light is indeed shining bright.
Andrea Rice is a writer, editor, and yoga and meditation teacher. She is the former Yoga Editor at mindbodygreen and her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Yoga Journal, and other online publications. Her first book, The Yoga Almanac, will be released in March 2020. You can find her regular classes at shambhala yoga & dance center, and connect with her on Instagram and Twitter.