Sometimes I go to yoga simply to stand in the middle of a room where I don’t have to be worried about hitting my neighbor.
Living in a city, these accidental collisions occur more often than you like: at the market, when you have your eye on the same leafy kale bushel as a stranger; in line for coffee, when you’re digging for your credit card and knock elbows with the fellow caffeine deprived; and, as is most often the case for me, on the bus after work when I’m headed to said yoga class and manage to thwack everyone with my mat no matter how tightly I squeeze.
When I finally arrive it’s a relief to be in a space where I can stretch my arms wide and graze nothing but air. It’s also completely out of my comfort zone.
I grew up trying to make myself small. I was an expert at squeezing myself into teeny spaces during hide-n-seek and I always won “the quiet game”—not just because I was competitive (though I’ll admit I hate to lose)—but because I rarely spoke during the morning carpool, afraid girls would make fun of what I had to say.
I started finding my voice in outlets where I didn’t have to speak—through school, through music, through running and through writing—a pursuit where I finally grew confident sharing my opinion. But even today, after years of saxophone solos and satirical newspaper columns, I still struggle with the instinct to render my own thoughts and desires insignificant. When confronted with challenges at work, conflicts in my personal life, and even the winter cold, I have to consciously remind myself to take up space.
Taking up space is a physical, mental, and spiritual practice. In yoga, it occurs the moment you draw your first inhalation, filling the room with the wave of your breath. These breaths guide you to greater movement so that when you press your feet into the mat and sweep your arms to the sky you’re stretching your body as wide as possible, as if gathering strength the same way a gardener gathers her most prized blooms.
In day-to-day life, taking up space begins with believing your thoughts, opinions, and desires are valid. They are just as valid as those of the person you bumped into on the bus or the person trying to grab the same vegetable at the market. They are just as valid as those of your co-worker, your friend, your neighbor, and, yes, even your boss.
This belief is like breath: it is the root of your strength and the force that guides your actions. Believing in your own worth amplifies your sense of belonging. It is both a cause and effect of taking up space. It’s a cause because when you believe in yourself you begin to sit taller, stand straighter, and talk more clearly. It’s an effect because the more you practice each of these actions, the more you begin to believe in yourself.
At the end of every yoga class, I tend to linger on the mat, trying to stow away as much inspiration as I can before moving back into the evening. In one such practice, I realized that those who inspire change rarely do so without bumping elbows with their neighbors every now and then. Influential leaders almost always have people who disagree with them, but they aren’t afraid of defending their opinions. They recognize that change brings opposition and they greet those obstacles with boldness—boldness that requires space. With persistence, kindness and a little grace, they always seem to make their place known. Let’s do the same.
Image via Mackenzie Rouse