Ever worry about how you look during pigeon pose? Start following Valerie Sagun—the founder of Big Gal Yoga (@biggalyoga)—and tell your inner body shamer to shut the front door. The 28-year old California-based yoga practitioner and artist is one of the first body-positive yogis to document her practice on Instagram; she currently has more than 139,000 followers thanks to her fierce posing, killer workout ensembles and inspirational #realtalk. Here, she talks to FLARE about the importance of seeing all types of bodies in all types of yoga poses.
When did you begin your practice?
I had wanted to take yoga for a long time, but it was never a priority. I finally started about five years ago, halfway through college. I liked it because it was something new and interesting that challenged me in a different way.
When did yoga become a part of your daily life?
When it became more important in my life, it was because I was having a lot of trouble with my art, and I was having a lot of trouble explaining myself. A lot of subjects that I was trying to bring up were a little too personal for me, and it was hard to translate it for other people. I took refuge in yoga when I found myself in a kind of quarter-life-crisis. I was constantly asking myself, “What am I doing with my life?”
How does yoga act as a refuge?
I don’t work very well under pressure. So the more pressure I felt in the last years of my degree, the more I leaned on my practice. I would get very anxious and depressed, and I would use yoga as a way to restart myself. If I was freaking out about things, I would practice yoga for a couple of hours and then I’d come back to whatever I was doing and I could assess the situation a little bit better. I’d still have the anxiety of things, but I could calmly go through it.
When did you start sharing your practice online?
In 2012; I had already been practicing yoga for a little bit, but I had just started my blog (big-gal-yoga.tumblr.com) as a visual way to motivate myself and see my progress. I had just started to take photos of myself practicing yoga, and seeing myself was a way to help me when I couldn’t feel what I was doing wrong. Often, when yoga positions are explained, it’s in terms of a thinner body. Because my body is not like someone else’s thinner body, my blog became a way for me to modify and understand various positions for my own body.
When did you realize your photos were benefitting others?
I knew people were already looking at me, so I started to try to create a community. I quickly found other plus-sized yogis, so we began as a small community but now it’s really expanded.
How did this community help your practice?
There have always been plus-sized yogis out there, they’ve just never been visual about it. So I was maybe one of the first to put people with bigger bodies practicing yoga out there. Jessamyn Stanley told me that she had already been practicing, but she didn’t start her visual journey until she saw me doing it. So everyone’s being inspired by each other and giving each other support, which is really nice.
Do you think there are limitations on what you can do within your practice, because of your body type?
Yoga is definitely not optimized for one body type. The visual of yoga has been filtered through mainstream media, and there is usually one body type shown. That has become the stereotype of what yoga is, but now there are bigger bodies, different skin types, different hair, different personalities. People are finally being more visual about it through social media, so we’re able to trade our own kind of visual media.
Do you ever get negative comments? How do you deal with that aspect of Insta-fame?
Starting in the ‘Tumblr Bubble,’ I rarely received negative comments, besides the obvious, “you’re fat.” So I’d be like, “okay… that’s very self-explanatory!” I’ve gotten a handful on Instagram, which comes with a lot more eyes on me. A lot of the times, I’ll engage with commenters. When it’s a debate between users, I try to mediate by trying to understand where they’re coming from, and getting them to understand where I’m coming from. I think what people follow me for is total honesty, because that’s kind of naturally who I am. I don’t know how to bullshit. I don’t want to lie to people, so I tell them things as I honestly see them.
What advice would you give to someone who is just beginning his or her practice?
I want to just say, “Get out there!” But sometimes, that’s difficult for people. There are definitely limited resources for bigger bodies, but there are a few videos (YogaGlo, Do Yoga With Me) that are good for starting an at-home practice. I’d say start with online videos and an at-practice, to get comfortable. Then try out an actual yoga class—the other yogis will put out good energy, and you get the yoga experience with that energy.
You’re working on a book, set to come out in the spring of 2017. What can we expect?
It’s kind of a mix of everything. It’s like an extension of my Instagram. It’s about my yoga journey, and then my ideas on body image and self-image. There will be some instructional yoga tidbits, but that’s definitely not all it is. I want to stay true to how I built my brand using social media.
Do you have any body positivity role models?
There’s never really one person, it’s just everyone who participates in the conversation of body image. It’s the community of people I like to involve myself with—people I find being truly themselves and having fun with it, enjoying life in general.
Is there any specific position you’re working on perfecting ATM?
Crow! I can hold it for a handful of seconds, but I want to be able to keep my knees resting on my arms for longer. It’s a struggle, especially because my practice has become scarcer since I’ve been working on my book.
TLC’s Whitney Way Thore on Sex, Fat-Shaming and Nicole Arbour
Lindy West on How to Be a Vibrant, Happy Fat Woman
“I’m Fat and I’m OK With It”
#FLARE60Under30: Our Boss Babes List Revealed
ICYMI: Science Called. It Wants You to Stop Dieting