The city of Madison has the rare privilege of hosting a visionary in the field of health and wellness this week. Professional yoga instructor Dianne Bondy will lead a weekend series of classes that aim to show area residents the positive benefits of mindful movement and physical exercise as part of an active lifestyle.

Hosted at the Urban League of Greater Madison by local practitioner Nikki Cook Yoga, the series hopes to connect with members of our community that are often underrepresented among those we usually see on the fitness scene. Herself a plus-sized African-American woman, Bondy uses her personal strength, flexibility and endurance to bely the common misconceptions of what a fit body looks like.

“Dianne is a leader in promoting inclusion and equity in the yoga community,” said event organizer Nikki Cook. “Yoga was created in India as a practice for all people, but ‘westernized’ yoga – including yoga in Madison — reflects a sad lack of diversity. I hope Dianne will spark a conversation on how to make yoga more inclusive for people of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, abilities and cultural backgrounds. Yoga has the power to bring people together, to heal, to empower and to inspire. Dianne will help us tap into that power.”
A wife and mother of two children from Winsor Ontario, Bondy is a model of complete fitness. Having dedicated much of her own career toward demonstrating affirmative choices in creating work/life balance that are both nurturing and sustainable she encourages her students to adopt a mental attitude that reflects their highest purpose. By recognizing the realities of one’s own body Bondy promotes a philosophy of yoga that ignores the popular imagery and stereotypes of fitness that often discourage many people from pursuing practices of healthy living. With classes that are inclusive of a variety of different body types, physical abilities, levels of income and racial identities this vibrant woman of color is making a better life more accessible to a broad cross section of the public has been neglected for far too long.

In advance of her Wisconsin visit Bondy shared a bit about herself and her practice of yoga with Madison365 in this interview.

Madison365: How did you begin your career as a professional yoga instructor?

Dianne Bondy: It started in 2005 for me. I had been doing yoga for most of my life. I had been practicing since I was about three with my mom. She introduced me to it then. So it’s been part of my life for a long time. I got back into the practice when I had a very stressful accounting job. And when I got pregnant with my first son I felt like I was under a great deal of stress at work and it wasn’t really working. My husband and I both worked in the casino industry at the time so none of us were home on holidays. And that’s hard to raise a family, to not be home at Christmas and to not be home at Easter and March break. So one of us had to make a decision about changing our careers to have something that was going to be a little more flexible and little more acceptable for all of us.

I was already teaching at my local gym and saw that my classes were very popular so I decided it was maybe time to branch out on my own. So during my maternity leave I decided I would to begin teaching a few classes here and there and see how it would go. I was very popular. I rented out a church hall and I ran a couple of classes a week and everybody was loving it. Everybody was coming to class. I started out with about 12 students and within about 6 months or so [it] turned into 100 students. Then my husband I and decided maybe it was time to open a permanent studio space. In 2006, we decided we were going to move our studio into a more permanent place and it became an entrepreneurial experience.

I opened a small business and learned all the things that go along with opening a small business. I wanted to have a career that would make a difference. Working as auditor in a casino was fine, but I wanted something more. I wanted to use my yoga to influence change and make a difference. So I thought that going out on my own, teaching full time and dedicating my life to it was the way to go.

Madison 365: What are some of the barriers that prevent people from taking on yoga as practice?

Bondy: I think people don’t understand at lot of times what it is, especially perhaps communities of color where we don’t see a lot of the images of yoga that looks like us. We also see images of Buddhism connected to that or there’s maybe an idea that there’s a religious affiliation to yoga. And I think that sometimes that’s a barrier for people who already have a spiritual practice. They feel like this is something that isn’t going to line up with what they already believe. That maybe keeps people away. I’m trying to teach people that it in no way effects their religious or spiritual beliefs, but it actually helps to enhance them by allowing them to connect more deeply within themselves and they get a little bit of exercise as well. I think that’s one of the major barriers.

I think that sometimes another barrier is cost. Taking a yoga class can be very expensive I don’t know what it’s like in Madison, Wisconsin, but the average drop-in fee for a yoga class where I live is anywhere between $17 and $25 per class. And if people want to sign up for monthly packages, they usually start anywhere from $80 to $100 a month. That’s a lot of disposable income that you have to have in order to have a yoga practice. I think that’s another barrier.

I also think that what we see in mainstream media of yoga is another barrier. Whenever you see advertisements for yoga in magazines or on websites, it’s generally a person who’s fairly young, very fit, very flexible, very thin and when people see images like that they assume this practice is geared for that. So, the marketing that we’ve seen over the past 20 years around yoga in North America has had a very specific demographic that it’s been targeting. It’s usually women in their 20s to their 40s, very fit, educated, with disposable income. That’s who shows up to yoga for the most part. And if you look at mainstream advertising and companies, that’s primarily who yoga is being marketed to.

So, it’s not unusual for the people who are being marketed to being the ones to show up for the practice. It think that if we change the imagery around what yoga looks like, then a person who can see themselves within that imagery can think, “maybe this practice is for me.” I don’t have to be thin. I don’t have to be white. I don’t have to be rich.
Madison 365: Are there any particular barriers to yoga for people of color, women of color especially?

Bondy: For me, personally, because of the imagery I’m seeing, because you don’t see a lot of black people doing yoga and I didn’t see a lot of black people in my yoga classes, especially black women, if you see who are the “yoga-lebrities” out there now are primarily white women. The three biggest yoga-lebrities I can think of to me have a very similar esthetic. When we see that as women of color, we think it’s a white woman’s exercise thing so we probably won’t come out. But if you see a woman of color who comes from your neighborhood, where you live or at your community center and practice yoga or teach yoga, then I think that opens the door for other people of color and other women of color to come to class.

I did a workshop in St. Louis, very similar to what I’m doing in Madison. 314 Yoga sponsored it. My friend Sharon and my friend Jacob decided they wanted to make yoga more accessible to more people, so they rented a community center which was in the center of town. We kept the pricing affordable. We offered scholarships for people who wanted to try it and the amount of diversity that showed up to my class was pretty incredible because it was in a place that didn’t have a preconceived notion about it.

It wasn’t in a yoga studio where people might feel uncomfortable. It was a place in town that was accessible. It was on a bus line. The bus stopped right in front of the community center and the space was very neutral. There weren’t any religious artifacts. There wasn’t anything that would make people feel like they were going against what they believed or against their religion. It was just clean space where people could come. We talked about the philosophy of yoga. We talked about the whole objective of stilling the mind. We talked about getting some of the fidgeting out of life, working the body and connecting the body with the breath. I kept it to the basic philosophy of yoga.

That’s generally how I find you can make yoga a little more accessible. We have to demystify it. We have to identify what it is and what it isn’t. We can make it accessible by making it accessible through language, pricing, the poses that we choose to teach our students. When people see super-advanced poses on the cover of publications they think, “I can’t do that. My body doesn’t bend that way. It’s not for me.” Keeping it accessible in all realms means that we really need to decide who we want in our yoga classes, how we choose to make it accessible and then act on that.

Madison 365: What are some of the challenges you face both personally and professionally as a full-figured woman in the practice of yoga?

Bondy: I put myself out there and I do what I can do and I show people what I can do. I’ve been doing a lot of research on health and fitness for a long time. I recently read a book by Dr. Lisa Bacon. She espouses the idea around health at every size. So, I talk a lot about that. When we see a really fit body, we don’t necessarily know that that is a healthy body. I have been every size. I have been a size 2 all the way up to a size 22. I have been everything in between. And when I was a size 2, I was working out like crazy. I was working out on average 4 to 6 hours a day. My workout day would start at 5 a.m., go into the gym doing my weights, doing an aerobics class, going to work and then coming home and running. That’s what I had to do to maintain what was considered to be an ideal Body Mass Index(BMI) or a ratio of health. And when I spent all of that time, all I did was obsess over when I was going to exercise, how much I was going to exercise, and then what I was going to eat and how I was going to burn those calories. So, it just became this obsession for me.

If you looked at me based on what my body looked like and based on my endurance and what I could do, I looked like a healthy person. I had the stereotypical healthy body. But we know that constant exercising and that constant obsession with food leads to a whole host of other health issues around disordered eating. What we’ve got going on there is not necessarily an indicator of health. I started getting overuse injuries from working out so much. I knew trainers at the gym who would say, “you’re not training for a fitness competition.” You don’t need to be constantly worried about a 10 percent body fat for a woman, which is not really the best place to be operating at all the time, so there’s a lot of myths around what fitness looks like. And fitness isn’t just a physical body image or physical body perception. It also has to do with how you feel about your body and how you relate in the world.

There’re a lot of myths out there of what fat bodies can do, what fit bodies look like. I have low blood pressure. I lead a very active lifestyle. I walk every day. I don’t like running any more. I ran a bunch of marathons. I did all that stuff and I’m kind of over it. It’s about maintaining balance for me and part of that is my yoga practice. If people have preconceived notions about who I am and what I look like, my best defense is to show them what I can do. So I post a lot of things on social media to kind of create a disruption in what we think bodies can do, what fat bodies can do and what healthy bodies look like. Because if you see everybody as an opportunity for health and wellness, we’re all part of that conservation. We will get to see a diversity of body types, shapes, sizes, colors, everything and then the conversation becomes broader and it doesn’t become what I see on the cover of Fitness, Shape or Women’s Health magazine — which is pretty much the same image every time.
Madison 365: You are quoted on your web site as saying, “I am not looking for perfection. I am looking for the real.” What do you mean by that? What is real?

Bondy: Real is exactly who you are. There’s no such thing as perfection. I think as women we have been trained throughout our lives that we have to look a certain way and that we have to behave a certain way and that’s the way of achieving perfection. That doesn’t work for me. I want to live a real life. I don’t want to be constantly concerned about what I look like and offering up this perfect look or this perfect conversation. I just want to be real. I want to eat what I want to eat. I want to eat and be healthy because I love my body as it is, not because I am trying to achieve some artificial idea of what I should look like.

Somebody somewhere decided what a perfect woman looks like and 90 percent of us can never achieve that. It’s just not within our genetics. It’s not within our bone structure and it’s not a sustainable way to be. So how about you just eat healthy and you get some exercise and you enjoy your life and that’s what it is. It’s just real that way. You’re not trying to achieve some arbitrary standard that God knows who decided. It’s unfair to hold women up to that expectation.

Madison 365: What do you most want your students to get out of a class with you? What is your yoga philosophy?

Bondy: Empowerment. I want people to feel empowered by their practice. I want people to be able to maybe reduce some of the stress in their life and to connect back to themselves, start to live in the present moment, because we’re always worrying about what’s coming next or what people expect of us. I want people to be able to let that go and understand that the only opinion that matters about you is your opinion. And that everybody else’s ideas of who you should be and what you should be doing doesn’t matter. Finding yourself and being happy in yourself and letting go of this idea that you have to hate your body. I really want people to be OK with exactly where they are and stop trying to attain something that just isn’t real or sustainable. You never heal the body that you have by hating it and we have to get past the idea that we exercise from a place of self-hate. “I hate my size. I want flatter abs. I want a smaller butt.” Even if you do get those things, you won’t necessarily be happy because there will always be something else that you need. Now you need a nose job. Now you need hair extensions. When is enough enough? When does the self-loathing stop? We have be happy where we are at or we will never be happy.

Madison 365:For those who don’t currently think that yoga is for them what can you suggest that might convince them to at least try it?

Bondy: I liken this experience to learning how to walk. I can’t tell you how many times my kids fell down learning how to walk. But at no point did I ever say walking wasn’t for them. I would say that if you’re curious about it and it interests you even a little bit, to go and find a class. If going into a yoga space scares you, there are many yoga videos available online. Find something that interests you and give it a try. Think about it: if you never tried anything new in your life ever, you would be sad and bored. Growth happens outside of what makes us comfortable. When you try something new, you usually say how glad you are that you tried it.

When I hear people say that they don’t think it’s for them but may be curious about it, just give it a try. And if anything about it speaks to you, keep going back. And if you go to a class and it doesn’t work for you, try it two more times with different teachers because every practice is different, every class is different, everyone’s experience with yoga is different. You might have just ended up with the wrong teacher or the wrong class or at the wrong time. But I think eventually everyone comes to it when they’re ready.

Yoga For All Workshops with Dianne Bondy will be held on at Fountain of life on Thursday night, March 10 and at the Urban League of Greater Madison from March 11-13. For more information, click here.