Photo courtesy of Taylor James
Yoga instructor Ally Maz grew up self-scrutinizing. It seemed like she could never do enough or achieve enough or be enough. (If you were ever a teenage girl, that might sound familiar.) Developing a yoga practice at the age of nineteen set Maz on a path toward healing. By twenty, she was teaching yoga at a studio for adults. A few years later, she founded Girlvana: a retreat that teaches girls mindfulness skills so that being a teenager can be a little bit easier.
Through Girlvana, Maz brings teenagers and young women together for a week of yoga, meditation, breathwork, self-reflection, and connection. She knows these practices work because she’s seen them create lasting change, both in her own life and for the girls she’s worked with. Maz’s new book, Girlvana, is the memoir-slash-workbook version of that retreat. While the book itself is written with teens and young women in mind—it has sections on navigating periods and using intuition to understand consent—the tools and practices in its pages are universal: Journaling prompts for figuring yourself out. A breathwork practice to lift your mood. Meditations to quell self-judgment and cultivate self-love.
Coming Home to Ourselves through Yoga
I grew up constantly overanalyzing every part of my body. I had an eating disorder, and I had a hard time handling stress, relationships, breakups, tests, and other challenging situations. For a lot of these issues I was struggling with—as a teen and well into my twenties—yoga eventually started to provide some answers.
For me at thirty-four, yoga is about mending the relationship that I’ve had with my body over all those years. But if someone had taught me how to breathe, meditate, and do yoga at fourteen, I think my life would have been different. For those learning yoga at a younger age, it’s not so much about mending but rather about discovering the relationship we have with our bodies earlier on so that we don’t have to do the mending later. You develop a deep relationship with your body from the start, and when difficult situations or thoughts come up, you know how to listen to and honor your body.
I started Girlvana ten years ago. I had been teaching yoga to adults for four years, and I felt called to bring these tools to a younger generation in the hopes that they wouldn’t have to go through the struggles I did. Yoga is an avenue for young people to be in their bodies in a noncompetitive way. When I was a teenager, most of us had a relationship with exercise that was related to competing with ourselves or others in order to hit a certain beauty standard or win in sports. Yoga is different. It’s this neutral space where it’s not about anything other than your connection and relationship to your body. I knew how healing that was for me, and it might be for younger girls, too.
Girlvana started with my reaching out to high schools, eating disorder clinics, dance studios, Girl Guides troops—anywhere teenage girls and young women gathered. And then we started doing weeklong yoga retreats, like summer camps. We reached all types. It didn’t matter who they were or where they came from. At the end of the day, to see a room of girls lying on their mats and breathing, giving themselves permission to rest and close their eyes and connect to themselves, is the most powerful thing.
Girlvana has included so many girls who are trying yoga for the first time. I work with them through that journey. For many girls, yoga breaks through their mental chatter so that they finally can calm their mind when they get to savasana at the end of a practice. What I hear from a lot of teens is “I wasn’t overthinking so much.” Or “I actually felt happy.” Teaching teenagers yoga is about creating a safe and brave space so that they don’t have to focus on doing a pose right or think about whether the girl next to them is doing it better. We aim to create a space that’s about putting people back into their bodies, about their being vulnerable and feeling out whatever they’re working with.
Part of the power of this work comes from doing it in community and sharing with each other. When we finish a practice, we sit in a circle, and everyone shares their experience of what was hard and what was great. Everyone gets to be heard and gets to feel like they’re not alone in their experience. That’s a game changer sometimes. These girls see that our stories have different characters and different plots but that so much of what we go through is universal. We all feel like we’re not good enough. We all feel sadness. And when we share our story, it creates connection even between girls who think they have nothing in common. It creates a lot of empathy and forgiveness.
Ally Maz’s Self-Love Meditation
This simple meditation is designed for you to be there for yourself and be the generator of your own love when you need it the most. The more we practice cultivating love for ourselves and showing up for ourselves, the more we can help empower those around us.
Remember that you are whole—you do not need to be fixed.
Lie down on your back.
Take the soles of your feet together and let your knees fall out to the sides.
Place one hand on your belly and the other on your heart and close your eyes.
Begin to inhale into your hands, feeling your belly and chest expand.
Exhale, relaxing deeper into the floor.
As you continue inhaling and exhaling, let the sensation of love fill your entire body. Imagine the feeling of love spreading through your head, heart, and belly.
Imagine breathing love in and breathing love out.
Remember that filling ourselves up with love will help us love others.
Keep breathing love in and out for up to five minutes.
Excerpted from Girlvana by Ally Maz. Copyright © 2021 Ally Maz. Photography by Iri Greco and Jim Fryer from Media, Damaris Riedinger, Anita Cheung, and Britney Gill. Published by Appetite by Random House®, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
Ally Maz is a yoga instructor, a writer, and the founder of the Girlvana and Ladyvana yoga retreats. Maz cofounded the yoga and fitness studio The Distrikt in Vancouver and is a founding instructor at the Venice-based mindfulness studio Open. Her first book is Girlvana: Self-Love, Yoga, and Making a Better World.
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