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In life, it’s often the quietest humans who remind us what matters most.
These are the ones who unknowingly teach us simply by being who they are. There is a beauty and kindness demonstrated in their mannerisms, a special something in how their minds respond to life. If we allow them, they can be an unobtrusive reminder to us all to expand our perspectives and, perhaps, our way of being.
Harmony Willow Hansen is one of those quiet ones. When Hansen started practicing yoga several years ago, she casually observed that her body and those of most of the students on mats around her weren’t like those depicted on social media.
So she started creating illustrations that reflected what she was experiencing. Namely, people of all ages, shapes, backgrounds, and abilities practicing yoga. Some are in chairs. Others are in intense backbends. Many are in standing poses. A few are sitting in quiet meditation.
“I love yoga,” says Hansen. “And I love the way that the body looks in yoga poses. So I just sort of started drawing what I saw in class.”
An artist since she was a child, Hansen attended art school and was working as a nanny when she started capturing yoga through her perspective. “I needed some sort of creative outlet,” says Hansen. So she began to illustrate yoga poses on her iPad while she was at the playground or on the subway. She continued to turn to that outlet after starting to work as a full-time graphic designer for a financial firm.
In 2019, she quietly started sharing her experience of yoga through art on Instagram. “Honestly, I didn’t think anyone would see them,” says Hansen “It was just a place for me to put my artwork out there in the world.”
The Feeling of Being Seen
Her illustrations were seen. “The more I illustrated, the more people reached out to me saying, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s so nice to see myself reflected in your drawings,’” says Hansen, whose artwork has drawn hundreds of comments and nearly 65,000 Instagram followers. “It’s an incredible thing to get these messages from people who feel seen,” says Hansen. “I’m trying to do yoga for me, and I think a lot of people connect with that.”
Those who have commented or otherwise written to Hansen and expressed being touched by her inclusive approach are often loved ones of those who practice yoga, including persons with a prosthetic leg or a wheelchair. Finally, they said, there was an experience of being seen.
Her illustrations were also seen by the editors at Workman Publishing, who asked Hansen to compile her artwork into a book. What resulted is You Are Strong and Worthy: Celebrating the Yogi in All of Us, which comprises 256 pages of illustrations of all of us in our yoga practice. That includes those of us who are beginners, older, differently abled, trans, undergoing chemotherapy, tired, and more.
The art sometimes focuses on her preferred poses or postures that she recently challenged herself to attempt. The commonality of those portrayed in Hansen’s art is a confident exuberance that expresses yoga’s uncanny ability to meet each of us exactly where we are.
The Lessons That Find Us
The inclusive vibe of her illustrations is echoed by the carefully chosen words that Hansen incorporates into some of her art. Phrases such as, “Don’t rush the process,” “I choose my thoughts,” and “Hey you! Let that inner judgment go!”
Hansen sources her quotes from Ram Dass, the Dalai Lama, Jay Shetty, Brené Brown, and Glennon Doyle, among others. “I listen to a lot of Joe Dispenza. He really changed my life,” she says. In addition to writings and podcasts, Hansen draws inspiration from hearing a teacher mention something in class or reading what a follower sent her. And sometimes they’re her own revelations. “A lot of things just come to me when I’m walking,” says Hansen.
Although others have let her know the reassuring and encouraging effect of the words, Hansen doesn’t want them to take away from the underlying message of the bodies in the poses. Some illustrations includee only the name of the pose. But she understands that the quotes hold lessons as well. Many are reminders to herself.
“I really connected with visualization this last year and changing the negative thoughts and allowing space for positive thoughts. It’s not easy,” says Hansen of tweaking her inner narrative. “But it’s worth it.”
Her current refrain when she catches herself falling into negativity is, “Nope, this is you sabotaging yourself, you’re not going to do this any more.” Her resolve was challenged not just while writing the book but beforehand, when she was debating whether to take on the project. Imposter syndrome started to become loud in her inner world.
“I really am just the girl on the next mat. I love yoga and I love the community but I don’t know everything,” says Hansen. “I’m not some super mentally stable human who is all ‘love and light.’ I definitely have gone through periods of when the messages that I spread don’t always connect to how I feel in the moment. And it can be overwhelming when you’re spreading positivity and love and kindness but don’t always feel that way.”
Knowing the relevance of that message, for herself and others, swayed her to pursue writing a book. “The more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘Yes, there needs to be more illustrations of people doing yoga, regardless of ability and color and gender and everything.’”
Whatever the specific takeaway from her illustrations, it brings about the potential for change in perception in anyone who experiences them. And for Hansen, that’s enough. “It’s been wonderful that it goes beyond myself and touches people around the world,” she says. “It still blows my mind that I have a book coming out and I have this community.”
Her experience of feeling some element of exclusion and her work to change that perception is a reminder that the practice of yoga itself does not discriminate. There still remains room for more of that inclusion in the larger yoga community.
Harmony Willow Hansen’s book, You Are Strong and Worthy, published by Workman Publishing is available wherever books are sold. Her illustrated prints, t-shirts, totes, and more are available at Harmony Willow Studio.
About Our Contributor
Renee Marie Schettler is a senior editor at Yoga Journal and has been a writer and editor at The Washington Post, Real Simple magazine, and various other online media platforms. She started studying yoga nearly 20 years ago with teachers in New York City who challenged students to find precise alignment in a posture. Her understanding of yoga changed when she began practicing with teachers who emphasized surrendering into the quiet stillness of a pose. She finds that editing, writing, and practicing yoga are each about becoming more aware of truth. Follow her at @reneemarieschettler.