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The Fat Woman In Your Fitness Class: Yoga Is About Practice, Not Perfection

For my second Fatventure Mag column, I always planned to write about yoga: specifically, about being a fat woman in a yoga studio, a place where most people imagine the attendees as thin women with long limbs and lithe bodies.

For a long time, this was my own interpretation of yoga. I had this bias confirmed seven years ago when, shortly before my 30th birthday, I decided to give yoga a try. I’d been renting videos and DVDs from the local library and had a budding home practice, but knew an instructor would help guide my body into the correct positions.

However, the instructor whose class I randomly chose at the yoga studio up the street from me didn’t know what to do with my body. It was as if she had never even considered that fat people could and do practice yoga. Upon my arrival, she asked about my history with yoga and I mentioned the home videos, adding that I am pretty flexible. Despite this description, she still had the gall to exclaim, “Wow! You ARE flexible!” during the class.

You can’t tell from reading this column, but even now, years later, I have my eyes narrowed and I’m throwing a lot of shade in that instructor’s direction.

In the privacy of my home, yoga left me feeling fluid and powerful. Here, under her skeptical eye, I felt large and ungainly. I felt unwelcome and unwanted. Suffice it to say, I did not return to that class or that studio. In fact, I pretty much gave up all hope of ever finding a yoga instructor who would make my body feel valued and worthy.

 

Ancient yoga is a practice that is separate from the modern yoga we know today. At its origin, yoga is not a form of exercise, although we live in a society that has commercialized it as such. Instead, yoga is a form of moving meditation. It is an opportunity for the body, mind, and spirit to align as one.

In her book Every Body Yoga, Jessamyn Stanley breaks down the differences between ancient yoga and modern yoga: “Modern yoga bears the unmistakable influence of stereotypical Western values such as a focus on physical beauty and materialism. These values don’t seem to be shared by Ancient yoga, as it enjoys a more obviously ascetic and spiritual value systems. However, Modern yoga has evolved into a beautiful melange of varied perspectives and techniques, with a diverse cornucopia of practitioners. It’s truly a salute to the amazing diversity of our global melting pot.”

As proof of that cornucopia, body-positive yoga classes and fat yoga practitioners have started to gain traction in recent years. I found Anna Guest-Jelley and her website Curvy Yoga when I needed modifications for Plow that would allow me to do the pose and not suffocate thanks to my rather ample bosom pressing down on my chest and windpipe. Last year, I had the great fortune of interviewing Jessamyn Stanley when she came to Cleveland on her book tour.

Still, it is important to acknowledge that while there is a shift happening, diet culture still persists in many yoga classes. It’s why I had such a terrible experience in that very first yoga class all of those years ago: the instructor fully and completely bought into the idea that a fat woman like myself didn’t belong in a yoga studio. Diet culture told her that there was no way a body like mine could possibly keep up with the physical demands of yoga. Diet culture told her that despite my insistence I was flexible, my large body made me an unreliable narrator.

Diet culture told this stranger that based entirely on first impressions, she knew my body better than I did.

This is why I’m so grateful for women like Jessamyn and Anna; the latter even offers a Curvy Yoga certification for yoga teachers.

After that unfortunate first yoga class, I had pretty much given up on yoga, but then I went to Las Vegas and attended a yoga class at Caesar’s Palace. There, I met Swami Ramanada. His warm, inviting personality was a stark contrast to the bright, white walls of the studio room I found myself in. Swami Ramananda didn’t care what my body looked like or how it moved. Instead of being surprised at my flexibility, he complimented me on it.

This, I knew, was what a yoga class was supposed to be like, what a yoga instructor was supposed to be like, and I was determined that upon my return to Cleveland I would find a studio and teacher just as welcoming and open to bodies of all sizes. I went home and, after a quick Google search, started to make a list of yoga studios in Cleveland. My plan was to start at the one closest to my apartment and work my way down, one class at a time.

Somehow I got lucky. Or maybe it wasn’t luck; maybe it was fate, because at the closest studio to my apartment I met Jessica and was introduced to Ashtanga, a system of yoga that involves synchronizing your breath with a set sequence of poses. Here, my body was not seen as a hindrance or a complication. It was a valued, living thing. Under Jessica’s dedicated tutelage, I maintained a weekly Ashtanga practice for the next few years. As my practice grew and my confidence blossomed, I watched my body do amazing, wonderful things and I, too, started to see it as something that deserved value and love.

 

As I said, I had planned to write about yoga for my second column. However, I planned to write about yoga despite not having been to a class in a while. Not a studio class, at least. I have friends here within the local Cleveland yoga community who teach and often lead pop-up classes all over the city, so I’ve taken a yoga class here or there over the past year or two, but my frequency, my dedication, my practice have been lacking as of late.

But then, something happened in my life that encouraged me to return to a regular practice. Or perhaps more accurately, life presented me with a situation and told me that whatever comfort I needed at this time in my life could and would be found on my yoga mat.

I had moved cities since falling out of my Ashtanga habit, so I did what I did seven years ago: made a list of local yoga studios. I planned to start at the one closest to my home, buy a single class, and work my way down the list until I found one that left me feeling comfortable and welcomed.

And, just as it was seven years ago, I found what I needed at my very first visit. First impressions count, and I will judge a yoga studio entirely on the first interaction I have. Is there hesitation? Trepidation? Is my body viewed through a negative lens? After signing in at this studio, the instructor, Mary, asked if I had done yoga before. When I said yes, she nodded and said, “You look you have.” That was all I needed to know.

So two weeks before my mom died, I found myself at a yoga studio down the street from my home at 6 o’clock in the morning, sobbing on my mat while in Child’s Pose. My mom was back in the hospital: her leukemia had returned. Her time was running out, although I didn’t know it at that moment. All I knew was there was a voice in my head guiding me back to my mat.

What I had forgotten about yoga is how individualized the experience is. We are all in the room together, sharing this class, but all of us are on our own journeys. Moving through the poses is an individual act and we come to our mats knowing the goal is progress, not perfection. There’s no gold star to chase, no final exam to ace. It is a moment to celebrate my body and the amazing things it can do, even if I’m not feeling particularly flexible on a given morning.

Most of the time I am so focused on my breathing, my own movement gliding through the series of poses, I forget there are other people in the room with me. I forget that my body takes up more space than that of the skinny woman beside me. I forget about diet culture and fatphobia and ignorant idiots who believe I don’t belong in their yoga class. Because during a yoga class, it’s not about the other people in the room. It’s about me and the relationship I have with my body. In a body-inclusive class, it really is the most liberating feeling in the world.

Since that reintroduction to a studio a few weeks ago, I have continued attending a weekly yoga class. While the circumstances that led to my return are not the greatest, I am grateful for the voice that guided me home to my mat and told me that peace of mind could be found there, even if only for 45 minutes a week.

Bonus: Jessamyn Stanley’s 8-Minute Yoga for Self-Love:

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