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Too Big for Yoga?
When Gina thinks of attending a yoga class, she feels conflicted. Part of her longs to join in, she says, but another strongly resists. Right now she remains in limbo.
“There’s a very narrow aperture of what the class could be for me to be comfortable,” she says, “because one, I’m large, I’m supersized right now, but two, I can’t do a lot of poses, and I remember being in yoga classes where I couldn’t do things, and I hated that.” Gina feels sensitive about her body, uncomfortable with her body image.
Already “huggable,” Gina says she gained more weight in the last few years after finding herself in back-to-back jobs that were intensely stressful. A resulting depression and then a shoulder injury from too much deskwork led her to eat more and exercise less, she said. Add the slowing of her metabolism as she neared age 50, and she gained enough to feel like she “crossed a line in the sand.”
“I’m not saying I ever loved my body, I never did,” she says, “but now I feel overweight, heavy, like I’m in someone else’s body.” In this state of discomfort with her body image, pain in her shoulder, and some overall stiffness, she has a hard time imagining she would be at home in a yoga class.
Fitting in with the thin and fit
Look for a yoga class, and you will find fitness yoga, Corepower yoga, Ashtanga or Iyengar practices, even hot yoga. Classes are often filled with women who are young, fit, and flexible. But if you are larger-bodied, older, recovering from an injury or managing a chronic illness, or just stiff from too much or too little exercise, you may wonder if you fit in. Yes, there are gentle classes, beginner classes, but do the rest of us really feel welcome?
This juxtaposition of the young, female, and fit versus “the rest of us” says several things about yoga and our society, says yoga teacher Anna Guest-Jelley, creator of Curvy Yoga and author of Permission to Curve: Inspiring Poses for Curvy Yogis & Their Teachers. “The stereotype of yoga in the West seems to have become one of young, thin, white, already fit and flexible women,” she says. “What’s interesting — but not surprising — is this is the same body we most often see represented in fashion magazines, advertisements, television shows and movies. So, pretty much no one feels they can live up to it.”
Too big for yoga?
The truth is that eating disorders and body image issues are both problems within the yoga community.
Yoga doesn’t magically ‘solve’ these issues,” Guest-Jelly says. In fact, sometimes it can even make them worse.
“I’ve heard from multiple people who have been point-blank told that they can’t do yoga in their current body and who have been turned away at the door,” Guest-Jelley says. She’s also heard from people who have been “actively shamed” during class, with the teacher using them as examples of what not to be.
This might sound shocking, but as Guest-Jelley points out, “yoga teachers are people who live in a world with fat bias and who can easily perpetuate it themselves if they don’t spend some time considering their beliefs and what they’re projecting onto their students.”
A more inclusive yoga class
“Most of us were raised in a society that values a particular body type to the exclusion of most others, so it’s not until we can see our own role in that that we can truly begin to make a shift,” says Guest-Jelley. From there, she says it’s a matter of seeking out resources and finding ways for yoga teachers to support both themselves and their students with kindness.
“Luckily for yoga teachers, we’re familiar with the concept of practice, which is what shifting one’s beliefs and skills around body image requires,” she adds.
But the impetus isn’t all on instructors. Guest-Jelley encourages yoga students to claim their right to practice the type of yoga that is good for them. “You can definitely equip yourself to talk with teachers about your needs and see if the environment will be a comfortable and welcoming place for you,” she says. “And I’d add that if you go to a class that isn’t welcoming, please try another!”
Body image benefits
The benefit from finding a good yoga class can be immense. Guest-Jelley started practicing yoga using VHS tapes, before there were even classes in her town. The people on the tapes all looked liked fitness models, and she aspired to look like them. However, over time, as yoga began to connect her more and more with her own body, exactly as it was in that moment, she started to shift away from that mindset and “into how incredible it is to know how to feel and meet my unique body’s needs.”
Ultimately, Guest-Jelley says it was yoga that gave her the physical strength to change her body image.
“I also went to therapy, read books, talked with friends, journaled, etcetera,” she says. “But that was all mind stuff. It wasn’t until the body was added in through yoga that I really began to experience a shift. After all, it’s hard to connect with, much less appreciate, like, or love someone or something if you have no idea how it feels. This was a gradual but definite process for me, and I see a similar one unfold for my students over time.”
No yogi left behind
Gina does find herself looking for a new way to relate to her body. She says she’s more interested in stress relief and gentle stretching because of her joint issues and shoulder injury, and she’s interested in getting more daily movement and gaining some confidence.
Yet she finds the spiritual aspect of yoga just as critical. “I need to gently move into being in relationship with my body,” she says, “so a class that goes immediately to the physical doesn’t work. I need something where maybe there’s a little meditation, where for me it becomes more spiritual . . . It’s not just that I’m physically larger taking up more cubic space, it’s that I’m disconnected, and the energy seems blocked throughout my whole body so that exacerbates the disconnection. Spiritual access gets the energy flowing, and then I can connect more and be more at ease in my skin.”
Perhaps yoga, yoga teachers, and the brave men and women whose bodies are outside the stereotype can contribute to new attitudes and new ways of relating to our bodies. We can create an environment which more closely resembles Gina’s vision, in which there are greater numbers of versatile yoga teachers and accessible yoga classes, in which “no one gets left behind” and we all feel more at ease in our skins.
3 tips for yoga teachers on how to be more inclusive:
1. Spend time examining your own beliefs about body size and physical activity. Journal, talk to friends, or listen to a podcast on curvyyoga.com.
2. Learn to use different language in class. For example, instead of talking about burning calories or losing weight in order to motivate students, consider talking about honoring your body or being able to move with more ease.
3. Learn to help bigger-bodied people adapt poses. See curvyyoga.com for ideas such as practicing a form of Downward Dog called “Puppy,” which can be done with hands against a wall.
3 tips for aspiring yogis on finding or fashioning a class that works:
1. Prepare yourself to talk with teachers about your needs and to find out if the environment will be a comfortable and welcoming place for you.
2. If you go to a class that isn’t welcoming, try another.
3. Develop your own compassion and love for your body and for going at your own pace.
At Gaiam, we think yoga should be all-inclusive! Share your stories about body image and yoga below in the comments or on our social channels: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn, Google+, Tumblr, and YouTube. Make sure to use #YogaForEveryone! You can also email your thoughts to us at email@example.com.
*Gina asked that we not use her last name for the purposes of this story.