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Amber Karnes is well aware that the body positivity movement has been co-opted by commercial campaigns designed to sell us soap and overpriced razors under the guise of developing self-esteem. But when she founded Body Positive Yoga in 2010, the concept was more about social justice than capitalism—“to make room and access for all bodies,” she says.
At the time, Karnes was halfway through a yearlong 200-hour teacher training, and the same issues kept cropping up in class: She and the other students were learning how to teach poses in a way that’s really only effective for one body type: thin and able. “I was always the person giving feedback, like, ‘Well, actually, my foot doesn’t step forward between my hands,’” Karnes tells me one August afternoon as we sat on a sun-kissed park bench overlooking the Inner Harbor in Baltimore’s Federal Hill Park, near her home. “It was like, Oh! We’re actually not learning how to teach to bodies like mine.”
In the decade since Karnes started documenting her yoga practice and sharing how-to videos for bodies like hers online, she’s made a name for herself as a teacher and retreat leader, working with other wellness disruptors, such as social justice activist and author Dianne Bondy (with whom she launched Yoga for All Training—a course for teachers who want to make their classes and studios more inclusive and equitable—in 2015) and Accessible Yoga founder and director Jivana Heyman. Karnes and Heyman started the Accessible Yoga Training School in June and launched a podcast in July. “I just was not really prepared for how meaningful it would be to so many people to see somebody in a body like theirs in a wellness or fitness context practicing yoga,” Karnes says.
Karnes has always enjoyed sharing hacks for ways she’s figured out how to modify her practice. People often think their own bodies preclude them from participating in certain poses, she says, when the reality is that any posture, when adapted the right way, can work for anyone. For example, tightening a strap around your chest to keep your flesh away from your throat in inversions allows for more spaciousness and fuller breath. This small revelation can be life-changing for students, Karnes says.
“Usually if someone has a large chest and that’s been troublesome to them in their practice, there’s this aha exclamation moment that totally changes the way they see themselves and their practice.”
Finding Body Neutrality
When Karnes and I met, if it hadn’t been 2020—the dumpster fire scorched by a global pandemic—she would have just recently returned home from her Body Positive Yoga Summer Camp, a retreat she began leading in 2015. For five days, groups of 20 gather in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains on the Maury River to practice yoga and self-acceptance with Karnes. There’s swimming and dancing and rock jumping and 360-degree mountain views and lifelong friendships forged among the trees. “People in larger bodies are hyperaware of how much space they take up,” says Andrea DiMaio, a yoga teacher who has studied with Karnes through Accessible Yoga and attended her summer camp last year. “But here, you can take as much space as you want to, and it’s fine, and it’s welcome, and it’s encouraged. You can simply enjoy the swim, the sun, the feeling of the water and the air. You don’t have to have this constant reel in your mind: Do I look too big? or whatever. You can dance and be fully in your body and experience the moment of joy—of reckless abandon, of moving with the music.”
Indeed, Karnes really shines when she’s celebrating others—and helping them celebrate themselves. “The way I build community is I create the space that I want to be in, one that doesn’t exist [elsewhere],” she tells me in her slight Southern drawl. With Body Positive Yoga Summer Camp, Karnes created an atmosphere where people feel free to be themselves in their bodies, learning to love them—or at least accept them. “If we don’t get to love, that’s OK. It’s a pretty tall order,” she admits.
Karnes says she’s carved out a path toward loving her own body by embracing a practice of using nonjudgmental words to acknowledge the body’s existence and functions rather than its appearance—and by questioning the systems, such as the patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy, that profit from fatphobia. By examining who benefitted from her hating her appearance in the first place, and by connecting physically with her body through yoga, she embraces what she calls “being unbothered” by how she looks. Choosing thoughts such as I have a body or These are the thighs of a human being rather than body-positive messages (My body is beautiful!) that often still equate beauty with worth, is the first step. “I’m not trying to sell myself on anything,” she says. “This isn’t something you’re going to embroider on a pillow or make a Pinterest graphic out of.”
“I love that she’s direct, and she’s an unusual personality in yoga,” Heyman says of Karnes’s natural, unapologetic honesty and insight. “Most yoga teachers try to put on this façade of peacefulness and rising above it all. She doesn’t do that. She’s so grounded and authentic—yoga is about being here in this body right now, and she [embodies that].”
Breaking Down Oppressive Systems
Perhaps loving our bodies is so difficult because we live in a society with a $60-billion-a-year diet industry that carries a regression rate of more than 80 percent, where beauty standards teach us “that our body is a problem to be solved or a project to constantly be worked on,” Karnes says. And this is the very problem with the body positive movement as it exists today, she says: “If all we’re doing is taking the same old beauty standard but saying that now plus-size people can play, that everyone can be beautiful, we’re still putting that emphasis on appearance. We’re still connecting beauty to worth.” Instead, Karnes says, we need to remember that we’re inherently deserving just as we are and don’t need to be fixed. “Because we’re all marinating in this soup of ‘your body is connected to how worthy you are,’ we forget that there’s actually a higher purpose we could serve other than being hyperfixated on our appearance, which by the way, is one of the things that’s guaranteed to change.”
Karnes proposes we throw out the existing measuring stick and instead focus our energies on real problems, such as inequity and our dying planet. And to do that, we need to abandon the profit-driven way of life we were born into, she says: “Whether we’re running a studio or we’re a teacher, our decisions can be human centered rather than profit centered.”
Of course, Karnes understands that businesses need to make money in order to survive—she’s running one herself, after all. But the choices she makes sometimes mean sacrificing dollars or accolades in order to feel in higher alignment with her true Self. “I share my platform a lot,” she says. “If I’m offered an opportunity, I ask myself if it’s something that I can pass along.” In the past, she’s said no to teacher training jobs and ads for major national brands so she could share the opportunity with someone less represented than she.
In fact, a prevailing theme in her personal practice and her teaching is the idea of personal agency and power—rejecting the notion that our circumstances (the dream job, big house, successful business, perfect body) define who we are or how we feel about ourselves. Yoga helps dismantle that idea, teaching us that we have everything we need inside of us and helping us work with the mind to cultivate intentional thoughts and self-compassion that then inform how we show up for others. “We all have that spirit, that inner radiance, that spark of divinity that defines the experience of being alive and being human,” Karnes says. “And if we can start that journey of turning inward and remembering the truth of who we are, and get in touch with that wholeness of the human experience—and not just the pretty parts—we can more easily see that and recognize that in other people, too.” Because beauty, it turns out, is not something we see with our eyes at all. It’s felt from within.