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The principles of Health at Every Size® (HAES) informs Curvy Yoga not only because of the soundness of seeing health as individual, but also because of how it connects with yoga philosophy. Like HAES, yoga is a practice for turning inward and getting to know yourself.
The inner listening that yoga facilitates and encourages keeps me coming back to the mat and allows anyone in any body to participate in the practice. Because as you get to know your body and how to adapt the poses to it, your ability to listen within grows deeper.
Yoga isn’t only for the thin, flexible, and fit.
Like many things in life, yoga poses are often taught (even to teachers in training) on an assumed thin, fit, able, and fairly flexible body. In some ways, that makes learning and teaching the poses as a teacher easier. In that context, there is a “right” and “wrong” way to do a pose, and your job as a teacher is to help students get their body to move into the “right” way.
The only problem? Way more of us are not already thin, fit, able-bodied, and flexible than are. Even if you’re one, two, or three of those, very few folks are all four. So that means the vast majority of students will not be able to do the “right” version of the pose. And that tends to encourage one of two things for many people: (1) dropping out (or not starting in the first place) or (2) forcing your body into a version of a pose that isn’t right for you.
Of course, learning to do new things isn’t wrong, nor is challenging yourself. And it makes sense that people cannot come to yoga, no matter their body shape/size/ability, and do every pose right out of the gate. But too often what happens is that people do whatever they can to force their body into the look of a pose and compromise their alignment, balance, and safety in the process because they’re not given pose options that actually work for them.
The other thing that happens is that people get discouraged or drop out because they feel like they’ll only be able to participate if they get a new body. So here’s the good news: You don’t need a new body to start yoga. Which is great, because guess what? You’re not getting one.
But don’t worry, because neither is anyone else.
The idea of a “new body” is a myth we’re sold. Plain and simple. It could never be anything but that because we all logically know we’re never getting a new body—that even if our body changes in any way (which, of course, it does constantly), it’s not new.
Losing weight doesn’t make your body new. Neither does gaining weight. Neither does gaining muscle. Or suffering an injury. Or having an illness. Or dying your hair. Or having plastic surgery. Or having a baby. Or breaking a bone.
Some of these things may make your body feel different, but feeling, looking, or even functioning differently does not a new body make.
We’re all still us, which is better than it may sound. Because the other side of this “new body” myth is that it presupposes that new = better. Not only does this insult your “old” body, it also implies that all change is for the better, so that when something changes about our bodies that we don’t like, we’re doubly hard on ourselves.
But here’s the truth—for you, me, and everyone else—no matter what your body’s shape, size, age, or ability is, it’s yours. And that means it’s with you for the long haul—an ever-present reminder that the only true possibility if we want even a modicum of inner peace and freedom is to learn how to accept and love the one body we have.
Because even though it will change in various ways over time, nothing and no one is with us more than our one, only-new-on-day-one body. It shows up more for us than anyone or anything ever will, even when we’re not happy with it, even when we wish it were different, even when we lambaste it.
So you can just take that off the table: You don’t need to become more flexible, thinner, “more in shape” (whatever that means), or anything else to try yoga. You just have to show up.
Of course, that’s sometimes easier said than done.
Yoga doesn’t care what you look like.
I’ve had mini panic attacks in my car in the parking lots of more than one yoga studio and turned around and gone home. I’ve also gotten halfway there, freaked, and steered my car to the mall instead.
Sometimes all the good intentions in the world couldn’t outweigh the nerves that arose when I contemplated going to a new yoga class as a fat person. Even to this day, when I know I can find a version of any pose that will work for me, no matter what the teacher offers (or doesn’t), I can still feel my nervous system clanging around, asking me: Is this really a good idea?
Trying anything new can be anxiety-producing. I totally get that’s not a size-specific thing. But when something like yoga is portrayed in the mainstream as the domain of the already thin, fit, and über-flexible, and you’re not those things, it only makes sense that you might feel an extra layer of fear. That’s how our culture works: On the whole, it says who’s in—and who’s not.
This is also how any form of oppression works in our society: Those whom society has decided to favor (read: white, thin, fit, able-bodied, male, heterosexual, middle-class-at-minimum) move through the world with greater ease than the rest of us. On the whole, the rest of us are made to feel we’re not measuring up in some way when we don’t fit those criteria, though they’re arbitrary criteria that Western society decided to privilege in the first place. So that’s what privilege means: Some people move through our world with more ease due to certain traits society deems “better.”
For example, one form of privilege is thin privilege. People who live in thin bodies are generally held up as beautiful, desirable, and the ideal we should all be working toward. Except, of course, all bodies are different, and every body can’t be a thin body, for a host of different reasons.
So what happens when thin privilege shows up in yoga, as it often does? A self-perpetuating cycle is created. Yoga is taught to thin students, who feel good about participating because it’s geared to their body, so then they become thin teachers who have likely only been taught to teach thin students, who teach thin students who become thin teachers and so on and so on. Soon, you’re to the point where when you ask any random people on the street who yoga is for, they’re more likely than not going to identify a thin, fit, über-flexible, able-bodied person.
All this to say that when fat people go to yoga classes, it’s with less privilege than thin people. This has nothing to do with individuals, who may or may not ���feel” that they have more or less privilege, but rather with our society as a whole. For example, a thin person may say she’s not privileged because she grew up poor. But that’s not accurate. Because while that means she doesn’t have as much class privilege as someone who did not grow up poor, she still has thin privilege. One form doesn’t negate another. We almost all have areas where we have privilege and others where we don’t.
For example, as a fat woman, I don’t have thin privilege. But as someone who is white, heterosexual, cisgendered, with advanced degrees, and who grew up middle class, I have an abundance of privilege in those areas. It’s not either/or.
When we know that, generally, thin privilege rules the day in yoga classes (though, thankfully, that is slowly starting to shift), it makes sense that going to class as a curvy person can be a big deal that is intensified even more at the intersections of other identities. It also makes sense that even when you become more comfortable with your body, there still may be different contexts that bring it up again.
But every class isn’t a Curvy Yoga class.
Some people don’t think that this is an issue, though, or rather they don’t think it should be. The most common complaint I hear people have about Curvy Yoga is that some folks don’t think it’s needed because they think all students should be able to practice in all classes comfortably. These people fear that classes that are explicitly welcoming to curvy bodies are stigmatizing and silo students into never being able to participate anywhere else. But, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Curvy classes aren’t the only place to practice; they’re just a place to practice for people who want it. These classes are no different than classes for seniors, pregnant women, people with back pain or any other type of specialized class. People have come together in solidarity and community when they so choose to get the support they want in a way that works for them, whether yoga related or not, for probably as long as we humans have been around. And even if all classes became curvy friendly overnight, I still think there’d be a place for Curvy Yoga classes because of the intentional community they create.
The next thing people share with me is usually something along the lines that yoga doesn’t care what you look like. Here’s what I always tell those folks: I agree! It would be wonderful if all yoga classes were accommodating of all bodies! But we don’t yet live in that world. Because while the practice of yoga doesn’t care what you look like, much of the culture certainly does, and yoga teachers, classes, studios, and students are part of that culture.
The truth is that not every yoga class is designed to meet the needs of curvy bodies, not even classes called Beginners, Gentle, Hatha, or even Restorative. Because many yoga teachers learn to teach students who live in thin, already flexible and able bodies, it’s not the pace of the class that’s most relevant, but the instructions and options that are included (or not).
Yoga instruction we see in most classes these days has come to us through a blend of yoga asana, gymnastics, aerobics, and more. Like any other facet of culture, it is influenced and shaped by the current moment. This is why we see poses today that weren’t around even 20 years ago, never mind more. With that in mind, it’s even less surprising that current yoga instruction (and past yoga instruction) mostly targets the already thin—because all contemporary fitness culture (and society) does the same. And the types of yoga and fitness information that fat people typically receive, like “Try harder,” “Go faster,” “Sit this one out,” or even “Use props” (if there’s no information on how or why to use them) are nothing but shame-based so-called motivators, not truly relevant information about the needs of curvy bodies.
And these are just the technical, yoga pose–based reasons why creating space for curvy people to practice is important. The other reasons are based on the exclusion that many fat folks feel in yoga classes that do not offer, or sometimes even fail to attempt to offer, pose options that work for them, even in classes that are purportedly for everyone. Many of these classes do not offer more than one pose option, even if the teacher is well-intentioned in being welcoming (as many are). When yoga classes lack body diversity and relevant instruction, it’s not difficult to realize that curvy folks may feel as if they’re on the fringes—because they’re often literally told to just hang out in Child’s Pose (which is not even a comfortable pose as it’s traditionally taught for many curvy-bodied people) while the rest of the class does the “real” poses (whether that message is conveyed implicitly or explicitly).
This isn’t to say there aren’t yoga teachers and classes that have raised their awareness about the thin privilege dynamic and consciously sought ways not only to say that their yoga is inclusive, but to enhance their skills in order to meet the needs of a variety of students. Blessedly, these teachers do exist, and their number is growing all the time.
I remember when I first started practicing yoga. The teachers gave the same instructions over and over again, and everyone else seemed to blissfully go along with them (though, in hindsight, I realize that probably wasn’t even true). I, however, kept thinking: “How can I stand with my feet together here? My knees hurt!” or “Put my belly on my thighs?! It was there the second we leaned forward an inch (2.5 cm)!”
The underlying internal commentary I heard was simply this: “What’s wrong with me?” “What’s wrong with me?” “What’s wrong with me?”
It’s not a question I needed any time to answer, because I always knew the answer. I’d known the answer since I was a child: too fat, too fat, too fat.
You don’t always have to listen to the yoga teacher.
When teachers don’t acknowledge that more exists in their students’ bodies than muscles and bones, they leave the rest to the imagination. And in a thin-privileged world, the “imagination” (because it’s more like all the received messages up to that point) has a tendency to fill in the blank with this: “My body is wrong.”
Because as we’ve discussed, whatever we keep in the silence is a ripe candidate for shame. And when teachers don’t acknowledge that your belly may feel compressed in a forward bend and that you can simply step your feet a little wider or move it to make space, you’re left to either stay and feel uncomfortable or, as is true for many people, assume that yoga isn’t right for you and abandon the practice entirely.
This doesn’t have to happen, though. With the necessary information to practice in a way that works for their bodies, curvy folks can then practice in any type or style of class they choose, including curvy-style classes or not. That’s the beauty of all the yoga options available today: People can go with what works for them, not be forced to choose between struggle or not participating at all.
I’ve seen this so often as a teacher. When I first started Curvy Yoga, I assumed that the only people who would be into it would be other curvy folks like me. Boy, was I wrong.
From day one, I’ve had students of every shape and size in class. At first, I found myself thinking, “Have these thin folks gotten lost?” But soon, my mind and heart opened to just how many of us are affected by feelings of bodily disconnection and feelings of not measuring up, no matter what our body shape or size. I quickly realized through talking with my students that being in a body affirming space where everyone is given the support and tools they need to be in their own body and experience is a rare and powerful thing.
Here’s the thing, though: Just because many shapes and sizes may attend curvy-type classes, that doesn’t mean we can just get rid of the name, call the class “yoga for all” or something like that, and call it a day. Because I do think that drawing attention (and more importantly, knowledge) to the issue of curvy bodies in yoga classes is essential, as is letting folks know that these are places that are explicitly welcoming. Fat people do face unique stigma, bias, and discrimination based on their size that must be acknowledged and addressed. There truly are things that students and teachers need to know in order to help curvy students practice more comfortably. And as more of us bring this into our lives, practices, and communities, I think we’re slowly moving away from a narrow (often literally) definition of yoga and into a more open and individualized practice that suits the needs of the user. This means considering the needs of curvy bodies as well as all others. We all benefit when the focus is on listening to our body within the parameters of safety because it gives all of us the permission to find what works for us. And it is from this place that the seed of body acceptance can grow.
See also 6 Excerpts on Yoga and Body Image
Reprinted with permission from Curvy Yoga© 2017 by Anna Guest-Jelley, Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.
About the Author
Anna Guest-Jelley is the founder of Curvy Yoga, an online yoga studio and teacher training center that helps people of all sizes find true acceptance and freedom, both on and off the mat. Anna is also the author of Curvy Yoga: Love Yourself & Your Body a Little More Each Day and the co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery & Loving Your Body. To learn more about Curvy Yoga, visit CurvyYoga.com