Not only is it possible to be fat and do yoga, it’s possible to master and teach it.
In the various yoga classes I’ve attended, I’m usually the biggest body. It’s not unexpected.
Even though yoga is an ancient Indian practice, it’s become heavily appropriated in the Western world as a wellness trend. Most of the images of yoga in ads and on social media are of thin, white women in expensive athletic gear.
If you don’t fit into those characteristics, it can be a mental battle to sign up in the first place. When I first stepped into a yoga studio, I questioned whether I’d be able to do it at all.
It’s not for people like me, I thought.
Still, something told me to do it anyway. Why shouldn’t I have a chance to experience the physical and mental benefits of yoga, just like everyone else?
I went to my first class a few years ago at a studio in my neighborhood. I’ve been to a couple of different locations since then, but it’s been a bumpy road.
At times, it can feel embarrassing to be the only larger-bodied person in the room. Everyone struggles with certain postures now and then, but the experience is a lot more charged when everyone assumes you’re struggling because you’re fat.
After class one day, I chatted with the instructor about my body not reaching very far in certain poses. In a soothing, gentle voice, she said, “Well, maybe it’s a wakeup call.”
She didn’t know anything about my health, habits, or life. She assumed purely on my body shape that I needed a “wakeup call.”
Yoga fatphobia isn’t always as blatant as that.
Sometimes larger-bodied people like myself are prodded and poked a bit more than everyone else, or encouraged to force our bodies into postures that don’t feel right. Sometimes we’re completely ignored, as if we’re a lost cause.
Some of the equipment, like the adjustable bands, were too small for me, even at their max. Sometimes I had to do a different pose entirely, or was told to go into Child’s Pose and wait for everybody else.
My former instructor’s “wakeup call” comment made me think my body was the problem. If I lost weight, I thought, I’d be able to do the poses better.
Even though I was committed to practicing, going to yoga class made me feel anxious and unwelcome as time went on.
This is the opposite of what yoga should make you feel. It’s the reason that I and so many others eventually quit.
Thank goodness for the internet. There are plenty of fat people online showing the world that not only is it possible to be fat and do yoga, it’s possible to master and teach it.
Finding these accounts on Instagram helped me reach levels in yoga practice I never imagined I could. They also made me realize that the only thing holding me back from doing so was stigma.
Jessamyn Stanley is an accomplished yoga influencer, teacher, author, and podcaster. Her Instagram feed is full of photos of her doing shoulder stands and strong, incredible yoga poses.
She proudly calls herself fat and makes a point of doing so repeatedly, saying, “It’s probably the most important thing I can do.”
The fatphobia in yoga spaces is merely a reflection of society. The word “fat” has become weaponized and used as an insult, loaded with the belief that fat people are lazy, unintelligent, or have no self-control.
Stanley doesn’t subscribe to the negative association. “I can be fat, but I can also be healthy, I can also be athletic, I can also be beautiful, I can also be strong,” she told Fast Company.
Among the thousands of likes and positive comments from followers, there are always people commenting with fat-shaming. Some accuse her of promoting an unhealthy lifestyle.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. Stanley is a yoga instructor; she’s literally trying to promote health and wellness to people who are normally excluded from the wellness narrative.
Most importantly, health shouldn’t be a measure of someone’s worth. Everybody, regardless of health, deserves to be treated with dignity and value.
Jessica Rihal became a yoga teacher because she saw the lack of body diversity in yoga classes. Her mission is to inspire other fat people to do yoga and become teachers, and to push back on the limited beliefs of what fat bodies are capable of.
In a recent interview, Rihal told US News that “bodies that are not typical/average and people of color need more representation in yoga and wellness in general.”
Rihal is also an advocate of using props. In yoga, there’s a persistent myth that using props is “cheating,” or a sign of weakness. For many fat yoga practitioners, props can be great tools to help them get into certain poses.
Because yoga has been dominated by thin people for so long, teacher training itself is focused on how to train thin bodies. Larger-bodied students may be forced into positions that go against the alignment or balance of their bodies. This can be uncomfortable, even painful.
Rihal believes it’s important for instructors to know how to offer a modification for people who have large breasts or a belly. There are times when you might need to move your belly or breasts with your hands to get into the right position, and being shown how empowers people to get it right.
As an instructor, Rihal wants to help people practice with the body they have now, and not send the usual message of, “Someday, you’ll be able to…”
She hopes the yoga community will start promoting more inclusivity and not focus so much on difficult postures like headstands, which can scare people out of trying yoga.
“That stuff is cool and all, but it’s sensational and not even necessary,” Rihal told US News.
Edyn Nicole’s YouTube videos include open discussions on disordered eating, body positivity, and weight stigma, and push back against mainstream fatphobic narratives.
While she’s a master of many things — makeup, podcasting, YouTube, and teaching yoga — Nicole doesn’t think that mastery is essential to yoga.
During an intensive yoga teacher training course, she didn’t have the time to master her moves. Instead, she learned one of the most important lessons she could as a teacher: Embrace imperfections, and be where you are right now.
“This is what your pose looks like now, and that’s fine, because yoga isn’t about perfect poses,” she says in her YouTube video on the subject.
While many people do yoga as a purely physical form of exercise, Nicole found that her confidence, mental health, and Christian faith grew stronger through movement and meditations.
“Yoga is so much more than a workout. It’s healing and transformative,” she says.
She didn’t see any Black people or anyone of her size in yoga class. As a result, she was moved to be that person. Now she motivates others like her to train.
“People need a realistic example of what yoga can be,” she says in her video. “You don’t need a headstand to teach yoga, you need a big heart.”
Laura E. Burns
Laura Burns, yoga teacher, author, activist, and founder of Radical Body Love, believes people can be happy in their body as it is.
Burns and the fat yoga movement want you to know that you don’t have to use yoga to change your body. You can use it simply to feel good.
Burns uses her platform to encourage self-love, and her yoga practice is based on the same premise. According to her website, yoga is meant to “foster a deeper connection and a more loving relationship with your body.”
She wants people to stop hating their bodies and appreciate what a body is and does for you. “It carries you through the world, nurturing and supporting you during your life,” she says.
Burns’ classes are designed to teach you how to do yoga with the body you have so you can go into any yoga class feeling confident.
People like Stanley, Rihal, Nicole, Burns, and others are pushing to create visibility for fat people who accept themselves as they are.
Seeing photos on my feed of these women of color doing yoga helps break down the idea that thin (and white) bodies are better, stronger, and more beautiful. It helps reprogram my brain that my body is not a problem.
I, too, can enjoy the feeling of strength, lightness, power, and movement of yoga.
Yoga isn’t — and shouldn’t — be a wakeup call to change your body. As these yoga influencers attest, you can enjoy the feelings of strength, calm, and grounding that yoga provides with your body just as it is.