How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.
I’m a 43-year-old “small fat” woman who is also a dedicated yogi. I’ve been practicing yoga for 18 years, and it’s the only activity I’ve consistently kept up with on a weekly basis since 2000. In a recent yoga class, I found myself next to a tall, white cisgender man who couldn’t have been older than 25. I could tell almost instantly that this was his first yoga class: He flailed his way through, often looking around to see what he should be doing.
My yoga teacher isn’t one of those teachers who dumbs down her classes for newbies. She uses Sanskrit more often than English to refer to poses, and keeps her classes hard core in a very distinctly yoga way. That is to say, they’re not competitive or aggressive, but they’re strenuous. This isn’t a gentle yoga class.
I bet $100 this guy didn’t expect a yoga class to be that hard. Although any experienced yogi knows there are variations that allow students ranging from beginner to advanced to practice each pose, he didn’t opt for the less difficult variations my teacher offered. I saw him fail repeatedly to get into poses he wasn’t ready for — poses he clearly didn’t have the flexibility to complete or hold.
But it wasn’t just his lack of flexibility. He couldn’t keep up with all the vinyasas and likely didn’t have enough core strength to maintain Warrior II pose. He was clearly a determined newbie set on trying the most difficult variations instead of the easier ones he needed to be doing. I couldn’t help but think to myself that a female newbie to yoga would be less likely to assume she could do the classic versions of poses right away, and that his male ego was getting in the way of his practice.
I’m the one who shouldn’t be able to hang with a strenuous class, not him. And yet I was beating him
Now, I know what fellow yogis reading this are thinking: It’s verboten to take joy at someone else’s pain and hardship. It contradicts the practice of ahimsa, or non-harming and nonviolence, that’s so integral to the practice of yoga. Our eyes should always stay on our mat. We should never compare ourselves to fellow practitioners because every body is unique and has different abilities. We shouldn’t act on feelings of judgment toward ourselves or others. We should acknowledge them, let them pass, and come back to our ujjayi breath.
So, given this important principle, perhaps it’s not surprising that — in what I can only assume is some kind of karmic justice — my gloating and feelings of superiority resulted in my own yoga practice suffering.
For the first time in months, I couldn’t come up into a steady headstand, a pose I’ve been able to do for years, even after putting on weight after having each of my kids. It seems that my failure to keep my eyes and mind on my own mat came back to bite me.
Beyond the consequences for my own practice, I was also aware that in judging this guy, I was assuming a lot without having ever spoken to him. Then again, this is the way women, people of color, LGBTQ people, disabled people, fat people, and other marginalized groups are lumped together and stereotyped every day.
We aren’t the standard, and we often aren’t allowed to contain multitudes. Everything we do is measured against white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, nonobese men.
Fatphobia, in particular, still runs rampant in our culture
It isn’t stigmatized the way racism and sexism are. This is evidenced, for example, by the 2018 Netflix show “Insatiable,” which despite the fact that it was widely panned by critics for its fat-shaming (among other issues), it was renewed for a second season. Then, there are the many misguided fat-shaming comments and jokes directed toward politicians like Chris Christie and Donald Trump, which many “woke” people believe is justified because of these politicians’ odious policies.
However, as fat activists have pointed out, these comments don’t hurt their intended targets. They merely reinforce fatphobic sentiments that harm average fat people whose actions, unlike those of Trump, don’t hurt anyone.
This is why I’m so thrilled about the recently debuted Hulu show “Shrill,” starring Aidy Bryant and based on Lindy West’s memoir of the same name, which challenges the pervasive fatphobia in our society. Not only does it address common myths about fat people, like the idea that fatness and health are mutually exclusive, but, in a remarkable episode, it features dozens of fat women at a pool party, unashamed to show off their swimsuit bodies and simply enjoying life. I’ve never seen that type of representation on the big or small screen, and it feels revolutionary.
Given how deep-seated the stereotypes of fat people are, I couldn’t help but feel good thinking that this man in my yoga class might have looked over and been surprised at how strong and flexible I am for a fat woman who also isn’t a spring chicken.
Yoga classes can be a difficult place for fat women
We all know how a yogi is expected to look — lithe, muscular, no excess body fat. It takes guts for fat women to put our bodies on display, to put ourselves in a situation where we feel we’ll be judged, and also to have to acknowledge that there are some poses our fatness won’t allow us to do.
And yet, it’s during my yoga practice that I feel the strongest physically. It’s the only place where I can be, at least temporarily, thankful for and appreciate the body I was given, its strength, flexibility, and endurance. Since having my second child 16 months ago, there are certain poses, particularly twists, that are frustratingly challenging because of my bigger postpartum belly.
I won’t lie — I wish I didn’t have that belly. But when I’m in the zone and locked in to my breathing, I don’t feel fat. I just feel strong.
I’m fully aware that I let my ego get the better of me in class that day, and wasn’t able to practice ahimsa while feeling smug and comparing myself to that guy. I guess the more relevant question is: Is being judgmental really harmful if the target of scorn doesn’t know about it and it has no negative consequences for their life? I would say that it’s not.
Practicing ahimsa is a lifelong journey that I’ll never fully achieve or perfect. As a crucial episode of one of the best shows on TV, “The Good Place,” showed us, reaching a level of complete non-harming and selflessness isn’t really possible.
Although I fully recognize that my judgmental tendencies can be harmful — primarily to myself, as my fat body is the most common target of my scorn — ultimately, it was only silent ridicule I directed toward this guy.
At the end of the day I’m not proud of my judgmental tendencies, particularly within my yoga practice, but I take consolation in the fact that my judgment was directed toward someone who walks around with various forms of privilege. It may be that true empowerment can never come at someone else’s expense, but, at least temporarily, it felt good to beat a young white guy at yoga.
Rebecca Bodenheimer is an Oakland-based freelance writer and cultural critic whose work has been published at CNN Opinion, Pacific Standard, The Lily, Mic, Today's Parent, and more. Follow Rebecca on Twitter @rmbodenheimer and check out her writing here.