By Tiffany Kell
So if you want to make gains in flexibility, there’s an obvious option, right? You take up yoga.
Well, maybe. Me and yoga? We’re complicated.
When I started Project Bendypants, I committed to taking two classes of yoga a week, in addition to my regular daily home practice. I thought hey, yoga instructors are professional teachers of flexibility! Clearly they could take me further than I could go on my own. And given that I live in Los Angeles, there’s a yoga studio on every corner. Win!
Turns out, it wasn’t so simple. You see, I apparently committed an unspoken offense to many of the yoga teachers I encountered: I attempted to practice yoga while fat.
I expect a certain amount of fat bias in every fitness class I attend. After all, the majority of the country has the (scientifically false) idea that fatness and fitness are mutually exclusive. And I’m under no illusions. I know that many people take fitness classes just so *they won’t end up looking like me.* Sigh.
But yoga has been a little different from other classes for me, I suspect for two main reasons. First, I am different in yoga classes. In particular, I struggle, a lot. (See: reasons I’m undertaking Project Bendypants.) In most fitness classes, I get the unmitigated pleasure of disproving all those secret and not-so-secret assumptions that people have about fat folks and athleticism. I am fit, I am strong, and I am athletic, and that tends to freak people out, in the best possible way. Typically, not only am I keeping up, I’m one of the best students in a class.
With yoga, not so much. Flexibility really is my Achilles heel. There are some beginning poses I can’t even get into yet, much less do well. So I’m a rank beginner, and as a struggling fat student, I fit into the stereotypes that many teachers have about fat people.
I’m not going to lie. This is difficult for me. I lean on the privilege of being athletic and able-bodied to buffer me from the hostility that people sometimes throw at me for being a fat person working out in public. With this shield stripped away, I am left vulnerable, naked of my normal defenses. I have to keep reminding myself that this privilege should not be the admission ticket to acceptance, even if people often treat it that way. Here’s the reality: athleticism is not some kind of moral requirement, and I don’t owe being *good* at something to anyone. But man, giving up that privilege is hard stuff.
There is, however, another difference. In most of the yoga classes I’ve attended, the instructors offer guidance on non-physical elements. They ask us to quiet our minds, focus on our breath, connect with the earth. They give attention to both the body and the spirit.
Though I live and work in the hard sciences, I love this stuff. With the right instructor, a little woo with my yoga helps center me and enriches my practice. But this kind of holistic focus can be an invitation for concern trolling when you’re fat.
Many yoga teachers assume they know a lot about me because I’m fat. A lot. They make assumptions about me and my relation to my body, and not only are those assumptions false, they are offensive.
Often, yoga teachers ask me if I’ve ever considered *starting* a fitness program. I let them know I work out 10+ hours a week.
Often, yoga teachers treat me differently than all the other students, either peppering me with questions about my “disabilities” or refusing to make eye contact with me.
Often, they assume I’m new, without asking.
Often, they offer me “encouragement” that yoga will help me lose weight. I have taken to replying that I’m currently focusing on losing height.
Often, they refuse to touch me, offering minor adjustments to aid other students into poses and just leaving me to my own devices. Or they insist on trying to physically adjust me into poses that are are not possible with the shape of my body (those DDDs aren’t two dimensional, you know).
Of all the sports and athletics I have participated in as a fat person, yoga has sadly been one of the most judgmental and the least emotionally safe. This is particularly painful given the principles of compassion and reflection that yoga is built around. I’m not entirely sure what to do with this.
The worst part has been that when the yoga’s good, it’s *great.* I mean that. I could seriously get into this stuff. I have fallen madly in love with a particular Yin Yoga class. Yin focuses on reorienting the body relative to gravity. Practitioners use props — lots of them — to assist in poses, and then you hold those poses for minutes at a time. It opens you up in ways that simple stretching just can’t accomplish, and it’s the perfect compliment for someone like me, whose training primarily focuses on strength.
But here’s the thing: it’s not the yoga itself that makes the class great. I like Yin, but I’ve taken it with a number of instructors now, and it’s always different. No, the thing that makes my favorite class so great is the instructor.
He is fantastic. Every night, he asks the whole class if anyone is new to yoga, or has any injuries or concerns he should know about, making no assumptions. Every night, he invites each student to wave him over if they want assistance. He welcomes us individually, making eye contact with each of us. And more than once, when I’ve been shaky in a hard pose, he appeared at my side with a bolster or a block, silently sliding it into place to support me. He’s not afraid to touch me when it will help my practice, but he doesn’t do it when it won’t. He makes me understand why people fall in love with yoga.
The only problem? I haven’t found many more like him. When I become independently wealthy, I intend to hire him as my personal yoga coach and learn to meditate my way to a standing heel stretch. But in the meantime, I have this membership to a yoga studio and only feel welcome in a few of the classes.
But you know what? If we only go where we’re welcome, we’ll leave a lot of doors closed. So I’m trying to go to more yoga, beyond my beloved Yin class. If the instructors don’t love having a fat person there, well, then it’ll be a good learning opportunity for everyone. And if they’re not willing to love bodies like mine, I’ll love it enough for both of us.
Tiffany Kell is a dancer with More Cabaret, a professional troupe of fat dancers and athletes based out of Los Angeles. She is a newly hatched yoga fanatic. When she is not twisting her body in interesting ways, she teaches at a local university.
Article originally published at MoreCabaret.com, reposted with permission.