Project Bendypants: Practicing Yoga While Fat

Tiffany Kell headshotSo 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

96 thoughts on “Project Bendypants: Practicing Yoga While Fat

  1. Thank you. I have taught yoga for 16 years and still have a lot to learn. I’m so glad you are one of my teachers.

  2. I am glad you have found one wonderful teacher. But really really saddened to hear that most of your yoga experiences have been negative. My guess is that has a lot to do with how trendy yoga has become as a form of exercise, and how the more athletic styles get commodified and used for body-sculpting, helping people “look hot.” Which really takes things away from the origins of the tradition, which is really all about spiritual growth. In some ways it’s great that yoga is spreading through North America as it is –we certainly need it –but there are also ways it is very problematic. As you’re describing.

    I am a yoga teacher myself. And i and my teachers, the ones who trained and formed me as a yogini, strongly believe that yoga is for EVERY BODY. I’m not skinny either, though i’m not exactly what someone would call fat. Just a little on the chunky side of average, i think, lol. I do get some larger students in my classes, and, as far as i’m aware, i treat them the same as everyone else. I teach mostly beginners, and so put a lot of effort into helping all my students feel safe on all levels and welcomed in my classes. Although in my heart i congratulate the larger students on their bravery –as i know that larger women get judged harshly all the time, and it therefore takes significant bravery for them to exercise in public. I am always honoured when any student comes back for repeat sessions, and speaks about my classes with enthusiasm. And as a couple of my larger students have, i guess i’m doing okay in this area!

    I will say it bothers me that you are paying for a studio membership, but not feeling welcomed in all the classes there. Have you tried talking to studio management? Maybe they could give their instructors some sensitivity training? I have a yoga teacher friend who is a larger woman herself, and has taken special “Yoga for Round Bodies” training. Maybe there is something like that in your area? I think the “Yoga for Round Bodies” is a brand –you could google it. I would really like to take this training myself some day, as i think it’s important to make yoga accessible to everyone –but i just don’t know when i’ll have the time and money.

    Anyways, you may also want to try different studios –there may be a yoga studio on every corner in LA, but no all studios are created equal, not at all. You may also want to consider looking for Iyengar or Kripalu yoga –these styles are less likely to be as competitive and judgemental as the more athletic flow styles. I teach and practice Iyengar-based myself –i haven’t lost a pound doing it, but have gained tremendously in flexibility, balance, overall health, muscle development, and inner peace and love for and awareness of my body. The latter points being the real point of yoga. :)

    Also –i really appreciate you talking about being privileged to be able-bodied. I live with disabling digestive problems and a chronic pain condition myself, so always have to be careful to not overdo exercise, or any kind of busy-ness or activity. So i really appreciate able-bodied people who do recognize and speak to how privileged they are, rather than just take it for granted.

    I hope you don’t mind all the advice here –but if any of this helps you to have a better view of and experience with yoga, i would be glad! All the best in your yogic journey!

  3. Pingback: Bravery: Project Bendypants | this gentle breath

  4. Thank you for being vulnerable and sharing this. Very raw & insightful. I especially appreciate your resilience and unwavering belief in the practice. May you continue to follow your inner teacher.

  5. Very well put and I particularly appreciated how you are willing to head out of your personal comfort zone as an ambassador/activist. Embracing difference is the road to a sustainable and equitable society, and if only those who are “similar” associate or participate in visible activities within society, then no progress will ever be made in fostering a true love of all diversity (versus just a tolerance or acceptance, if that). Thanks for sharing!

  6. Pingback: Practicing yoga while fat | Fitness Juju

  7. This was a powerful post. As someone who’s tried yoga at home (and struggled with basic poses) but is determined to go to a class, I admit you touched on some of my fears. But as you said, “If we only go where we’re welcome, we’ll leave a lot of doors closed.” So I’m gonna try. Thanks for inspiring me!

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  9. Thank you so much for sharing this! I’m so sorry to hear about your experience, but as a yoga teacher who specializes in folks with curvy bodies, I can say that I know it’s all too common. Kudos to your awesome teacher, though! I LOVE that you are still willing to try other classes and see who resonates.

    I would be so happy to send you a copy of my book, which is all about practicing yoga comfortably with a fat body. Get in touch at http://www.curvyyoga.com/contact & I’ll get a copy to you right away!

    Thanks again!

    • Hello Anna! I bought a copy of your book recently — I love it! It has been enormously helpful for me in learning how to modify poses for my particular body. My first few weeks of yoga were rough because I just didn’t understand the mechanics of what I was aiming for. Books like yours (and other places where I can see pictures/videos of people with substantial bellies/bottoms/breasts/etc executing poses) were instrumental in me finding joy in yoga. Thank you for creating such a resource!

  10. So beautifully articulated! All I can say is “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” for this lesson & reminder. Letting go of judgements is a continuing practice, isn’t it? Thank you for this mirror opportunity to check my own behavior and see if it stands up to the heart test.

    Namaste
    Alia delSol

  11. Excellent post. I am fat, but in-betweeny fat, the kind where my doctor tells me I’m obese but friends still say, “oh, you’re not fat!” I don’t get called out on the street or anything. Still, I’m usually one of the largest people in any yoga class. However, I’ve been doing yoga for 10 years and though I’m not super flexible, I am strong and have a good sense of balance. I can do a few wowzer poses like headstand, crane, etc. Yet, even though I’m clearly not a beginner, I’m into HAES and not trying to lose weight, I still feel the need to compete with the skinny girls and to prove that I’m not like the average fatty. Gah, what a terrible thing, and yet it’s in my head during every class. I’ve even hurt myself a few times pushing too hard. When I enter a new yoga studio I always wonder if the teacher is judging me. I too have found that the right instructor makes all the difference. I hope that some instructors are reading this.

  12. Thank you so much for your open and frank essay. It really touched my heart, all the more because I am virtually homebound because of physical and weight issues. I have often wished I could do yoga, for the woo as well as the flexibility.

    • i truly believe yoga is for every body. it’s not about getting into the shapes we see on the cover of yoga magazines, but just as much as we are able. if that means we only lay on a bed and point and flex our toes (inhale-flex, exhale-point!), so be it. that’s still yoga! bending the knees and lifting them in the general direction of our chin while rocking on our low back (breathing, observing and appreciating our body) is amazing… when i first started, i could barely manage it for more than about 5 seconds, unless i did it on a bed, when i could manage about 20 seconds. it’s gotten easier over time, but i’ll never be a yoga pretzel.

      when all i can do is sit or lay, i find a lot of comfort in just doing yoga with my hands from this site: http://www.yogacheryl.com/mudra-index.html

      to Tiffany: Thank you for this post. I’m a disabled fat yogi (yogini? whatever?) and I’ve had some pretty lousy yoga experiences in my day. I stopped going to classes for years because i just couldn’t bear to let some enlightened jerk ruin my love and passion for yoga. by a stroke of amazing fortune (and privilege) i was physically and mentally able to get back to classes, and i found myself in one of the most wonderful gentle classes i could have imagined. (gentle yoga can be a lot like yin yoga, or restorative, with more movement than most restorative classes i’ve tried.) i sent my teacher a link to your post, because she’s a true gem. teachers like ours are too rare, and should be loved and appreciated. i want these gems to know how special and treasured they are.

      the philosophy and principles of yoga mean that ANYONE can practice yoga (even by just breathing mindfully while trying to quiet a hurting body or mind), and when teachers lose sight of this when they catch sight of a fat teacher, this just breaks my heart. that’s not the true spirit of yoga.

      thanks again. namaste.

  13. Wow. If you ever come to Houston, I know a several great yoga instructors. I’m heavy and large chested – I don’t find most movement to be fun. But I have stuck with yoga for several years because of what these ladies have taught me, and because of the acceptance and joy I feel in their classes. They make me love my body for what it can do for me. I’m sorry you’ve found fewer “safe” places to practice in Los Angeles.

  14. Tiffany

    As a Register Yoga Teacher your comments break my heart because I know they are so true of many instructors. I teach mostly senior adults and elderly but I have many students such as yourself as well as those dealing with chronic illness.

    You are absolutely correct that one of the tenants of Yoga is our connection to all living beings not just those who fit societies mold. I strive at all times to make a connection with all of my students that goes beyond the class. For me it is about building a supportive community of people who care for each other.

    I am so glad that you have a true teacher to learn from.

    Cheri Moran, RYT

  15. Beautiful to read! Thank you for sharing.. give a copy to the studio you practice at.. I’m sure your honesty and truthfullness will help them all grow.. as it has me.

    XxX

  16. I’ve been so afraid to try yoga again since my weight gain. I’m like you–very athletic. I surprise people constantly by my ability to run for 30 minutes on the elliptical, do weight training, and then walk 4 miles in the afternoons. But when it comes to yoga, I’m terrified of trying it again as a fat chick. I’m fit. But I’m fat. And I’m so inflexible. But this article has inspired me! (to at least try it at home…) :D

    • I put up with yoga teacher attitudes towards this non-Lulu, double-digit size wearing older lady (who lives in New York City) just long enough so that I could have my own, substantial, classically-influenced and comprehensive (slow-flow) vinyasa home yoga practice.

      I will be a very occasional walk-in yoga student from now on, and ONLY with yoga teachers/studios that valued my lower-value business; and with whom I have had some transference/countertransference effects … just sayin’–OF COURSE NOT THOSE SAME TEACHERS FROM WHOM i PICKED THEIR BRAINS TO INNOVATE MY HOME PRACTICE.

      SORRY, but NO …

      The alienating teacher is actually the best to learn from; not just what to avoid-but many of them provide enrichment … in my case, by osmosis. I’ve recently gotten (part of it being diabetes-induced wasting) THIN ENOUGH for THEIR tastes – but never another yoga class with those teachers …

    • You could even go and take from the self-proclaimed badass teachers, as long as the style is classically-based and relatively slow-moving. I put up with attitude long enough to effectively pick their brains and learn from osmosis.

      My yoga practice is nearly all home-based, self-sequenced, and owes a great deal to their influence.

      And I’d done the online equivalent of “dined out” on the stories I’ve told both in blog posts and comments about that studio. It’s true! Not only that, but they suspect everything and can do nothing about it :-)

      • Thanks! I actually have some friends who are yogis and are trying very hard to help me, now that they know my fears. So, I’m going to take my first class in YEARS next week. But I’ve been studying some at home…kinda like cleaning the house before the housekeeper comes. Sigh.

      • No worries, then …

        A lack of the necessary finances to pursue this “yogi lifestyle”, and having good kinesthetic sense, I take what I’ve learned and adapt it to my own at-home system (looking at all those videos online helps–as does the membership I’d won to my yoga online); plus I have several books.

        I do that, these days, with a vinyasa class.

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  18. Thank you for sharing this, it means a lot to me personally. I have been reticent to give yoga a try due to the fact that I have about 60 pounds of belly fat and, well, I am not as comfortable with my body image as you are. I admire that you not only are pursuing yoga, but also work out on a regular basis. Perhaps, after reading your blog, I will gather up my courage and give yoga a try. Thanks again!

  19. Pingback: A Yoga for All Bodies | susan virginia yoga

  20. I am SO proud of you for not letting those negative judgmental yoga teachers discourage you from your practice. You’re an inspiration to us all!

  21. Thank you for such a sincere and thoughtful post.
    As a yoga teacher who has been at different pain levels and weights over the years, and a daughter in a family that tends towards healthy largesse, I appreciate your experience and perspective. Your words mirror advice I give to people when they are looking for a yoga class- it’s not so much the style (although I am Iyengar trained, and loooove Yin Yoga), as it is the teacher. We all want to be recognized and respected as the worthy people we are.
    Best of luck with Project Bendypants.

  22. First, I’m horribly sorry you are going through this, but – without knowing you at all – am terribly proud of you and thankful that you continuing to practice and are writing about your experiences. Kudos to you and stay strong!

  23. I love this post. I have been teaching for over three years and try to stay sensitive to all body types. What helps me is I am the inflexible yogi; I must modify many poses to make them work for me. I invite my students to go deeper into poses than I can, if their body allows it, or to join me in my modifications. Come to my class, Tiffany! You and I can hog all the props!

  24. Pingback: Project Bendypants: Practicing Yoga While Fat | Make Do & Bend

  25. LOVE this post! :-) When you are first starting out, a great teacher makes all the difference in the world. A lot of teachers tend to teach their own path. They either teach with an eye toward what attracted them to yoga or an eye toward the unexpected experience that blew their mind. When the thing that attracted them or blew their mind was “hotness” or any other flavor of imagined “perfection”, things can go awry.

    Great teachers teach you to listen to your own inner teacher as your find your own unique experience. They understand that every body & spirit is different and that no two asanas will ever be alike. They encourage you to move toward a goal & they provide information that helps you to understand what you are experiencing. Most importantly, great teachers teach you to trust yourself. They encourage you to modify every pose to support and serve the current state of your body and mind (not some future ideal). My favorite teacher uses the phrase “this body” when referring to her demonstrations. “This body goes this far: your body’s range of motion may be bigger or smaller.” I love that language. It reminds me that we are all different, and we are not our bodies.

    I’m a yoga student and teacher who has had the challenge & the gift of learning to work with her curves. The first time I had a teacher who taught me how to move my flesh to deepen a pose & use a strap to keep the girls from suffocating me in a shoulderstand, I nearly cried with relief. I’m not a great yoga teacher yet, but I’ve had the deep privilege of working with a good many of them over the years.

    Great teachers tend to have had experiences that pushed them outside the realm of “normal” at some point – injuries, weight changes, emotional challenges – and/or a deep well of empathy and understanding of the woo stuff (I <3 the woo!). Great teachers are rare & precious & it's unusual (and WONDERFUL) to find more than one at a time. When you find a good one, go as often as you can & soak it all up! After a while, you'll find that you take that strong foundation with you into other classes & you'll hear their voice over the more frustrating teachers. They give a tangible sound to your own inner teacher, which is the most reliable one you'll ever find. :-) It's a beautiful thing to get to the point where you receive an instruction & think, "Nope…that is not the right approach for this body. I'll do ____ instead."

    One of the most beautiful aspects of a yoga practice is awareness. We put ourselves in uncomfortable situations to observe our reactions & refine ourselves for our real-world interactions. The fact that you've found great teachers to help build your foundation & frustrating teachers to provide fertile ground for observing discomfort means that you are already one badass yogini.

    Practice on, sister! :-)

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