Recently, someone shared an article with me about a Londoner’s journey onto the mat. Deborah Coughlin, a yogi who finds her balance “somewhere between the downward dog and a Yorkshire pudding,” found herself intimidated by the skinny-girl paradigm that is all too common in the yoga world: “Like a scene from Heathers (or Mean Girls, if you’re under 30), they cocked their heads to one side and gave me the smiley pity wince. “Sorry, babe. I don’t think you’ll feel comfortable. It’s full of skinny yoga bunnies. Even I feel fat in there.” I instantly regretted inquiring about hot yoga. For the next 20 minutes, as I ate my roast dinner, they attempted to convince me to have a colonic, to boost me towards slimness. After being told you’re too fat for yoga, there is nothing quite like demolishing a gravy-soaked Yorkshire pud.”‘
Deborah’s piece is part of an ever increasing number of articles and campaigns in the yoga world that are designed to deconstruct and reframe discussions of body image and “yoga-ness,” and she brings up some great issues, including yoga fashions.
At one point she asks, “Shouldn’t fat people be the target market for fitness wear? Aren’t we the ones supposed to be doing all the exercise?” This is a great point. My mother is bigger and when she gets on a fitness kick it is difficult for her to find things to wear to the gym, let alone a yoga class. (Side note: Gather loves body-friendly companies like Go Figure Activewear, which sells stylish, high-performance gym kit for women size 10+.)
Coughlin goes on to say that “bigger women are in a strange psychological place, a place where we are told we will not be attractive, we won’t fit into things, and we will die young — yet something holds us back from being ourselves right now, this size, doing exercise, in clothes that fit us. We are holding off on living; we’re waiting until we’ve already lost the weight.” Wow. For any of us who’ve been in a place we’re not happy with our weight, this really hits home.
It’s true that “it’s [yoga clothing] advertisers who think it’s aspirational. But I don’t think it should be. Yoga should be about who you are now.” Yoga is about who you are now, in this moment. Sure we can find inspiration in checking out the latest yogalebrity’s Instagram feed (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out this list of Instagramer yogis and this post on the “yogalebrity”). But I’ve recently been inspired a lot more by the latest #hashtag campaign: #yesyogahascurves initiated by Dana Smith. You can learn more about her intention in an interview here, and check out YesYogaHasCurves on FaceBook and Instagram.
Dana has inspired many bigger yogis and teachers like Amber, who are showcasing their asana and positive intentions and cultivating confidence! Deborah, too, goes on to suggest that “fat yoga” classes may become a new trend. This got me questioning: will a “fat yoga” class provide enough of an open environment for people to feel comfortable coming for the first time? Are “regular” yoga classes so intimidating to beginners or people who don’t fit the yoga stereotype? Or even, what qualifies a person as “fat”?
One of our intentions at Gather is to help bring more people onto the mat. To encourage people to connect and share. We wholeheartedly feel that yoga is for everyone and anyone. How can we send more encouraging messages to the people in the non-yoga community who are considering starting a practice? In the last Yoga in America study of 2012, they estimated that 85.7 MILLION people who have never practiced yoga before would like to come onto the mat. That’s four times the number of people who were practicing back in 2012. What is it that’s holding these folks back?
Deborah’s new-found yoga teacher mused, “It doesn’t matter if you’re skinny, big, perfect, or if you’ve had two hip replacements: everyone is going to come up against something. If someone feels suffocated by their boobs in the forward, they are actually compressing their stomach, detoxifying their internal organs, massaging. Day by day, they’ll go an inch farther.”
In the end I think it’s about getting past the blocks, whether they be mental, physical, or emotional, and finding the right teacher to get you started. Get comfortable on the mat, in your body, and with the instructor. Take that leap of faith, but first find a yoga teacher who is compassionate and willing to provide modifications to fit your needs, someone who can encourage your practice to continue and go farther. Once you’re comfortable on the mat, then go and explore! Try different teachers, new styles. Every teacher has something to share; it’s as simple as being open to receive.
Alesha is one of Gather’s co-founders. Her yoga practice has always given much needed balance to her demanding career: she trained as an engineer before devoting a decade to her work for high-tech international companies, and earning her MBA. Alesha is now the mother of a daughter, and a certified yoga teacher. She lives in Geneva, Switzerland.
Photo of Amber from BodyPositiveYoga.com.