Can yogis be fat? Can you be fat and practice yoga and live a healthy life? The answer is another question… does Ganesha have a big belly? Of course. Ganesha, the round-bellied elephant-headed god and mythological author of the sacred epic text that defines the ancient practice of yoga, would undoubtedly have some choice words to share with anyone who thinks proficient yogis can’t be fat.
Yet why do most yoga classes seem to be full of thin- to average-sized bodies? I’ve seen fat students do amazing armbalances, handstands, and poses my body has never quite figured out. So I know that it’s not a matter of flexibility or strength. I suspect that it’s related to the reason some fat people don’t feel comfortable at the gym… a subtle (and sometime not so subtle) sense of not feeling welcome or included.
We can start with the clothes. Long gone are the days when people showed up for yoga in their sweats and ripped up t-shirts. Nowadays (for women anyway) tank tops and fancy yoga pants seem de rigueur. Try finding a pair of yoga pants in anything larger than a size twelve and a tank top actually meant for something other than decoration. In most mainstream stores, the yoga clothing search is more frustrating than looking for a duck egg at a chicken farm.
The poses don’t help either. Some poses feel great, others feel… is there some word that means screamingly awkward? Some teachers aren’t sure how to modify poses for larger bodies or may make assumptions about a student’s ability based on their weight. Or teachers might give up too soon when assisting a fat student, thinking that their weight is the obstacle. Some poses may be genuinely more difficult… but not any more so than for an average weight student whose body has its own quirks and challenges. Yoga poses feel awkward to everyone… at least at first.
But the worst are the underlying assumptions (by other students and sometimes the teacher or the studio as a whole) that a fat person in a yoga class is unhappy with their body or is trying to lose weight. Feeling accepted as a fat person in yoga is complicated by the prevalence of classes like “Yoga for Weight Loss” that the desk staff might direct you to. You’d be understandably confused… isn’t part of yoga learning to love and accept yourself and your body just as it is, just as you are? Can I just enjoy a yoga class in my bigger body without feeling judged or excluded? Yes, you can. Yoga is an amazing way to connect with and listen to your body, and is not and has never been, as Ganesha reminds us, the exclusive dominion of the youthful and thin.
Yoga instructors (myself included) can do more to be welcoming to fat students. First, if you find that you’re carrying around a lot of judgments about weight, like the popular fat=unhealthy trope, read nutritionist and researcher Linda Bacon’s book, Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight. Most yoga teachers I know enjoy having their assumptions challenged… you’ll find no shortage of mind-blowing insights in Bacon’s book.
Second, if you have a fat student in your class, here’s what you should do differently: nothing. That’s right. Treat them with exactly the same level of respect and attention that you would give any other student. Don’t make assumptions about their level or ability, or god forbid, that they are practicing yoga to lose weight. They might be there to lengthen their hamstrings, or to commune with the gods of bliss, or to relax after a hellish commute, or for some other reason that has nothing to do with their size. At the same time, just like with any other student, if you think they look like they could benefit from a prop or some other individual assistance, go right ahead and offer away. Like any other student, they might welcome your help, or they might tell you they’re fine and don’t need to go deeper into Ardha Matsendrasana, thank you very much.
If you’re a fat yoga student (or wanna be yoga student), do a little research on Ganesha, the long-trunked, full-bellied master wisdom jester of yoga. Keep a little picture of Ganesha in your mind and heart while you’re practicing… he welcomes you and helps you clear whatever internal and external obstacles lie on your path to yoga and self-discovery. Look around for a yoga teacher and studio that feel welcoming. Talk to the teacher and find out if they know about the Health At Every Size movement, and if they don’t, encourage them to read the book. Ask them for help when (and if) you need it, and feel free to show them what modifications work best for you and your body. Most yoga instructors are happy (dare I say eager?) to learn new assists. And be patient with yourself and your body. Let your body teach you.
If you’re brand new to yoga and want some help learning the poses before you show up in class, try some videos at home…the heavyweight yoga DVD series at http://www.heartfeltyoga.com/shop.htm is a good place to start.
If you are someone who struggles with feeling accepted (whatever size you are), write across the top of your yoga mat, “I am welcome here,” as a reminder to welcome yourself wherever you are.
It’s a beautiful reminder to anyone who sees your mat to welcome you as well. Welcoming is a lesson so many of us need… to welcome ourselves into our own body, our own practice, and to welcome each other, wherever and however we find ourselves. Welcome to yoga, my friend. Yoga welcomes you, your belly, your hips, your thighs… every part of your whole self.
Love Your Body Blog Part 60