Yoga Doesn’t Know You’re Fat

By Nancy Shanteau

People ask me all the time, “Which yoga class should I take?” Depending on who they are, this question might have veiled references: Will I be safe? Will I be welcome? Will I be able to do the poses?

There’s this mythology about yoga in our culture today: you have to be thin, a white woman, flexible, eat healthy foods, meditate, or do some arcane practice. If this doesn’t describe you, all this might internalize as a simple message, “yoga is not for me.”

20 years ago, when I walked into my first yoga classroom, I weighed about 235 pounds. Fortunately, I wasn’t thinking about whether yoga was for me, I was thinking, “why don’t they have aqua aerobics on Wednesdays? I guess I’ll try the intro yoga class instead.” By the end of the class, I was plotting a complete conversion of my exercise schedule. I had found it, the holy grail of exercise. Yoga was something I wanted to do, something I was excited to do, something I didn’t have to force myself to do. I had fallen passionately in love with yoga.

Often we blame our awkward experience on our bodies instead of on being a beginner.

When a fat person walks into a yoga class, often a huge amount of work has come before that moment. We must get through our internal shame about our bodies before facing all the logistical problems: where do I get a mat, what do I wear, what class should I attend, should I go to a gym or a yoga studio, will the teacher be judgmental, or tell me I can’t do the poses because of my weight, will the other students make fun of me or be grossed out by my body? A lot of these questions might be the same for any beginning yoga student. Often we blame our awkward experience on our bodies instead of on being a beginner. It’s hard to start a new practice, regardless of our shape, size, fitness-level or proportions. As a result, we might be balancing on a hair-trigger of fear and reactivity. Any little thing might be too much, and send us running from the room and the practice of yoga, perhaps forever. Thus, the rise of Fat Yoga, #YogaForAll, Jessamyn Stanley, the Yoga and Body Image Coalition and many other body positive course offerings. A class by and for fat people is much less likely to be scary and intimidating.

My first yoga class didn’t have any of the welcoming accommodations that are available today. And somehow I wasn’t afraid either. Everyone in the class was going there because they were curious about yoga, and the course title told us our questions would be answered. What I discovered by the end of the class was life-changing. I could do yoga, and it felt phenomenal. Somehow these strange poses worked for my body. I could push myself up into a bridge posture with relative ease, and I could balance on one foot. I felt like I had finally come home to my body.

What I know now is that yoga is a practice we do in a context. Asana, what we know in the US as Yoga, is just the movement part of a vastly greater philosophical system. The Western European and US appropriation of yoga as a form of exercise is quite controversial in some circles, yet for me it was a life-saver.

Yoga is an ancient practice, one that we do only because one person learned it from another, and then passed it on to someone else. Practitioners receive incredible benefit: we feel physically more fit, flexible and strong; our breath is more powerful and nourishing; we cultivate our ability to quiet our minds, calm our emotions and center our bodies, and we learn to feel and expand the aliveness in our bodies with our attention.

Perhaps I would have been fine doing aqua aerobics for the rest of my life, but somehow I think I would have fallen off the wagon. Yoga completely reversed my unhealthy, unhappy life path, and sent me in a new direction. Because of yoga, I started practicing aikido, a non-violent martial art, and that led me to Somatic Coaching, which led me to my current profession as a Skills for Change life coach. Today, I am a healthy, happy, well-balanced person who loves her life. I don’t know how I would have gotten here without yoga.

Fundamentally, yoga doesn’t know you’re fat. Fat is a cultural notion – many cultures have different bodily ideals, and this culture’s bodily ideal has changed greatly over even the last century. Your fellow students and your yoga teacher might not say or do the right things to make you feel comfortable every class, every time, but I guarantee that yoga is waiting for you. Yoga wants the best for you. Your practice is yours. If you know that, you’ll walk in the room, take note of the props next to the teacher’s mat, grab the same ones for yourself, plus any that you know you prefer, and sit proudly on your mat until the class starts. You belong in a yoga class because yoga is for you. Yoga is for everyone, always.