Someone recently tweeted me an article about how there’s no need for Curvy Yoga or other similar styles that specifically meet curvy folks’ needs because “being fat (yes, I finally said it) is not a special need” and “Yoga doesn’t care what you look like.”
The writer goes on to ask: “What about being a ‘curvy-girl’ makes you need a specific and unique practice?” and insists there’s already a style of yoga to meet any curvy need.
I would love to agree that curvy folks can drop into any yoga class no problem . . . if only we lived in a world where that was true.
Because while the practice of Yoga doesn’t care what you look like, the culture certainly does, and yoga teachers, classes, studios and students are part of culture.
The truth is that not every yoga class is designed to meet the needs of curvy bodies, not even classes called Beginners, Gentle, Hatha or even Restorative. Because most yoga teachers learn to teach students who live in thin, already flexible and able bodies, it’s not the pace of the class that’s most relevant, but the instruction and options that are included (or not).
Most yoga teachers learn to focus their alignment instruction on muscles and bones, which is great because we all need that musculoskeletal information. But for many people, particularly curvy people (though I can’t tell you how many people who I wouldn’t identify as curvy tell me this information helps them, too), muscles and bones aren’t the only things we need to account for. Without instruction on how to make space for the body you have by doing things like taking a wider stance in some standing poses or moving your belly in a forward bend, bigger-bodied people can be not only uncomfortable in some poses, but potentially unsafe. Because if a curvy person stands as instructed with feet together in Tadasana and their knees knock in, that is not safer for them than taking a wider stance that works for their body. It’s for these, and many other alignment refinement reasons, why curvy people have often felt unable to fully participate in yoga classes where instruction for bigger bodies than the yoga norm is not included.
Yoga instruction we see in most modern classes these days has come to us through a blend of yoga asana, gymnastics, aerobics and more. Like any other part of culture, it is influenced and shaped by the current moment. This is why we see poses today that weren’t around even 20 years ago, never mind 200 or 2,000. With that in mind, it’s even less surprising that current yoga instruction (and past yoga instruction) mostly targets the already thin — because all of contemporary fitness culture (and, society) does the same. And the types of fitness information that curvy people typically receive, like “try harder,” “go slower,” “go faster” or even “use props” (if there’s no information on how or why to use them) are nothing but shame-based so-called “motivators,” not truly relevant information about the needs of curvy bodies.
And, of course, these are just the technical, asana-based reasons why creating a space for curvy people to practice is important. The other reasons are based on the exclusion that many curvy folks feel in yoga classes that do not offer, or sometimes even attempt to offer, pose options that work for them — and even in classes that are purportedly for everyone, yet do not offer the pose options that make it so, even if the teacher is well-intentioned in being welcoming (as they often are). When yoga classes lack body diversity and relevant instruction, it’s not difficult to know why curvy people may feel on the fringes — because they’re often literally told to just hang out in Child’s Pose (which is not even a comfortable pose as traditionally taught for many curvy-bodied people) while the rest of the class does the “real poses” (whether that value is conveyed implicitly or explicitly).
Since I started Curvy Yoga in 2009, I’ve seen awareness of the needs of bigger-bodied students grow exponentially among yoga teachers and students, which is so wonderful. And my colleagues and I are continuing to work for the day when every yoga teacher knows how to do that — not just in their heart, but with practical skills. In the meantime, there’s a long history of marginalized groups of people gathering together in welcoming spaces of solidarity, and no one needs permission or approval to get their yoga needs met in a safe and inclusive way.
With the necessary information to practice in a way that works for their body, curvy folks can then practice in any type or style of class they so choose. No specialized class requires life-time attendance, but it doesn’t exclude it, either. That’s the beauty of all the yoga options available today: people can go with what works for them, not be forced to choose between struggle or not participating at all.
As for me, I’m taking my fat (yes, I said it — again and again) self to my mat and taking a long Child’s Pose, with knees wide to make space for my belly and a block under my head to prevent death-by-boob-smush.