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Some days the world feels like a competitive, ego-driven nightmare. A world dominated by the glossy and superficial, where a decent ‘box gap’ (if you don’t know, don’t Google) is as highly prized as a safe place to sleep for the night. At these times I like to remember that, as a yoga teacher, I am blissfully free from the repetitive, ‘not good enough / better than’ thoughts that dominate less bendy souls, and that my ‘office’ is a bastion of peace, tranquility, and ylang ylang-scented bliss.
Sure, I occasionally (yesterday) head to a class myself, and okay, I may have used downward dog as a chance to check out the sinewy girl in the sports bra behind me, and so what? I just watch the thoughts (‘her back is ripped. My back is not ripped. I must have a fat back’), let them go, and remember that 99% of the time yoga is nothing but peace, bliss, and fat back acceptance.
For absolutely nobody.
The truth is that yoga lends itself beautifully to ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’. ‘We should accept our bodies’, ‘We shouldn’t spray spiders with Windex or call them fat,’ … and yet the yoga world can be just as full of insecurity and hypocrisy as any other.
The latest teacher to make this earth shattering discovery is American Trina Hall. When Trina’s voluptuous colleague confessed “I don't want to be known as the fat yoga teacher," Trina decided to stack on 40 pounds to prove that looks don’t matter. But none were more shocked than Trina by the results of her Mexican food-fuelled ‘fat-speriment’.
“I always had this idea that, ‘Oh my gosh, everyone should look more inside because that's what it's all about.’ But as the pounds were coming on I discovered that I was just as guilty as the next person of being obsessed with my external appearance.”
Is it possible that yoga – non-judgmental, Zenny-wen yoga – has secretly become fat-shaming? Have we shifted our goal from ‘baggage loss’ to ‘weight loss’?
Yoga teacher Claire says that fat-shaming exists in the yoga world by exclusion. “It isn’t only magazines who set the ‘Is Yoga, Is thin’ standard. As a studio owner, I’m uber conscious of the promotional images I use. Studios who stick their thinnest teachers in crop tops and photograph them on a beach to promote their classes are creating unrealistic expectations of what it means to be a dedicated practitioner.”
These expectations don’t only affect students. “As a teacher, I definitely feel pressure to conform to the yoga ideal. I sometimes look at myself in the mirror before class and wonder if my students think I should be better in better shape,” says Claire. “I'm sure they’re thinking no such thing, but that inadequacy didn’t come out of nowhere.”
Maybe she’s right – maybe some students do think that way. A friend (and fellow teacher) recently confessed that she found her first teacher less credible because of her size. “I have to admit, I was challenged by the fact that she didn’t fit the image. Looking back I’m amazed of what she was capable of, but back then I thought she should be more aspirational.” Aspirational, not inspirational.
Aspiration is a key part of advertising – and when so many people want to lose weight that it can be hard for studios to resist capitalising on that with promotional imagery and promises of ‘detoxing’ and ‘cleansing’ as a euphemism for weight loss.
But while the yoga community can be superficial and holier-than-thou (and I know it can be bitchy) I don’t agree that we are ‘fat-shaming’. For one thing, we’re all far too inward looking.
As a student, I definitely have the odd fat-shaming thought about myself, and I know others do too. But I have never seen it directed outward – quite the opposite. Overwhelmingly I sense that when people see someone in a class who obviously doesn’t match the popular yoga image, much compassion (not pity) flows their way. Because who among us doesn’t know what it’s like to sit well outside an ideal?
As a teacher, you truly never think about a student’s size unless you pick up that they feel self-conscious – in which case you bend over backward (boom tish) to help them tap into their strength. Appearances can be deceiving, and a student’s weight has very little to do with how connected they are to their body. I’ve seen thin students mindlessly pushing and pulling themselves through a practice, and I’ve also seen students in an American class specifically for the morbidly obese display a level of control and focus that was inspiring.
Yoga offers us space to bear witness to our tendency to project the feelings we have about ourselves onto others. And yes, modern yoga has a superficial hue, but in shining a light on our fears and judgements, it also offers us the chance to transform them.
For years, every time I lay in Supta Padanghustasana, a deep hamstring stretch, I would look up at my leg and think the same three things; ‘God damn you need a pedicure’, ‘Would it kill you to shave once a year?’ and my favourite, ‘Not even lipo could drain those cankles.’
About a year ago some tiny thing shifted. Perhaps the teacher said just the right thing at just the right time? I’m not sure, but it was the first time in a decade that I looked up felt gratitude for the work my legs do and the way they support me. It may sound slightly moronic out of context, but Yogic Wisdom™ so often does.
Alice Williams is a Melbourne yoga teacher. Follow her on Twitter: @AliceWillalice