12 September 2013

Fat Yoga in the UK

A couple of friends told me about a series of four fat yoga classes in London, called Yoga for Larger Bodies, which takes place in a studio in Islington. The first session happened in June, I did one at the weekend, and there are two others scheduled for October and November.

Yoga has been closely affiliated with proto-health at every size for some time. I first came across it with the Yoga for Round Bodies videos by Genia Pauli Haddon and Linda DeMarco in the mid-1990s, though I'm not sure if they were the prime movers but they were clearly on to something. 'Yoga for Round Bodies' is now the name of at least three businesses offering fat yoga classes in North America. The market for fat yoga self help literature is fast becoming saturated and the selling of fat-size yoga accoutrements looks set to turn into a growth industry. It's become a thing and is now a thing close to where I live.

Yoga is a good thing for fat people because it is adaptable. Kay Erdwinn's article Teaching Yoga for Round Bodies is a great resource that explores some of the ways in which having a fat body affects one's practise. Yoga also focuses on self-improvement at one's own pace, rather than the competitiveness that is usually associated with sporting activity. Yoga is an activity that builds strength, balance, flexibility fairly easily for fat people, including those of us who are very fat. It helps with stress management. The associated woo makes yoga appeal to a substantial demographic in fat activism: the oddballs and the leftfield folk.

What strikes me about fat yoga is the endemic use of euphemism: bodies are 'round,' 'curvy,' 'large,' 'bigger'. There is a real reluctance within the sector to use the F-word. Perhaps this reflects a wider conservatism within the sport and exercise industry, or there is a belief that fat people need soft-talking. I think this is probably a misguided attempt to acknowledge that you have to be pretty heroic and strong to turn up to a group exercise class if you are fat. But sugar-coating fat bodies does not really address the underlying and endemic problem of fatphobia in fitness cultures, the stuff that requires we be strong and heroic in the first place. So I don't find the banal language reassuring, it's somewhat alienating to me. I'd rather the reality of fat hatred was acknowledged in less patronising terms but this would require providers to talk about shame, hate and oppression in their promotional material and this is difficult to turn into sexy marketing blurb.

I've been doing yoga on and off for a number of years. I started when I was a kid. I had a teacher who was into it and she agreed to teach another girl and I some moves. Yoga has often been a part of my performance training. My most extended period of yoga was towards the end of the 1990s when I was a regular at a local class. This attracted quite a large number of mostly fat, stiff and old people and was taught by an extremely thin, wiry and strong woman. Looking back, she was pretty ruthless with us! She rarely modified poses and, if we struggled, assured us that practice would help us improve. I internalised this message and, although I loved the teacher and the class, often felt that I should just try harder at things with which I struggled. I now see that some asanas are not feasible for fat people, or need substantial modifications. For example Child Pose is usually referred to as a relaxing and neutral position but if you have belly fat it is impossible to do without raising your bum in the air, head-butting the ground, and feeling as though you are tipping forwards perilously, which is not at all relaxing. I always thought it was a problem with me and my lack of flexibility but I have a body that really isn't going to be able to curl up into a tight ball, no matter how much I practise.

Yoga for Larger Bodies is a small class with an experienced and attentive teacher. It is not super-cheap, but it is good value, the sessions last two hours, you get lots of attention and care and it takes place in a very beautiful studio, with lots of light and a gorgeous sleeping resident cat called Pearl. I was nervous about getting on the mat again, mostly because of that Child's Pose shame I mentioned above, and also because I was worried about exacerbating my arthritis. Despite this, I showed up and I was glad that I did. Our teacher was really open to modifying moves, and she was non-judgmental and warm. She provided a really good environment for our group, and the atmosphere was kind and supportive as well as focussed. We warmed-up slowly and accomplished a lot in the session.

I felt a little tender the next day, and my arthritic joints needed some soothing, but I felt that this was worth it compared to the joy that I had felt in being embodied after a long period of fairly disembodied work and life. Even though I am older and more stiff, I was surprised by how much I could do, and the unexpected strength of my own body. Perhaps my body hadn't forgotten that earlier yoga training. Some moves will always be a challenge, it was a relief to read Erdwinn's observations about the difficulties of performing a smooth sun salutation if you are fat, but I was delighted that I was able to perform elements of it that I have found very difficult in the past (hello downward-facing dog). Throughout the class I noticed moments of deep compassion for my body, and the bodies of other fat people, and familiarity and peace in my own flesh and bones.

I don't know if Yoga for Larger Bodies is going to be a continuing class, or is a pilot for more regular fat yoga gatherings. Neither am I sure if it is the first fat yoga class in the UK, there may have been some attempts in the 1990s, and there are certainly other fat yoga practitioners in the country, but it's the only one I know of at the moment. I hope it develops because it was a really good experience and I want to go back.


Sleepydumpling said...

I adore yoga but have always shied away from classes of any kind because of the inevitable fat shaming that goes on. I love the idea of a yoga class specifically for fat people.

I'm so with you on the euphemisms, they all feel like they are tiptoeing around fat like it's a dirty word. That said, I love the idea of soft yoga. Fat bodies ARE soft, and yoga makes bodies soft and pliable. I also like the idea of gentleness and nurturing, which is so unlike all of the experiences I've ever had with sport and exercising!

Larry-bob Roberts said...

Another example of not saying "fat": Buddha Body Yoga in New York City.

It looks like there are a few other yoga options listed on the list of U.S. size-friendly fitness classes at PhatMoves.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Buddha Body! Good lord.