The Queer Fat Femme Guide to Beginning a Yoga Practice

About six months ago I began a regular yoga practice. I had done yoga only a handful of times before but was always very discouraged by the activity. I’m fat, but as you know, fat people have incredibly different bodies. Mine happens to carry a lot of weight in my torso—primarily my ample rack and belly. This makes it terribly difficult, if not impossible, to do things like bend over or stretch in the ways required by a lot of yoga poses.

When I was working a 9 to 5, I did a lot of research into fat positive, fat centered, or fat inclusive yoga classes, and unfortunately was discouraged by the timing difficulties between my busy schedule and the very specific times these classes were offered. I bought a yoga dvd but found it didn’t give me the calm, meditative exercise I was looking for, it just felt too Jane Fonda-y.

After Michfest last year I was feeling the kind of spiritual connection and limber body one gets from two weeks in the woods with a bunch of woo woo women and other gender-oriented folks, and I solicited my friend Dana, a yoga regular, to take me with her to one of her yoga classes. It felt safe to tag along to a class with another fatty.

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We cycled through a couple of different instructors and thankfully landed on Jyll. Jyll is a miracle, plain and simple. She teaches yoga in exactly the kind of way I want to be a mom. Firm and instructive but also kind and nurturing; you really want to please Jyll. She knows when to push, when to prod, when to chide and when to back off. She also knows the difference between you not doing something because you’re at your limit physically or because you’re at your limit mentally and pushes you past your mental hurdle.

She is also good at teaching you alternative poses, showing how to use the tools of yoga (especially straps, blocks and bolsters) to modify poses for different bodies. I also feel liberated that she encourages modifications!

Even though I am consistently the fattest person in the class, I never feel “other”. She says reminders like “Yoga is not a team sport.” “Yoga is not a competition. Everyone needs to work at their limit.” She also reminds the class that everyone has different flexibility and that they shouldn’t let their ego get in the way lest they get an injury. (It’s how she pulled a muscle she’s still dealing with.)

I love Jyll and I always leave her classes empowered and with my ass resoundingly kicked.

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Taueret at Yoga.

What I like most about yoga is that I have to be really “in” my body. I need to pay attention to my limits, what it is like to push into the limit and really trust my body’s capabilities. As a life-long fatty I have gotten used to giving up really easily and not learning how to push myself. I remember what it was like to be a brave kid and climb waterfalls hiking with my Girl Scout troupe and I don’t know where I got into being a fraidy cat about stuff with my body.

I do notice that usually in every class I suck the worst. It feels a lot like my Hydrologic Science class from undergrad, when they put the high and low scores of the midterm on the white board and I realized my score was the low score. (I then took it Pass/No Pass–thanks UC Davis!)

But at the same time, I feel like it is really good for me to suck at something for an hour and a half every week. It’s humbling, it gives me something to work on and I still feel amazing afterward because I did something hard that was really good for me.

My friend Chris La Femme told me once:

“Truly though, there is no such thing as sucking at yoga.  Yoga is just about twisting your body in certain ways, to squish different organs and push blood around, and you don’t actually have to do the ideal poses for that.”

It’s really true.

Once I got into going to Jyll’s class, and then the wonderful erstwhile Yoga for Every Body classes at Re/Dress NYC (sadly our instructor moved to Ithaca) I was doing yoga twice a week and felt really amazing.

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Dara is going to raise goats and keep bees. She was a great instructor!

When the Re/Dress instructor moved away, I wanted to figure out a way to get into yoga at home that wasn’t with a dvd so that I could maintain my twice weekly pace. I flipped through this book at Re/Dress that Deb brought in and I fell in love. I bought it immediately. Here was a list of all of the yoga poses I had been learning over time, with explanations of what they did for your body and modifications for how to do them in a larger body written by a fat yoga instructor!

Mega Yoga by Megan Garcia in book form.

Mega Yoga in DVD form!

A sweet reminder that if you buy anything from Amazon using my links, the small referral fee gets kicked back to me in the form of gift certificates that help me buy books to read. *

I love using it at home so much! I can put on the cd of my choice** and go through the poses at my own pace. The slow flow of it really helps me. I can sit in a pose a little bit longer if I’m really feeling something. I also like the supplement to the classes I’m taking, because I learn the poses and get adjusted in class but learn more about them at home.

And another great “asking for help” moment, I asked my Butch Ironworker Roommate if it was okay to use her room because she’s got the only carpeted room in the house and free wall space for wall poses and she is totally fine with it.

They call it practice for a reason—it’s not ever going to be perfect. But so far I feel really enthusiastic about what yoga has helped me do with my body. I feel more limber, I feel more secure, I have more balance. It also very much enhanced a recent laycation, so if nothing else, being able to fuck in more interesting ways is a win-win.

So, if you’re at all curious about yoga, I have some suggestions:

1. Find a friend to take a class with you.

Sometimes it really helps to have the buddy aspect, not only for accountability*** but knowing someone else might be physically hindered by belly or boobs or is gender non-normative or uses a cane or something as well. It’s a million times easier to ask for help in a mainstream sort of class when you’re with another person in the same boat. Dana and I cap off our weekly yoga date with coffee next door and have gotten very close over the past six months because of it.

I would suggest finding a beginner or a I/II class. It seems intimidating to go to a class that has a specific kind of yoga, but I really think that novice yogis aren’t going to see a big difference. I go to a Vinyasa class, but the Monday morning with Jyll is “restorative” so it’s not as fast of a flow as Vinyasa usually is. You can look up the other types of yoga, but I think as long as the class is labeled beginner friendly you should be okay.

Also, don’t be afraid to yoga “shop”. If an instructor does not seem responsive to your needs or the class or studio doesn’t feel comfortable to you, try another one!

2. Find or create a class tailored to your body.

This is not always possible but it’s really incredible when you can. There’s also a really great class for folks with dis/abilities and genderqueer/trans friendly yoga here in Brooklyn. And GO to these classes, support that they happen! I was shocked at how small the turn out for yoga for all bodies at Re/Dress ended up being.

If you can get a critical mass of folks to commit to it, sometimes you can even organize classes of your own! If you live in one of those cities with porches and big open living rooms (my friend Lissa in Minneapolis has an upstairs yoga studio size living room with gorgeous sky lights) get an instructor to come in and teach you! There are a lot of instructors out there who are willing or open to creating a body-positive curriculum. And if six of you get together and pool $10 each—well, that can entice a teacher.

3. Don’t sweat the details or the small stuff.

I spent forever obsessing about what kind of yoga I was going to take, whether or not I needed equipment, what I was going to wear… My perfectionism took years off of my yoga practice! I wanted to take yoga so badly and I just never did it because I never felt good enough or prepared enough to do it.

I am telling you right now, it’s not that deep!

I wear velour sweatpants, the same two pair, and a tee shirt (cut out the shoulders, flashdance style because that’s how I do) and a sports bra. And like regular underwear not the fancy frilly kind. The idea is that you want to wear clothes that you can move in and that don’t hinder your body. Yoga is so not a fashion show and I never notice what other people are wearing except when Dana wears her “Live and Let Lez” tank top because, hi.

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Glenn Marla wears palazzo pants.

And if you’re really nervous to start, read Mega Yoga! She gives a really great primer on yoga and breathing!

4. Go go go go go.

I get so disappointed when I’m missing Monday morning yoga. It really does set you back a bunch when you miss a week. Prioritize your yoga practice. Self-care is really important and having time set aside for mind/body/spiritual connection is really important. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha absolutely won’t schedule anything on the nights she has her yoga class because it is so essential to her physical well-being and the management of her dis/ability.

5.Never be afraid to articulate your needs.

At the beginning of a class, usually the instructor will ask about any physical limitations, injuries or needs people have. It’s terrifying to speak up sometimes, but it is really crucial that you tell the instructor what your needs are. Use this as practice for self-advocacy in all other areas of your life.

* I’m hoping to get Urban Tantra next.
** I like Ani DiFranco’s “Knuckle Down” because it can fade into the background really easily but at the same time when I need to focus on something she is singing about topics on that cd which are things I need to be meditating on, like aging estranged father stuff, setting boundaries, old break-up stuff, etc… Ani isn’t for everyone, and thus may I suggest a cd of slow jams? Mint Condition anyone?
***I hate ditching class but I hate ditching Dana more!
****I am not a doctor, and of course before beginning any exercise or body work you should consult your hopefully body positive and supportive doctor.

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. If you can’t find a fat-friendly yoga class, look for an Iyengar yoga school. Geeta Iyengar (the founder’s daughter and a world-renowned teacher) is a woman of size.

  2. Was excited to find this blog post! FYI I offer Yoga for Round Bodies™ classes in Toronto, AND I offer comprehensive training for teachers in teaching Yoga for Round Bodies™. Tell all the teachers you know about the training, maybe a teacher from your city or town will take the training and bring these amazing classes to your community!

  3. “But at the same time, I feel like it is really good for me to suck at something for an hour and a half every week.”

    What an important thing to remember. Sucking at yoga has been one of the main reasons I don’t go to classes, even though my body could really use them. I should probably just make my peace with being bad at yoga and go anyway. Thanks for the reassurance!

  4. Thank you thank you thank you for this post. Starting a regular yoga practice is my new year’s resolution and I’m so scared but this is inspiring to me. Thank you!

  5. This post is amazing! Thanks so much! I am a curvy, queer friendly & plus-size friendly yoga teacher in the Bay Area. Currently I teach at the Yoga Works in Walnut Creek on Sundays @ 4:15. I am also going to start teaching at Niroga in Berkeley on Sunday mornings @ 9 AM. My class is Hatha Flow style, a little slower than Vinyasa, but still challenging with a focus on healthy alignment & self-love. Check out my facebook page for my current schedule. http://www.facebook.com/jcyoga

  6. Mmm, yoga. How many walls would get punched without it?

    Skeeter Barker teaches a wonderful Wednesday night class at Yoga Kula in San Francisco; it’s mostly queers of all different sizes.

    If you’re looking specifically for a big girl teacher, Jenny Brill teaches all over Los Angeles, Black Dog Yoga and a bunch of other places; she rocks the mat hard.

    Anusara style yoga (which is what both of these teachers teach) is very meet-you-where-you’re-at. It’s based on Iyengar alignment principals, with an emphasis on injury prevention/healing and…well…maximum fun while you’re working hard. I’ve studied a lot of different styles at a lot of different studios over the last seven years, and have found that Anusara is where it’s at for nurturing self-challenge. I am not fat but I do pay close attention to how different people get treated in class as regard their bodies, and I have consistently seen the fat people in Anusara classes get treated with respect (not so much in other style classes). I myself have a number of physical limitations (left leg joint weirdness, ultra-tight hips, wrist repetitive stress); while at other style classes I have been encouraged to get into poses my body cannot sustain without further injury, I have never had that experience with Anusara…in fact, totally the opposite.

    And, end of infomercial. If you’re in LA and want an ally buddy to attend class with, drop a line. :>

  7. such a great post with really fantastic info!

    i’m a curvy yoga teacher in the atlanta area (i teach at jai shanti yoga, where the aforementioned & fabulous tra teaches too) as well as other places around town. yoga has helped me learn to feel good about myself, regardless of my current size or shape, and it is such a gift to be able to share that joy with others.

    would love to touch base with other yoga enthusiasts out there, so feel free to send me a post!

    ~namaste, y’all~

  8. Great post, Bevin! I think this is all fantastic advice. I was wondering if you have more info on Jyll’s class. I’d love to try it.

    Also, I have the Megayoga DVD, which I love, and I believe that Megan herself teaches classes in Manhattan at least once a week.

  9. You are correct about needing a yoga partner. My coworkers asked me to join their yoga class. They’re mostly older women, which makes them more tolerant of my size, but they still wouldn’t understand.

  10. Thanks for this! It took me forever to get to yoga because, well, I hate to fail. And I’d never seen fat people do yoga. These days, my schedule gets in the way, but I miss it terribly. Note to self: must put self back on priority list.

    If anyone is looking for an amazing queer/trans/dis/ability friendly teacher in the Atlanta area, I would totally recommend Tra Kirkpatrick. She teaches at Ladies Workout Express in Toco Hills, Jai Shanti in Candler Park, and a couple of other places I can’t remember right now. She’s also a great personal trainer if you’re in the market for one of those.

  11. I was hoping that you were going to offer information on teachers or classes that are plus-size friendly… It was the main reason I clicked through, as it took me a while to find the one I attend now.

    You mentioned Megan Garcia’s book Mega Yoga and I just wanted to let you know that she offers weekly yoga classes in the city. I, like you, have felt uncomfortable in being a part of “regular” yoga classes. But, last week, I tried Ms. Garcia’s class and was very encouraged by the room of women of all shapes and sizes. She’s encouraging and truly understands the modifications needed for those of us with big bellies or breasts that can get in the way during certain types of poses. I hope to continue to take her classes, but also to find more instructors or classes to supplement hers.

    Kudos on this post. I hope it encourages more people to seek out yoga. It really is quite restorative!

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