Despite the research showing that yoga relieves stress and anxiety, those benefits aren’t always afforded to larger bodies like mine. I’m fat. And being the fattest girl in the room can be pretty uncomfortable.
A few weeks after I moved to Portland, Oregon—one of the fittest cities in America—I signed up for a trial week at a power yoga studio. It seemed like a nice way to meet people and balance out all the brewery trips I had been making.
Although yoga is supposed to calm the mind, this studio ended up having the opposite effect. This power yoga class was like vinyasa yoga on steroids in a heated inferno of a mirrored classroom, featuring a mix of high-intensity interval training and weighted asanas.
At every session, I would claim the top right corner of the classroom, rolling out my hot pink mat. But as soon as I would finish meticulously aligning the corner of my matching pink Bikram towel, my mind began racing. The thoughts got louder between each pose throughout the nearly silent yoga sequences.
I couldn’t stop wondering if people were offended by the length of my yoga shorts. I was convinced the sight of my bare, thick thighs in front of the classroom was distracting other people. As I took an inverted stare around the room, balancing in downward dog, I would marvel at the strength and size of my biceps.
But my affection was short-lived, as my gaze would wander to the tiny, toned arms of my fellow yogis. I felt like an alien life form invading their studio, due to the fact I was both bigger and blacker than any of the other students.
Despite yoga’s “come-as-you-are” principles, I felt a subliminal pressure to assimilate into the sea of other yogis with six-pack abs, draped in color-coordinated Nike and Lululemon. I stuck out in my Target leggings and TJ Maxx tank top—neither of which matched very well. I would watch the instructors call all the other students by name and exchange laughs and recipes. This rarely happened to me.
Eventually, I did get over feeling like the elephant in the room. The sounds of roaring mental chatter were dulled down to just a whisper as I began to cultivate my own space.
Because I was feeling better, less anxious, and even seeing some muscle tone, I decided these side effects outweighed any temporary discomfort. I grew to accept my presence among this species of yogi.
The one thing I couldn’t get used to were the sympathetic stares from the instructors. From the time I walked past the front desk to the end of my practice, the puppy-dog eyes never ceased.
It would start when they locked eyes on me as their target. I would try my damnedest not to make eye contact while sweating profusely. But that only worked temporarily. My silent prayers mid-warrior II were ignored. With teeth clenched and eyes closed, I could hear the dreaded sound of the teacher’s bare feet marching across the hardwood floor, landing beside my mat to begin “The Hover.”
“The Hover” wasn’t just about making adjustments. It was usually accompanied by an expression of utmost concern and the assumption I needed extra assistance due to my physical appearance.
I soon realized it happened almost every class and always to me.
Anytime I walked out of yoga, at least one person would make it their mission to gravitate toward me and congratulate me for “surviving” the class. Just the other day a woman told me she wanted to stop mid-workout to tell me how proud she was that I was working out.
It’s a lot of extra work to fake smile because someone is pitying the rolls on your body you’ve grown to love. It’s also slightly annoying that these people are all rooting for me on a weight-loss journey I haven’t even claimed to be on. Sometimes I just need to sweat. No explanation, no apologies needed.
I’d never known how to express this, until I discovered Jessamyn Stanley.
She is a curvy, self-described “black femme.” I first saw her in a video wearing nothing but a fuchsia sports bra and black leggings. She performed asanas flawlessly while she talked about what it was like to be fat and do yoga.
For the first time in two years of practice, I didn’t feel like such an outsider. She was strong, she was fat, she was athletic, and she was doing yoga. Effortlessly.
When you don’t fit in, you start to think you’re imagining all the micro-aggressions. You eventually learn to tune it all out for the sake of your sanity and because you know you deserve that zen space as much as your smaller-bodied classmates. Hearing someone else describe the exact same experience out loud was transformative.
I had begun to feel stronger and leaner, and was proud of my own dedication. But every time I built myself up, returning to this studio would immediately begin to erode all the confidence I had because the space wasn’t inclusive. This, combined with the constant implication that there was something wrong with my body, made staying at power yoga difficult.
So I left.
Luckily, I live in Portland, where I have the privilege of being able to throw a rock and hit a yoga studio or fitness center. Right after I decided to quit power yoga, I wandered into a little gym called “Muv Training.” The person who signed me up was bubbly and enthusiastic, but I didn’t feel like she was making assumptions about why I was there.
I received a complimentary tour and saw all different body types, from muscular to curvy and everything in between. Unlike at the last studio, I didn’t feel like a martian. I decided to join.
Now when I exercise, the instructors push me toward my individual goals instead of pitying me. I still love yoga and practice there twice per week. Plus, since I’ve gotten more comfortable in my own skin, I have been able to explore additional ways to challenge my body and mind. I’ve learned a sense of belonging is important in everything you do, but especially when dealing with the vulnerability of our physical well-being. And this place felt more like home.