BY BEVIN BRANLANDINGHAM
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 the previous 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.
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.
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.
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!
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 screw 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.
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.
Bevin Branlandingham is your femmecee at QueerFatFemme.com where she chronicles the relentless pursuit of her joy.