If you look at the way yoga is portrayed in advertising or magazines, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s exclusively for stick-thin women in expensive tights who can twist themselves into myriad pretzel shapes without breaking a sweat. But yoga can have wide-ranging benefits for both mind and body, and there is a movement afoot to ensure larger people don’t miss out.
Jessamyn Stanley is a yoga teacher from North Carolina with a massive online following. Her Instagram account, @mynameisjessamyn, on positive body image and yoga has 284,000 followers and she has a book due for release. Stanley describes her body as “thick and juicy”. But, she says, “my body epitomises strength. It’s worthy of respect.” That’s why Stanley wants to bring her message to as many people as possible: yoga is for every body.
“I’m aware that my experience as a plus-size woman is one of my greatest assets as a teacher,” she says. “I am able to fully identify with the experience most new students have because I know what it’s like to experience all of the emotions that intimidate many students into never even attempting yoga.”
Stanley’s classes teach a traditional style of vinyasa yoga that she says doesn’t differ much from a regular class. “But my classes are weirder, louder, and have more light-hearted profanity than your average vinyasa class,” she laughs. “It’s a come-as-you-are space – no need to obsess over wearing the right leggings, holding in your farts or looking perfect.”
Sarah Harry of Fat Yoga in Melbourne, and author of Fat Yoga: Yoga for All Bodies, is another yoga teacher who wants to spread the message that everyone can do yoga. But she’s taking a slightly different approach: Harry’s classes are designed specifically for fat people. (Harry proudly claims the word “fat” and says she uses it “without shame or hesitation.”)
“The main thing Fat Yoga has is skilled teachers who understand bigger bodies and who know how to cater for them,” Harry says. “They are different from smaller bodies, they need different or adjusted postures and props. We know how to make room for bellies and boobs – if you have them – in a low-fuss way.”
Harry hears from people all the time who are grateful to have found her classes. “They don’t attend regular classes because, for whatever reason, they were made to feel ill at ease, discriminated against or that they didn’t fit in,” she says. “So many people say to me, ‘It’s so lovely to look around the class and see bodies that look like mine.’ “
Harry says she felt it was important to create a place for people who have previously felt unwelcome at yoga classes. “As there is a lot of criticism about fat bodies, I feel like it’s a positive thing to provide spaces where you aren’t made to feel different, stigmatised, or at risk of ridicule or discrimination, which many fat people feel daily.”
Both women agree that it isn’t just about creating classes where larger people can learn yoga. Stanley believes it can help plus-size people to learn to love themselves.
“Don’t feel like you need to make excuses for your body or who you are,” says Stanley. “Yoga is here for you, regardless of what’s going on in your physical body. It will help you understand the magnitude of your power and beauty outside of the trappings of our daily life.”
Harry wants people to know that they’re not excluded. “There is not one body type that is suitable for yoga. It doesn’t matter if you can touch your toes or you can’t see them! Yoga is an amazing practice – it’s movement, meditation, relaxation and coming home to your body. It can change you. And all bodies deserve spaces where they can move.”
How to make yoga work for you
• Find a class in which you feel comfortable. Ask around – and don’t give up if the first one you try isn’t suitable for you.
• Try online classes. YouTube hosts some great yoga video channels.
• Wear whatever is comfortable – no expensive yoga gear required.