Shouldn't Yoga be for Every Body?

New "plus size" yoga classes sound body positive on paper. But I'm not convinced

In case you haven't heard, Buddha Body is one of several yoga studios that now cater to yogis and yoginis with "larger bodies." Instructors modify poses and help students use blocks, straps and other props to make yoga postures more accessible. And while the studio's slogan is "... for EVERY kind of body," founder Michael Hayes tells Reuters, "When I tell 120-pound people they can't come, they get very offended, which I find fascinating." 

Hmm. What I find fascinating is the disconnect between that inclusive slogan and the idea of a yoga class with a weight cut-off -- high or low.

I'm not trying to downplay the issues that overweight yoga students often encounter. I've studied yoga off and on for five years and I've Om-ed my way through many a class where I felt awkward about my body, surrounded by tiny stretchy people pretzeling themselves into unbelievable shapes. I once had a teacher continually tell me to scoop my navel in because she couldn't understand that my navel was in -- it's just surrounded by a lot more skin than hers, so my version of "in" is never going to be concave. As yoga has morphed from ancient tradition to celebrity workout du jour, it sometimes loses that loving feeling that should make it, like Pilates, such a body positive workout.

But "separate but equal" is never the answer. Banning skinny chicks from plus-size yoga is discrimination, just like the all-too-familiar combination of hot pants and judgment that can make overweight folk feel unwelcome in your average Bikram class. Yes, there are plenty of other classes that thin yoga students can attend -- but the goal should be yoga classes where everyone feels welcome.

And capitalizing on our culture's fat bias for profit just feels icky, especially because Hayes emphasizes how many of his plus-sized yoga students end up shedding serious pounds with his help. Translation: He's created a space where overweight people will feel accepted -- as long as they're serious about changing that fact. "Yoga isn't about getting a hot body; we teach that you already are what you need to be," says Shannon Brandt, owner of Shambhala Yoga Center in Beacon and Poughkeepsie, New York (and full disclosure: one of my favorite yoga teachers). "It makes me sad that yoga has come to a space in this country where anyone regardless of their shape, size, age or color doesn't feel celebrated and loved in their yoga studio."  

Because the truth is, no workout will be good for your body image (or your health) as long as the focus remains on how your body looks, not what your body can do. The beauty of yoga -- and any exercise that requires some degree of coordination and mindfulness -- is that you can acquire knowledge, build strength and flexibility,  and challenge yourself to do things you maybe never thought you could do. How you look doing them should be entirely beside the point.

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