Yoga & Sizeism

The Flow & Restore Collective
10 min readSep 7, 2020

Unfortunately, Adaptation is Not Sexy

In an average Yoga class, we are told to modify based on the size of our bodies or our experience, we are told to be kind to ourselves and “do what feels good.” Yet, as a yogi with a larger body, I am still left with the question, “Is this how my body should look?”

Now, before I even get to the matter of size, my inquiry begs for a discussion around the origin of this mindset. If yoga literally means “union,” union of the mind, body, and being (with the Self, and with God as you have come to know it/he/she), then why are we focusing, as a Western culture, on the way our bodies should or shouldn’t look? The purpose of a yogasana practice is to still our mind, and physically strengthen and prepare our bodies for long sessions of seated meditation in order to achieve samadhi (a yogic word closely related to nirvana), then why care what the body looks like at all? I have studied Light on Yoga by B. K. S. Iyengar, as well as watched many videos of Iyengar presenting on various asanas. Here, we have an older man in very tiny underwear, with soft folds of skin, a tummy pouch, a notorious barrel chest with pectorals that hardly surpass the aesthetic of any average male, masterfully moving his body in ways that some people couldn’t even imagine possible. And, in his case, coming to do so in an effort to deal with tremendous and unending physical illness. So I ask, why is it that if one of the most popular masters of yogasana isn’t particularly “sexy” in his practice, yoga has become dominated by the thin, flexible white-waif-women in Western culture? And by woman, I do sincerely mean almost exclusively cis-gendered woman.

There is no denying that if you were to walk into a yoga class at random, or pull up a most-popular YouTube video of a yoga class, you’re most likely to find a thin, white woman. In class once, a yoga instructor walked up to me as I was holding warrior-one, and without my consent, said, “Try to get your thigh parallel to the mat.” I said to myself, “Well, that’s easy for you to say, you weigh like 50 pounds.”

Needless to say, I had some growing and developing to do, both in my asana practice, and in my practice of yogic philosophy,but we just can’t keep stepping over a lack of tact in our yoga classes. We have got to begin to find a way to honor the difference between her body and mine. My body is a lot more body to hold up in inversions, my thighs have more circumference to them in my seated forward fold, my bosom more ample than someone half my size. So when I ask, “Is this how my body should look?” I mean it literally.

Adjustments for Bigger Bodies are Risque

We can first look at the dilemma facing us average-to-larger-sized women of yoga having been sexualized, and that sexualization being defined by what a white, Western cultural lens deems “sexy.” Let’s take a look at the Western lens of sex, body worship, and the idea of instant gratification.

I am often fascinated by the yama of brahmacharya; physical, energetic, and spiritual continence. Since I began the journey of my training for 200-hours of certification, I found myself cultivating a new relationship with my own libido and sex life. I no longer felt the need to release stress, anger, and other emotions through sex, which was a whole new world for me. I also found myself looking at beautiful Instagram yogis far less, wondering why my body wouldn’t squeeze itself into a gracefully lengthened bow pose, following the yama of aparigraha (non-covetousness), no longer needing to fit myself or compare myself to the stereotypical sexy yogi body. However, before I had dared to delve deep into yogic philosophy, you bet your bottom dollar that you’d find me drooling over how feminine and beautiful I thought these thin, tall, flexible white women were. I aspired to have such limber limbs and lightness, and would always think, “If I could be that thin, the possibilities it would bring me in these poses…”

The issue isn’t with these gorgeously athletic and disciplined women, it’s with the Western (mostly American and mostly white) ideology of hard, fast results in the least amount of time. It’s the empty promise of the American dream, that you too can rise up and take a 7-day crash course and walk out doing full splits on both sides! A close friend once called me, so very excited, chomping at the bit to ask how I’d worked myself into a split practice. I noted that my split practice had really only just begun, and I told her I had been hydrating like a madwoman that week, and that I have literally been practicing yogasana since I was 16. In our social media haze, we can lose sight of that, while the picture might take ten seconds, the posture took ten years of expanding my capacity for flexibility. You see, I truly believe it’s the idea of instant gratification that has brought yoga into this world of sultry seduction. Even the sexy side of spirituality, the idea of meditating all your problems away, bringing mindfulness into the modern world so that we may maintain our fast-paced lifestyle and cultivate our “zen.” But on the contrary, maybe adopting a yogic lifestyle means that we completely transform this fast-paced lifestyle altogether. I strongly feel that if we cultivated this idea of a practice that is not only physical but also mindful and spiritual, we would transform our culture from one of instant gratification into one of honoring the journey, savoring the challenge, making the discipline sexy, and honoring larger bodies that practice yoga would become a no-brainer.

The availability of adjustments for larger-sized bodies is quite abundant, to my surprise. I almost fell out of my chair when I discovered Abby Lentz, a middle-aged woman from Texas, and founder of HeavyWeight Yoga. Abby could easily be my tía that loved to make her favorite home-cooked meal, shopped at Walmart, and hollered at us down the block to come inside for dinner. She looked so average, and yet there she was on her mat, delivering yoga that was modified for women of all sizes and ages. Then I stumbled across Maria Odugba’s heartwarming journey. She began practicing yoga at a weight of 400 pounds, and courageously began teaching after losing over 100 pounds. I watched as she taught two women, one of whom was quite slender and small framed, and admittedly would not have begun a practice if not for Odugba’s visual affirmation that yoga was literally for everyone and anyone. If you ever get a chance to search Arthur Boorman’s incredible transformation on YouTube, make sure you bring the tissues. This was an obese veteran who was told he’d never walk without assistance again, who transformed himself to be a healthy, strong, physically fit yogi through Diamond Dallas Page Yoga, an eclectic fitness program that incorporates yogasana, a healthy organic diet, and strength training using only the weight of the body (which closely resembles Poweryoga and HIIT yoga styles). Oh, and don’t even get me started on Jessamyn Stanley, that QUEEN.

I was so inspired by all of these incredible human beings, and still left scratching my head. If all of these people were so easily discoverable with a simple Google search, and there is a plethora of content on yogic assists and modifications for larger bodies, then why doesn’t the average person see it anywhere? Why is it not common knowledge? Is there a fear of teaching fat bodies, a lack of confidence given the current cultural climate of yoga? Could this mean that we might have an aversion to bodies that are unlike our own, a subconscious epidemic of sizeism? If you ask me, I think it all comes down to one simple fact; adaptation isn’t sexy. It’s not “cute” to put your class on pause while you explain your sequence to the big girls in the back. Though things like “yoga for all” and “yoga for every body” are trending, we don’t necessarily encounter a section in our teacher training entitled “adjusting for fat/differently abled bodies.” I had asked one of my teachers what my thick legs and larger breasts should be doing in certain poses, and through no fault of her own, she danced delicately around the question to try and support me the best she could. Honestly, I would have preferred an authentic “I don’t know.”

Because not knowing is NOT sexy.

Or so we think.

Having a Bigger Body Doesn’t Mean You Need an Easier or a Downgraded Practice

Now, onto my unabashed adoration for Jessamyn Stanley. She was the first person I had literally ever seen do yoga that didn’t look like a “yogi” to me. When I first began my journey with yogasana, I had shrunk to, dare I say it, a size five, which I am clear I will never accomplish again in my entire life. I was on a steady diet of internet binging, ramen, and a charming assortment of drugs. I had body dysmorphia, and still thought that this false idol of a fantastical yogi body was something to aspire towards. I got older, gained some pounds, and began to shy away from my practice for the age-old adage, “I don’t have the time.” Needless to say that when I revisited my practice again in college, I was shy and awkward in my classes with the aforementioned teacher asking me to parallel my thighs to the floor. And then I laid my eyes upon her, the cocoa yogi goddess who had unapologetic fat rolls, cellulite, and did yoga in a thong. Before I get trolled for fetishization, I want to make very clear that Jessamyn gave me permission, for the first time in my life, to be myself in my yogasana practice. I began sharing my personal journey on Instagram and Facebook, wearing less and less as I grew more and more confident in myself. My relationship to my body began to shift. I began to actually accept the same belly that I used to bruise trying to tear off of my body in the mirror. I stopped noticing my cellulite because it became merely a part of my anatomy.

Then something interesting began to happen.

I discovered Yoga with Adrienne, your nerdy girl-next door best friend type of gal. She oozed acceptance and love, and called to me with her “do what feels good” methodology. Yet, there was still something I couldn’t quite understand. I didn’t look like Jessamyn by any means, and I didn’t look like Adrienne. I didn’t look like those smooth and hard plus-sized mannequins at Target, and definitely didn’t look like Nicki Minaj or Cardi B. I questioned my aesthetic place in the yoga world, still holding this ideal “yogi body” on a pedestal. As I shared photos of my own fat rolls in different postures and shared my mental and emotional ups and downs in my practice, women began to message me.
“You are inspiring me to try yoga! Keep going!”
“Your confidence with your body is giving me life!”
“You were born for this.”
I saw myself become a voice for women, an advocate for yoga literally being for anybody, because it is not just a physical practice. It truly is a way of life, and the yogic way of living saved mine in ways that I won’t even begin to express.

Strangely enough, I attribute most of my physical discipline in yogasana to my practice with thin women. They showed me beautiful shapes, they moved with grace and ease, they gave me the gorgeous stencils in which to attempt to fit my body, which actually did wonders for me. Fat bodies, plus sized bodies, larger bodies do not necessarily need a “lighter” or easier practice. I have recently been practicing Ashtanga Yoga, and while I am nowhere near facile with the asanas or the strength needed, I have fallen in love with the technical discipline of it. If someone had suggested that I study plus-sized yoga, or adjusted for my larger size, I would have never pushed my edge the way that I have, or challenged myself to my current level of expertise. So, this now begs the question…

Plus-Size Yoga, Inclusive or Exclusive?

I know in theory, it seems fair and equitable to provide plus-sized women with yoga classes tailor made just for them, though I am beginning to wonder what the implications of this could be. Does the answer to solving our sexed-up Western yoga practice reside in separating the plump from the petite? What about teaching it as a separate discipline, as with yoga for seniors, or prenatal yoga? Should one coin a specialized term for fat yoga? Where is the line?

I for one believe in inclusion as the answer, a real display of yoga for every body, a practice that has resources leading to all the answers; from “Where do my boobs go?” to “my butt is too boney.” I envision a single 200-hour certification course that has an anatomy for larger sized bodies section, continued education that provides a fresh look at where fat folds and breasts go, tells us what cellulite sack we hang onto in a bind. I see a future where yogic assists also discuss our immediate aversion to handling bodies that don’t look like our own. I yearn for a room of white waifs led by a plentiful cocoa yogi goddess, for a reverence of our own flesh and skin. I cherish the future to come where we all get to bow our heads and hearts in honor of our collective light far beyond our anatomy, and where we praise the practice of the holistic yogi in mind, body, and being. Yoga is far more than a physical practice that mimics that of an aerial gymnast, it is a way of life with 8 limbs. I say, we honor all the ample limbs on our own bodies in honor of practicing each of these 8 limbs with integrity, grace, and devotion.

Namaste, yogis.

This article was written by Jocelyn Cruz, a teacher and writer with Sharing Hearts Yoga on behalf of the Flow and Restore Collective.