accessibility · body image · fitness · yoga

Is fat yoga exclusive, in a bad way?

I was happy to see in the New York Times style section a piece on fat yoga, They’re Not Afraid to Say It: ‘Fat Yoga’

Why the need for special fat yoga? I guess really that’s two questions in one. Why have a special class? And if you’re going to have a special class, why call it “fat”?

The New York Times addresses both questions. Thanks Ragen Chastain!

“Many fat people have had terrible experiences at a regular studio, where the teacher assumes they’re a beginner, is unwilling to touch them or is condescending and sees them through their own prejudice,” said Ragen Chastain, a writer in Los Angeles who blogs at

She said she applauds the honest labeling of these specialized studios.

“If you sell bubble gum, you want a sign that says you sell bubble gum,” Ms. Chastain said. “These names say, ‘fat yoga here.’ If you’re fat and want to do yoga, go here.”

For more on the “Why call it fat?” question see Ragen’s excellent post, Why Do You Call Yourself Fat?

But is “fat yoga” exclusive, in the bad sense of being unfairly discriminatory? One of the commentators at our blog’s Facebook page worried about this. She wrote, “I don’t like that it excludes people. What about those of us who are average, but perhaps struggle with body image and are uncomfortable in a “skinny yoga” class. Yoga needs to be inclusive.”

Now to be clear not all kinds of exclusions are unfair. At 50, I can’t claim a seniors’ discount at the movies just yet.  If I showed up at the velodrome early Saturday afternoon, it would be just fine for the person in charge to say, “I’m sorry. This is when the kids get to train and ride on the track.” And there’s a long history of making spaces in a particular place or activity for those from underrepresented groups. See Tracy’s posts on women only races and workout spaces.

Tracy wrote, “We might react more negatively to races for men only, wondering why they were excluding women. We might even go so far as to say that they are sexist because they discriminate against women.  Why should we regard women-only races any differently? To answer this question, we need to think about the reason for them. The idea of spaces for women only has been around for a long time.  Author Virginia Wolff talked about the need for women to have “a room of their own.” She reasoned that the women of her day had been discouraged from pursuing an education, let alone having careers as writers, because only boys were expected to produce art or seek employment that might require an education.”

It’s not a new debate, the need for size acceptance in the gym, even if the plus sized yoga thing is new. I wrote a bit about plus sized gyms in this piece, Working Out While Fat.

I’ve often thought I’d like to teach a fitness class for big people, one that doesn’t mention weight loss at all. No mention of calories burned or looking good in your skinny jeans. I’m cool with people trying to lose weight–I’m not without goals in that department myself–but my dream class would focus on fitness and moving for fun only. The Y’s fitness instructor certification classes look like they might be fun. And I think I’d have a blast teaching spin classes too. Perhaps I’ll get my certification as part of this ‘fittest at fifty’ project.

Clearly, there’s a need for a spaces without fat shaming. A gym in Vancouver, Body Exchange, set out to create a safe haven for plus size exercisers but it ran into controversy with its plans not accept skinny members.

The Province interviewed Tony Leyland, from Simon Fraser University’s department of biomedical physiology and kinesiology, about the plus sized gyms and he was adamant that people not downplay the social value of creating safe places for mothballed bodies.
Leyland also says some bodies are naturally resistant to being lean. Even slightly pudgy people can be terrific athletes, he says. “Fitness trumps a lot of things,” he says. “The evidence is clear that people are really going to benefit from getting fit whether they lose weight or not.”You can read more about it here, Canada’s only plus size fitness company: no skinnies need apply.
I’m still not sure of what I think of a plus size only gym–generally speaking I prefer inclusion to hiding out in safe spaces and I worry that then people would think that’s where you belong, “Get thee to the fat gym”–but I think plus size, healthy at every size inspired classes would be lovely.
What do I think about fat yoga? I’d go in a heart beat. I love yoga but I find it one of the least comfortable exercise spaces out there. The association of yoga with young, perfect bodies is too close to comfort for me.  I’m often both the oldest and largest person in the yoga studio and frequently hear comments that are meant to be supportive but aren’t at all. You know where the person assumes you’re trying to lose weight or are just starting out.
Now some of that is true too at cycling events and at CrossFit, but I don’t feel the need for especially supportive environments for those activities, or at least not especially supportive by way of excluding thin people. But in yoga, I’d be happiest without thin people anywhere near me. Even thin people I love. I’ve wondered about why. The best answer I can come up with is that I’m lousy at yoga. I have a cyclist’s inflexible body but in yoga contexts people have seen that as connected to my size, not my strength.
There’s also my own associations of yoga with beauty and grace. It’s a kind of beauty I just don’t possess. I’m powerful yes, graceful not so much. (Though some of that has come with Aikido.) Cue childhood story of being kicked out of ballet for having “the grace of a baby elephant.”
Bottom line: I’m comfortable running/biking/swimming with people of all different shapes but give me yoga with people close to my size please!
This is true even though “fat” isn’t my preferred word to describe me. Give me “big” or “brawny” any day. I’m a girl galoot! (Is “galoot” even gendered?”) See Fat or big: What’s in a name?
So yes, I’d go to fat yoga. I love the instructor’s t-shirt.
What do you think? Exclusionary in a bad way? Would you go?
Additional reading:

Should Gyms Be Allowed To Ban The ‘Thin’?

Let Me Hear Your Body Talk: Aerobics for Fat Women Only, 1981-1985 by Jenny Ellison

21 thoughts on “Is fat yoga exclusive, in a bad way?

  1. Fat bodies have different requirements for modifications and progressions. That is reason enough to have a yoga class especially for those bodies — taught, one would hope, by someone who genuinely understands the biomechanical issues as well as being able to help students see their success in movement and in orienting the body even when they don’t look like the pictures in Yoga Journal.

    Honestly, if I were teaching such a class, and a thin person came to me and said, “I deserve a place here — I have body-image issues, too, ya know,” I’d be tempted to say, “Why do you assume this class is about body-image issues?”

    1. This was my thought, too. I’d go to fat yoga, not because of body-image issues but because yoga designed for thin bodies doesn’t work for me. It’s the same as having classes designed for beginners vs. advanced or adjusting the height of a weight bench to fit a short person. I don’t think I’d mind regular-sized people attending the fat yoga class as long as the fat people weren’t being edged out. Others may feel differently about having a safe space, or judgment-free space, for their practice.

  2. What about we who are not fat nor skinny, just a little overweight? I’ve been fat, skinny, average, and a little pudgy (that’s where I am now). I’d feel more comfortable going to a yoga class if there were people there of ALL sizes.

  3. When I read the end of this post I immediately thought of one I’d read on Do You Yoga a while ago – “6 big and beautiful Yogis you should follow on Instagram” –

    I thought of it because I thought some of these women look extremely beautiful and graceful. Dana especially, wow! And maybe not Valerie but I think she is going for “awesome” in her pose rather than “graceful”. Their Instagrams are great as well and I think pretty inspiring for anyone who feels too fat / ungraceful etc to do yoga!

  4. I think that the need for modifications and accommodation is reasonable. As a yoga teacher I try to come up with ways to make my class accessible to all.
    I have serious joint issues that flare up and I spend time researching ways to modify for that.

    I admit, the yoga I teach is very quiet and still yin. It is for any body and it is not about body changing or image. It is about meditating and using the body and breath to find some peace in an otherwise noisy world.

    I am not opposed to having a fitness class aimed at people of a larger size to help them figure out how to do the moves in a modified and safe manner.

    I guess I am disappointed that they are calling it yoga. Yoga is so much more than the physical asanas.


  5. I think it is important to note that it seems most of the fat yoga (of various names) studios welcomed anyone who wanted to join.
    Personally I think that is better. The idea of having a policy toward excluding certain body sizes makes me uncomfortable because who is fat is very subjective. A person I view as thin may view themselves as fat, and who am I to really say that is wrong?
    A lot of this relates to my experiences as too fat for some people while not fat enough for others. I’ve seen myself as fat pretty much as far back as I can remember. I was bullied due to my weight in junior high and to a lesser extent in high school, yet when I found fat exclusive spaces I discovered I was not fat at all according to them. I’m much larger than I was back then yet still there are people who considered me not really fat since I can often shop in non-plus stores. So the idea of another person judging a person’s body as a gate-keeper for these yoga classes makes me uncomfortable. So I might go to a fat yoga class that welcomed people of all sizes or anyone who identified as fat, but I would likely not feel comfortable going to one where I had to pass someone else’s measure of “fat enough” or not to gain entry.
    Which is of course different than women only spaces since the only case of being judged women enough or not basically centers around trans inclusion or exclusion, which is kind of a whole different issue.

  6. I’ve been in too many classes where the instructor couldn’t/wouldn’t accommodate fat bodies.

    Frankly I don’t care if thin people feel excluded. The other 99.999% of yoga classes work for them.

    1. I’m going to go one further and say that — in my 15 years of practicing — I’ve mostly turned away from studios who won’t accommodate my fat body. Like, if you are willfully refusing to see my body as legitimate in its own right or if you are working not at all against projecting your assumptions about my fitness or experience level onto my body — you are not an establishment that is helpful to me and therefore it is actively harmful to my well-being to invest my time, money, and effort to you.

      That said, I’ve found a number of good teachers — people who are well intentioned, people who question their own assumptions about bodies, people who are willing to do research — who are often stumped about modifying for larger bodies (and, to be fair, larger bodies come in a variety of shapes that — independent of other things like strength, flexibility, and bone structure — can require different modifications). Except in places where I have actively been researching modifications specific to my body type, I have always, always — in 15 years had to be the teacher for my teachers in this respect. I consider it a success when I find a teacher who is willing to work with me on this; I would certainly pay good money (even now, but particularly if I had less yoga experience) to find a teacher who was more knowledgeable than I was about variations that would work best for me.

  7. Completely agree with caitlin above. Additionally, do those classes truly turn away a skinny person who wanted to participate in a body positive yoga class? I am very much in support of any class that actively promotes fat people to participate in yoga that is geared towards their body’s abilities.

  8. I think I need to read this again very carefully, because, to be honest, on my first read, I just don’t get it. I honestly don’t see the need to have a special yoga class based on one’s size. (or whomever identifies as “fat”.)
    I attend a yoga class that has women of all ages and shapes (when I actually stopped and thought about their shapes). Everyone is accepting and is there to do their own thing – yet there is a feeling of community and acceptance.
    We are told at the beginning of the class that it is our practice and to listen to OUR bodies, and modify as required. I take that seriously. I have a bad back. I know my limits. I assume everyone else around me is also just working on their own thing.
    I would be sincerely pissed if I was excluded from a class based on my shape. UGH. Aren’t we fighting against being judged by our shape?Doesn’t sit right with me and how I understand the spirit of yoga.

  9. Great post, Sam, and clearly you’ve touched on something important and sensitive here, especially judging by the comments. This definitely merits more discussion. I’m not yet sure what I think. I do feel awkward and condescended to in yoga classes, mainly because I’m not so flexible; the teachers sometimes assume I’m a beginner, which embarrasses and annoys me. I’ve also taken dance classes since I was little, and felt bovine in all of them (even thought I wasn’t particularly heavy). In a college intermediate ballet class, the teacher said to me once, “Catherine, you’re finally looking less awkward”. Thanks a lot… Just FYI, one kind of dance that shows off all body types: rhythm tap. It’s about beat, rhythm, creativity, and movement, and fun. More on this later…

  10. I’m in the process of writing a training workshop for yoga teachers about how to both be inclusive of what we call special populations and also how to hold classes designed exclusively for specific special populations. There are real safety considerations for some people who fall into the overweight and obese categories, so I think it’s great to offer options that not only provide a comfortable space, but also a safe space with modifications to the postures that will allow the participant to feel successful. My course deals with not just the overweight and obese groups, but also those who are in the “senior” population, those with chronic conditions, and even pre and post natal yoga. I think that each of these groups and the many more that I’m not addressing should be welcomed into any yoga class, but also given the opportunity to practice with other individuals like them. Yoga is a personal practice and whatever makes you feel comfortable is fine with me!

  11. I’m echoing lots of the same goodness above and saying, I have a fat body, I like my body, I love the word fat, and I don’t have body image issues.

    What I do have? Difficulty finding yoga space that makes me happy and feel motivated to return. In part because other reasons like appropriative capitalist yoga ‘approaches’ and also in part because I don’t see myself reflected in the room. Now, I’m a fat person who totally gets that I don’t see myself reflected in much of anything except shame based advertising and pushes to be thin. I don’t like it. But I know it to be true. And while I’m pretty used to navigating the world under this umbrella, if I’m going to do something requiring me to manipulate my body in all sorts of contorted fashions, I want an instructor who can understand how my body is different and I want to be in a space where attendees aren’t there chasing the (false) skinny dream. I want to be in and help make space that says that someone can tap out if they need to, or change up the pose if that’s what’s required, or pant loudly because exercise is actually hard, or sweat twice as much twice as fast because sometimes that happens.

    As for the question of “Is fat yoga too exclusive?”… I say not a chance. While ‘less than fat’ folks might feel they would be more comfortable in fat spaces, how does that shift the comfort of the REST of the class? A class otherwise full of fat folks who pretty much live in a skinny person’s world. Really. There are studios that won’t shame that smaller person quite so crudely with their eyes, but that’s not the fat folx experience. I could say LOADS more, but I’m procrastinating…

  12. Great post and lots of interesting comments! I’ve had an interesting experience this week trying to work through the something similar to your ‘why have a special class’ question.

    My ‘fat yoga class’ of the week a facebook group that a friend created recently for ‘outdoor women’ in our local area. Her hope was that it would be a platform for women to meet one another, share skills, plan trips, tell stories and support one another in all things outdoors. She’s been sending invites to this group all over the internet. In a few places, her invites have been deleted and she’s received a rap on the knuckles for being exclusive and discriminatory.

    I got so angry at first, but I’ve actually had some really interesting chats with one of the ‘women’s only platforms are sexist and discriminatory’ folks. We have such different experiences of the world, it’s exhausting to try to do all the background explaining that needs to happen before we can get close to understanding where the other person is coming from. I don’t have to do all that explaining within the outdoor women’s group. They already get it. They don’t think I’m being silly or discriminatory.

    If you tell me that you’re fat and you see value in a fat yoga class, then all power to you. There is a new option for you, but no one has taken any options away from me. I might be frustrated if I turned up to a yoga place during the special class time slot and got told, sorry, you can’t join this one because its the fat yoga class/men’s yoga class/children’s yoga class/[insert any group of humans] class, but I think I’d just come back for the class that I thought I’d get the most benefit from.

    I don’t think having a fat class means that the instructors of the general classes will suddenly become less fat friendly. I don’t think the sky is going to fall in.

    I’m still trying to figure out where I draw my own line between OK discrimination and not-OK discrimination. My gut reaction is that ‘skinny yoga’ is less ok than ‘fat yoga’. Maybe that’s because the skinny people don’t have to use the word skinny as a signal that its ok for them to participate. They’re already in the majority in a bunch of yoga studios. You don’t need a leg-up if you’re already winning the race. I’m also not sure who should be making the fat/skinny distinction.

    Lots of interesting food for thought!

    Happy adventures.

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