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:

At ‘Fat Yoga,’ Bucking Stigma And Embracing Body Positivity

Should Gyms Be Allowed To Ban The ‘Thin’?

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

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