fitness · Weekends with Womack

Today Fat Yoga, Tomorrow Fat Kayaking? Some thoughts on Kayaking While Fat, Safe Spaces, and Inclusiveness

Sam’s recent post on fat yoga raised some thorny questions for me this week (which, for philosophers, is pretty much a sign of “Mission Accomplished”, so thanks, Sam!) Honestly, I’m not even yet sure what these questions are yet. So it seemed like the best thing to do was to start writing, and see what came from it.

This blog has spent a lot of airtime talking about these issues, with respect to size, age, (dis)ability, etc. For instance, Sam has written that doing physical activity while fat means overcoming a cornucopia of obstacles, from condescension and fat-shaming to problems finding right-sized clothing and gear. Tracy has posted about how our concepts of fitness get associated with particular body norms which excludes older, larger-sized and differently abled people.   If you’re interested in these topics, search their archives, and you’ll find loads of thought-provoking posts from them and their guest bloggers.

Some things I read this week made me start thinking about what seems to be to be a point of tension between creating dedicated spaces for fat activity and creating inclusive spaces, building norms and structures for size acceptance.

For this blog, I wanted to offer some thoughts I had when I read about Sam’s position on fat yoga for her.

 “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!”

I totally get this. Yoga is an activity with a variety of levels. Tennis, soccer and squash, on the other hand, are sports where it’s less likely that people of vastly different levels play together. So Sam’s interest, it seems, is REALLY about finding a class that happens to cater to people who aren’t very flexible in ways that make yoga positions more difficult or painful or flat-out not possible. And I am so with her on this. I mean really:


Although I wouldn’t mind learning how to do this:


I know, I know, there are lots of you out there who do this, and it’s big fun for you, so no disrespect intended here.

But her comment reminded me of when I was learning how to do sea kayaking, about 15 years ago. I took a variety of intro to sea kayaking classes—some held at a lake, some in a river, and some in the ocean. Technical note: Sea kayaks are quite different from river kayaks. They are longer, narrower, and are designed to go straight. Some of them have rudders, and they look like this:


River kayaks are shorter, are flat on the bottom, with no rudder, and are designed to turn and maneuver easily. They look like this:


When I decided to learn to sea kayak, I had to deal with my fears that I was simply too large to do this. In my first course, we had to wear wetsuits, which were provided for us. I was completely stressed out and embarrassed at the prospect of trying on wetsuits (not a fun prospect for anyone) and not finding one to fit me. In the end I used a men’s one, which fit, but I was embarrassed and angry that there were no women’s sizes for me. And I’m pretty sure that people much larger than I was would be completely excluded because 1) the company didn’t stock sizes much larger than the one I used; and 2) it’s hard to find large-sized wetsuits for women. Looking this up online, there are wetsuits for large and tall men, but not so easily found for women (probably this blog’s readers know about where to find them, but you do have to look, and they are expensive).

My next worry was about fitting into the cockpit of the boat. You’re supposed to fit snugly, but not too snugly, in a sea kayak. The fit needs to be snug, as you use your hips in the course of paddling; otherwise, your upper body gets too tired. But the fit can’t be too snug, as you need to be able to exit the boat in case your kayak turns over. They call this a “wet exit”—one of my favorite sports euphemisms.

wet exit

It turns out this is less scary than one might think; you pretty much just pop out of the boat once it turns over. And courses practice this a lot—hence the wetsuits. I found it was easy getting out of the boat underwater—who knew?

But then there’s the business of getting back in the boat while in deep water—this requires detailed instruction and a lot of practice. I was also afraid I couldn’t do this. I don’t have great upper body strength, and I have a lot of weight to haul out of the water. Finally, once I’m out of the water and on the back deck of the boat, I have to maneuver myself oh-so-carefully to get back in the cockpit without disturbing the boat and falling back into the water again. This is not easy. Luckily we had help—to learn what’s called an assisted rescue, we had instructors and other students. They taught us a bunch of techniques for using two boats, two sets of paddles and two persons to get one person back in the cockpit. These women don’t seem to be minding the process at all:

assisted rescue

So, what happened to my worries? Well, the instructors found a boat to fit me (turns out they make boats with a variety of different widths and different sized cockpits), a wetsuit I could wear (albeit a men’s one that was too long, but hey), and I was able to learn some techniques to get back into the boat from deep water. I even learned how to do a solo rescue—get myself back on the boat by myself (after about 25 tries…) Still– yay!

However, not everyone was so lucky. There was a woman in one class who was larger than I was, and who was visibly anxious about all the things I mentioned. And things went poorly for her. The instructors for this particular course (a one-day class on a lake) were clearly unskilled at teaching someone who was anxious and in particular anxious about her size. Their response was to segregate her from the rest of us, which exacerbated her anxieties and distress. When it came to learning the assisted rescue, they didn’t pair her with one of the other students. Instead, two of them used a technique used to put an injured paddler back in a boat, called the scoop technique.   This can be used even if a paddler is unconscious.

Right. So, the take-home message for her was that there was no way for her to get back in the boat under her own power; she had to be rendered motionless and passive to get back in her own kayak. I was furious about what I saw, and talked to the instructors afterwards. They never got what I was saying. I also didn’t get a chance to talk to her, as she left immediately.

Obviously, the moral of this particular story is: educate instructors so they are made aware of how it feels to be a larger-sized person in this context, and also how to teach students of all sizes. This is not impossible—there are loads of techniques, there’s specialized equipment, etc.

But I wonder: can we say anything general about when it’s good to have all-sizes-respected classes, and when it’s good to have large-sizes-only classes for some activity? Are some sports or activity classes better for the former, and others better for the latter? Of course we can and should have both, but it’s not clear to me if some sports or circumstances favor one or the other.  I had hoped to come up with some answers. However, at least the question is out there, and I’ll be thinking on it. In the meantime, blog readers, what are your thoughts and experiences? I’d love to hear your perspectives.

16 thoughts on “Today Fat Yoga, Tomorrow Fat Kayaking? Some thoughts on Kayaking While Fat, Safe Spaces, and Inclusiveness

  1. I am sad to hear of the experience of the larger woman in your class. My first experience with sea kayaking and wet exits/getting back in (got lots of bruises but I was able to do it – in the calm lake we practiced in!) was much more positive. I was about 190 lbs at the time and I am just under 5’2″. The instructors/leaders helped find a boat that fit for each of us and then I learned along with everyone else. This was back in about 1987 and the leaders for our trip were from White Squall. I would assume based on my contact with them over the years that they would take the same approach now. I absolutely love sea kayaking and I have gone on many trips on gorgeous Georgian Bay, even when I weighed as much as 225 lbs. I am sad and angry that someone has missed out on this because of lack of awareness and skill and because of size discrimination. Thank you to Tim, Ann and Celia, my first trip leaders at White Squall 🙂

    1. HI Linda– wow, Georgian Bay looks great (I checked out the location and info). I really want to do a multi-day sea kayak trip sometime, and in fact this post has motivated me and some of my friends to do a rough seas course this summer. Will report back. Yes, there are outfitters and instructors who take good care of everyone, assessing people’s levels, needs, comfort zones, etc., and I’ve had some good experiences with Charles River Canoe and Kayak here in Boston. Re your second comment about specialized classes: there is certainly an audience for fat yoga (if the New York Times article is any indication: ). A question for me is: do some activities tend to call for more size-relevant instruction techniques or gear or equipment? Thanks for your feedback, and there will be more on this to come…

  2. And it seems I want to say more – at the particular time I was learning how to get back in the kayak, we were heading out on a week long trip together, so I think it was helpful to our group dynamics that we all practiced this skill together, no matter what our size. For your question about whether we should have classes based on size, I do find that regular yoga instructors don’t seem to address the challenges I have as a larger woman. So – it would be great if they did, but in the absence of this, I would definitely go for an instructor who said beforehand that they would do this as a special class. In the end I care about learning what will work for my body, and others might find learning what works for larger women as irrelevant to them as I find some of the classes I have taken….

  3. I don’t think there are hard and fast rules. Whether it’s valuable to present (or take) a size-specific class (or a women-specific class, or any other form of accommodation to a “non-default” population — such as able-bodied white male with a BMI under 30) depends on how much technique must be taught, safety issues, modification/progression requirements, and equipment needs — all before we even deal with issues like personal comfort level. Even the best yoga teacher may not have equipment to provide the best (or even safe) modification options for a full range of students (similar to the wetsuit size-range issue), and even if that instructor has all the appropriate training, experience, and equipment, people have different comfort levels in different environments.

    In this example, it doesn’t surprise me that the instructors didn’t seem to connect with being addressed about this after the class. It’s an awareness issue that has to come from the top — eg, in how the organization trains and prepares instructors, and what equipment they have in inventory. It seems rather obvious, for example, that on registration you might want to collect size information — wetsuits are not even slightly in the “one size fits all” category, after all — which should give the org early warning to provide appropriate equipment and instruction to the people who register. An individual’s experience is less predictable and often less pleasant if they are not within normal limits of “the default,” a range that is often established with very little imagination.

    1. Thanks for the comments– yes, you’re right about the need for organizational awareness and responsiveness to different sized students and practitioners of physical activities. For one thing, they may be missing out on a untapped market– there may be many people who want to do some activity but can’t because of weight restrictions on equipment. This can be remedied with different equipment. But it first requires awareness that people are being excluded and the motivation (if it’s financial, fine) to provide/design equipment for larger sized people.

  4. Clarification “such as able-bodied white male with a BMI under 30” (that is: “for example, a common default expectation is: ….”)

  5. I race bikes, and one of my favorite things about the sport is how, once you reach a certain fitness level, there are niches for a lot of different types of skills, which tend to favor different body types. I am a small person myself, so I tend to be pretty good at climbing. This is unsurprising, as the biggest factor in climbing performance is power to weight ratio, and smaller women tend to have higher ones. My good friend and teammate outweighs me by 50+ pounds. She rides like a mac truck – SO much power, and she destroys time trials and flat, technical criteriums. Another teammate sits right in between us two on the spectrum, and she sprints like crazy. I love racing with them both, since we get to use our brains to figure out how to make our respective strengths work together for the best team result. Some races and events favor me, and some favor my teammates, and that’s okay.

    I guess what I think about the fat-only spaces is that it’s just kind of reductionist. Competitive sports and fitness are about so, so much more than a person’s BMI. Whether a person is large or small doesn’t generally describe the way more important elements of their athletic performance, like their VO2 max, flexibility, focus, physical and mental ability to handle rigorous training, presence of fast or slow twitch muscle fibres, etc.

    I’m small, but I have such tight hamstrings I’ve had doctors suggest getting evaluated for surgical correction; read: I probably look like I might be great at it, but I suck BAD at yoga. I can’t do a lot of the poses, and instructors often don’t even notice that I’m struggling, which is frustrating. Similarly, in bike racing, I just don’t have many of the genetic gifts some of the ladies I race (and generally lose) against have. It’s a frustrating bummer that has left me in tears after more than one race, and I wish my VO2 max was higher, or my FTP bigger. Some days, I fantasize about doing a race against only other women my size and how that would be. Similarly, I love the idea of a hamstring-deficient-only yoga class. However, I’ve come to accept that part of the process that makes these activities rewarding is figuring out how to deal with my shortcomings as an athlete or yogi or whatever, and finding a way to put the talents I do have to good use.

  6. I used to be a 5′ 2.75″ tall medium build woman, but, due to living with an unrepaired torn ACL for 10 years, I’ve gained weight because I can’t do any exercising involving my legs, e.g, long distance walking, aerobics, hiking, bicycling, roller skating. Last year, through the local park district, I discovered kayaking and it was something I could do without putting a lot of stress on my knee. I was able to demo different kayaks through a local retailer and picked out and bought a rec boat that I could get in and out of easier. Through an extremely experienced instructor with provided gear, I’ve even learned to roll a kayak even though mine is designed to be extremely stable. One of the women in my kayaking class recommended joining a local kayaking group through and I joined several in my area. I’ve found that most fellow paddlers are willing to assist others because they know how invigorating and recuperative paddling can be, and ensure that no paddlers get left behind.

    Big box stores don’t specialize and are there to make money even though the equipment might not be right for the customers, and they aren’t willing or able to order what would be better for the customer. Local retailers are there because they usually have a love of paddling, hiking, backpacking, camping, and fishing, etc., and want their customers, especially new inexperienced ones, to be happy. They’re willing to show how to do something the right way, find the right size gear (even if it’s the other sex’s size or type), and can recommend instructors, guides, etc.

    A week ago, through, I tried yoga for the first time at a small studio. I was accepted by the staff and instructor who knew my limitations, and they ensured my safety when certain movements were going to be done. After the 1 hour workout, I was sweating even though I hadn’t exerted myself, and, afterward, we all chatted. Chain gyms tend to be there to promote membership sales, not overall health, both physically and mentally, of their clients. Because of the welcoming environment of the small studio, I’ll be going back.

    My advice is to find and go to local retailers, instructors, etc., no matter what size you are, or physical/mental limitations you might have.

  7. That’s great that you’ve found your way to kayaking and also found supportive and fun people to paddle with. I totally agree with you that local or single-proprietor specialty shops are the way to go; they develop personal relationships with us and help with special orders, etc.

  8. :D. This is first time i see the relation ship between yoga and kayak. I think kayak not only help you loss weight, but also open the door to adventure. Do you agree with me 😉

  9. “So Sam’s interest, it seems, is REALLY about finding a class that happens to cater to people who aren’t very flexible in ways that make yoga positions more difficult or painful or flat-out not possible.”

    Did Sam actually say this? Did you do any in depth research into fat yoga, did you look at pictures of Dana Falsetti or Jessamyn Stanley? Because (speaking as a fat yoga person with 5+ years experience) it’s not at all about flexibility, and I find this assumption to be indicative of the same reductive ignorance you take issue with in this article. Fat people are often GREAT at poses that require hip flexibility, for example, because our lovely ample tummies train our bodies to get used to opening our hips early and often. And the strength it takes to carry a extra 50-400+lbs around every day is not to be underestimated: try doing all your daily activities with that much weight strapped to you for a year and watch your muscles grow!

    Where I often find the issue with yoga teachers who have been improperly trained in all body yoga is in poses where my different body shape gets the in way (for example, my belly is a factor in forward folds and twists that it just isn’t for skinny people). That and the need for props and modifications, and the overall sense of being an equally valid member of the class, which is important in yoga for the mindset as well as safe practice. You can’t mindfully explore your edges in a kind and self loving way if you are stuck in a class where you’re fighting against the weight of uncritiqued cultural fatphobia. If nothing else, yoga should be a reprieve from this; which means looking beyond just saying “all bodies are welcome”; it means listening to fat people about how to actually make them welcome.

    This is a good article about the bare minimum needs of a fat person in kayaking, and I appreciate your advocacy in that class with those horrible teachers. Just try not to speak for all fat people, esp people who are significantly larger than you. And please don’t underestimate us.

  10. Loved finding this! I’m about to learn to kayak. And I am super plus sized. 🙂
    I am excited and ready to conquer it. I have all those anxieties and yet I don’t care at the same time. Trying to find kayaking classes in my area, I’m in Tennessee. As for the yoga, I try all those crazy poses and laugh when I look nothing like those itty bitties. Wish we had a plus size yoga class near me.

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