There's No Shame in Modifications
See that picture? That's me, doing a side plank. With my knee down.
I'm modifying the pose for where my body was that particular day -- which, in this case, was not adequately warmed up because I was having pictures taken and not doing a full practice. And there's nothing wrong with that.
Yoga is meant to be adapted to your body, not the other way around. Which is why you should never be ashamed of making modifications. Nor should you be of using props, taking a break in child's pose, or stopping altogether.
No two bodies are the same; I'd like to think we all know that, but too often we compare ourselves to those around us. I'm guilty of this too, especially during YTT when I was in a room with a dozen other dedicated yogis, most of whom could go deeper into poses than I could or endure a more vigorous practice. It's hard NOT to look around and feel like you're not doing yoga "right" simply because you're doing it differently.
Our bodies also aren't the same every day. I may have done a modified side plank on the day that picture was taken, and then the next time I practiced I may have been able to hold a full side plank, or none at all. There are so many factors that contribute to how much energy, flexibility, strength, or stamina we have at a given time that we just have to go with it. Work to where you are at the exact moment you are practicing, not where you were yesterday or where you hope to be tomorrow. Listen to yourself, and modify as needed.
I'm going to let you know something: there is no right or wrong way to do yoga. As long as you aren't hurting yourself, do whatever works best for your body.
YOU’RE NOT “BETTERING YOURSELF”
I hear this all the time — that it’s great to see people of all sizes exercising because they’re bettering themselves. And while yoga is so much more than a physical pursuit, it often gets lumped into this.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: that notion is garbage.
Physical activity, yoga included, can improve things about your health and life. But the concept of “bettering yourself” takes on a moralizing tone, which is unacceptable.
Exercise in nonmoral. It does not make you a better or worse person. To paraphrase Ragen Chastain, running a marathon and watching a Netflix marathon are morally equal activities.
We live in a neoliberal society where healthism is rampant, and being in “good health” (which is different for everyone, and not always even attainable) is seen as a moral imperative. This means we (general we) have created a hierarchy for behaviors. Anything that can contribute to health, like exercising or eating certain foods, is assigned moral superiority over other activities. A person’s needs, abilities, and desires don’t matter here, what is important is performing health for everyone around you.
But guess what — you don’t owe fitness or health to anyone. You aren’t better or worse based on whether you do yoga and eat salads or watch TV and eat cookies.
What makes you a better or worse person is how you treat those around you. If you’re kind to other people, the environment, children, animals, and so forth, you’re a good person. If you aren’t, that is what to work on to better yourself, not how many hours you spend at the gym.
There are a ton of yoga Instagram accounts out there, but so few meet my needs.
I'm not inspired by people who look nothing like me. And there are so many accounts by thin yogis. Far fewer are from those who are fat and happy, who do yoga for the way it makes them feel and who are not trying to lose weight.
Fortunately for me, more and more plus sized yogis have been emerging. I even started my own yoga-specific Instagram to get in on the action. I did it for the same reason I decided to become a teacher -- the yoga world needs people who look like me.
Those two things tie together in a somewhat unfortunate way. I know already that I'm going to have to prove myself twice as hard as a yoga teacher or trainee. The fitness and wellness worlds are not exactly accommodating of fat people. So in some ways posting my yoga adventures is an attempt to legitimize myself, even though I completely resent that I have to do that. But it's also fun, and keeps me connected to a world I'm trying to learn more about.
I definitely prefer to see people with body types like mine doing yoga. And thankfully there are many of them out there now, showing their stuff and inspiring others. Some -- like Jessamyn Stanley and Valerie Sagun -- are better known and have written books on the subject. But others aren't famous, and are just cool curvy people doing their thing.
âIt doesn't matter how well-known someone is, if they are promoting a fat-positive yoga experience, then I want to see it. Below are just a handful of the accounts I like to look at for inspiration, but if you know of more, please leave a comment and let me know who I should be following.
I completed my 200-hour teacher training in July of this year. Also I’m fat, which is not incompatible with the first sentence despite what many might think.
As a fat person, there are a lot of fraught issues surrounding anything involving exercise. And while yoga is so much more than the physical asana, in the Western mindset, that is the most prominent part. This means any time I or another fat person engages in an activity that relates to fitness, there are all kinds of things that might come up — judgment and condescension from people around us, triggers to past traumas, self-consciousness, and so on — that make it even more difficult than it would be for a smaller person. So why in the world would I want to do that to myself?
There are several reasons, but it mainly boils down to this: I want there to be more people who look like me teaching yoga.
The studio I attended in New York — and where I did my YTT — is great, and I’ve never felt unwelcome for being fat, but the teachers and staff are all relatively small. Other students are more diverse in terms of size, so why shouldn’t we be learning from people who represent us?
I used to take classes at a plus-size focused space in New York, and it was wonderful. I had to stop because of the cost, but I loved being in a class full of fat students with a fat instructor. Since then, I’ve taken the first level of their teacher training.
But something annoys me — why should I (or anyone) have to seek out a specialty place that’s more expensive and in a less convenient location just to have a teacher that better understands my body type?
There are things about exercising while fat that you can’t teach to someone who hasn’t experienced it. So, no matter how accepting and understanding a thin instructor is, they will never fully grasp what doing yoga in my body is like. That leads to suggestions to rest during more complex poses when a simple modification would’ve sufficed.
Poses that might seem simple can become complicated in ways you won’t even think of unless you’ve been there. For example, I hate regular child’s pose. My belly gets in the way. This means I can’t lean as far forward and I won’t be comfortable and relaxed. Which kind of defeats the purpose of child’s pose.
Fortunately, that one has a fairly easy modification. I widen my legs to let my stomach hang through and I can go deeper and let go more. But I had to figure that one out myself. An instructor who has a belly like my own might think to mention mods like that to a class. Or to suggest mods for other poses.
I firmly believe that every body is a yoga body. There are modifications to work with different sizes, physical disabilities, and so forth. I decided to do teacher training because I want to make more people feel comfortable in classes who otherwise might not.
See the title there? That's my yoga philosophy.
It shouldn't be complicated, but for many of us, it is. If you were to believe the mainstream yoga-related media content, yogis are all thin, white, young, able-bodied, naturally flexible, and so on. There's nothing wrong with being any or all of those things, of course, but more importantly, there's nothing wrong with NOT being those things.
I'm fat. I embrace that term as a neutral descriptor, because that's all it is. The same as you could say I'm a redhead, I have freckles, or I'm pale, you can say I'm fat. And because of that, many would want me to think I shouldn't be doing yoga. But that's not true.
I want to do yoga, so it's for me. It's also for you, if you want it to be.
Maybe you've never been told you're OK as you are. If that's the case, I am so sorry the world has failed you, but I'm going to say it: you are OK exactly as you are.
You're not too fat to do yoga. Or too old, or too disabled, injured, inflexible, "out of shape" (I don't like that term), or anything else. Maybe you won't be able to do certain poses, or maybe you'll need modifications, or maybe your yoga will be entirely inside your mind, but it doesn't matter. You can do some form of yoga no matter what.
Now, I'm not going to be that person who tells you that if you have a chronic condition, yoga will cure it. Not at all. And not everyone has to be interested in yoga. That's perfectly alright. (Though I'm assuming if you're reading a yoga blog, you have at least a passing interest.) But if you want it, it's there for you.