Yoga asana, the physical practice of postures, is challenging and also rewarding. But, for many abundant-bodied practitioners such as myself, yoga asana can also be an intimidating and exclusionary experience.
Even though I’ve been practising yoga for over 40 years, and have been teaching for nearly two decades, I still feel anxious when stepping into a public yoga class for the first time. More often than not, I receive looks of judgment, fear, and hostility from new instructors who don’t know how to work with a body that looks like mine.
But, what if we created yoga spaces that were more accessible and inviting? How do we welcome students of all shapes, sizes and levels of ability into our public yoga classes?
Body Shaming in the Yoga World
It’s clear that body shaming has found its way onto our yoga mats. Body shaming stems from the beauty, diet, and fitness industry, which is invested in telling us that we aren’t good enough the way we are, and that we must change our bodies in order to be acceptable. In contrast, yoga teaches us that we are perfect just as we are.
One of the first tenets of yoga is ahimsa, which tells us to “do no harm”. To embody the principles of ahimsa within our practice, we must stay away from judgement. Fatphobia and preconceived notions about bodies that are different than our own are ultimately detrimental to the application of ahimsa on our mats. When we come to our mats, it’s imperative that we leave our judgments behind.
Our yoga practices must embody an inward self-reflection and not an outward self-loathing.
Yoga teaches us unity, through an embodied spiritual connection and personal growth. Yoga offers us a bridge to greater understanding, which can help us to simultaneously love humanity and the skin that we are in. External practices and ideals from the diet and fitness culture can halt our progress on the journey towards self-love.
When we exclude non-conforming bodies from this practice, we further eliminate the potential to inspire self-love in those that often need it the most.
The Do's and Don't of Teaching Yoga for Bigger Bodies
Big and abundant bodies are capable of a large number of things, and it’s important not to make assumptions about what someone can or cannot do while on the mat. Whenever I show up to a yoga class, I am often told to “do what I can”, and that “there’s always Child’s pose!”.
These statements are code for “I don’t know how to work with your body type or your unique abilities and I don’t want to be bothered or alter my class to accommodate you.” Additional training in programs like Yoga for All and Accessible Yoga can help teachers learn methods of making yoga postures more accessible. By adapting asana in more accessible and inclusive ways, we can begin to invite all people to explore the concepts of self-love within the context of the yoga practice.
Are you ready to make your yoga classes more accessible to students of all shapes, sizes, and levels of ability? Here are the Do’s and Don’t’s of accessible yoga practices.
DON'T assume abundant bodied practitioners need or want your help.
Ask your students how you can best serve them, and then let them know that you are available to help them if and when they require assistance. Abundant bodies can be fit and flexible, and not require any additional help from their instructors.
DON'T be a cheerleader.
Some students may feel intimidated or self-conscious on their mats. Drawing attention to them can make them feel uncomfortable. Private personal words of encouragement can be helpful, but singling people out and cheering them on can be embarrassing.
DON'T offer diet tips or tell yoga weight loss stories.
Believe or not, some people are not trying to lose weight. Pop culture is already bombarding us with diet and weight loss tips—our yoga mats and our yoga classes should offer us peace and acceptance. Harmful diet culture has no place on the mat. Sometimes minding your own business is the most spiritual thing you can do.
Here are some things I suggest you do:
DO normalise props.
Make sure everyone in the class has a prop even if they don’t need one. Offer asana options with and without props so students can customise their practices according to their own needs.
DO teach progressively.
Provide options for different poses (modifications, use of props, etc.) and encourage students to try various stages of asana.
DO speak in the affirmative and use positive language.
Instead of phrasing adjustments and modifications by saying: “If you can’t…” try saying “If you can…” or “I invite you to try…”
DO remember that this practice is for everyone.
Smile, say “please” and introduce yourself to your students. Reassure your students that you’re there to help them, and remind them that coming to your class was a good decision. Let them know that it’s OK to have fun while they’re moving their bodies and enjoying their breath. Give your students permission to take their time, opt out of poses that aren’t comfortable, choose different options, and ask for help along they way.
Yoga offers us a path to greater understanding and a deeper connection to ourselves and others. This path requires our patience, compassion, reflection, and connection. It all starts with teachers and communities that are open to serving each other in a way that inspires unity through inclusion. After all, unity is what yoga is all about.