• How To Speak Lovingly About Larger Bodies

    “How can I lovingly refer to larger-bodied people in my yoga classes?”

     

    This question was posed by a thin, white, woman-identified yoga teacher in a weekend immersion focused primarily on physical accessibility and adaptive teaching. The lead trainer happened to be a fat-identified woman. Aside from her, I was the only fat person in the room. The question was very much directed at the two of us. We both knew it. We both stammered over our words trying to answer her question.

     

    As a fat yoga teacher, I’m asked this question all the time, almost exclusively by thin, white, able-bodied, woman-identified teachers. They hear me talk about my body using particular words or phrases, they watch me adapt postures or use my hands to move my belly out of the way in a twist or a fold, and then they approach me with their well-intentioned posits: “How do I instruct this without making it about body size?”, “How do I advise a student to manually adjust their belly to make more room without making them uncomfortable?”, or, as ambiguous a question as the one posed at the weekend immersion, “How do I talk about fat without offending anyone?”

     

    In the particular instance at the weekend immersion, I had the good fortune of being able to connect with the trainer, a teacher and friend of mine, over dinner after the training. It was a nice and necessary experience to be able to process our feelings about being the only fat people in that particular space. We started talking about this woman’s question and the difficulty we had in answering it.

     

    As we struggled to find words that equally honored our truths and our feelings, gave practical advice, and avoided alienating her or putting her on the defensive (a really tall order), I grew exasperated.

     

    “Maybe you could just try loving them,” I said. My friend sighed and emphatically agreed.

     

    My exasperated statement is at the crux of why these questions are so hard to answer. They’re hard to answer, because they shouldn’t need to be asked in the first place. If we lived in a world where all bodies were assigned equal value regardless of factors like size or perceived health, if all yoga teachers and practitioners were actually embodying the universal love towards all beings that they like to preach, if “inclusion,” “accessibility,” and “body-positivity” were more than marketing buzzwords to the mainstream wellness businesses that co-opt and capitalize on them, if fat wasn’t demonized in our industry and our society to the point that stigma and aversion are present in every single conversation we have about that one particular type of body tissue, then speaking “lovingly” about someone’s body, no matter their size, would not be something we struggled so deeply with. If we loved fat people as a norm, the way we love thin people, then we would always be speaking to and about them from that wellspring of love.

     

    I struggle to want to extend credit to thin people who ask me how to treat fat people lovingly and supportively. On one hand, I appreciate that there are teachers asking these questions when so many more simply won’t. On the other hand, it feels a little bit like when father’s say they’re “babysitting” their kids–no sir, that’s just called parenting. Treating fat people well shouldn’t be considered extraordinary–it’s your responsibility.

     

    I could spend this post giving you some suggested language or best practices. I could talk to you about the history of fat phobia or the fat liberation, civil rights, and accessibility movements that laid the groundwork for modern-day body positive activism. I could talk about the reclamation of the word “fat,” tell you how finally embracing that word as my own has freed me in ways I never knew were possible. But I won’t, at least not today. I hope you’ll seek out resources (including the blog posts yet to come in this series) that can provide all of those things, but in this moment, they feel beyond the point: you can’t speak lovingly to someone without loving them first.

     

    So, to all of the yoga practitioners and teachers out there who are asking these sorts of questions, I have a question for you: What is it going to take for you to start actively loving fat people and their bodies?

     

    Is it a matter of re-educating yourself about the relationship between weight and health? Of seeing diverse body sizes represented in a positive light in the media? Seeing more fat-identified people in leadership roles, heading studios and teaching prime-time yoga classes? Does it potentially mean confronting some harsh realities about the ways you’ve perpetuated harm towards fat people in the past? Or the ways you’ve talked about and treated your own glorious body?

     

    Are you doing that internal work? How about the external work? Are you clearing the way for fat leadership? Are you calling upon your media sources to diversify representation? Are you supporting fat yoga teachers and making sure yoga spaces are actually accessible? These are examples of active love.

     

    As practitioners of yoga, we’re called to engage in active love, active service, and unwavering ahimsa, non-violence, as a practice, not just a thought experiment. We’re also asked practice discernment as part of our greater engagement with satya, truth-telling. We’re called to act mindfully, and to remain ever open to self-study and reflection. If we’re honestly living these values, then we’re living in love and service to all people. Fat people are not excluded.

     

    If you want to speak lovingly about fat people, practice actively loving us. Build genuine relationships with us and listen when we open up about the impact of fat phobia on our lives. Question the messaging that continues to reinforce thin supremacy the way you would question messages that sought to marginalize other people you love. Do the work. I promise, the loving words will come to you.

    By Melanie Williams

     Photo credit: Cinthya Zuniga, cinthyazuniga.com, @zunigaphotography on Instagram.

    Melanie Williams is an East-Coast-based, fat, queer, non-binary yoga teacher and self-love advocate, called to create profoundly accessible spaces for self-inquiry and the inward journey by integrating mindfulness and adaptive movement practices with the spirit of social justice. They believe that the goal of yoga, as of life, is collective liberation and in turn challenge contemporary yogis to dismantle the systems and beliefs that hold us all back. In addition to teaching group and private yoga classes, Melanie offers workshops that explore queer identity and body image, leads adaptive yoga teacher trainings, helps coordinate trainings internationally for Accessible Yoga, champions diversity and inclusion in the yoga industry as a member of the Yoga & Body Image Coalition leadership team, and serves leading industry groups as an expert advisor on diversity and accessibility.

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image
  • YOGA & BODY IMAGE: OUR INTENTION + GUIDELINES FOR LISTENING AND ALLYSHIP

    “Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.” – bell hooks

    It is in the spirit of building sacred community through conscious listening, compassion and love that this blog series was created. Our intention is to educate, demystify misconceptions, smash stereotypes and offer new perspectives on body image as it intersects with our race and ethnicity, our gender identity and sexual orientation, our socioeconomic class, age, size and dis/ability. In short, our intention is to raise consciousness and create bridges in understanding.

    It is our hope that through raised consciousness, more and more of us will be moved into mindful action. Because social change requires more than awareness… it requires awareness plus action. And raising consciousness and living consciously are at the heart of mindfulness practices. This where the real work begins for us. Off the mat. Off the meditation cushion.

    Each writer in this series weaves personal narrative with years of experience, research and professional expertise. The words may move you to tears, bring you a sigh of relief or comfort… or they may make you angry. Or maybe the words simply make you uncomfortable or challenge a long-held belief. Whatever arises, it’s a gift in the form of an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to practice, listen, learn and grow. It may also be an opportunity to detect and identify internalized and unexamined prejudice or bias in our heart.

    This space is an opportunity to do the work as a collective. Because we must also work mindfully in community to elevate the collective vibration of society.

    Here are a few ways to practice this intention of identifying (and obliterating) prejudice and bias as well as working as allies and comrades in solidarity and love.

    –         Examine your own privilege. This may be challenging, if not painful, and may induce feelings of shame or guilt but this is a necessary step. Meditate on how YOU benefit from the existing power structures that are sexist, racist, able-ist, size-ist, classist, heteronormative and ageist.

    • Be an ally by opening your heart and listening.
    • Breathe and pause when you’re moved out of your comfort zone.
    • Reflect before you challenge the information presented or comment on it publicly.
    • Do the work. Allow your increased awareness to move you into action, however that may play out for you.
    • Ask yourself how you can contribute to an accessible, welcoming space for all without tokenizing anyone.
    • Recognize the humanity in everyone.
    • Identify how your experience connects you to others and how it differs.
    • Practice on and off the mat. Cultivate mindfulness on and off the cushion.
    • Allow your practice to grow your heart, make you vulnerable and willing to work actively as a member of a wider community.

    We all benefit from this process. Mindfulness, specifically the practice of yoga, has the potential to create both personal and social transformation. The practice of yoga has the potential to elevate us to our highest good and create equity for all.

    I invite you to read what is offered in this series in that spirit of connection and collective liberation. Seize the opportunity to expand your capacity for compassion, empathy and love.

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image. Be sure to read the first post in the series here.

    By Melanie Klein

    Melanie C. Klein, M.A., is an empowerment coach, thought leader and influencer in the areas of body confidence, authentic empowerment, and visibility. She is also a successful writer, speaker, and professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies. Her areas of interest and specialty include media literacy education, body image, and the intersectional analysis of systems of power and privilege. She is the co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery + Loving Your Body (Llewellyn, 2014) with Anna Guest-Jelley, a contributor in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Horton & Harvey, 2012), is featured in Conversations with Modern Yogis (Shroff, 2014), a featured writer in Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Mindful Living (Llewellyn, 2016), co-editor of Yoga, the Body and Embodied Social Change: An Intersectional Feminist Analysis with Dr. Beth Berila and Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016) as well as the editor of the new anthology, Yoga Rising: 30 Empowering Stories from Yoga Renegades for Every Body. She co-founded the Yoga and Body Image Coalition in 2014 and is the co-founder of The Joy Revolution. She has been practicing yoga and meditation since 1996 and currently lives in Santa Monica, CA.

    Photo credit: Sarit Z. Rogers