Note: this is an angry rant that I probably should’ve written after I’d come down off my own yoga mat. In short, it’s long. I’d tell you to skip the quotes, but if you did, you wouldn’t believe what I was writing… because you wouldn’t be able to believe that someone was so daft.
Hey, there! How are you? I saw your “It Happened to Me” on XOJane tonight, and I must say… it definitely stirred some thoughts and memories in me. Thoughts so powerful and memories so vivid, that I thought it’d only be right that I shared them with you.
For the record, I’ve been a practicing yogi for almost five years, now. I started with DVDs, moved up to the posh Upper East Side studio, moved back to the mini-studio here in Brooklyn, and am finally back to home. And, because of my experiences in all of those spaces, it’s weird, but — I actually relate to the woman in your IHTM! I was close to 300lbs when I first started my yoga practice, and couldn’t downward dog. Strange, right? You probably didn’t know they make yogis in that size!
Because of that, I have a rather intimate understanding of what it’s like to be on the other end of this story – the person being stared at by strangers who should be focusing on their practice instead of treating me like a one-eyed, one-horned flying purple people eater. And, because I use the model of compassion and patience that yoga espouses, I thought it might be helpful to explain the many, many… so many… things that went wrong with your essay.
1) There is something insidious about this pair of paragraphs:
January is always a funny month in yoga studios: they are inevitably flooded with last year’s repentant exercise sinners who have sworn to turn over a new leaf, a new year, and a new workout regime. [...]
A few weeks ago, as I settled into an exceptionally crowded midday class, a young, fairly heavy black woman put her mat down directly behind mine.
…because, of course, there’s no other reason for the fat, and/or black riffraff to patronize my studio other than her New Year’s Resolution to not be fat anymore.
2) The quote
It appeared she had never set foot in a yoga studio—she was glancing around anxiously, adjusting her clothes, looking wide-eyed and nervous. Within the first few minutes of gentle warm-up stretches, I saw the fear in her eyes snowball, turning into panic and then despair. Before we made it into our first downward dog, she had crouched down on her elbows and knees, head lowered close to the ground, trapped and vulnerable. She stayed there, staring, for the rest of the class.
doesn’t make me feel bad for her – it makes me proud of her. Yoga isn’t about “skinny;” yoga is about strength. And ANY person who doesn’t have the strength to execute a pose should find the perfect regression for themselves, something this woman did…for reasons that could have not a single thing to do with her being not-skinny. Back injuries, shoulder injuries, wrist injuries, neck injuries, hip injuries, ankle injuries… all past injuries that a person could find themselves needing to account for in a yoga practice. To know that you need to accommodate your own abilities when surrounded by people who are more advanced than you takes humility. That is major.
A person nervously walking into a new space doesn’t mean they’ve never set foot in a studio – you’re not there every day, you don’t even know if she’s never set foot in your yoga studio before. You made the assumption erroneously because it fits your biases. Of course she’s never set foot in a yoga studio before – she’s fat. Is this for real?
3) On focus, and failures:
Because I was directly in front of her, I had no choice but to look straight at her every time my head was upside down (roughly once a minute). I’ve seen people freeze or give up in yoga classes many times, and it’s a sad thing, but as a student there’s nothing you can do about it. At that moment, though, I found it impossible to stop thinking about this woman. Even when I wasn’t positioned to stare directly at her, I knew she was still staring directly at me. Over the course of the next hour, I watched as her despair turned into resentment and then contempt. I felt it all directed toward me and my body.
So, basically, this woman was struggling in her yoga class surrounded by all these limber yogis, but her mental focus was on you and your “skinny, white body” and your “tacky sports bra?” She couldn’t possibly have feelings of her own, of pain, of sadness, of disappointment regarding her ability to keep up? She couldn’t possibly be thinking about what she could do to catch up? She couldn’t possibly be mulling over losing weight, in her mind, since low-inference data might tell her that, to be successful in yoga, you have to be thin? No, she’s struggling in yoga class, but her focus is on you and how much better at life you are than her?
Suppose you were right, and she’s a newbie yogi. Let me fill you in on a little secret – if someone is taking yoga for the first time, takes a first pose, fails miserably and sits and pouts, I would rather them stay there and watch the remainder of the class. Why? So they can get an understanding of what yoga is, what it calls for, whether or not the teacher is crap (more on that in a minute), whether or not this is something they could genuinely commit to, and whether or not it’s even everything they originally thought it’d be. I recommend people go attend and observe a class before they commit to paying their hard earned coins for it – it helps them determine whether or not they can handle the atmosphere.
4) Also – kudos on fixating on a stranger who already feels uncomfortable. Instead of simply smiling and asking her if she was okay, introducing yourself, offering to assist her, anything else that would’ve embodied compassion, you gawked at her while you continued your own practice, minimizing her needs and erasing her feelings. Kudos.
5) Also – what kind of yoga teacher ignores a student who has given up? What kind of yoga teacher fails to notice when a new student has entered the class? What kind of yoga teacher fails to ask, “do you have any upper or lower body injuries?” before continuing? What kind of yoga teacher fails to offer modifications to assist someone who might not yet have the strength to fully execute the pose as instructed?
What kind of yoga teacher? What kind of sorry ass environment is this?
6) Unable to focus?
“I was completely unable to focus on my practice, instead feeling hyper-aware of my high-waisted bike shorts, my tastefully tacky sports bra, my well-versedness in these poses that I have been in hundreds of times. My skinny white girl body. Surely this woman was noticing all of these things and judging me for them, stereotyping me, resenting me—or so I imagined.”
Yes, as imagined. As assumed. That’s all you could do, since goodness knows you didn’t bother to talk to her during or after the practice to offer reassurance. I’m not sure what kind of alternate universe you live in, but people can have emotions that aren’t centered around needing to envy or best someone else. It’s possible that the lady was equally impressed by your abilities, and mentally overwhelmed by the amount of time it takes someone to become so “well-versed.” People seem to be pushed by urgency and immediacy, something yoga would train right out of you in an instant. It’d make sense to me that she, if she was in fact a newbie, would struggle with that quality. Kudos to you for making her issues all about you, ignoring the fact that she has an entire world’s worth of reasons to “give up,” none of which need to involve you at all.
But, since it makes you feel better – or earns you a really paltry $50 – you framed her seated position as being about you. Classy. Compassionate. Thoughtful.
7) Finally, a little introspection:
“I thought about how even though yoga comes from thousands of years of south Asian tradition, it’s been shamelessly co-opted by Western culture as a sport for skinny, rich white women. I thought about my beloved donation-based studio that I’ve visited for years, in which classes are very big and often very crowded and no one will try to put a scented eye pillow on your face during savasana.”
So, lots of things are co-opted by Western culture for “skinny, rich white women” and all members of American society as a whole, because, well… capitalism. It’s not remarkable. It has literally created everything around you that you paid for (or exchanged a service for.) Cheers to our Black newbie yogi baby for making you think!
8) I think this part, in particular, is what really crushed me:
“I thought about how that must feel: to be a heavyset black woman entering for the first time a system that by all accounts seems unable to accommodate her body. What could I do to help her? If I were her, I thought, I would want as little attention to be drawn to my despair as possible—I would not want anyone to look at me or notice me.”
In less than 100 words, you manage to a) validate the feelings of almost every single fat person who dares set foot in a fitness facility, b) told a bold faced lie on yoga as a practice, c) pretend you actually gave a damn about her feelings, and d) further prove a point I’ve been making since I first started blogging body image: society implies that fat people should hide away and be ignored until they’re not fat anymore. Brava.
You may not know this, but when non-skinny people enter a fitness facility, there is major anxiety. Some are constantly wondering if others are staring, if someone is making remarks, if someone’s going to say something within earshot. You feel like a morsel of food in a room full of starving cats. It takes vulnerability to walk in the door in the first place – it almost feels like you’re validating every awful thing being said about your body to begin with – but to actually work out? In public? It can feel downright paralyzing.
To read a quote from someone that says if she was this fat, she wouldn’t want anyone to look at her, is downright fat shaming. No person should feel shame for their body size, and no person should believe it is acceptable to shame someone for their body size. The end. To do otherwise is to be a complete and utter scumbag.
Yoga, as a practice, is about accommodations. If your teachers have taught you otherwise, they have failed you. If yoga is about building the ability to do great things and believe in your ability to achieve them to the point where you push yourself this hard, this often… how can you do that without meeting people where they are?
Surely, you see why this is flawed. Perhaps not bothering to study yoga outside of just showing up to your class with its revolving door teachers is why you think this kind of pattern is okay, but… it isn’t. It simply isn’t.
8) So close! But, like the great prophet Brandy once said, “Almost doesn’t count:”
And so I tried to very deliberately avoid looking in her direction each time I was in downward dog, but I could feel her hostility just the same. Trying to ignore it only made it worse. I thought about what the instructor could or should have done to help her. Would a simple “Are you okay?” whisper have helped, or would it embarrass her? Should I tell her after class how awful I was at yoga for the first few months of my practicing and encourage her to stick with it, or would that come off as massively condescending? If I asked her to articulate her experience to me so I could just listen, would she be at all interested in telling me about it? Perhaps more importantly, what could the system do to make itself more accessible to a broader range of bodies? Is having more racially diverse instructors enough, or would it require a serious restructuring of studio’s ethos?”
Of course it would’ve helped. Had your teacher given a damn, they would’ve been the lead that everyone should follow by being friendly and supportive of everyone struggling in the class, including our newbie. Your teacher failed, and then you failed. Ridiculously. Offering kind words to someone who might’ve had a bruised ego is meaningful – it’s for damn sure more meaningful than you spending your entire practice fixating on her and her potential shortcomings.
It’s not about having racially diverse instructors. You shouldn’t feel uncomfortable in a yoga class led by a black instructor, and likewise for her – so that’s not it. In fact, the question outright implies that “of course a black instructor could’ve accommodated her fat, black body… because black people are used to this ‘fat’ thing.” And, quite honestly, that’s an awful thing to say. It takes away from all the wonderful instructors out there of multiple races who actually offer their students what they’ve paid for, and that’s guidance, expertise and support regardless of size.
9) There’s no ‘perhaps’ about it:
I got home from that class and promptly broke down crying. Yoga, a beloved safe space that has helped me through many dark moments in over six years of practice, suddenly felt deeply suspect. Knowing fully well that one hour of perhaps self-importantly believing myself to be the deserving target of a racially charged anger is nothing, is largely my own psychological projection, is a drop in the bucket, is the tip of the iceberg in American race relations, I was shaken by it all the same.
This is painfully self-important. Racially charged anger, over what? Believe it or not, baby, not every fat black woman wants to be a “skinny, white” one. Every black woman doesn’t want to be a “skinny, white” one, either. To believe otherwise, is to spend too much time reading Stormfront (who I know is reading this right now. Hi, family!) and to not spend enough time paying attention to the community around you. This is New York. Black people are everywhere. Maybe you just don’t notice unless we fit your little narrative that you find necessary to make you feel better about yourself.
10) Your attempt to “bring it on home” only shows me how much more I need to write for larger publications:
The question is, of course, so much bigger than yoga—it’s a question of enormous systemic failure. But just the same, I want to know—how can we practice yoga in good conscience, when mere mindfulness is not enough? How do we create a space that is accessible not just to everybody, but to every body? And while I recognize that there is an element of spectatorship to my experience in this instance, it is precisely this feeling of not being able to engage, not knowing how to engage, that mitigates the hope for change.
The question is not about yoga, at all – the question, from your perspective, is merely about why no one knows about your donation-only yoga studio, (which sounds pretty accessible to me.) Where do the owners market it? Do they market it in predominately black neighborhoods? You should ask the owners of your studio about that, if you want to see more black people in your already-crowded studio. It’s far less likely that this is about yoga and far more likely to be about the owners of your studio choosing to only market the classes to the few blocks in the neighborhood that have people they’d actually want in their studio, thereby excluding the majority of blacks (since, well, New York and, well, gentrification.)
This wasn’t about spectatorship – this was sheer objectification. You took a person who was potentially having a hard time – you don’t even mention her again after acknowledging she paused after downward dog, nor do you mention if/how she finished the class, how compassionate – and made her the object of your emotions; this thing that caused you to cry because of all these big thoughts and feelings. How embarrassing it must be to show millions of people that you’ve never given this much thought to the world surrounding your trikonasana before a fat, black woman entered it. I truly feel for you.
In closing – I can’t really say “in short,” can I? – I truly hope this is an awakening experience for you. I hope you realize that it can be truly painful to be blatantly identified as the “other” in a non-diversified space, and that this painful feeling is already enough to make many people turn away. I hope you realize that this also contributes to the lack of diversity of which you speak. I also hope you realize that a woman struggling with a yoga class could be for any number of reasons, none of which require you to judge her or make it about you, all of which could’ve been easily solved by offering her a hand, a smile, or a kind word. You offered none, and you should think long and hard about that. It certainly doesn’t embody the yoga I’ve practiced for almost five years.
Someone who types far too much
PS: For anyone out there who might be scared off from yoga entirely, don’t let these kind of people mess with your head. Yoga has infinite benefits and positives, and good teachers who knows how to help you learn – and develop – your body. There are lots of “Curvy Yoga” studios, and lots of curvy instructors who can help those of us with full thighs, full breasts, or a round tummy accommodate ourselves to still develop the flexibility we desire.
But, if you’re still uncomfortable – and that’s okay – then check out YogaGlo.com. I’ve been using this for almost a year now, and I love it. Check it out, look at the 7-day trial, and watch the short 15-minute videos. I promise you’ll appreciate it.
As always, much love for making it to the end… but y’all know I don’t handle these kinds of people well.