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At a glance, the yoga world appears to have made progress around body inclusivity. Your Instagram feed likely features teachers and practitioners of all identities, sizes, shapes, ages, colors, backgrounds, and abilities. Athletic wear companies include more realistic mannequins than the ones of years past. Ads for yoga studios typically include at least one larger-bodied person.
These much-needed changes constitute forward momentum compared to recent decades, when slender, white, seemingly Cirque du Soleil-abled individuals predominantly represented yoga. Change is happening.
But when we look at the fuller picture of yoga as a mirror of society, there’s been an inch of movement compared to the light years of distance we still need to traverse.
The contrast between where we think we are and where we need to be is perhaps most apparent when full-figured people appear in the media. Take yoga teacher and body inclusivity activist Jessamyn Stanley, who continues to endure intense criticism whenever she appears on magazine covers and in ads. Most recently, Stanley came under scrutiny when a Gatorade Fit ad campaign featured her practicing demanding yoga poses.
A Twitter storm ensued. Many tweets featured screenshots of the ad accompanied by tasteless criticisms of Stanley’s weight, physical ability, and health, including one by political commentator Steven Crowder which has been viewed 30.5 million times as of this writing.
Gatorade’s Twitter feed also includes posts featuring the same campaign. Among them is a short video of Stanley talking about the importance of inclusivity in fitness. Ironically, it appears to be the least viewed of the campaign’s tweets. The number of offensive remarks left on Gatorade’s YouTube video of the commercial prompted the company to turn off the comments.
The negative opinions expressed were not restricted to random internet trolls or conservative commentators. Many of the disparaging comments came from within the yoga community.
The Reality of Society’s Body Shaming Ways
Stanley, the author of Every Body Yoga, believes the conflict resulting from her appearance is evidence that she and the companies promoting her are doing precisely what is needed to bring about systemic change.
“Negative feedback can actually amplify the message of body inclusivity on a global level,” says Stanley. “There will alway be naysayers if you are doing something disruptive. That’s the nature of disruption–it upsets people.”
Gatorade stands behind its ad campaign. A statement shared with Yoga Journal by email stated, “At Gatorade, we believe sport and fitness is for everyone, regardless of shape, size, race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, perspective, or background….We’ll continue to champion diversity, equity, and inclusion.” This representation is needed and appreciated in the wellness space.
Stanley acknowledges there have been changes since she started sharing her yoga practice on social media a decade ago. Although she finds much of the growth throughout the yoga space to be “bandages on deep wounds.” She says, “The Band-Aids are pretty, but they’re not getting to the root of the problem, which is fatphobia and white supremacy.”
The intersectionality of white supremacy, patriarchy, and fatphobia needs to be addressed. “When a yoga teacher (or student) comments on the size of a BIPOC person’s body, it can be all of those things at once,” says Tamara Jeffries, a senior editor at Yoga Journal. “There’s no way to parse whether the comment was body shaming or racist or gendered. It hits you as a package.”
What happens in yoga spaces mirrors society at large. A 2022 study analyzing online biases around weight, age, race, and sexuality between 2007 and 2020 found that overall, public attitudes toward weight haven’t improved.
People who repeatedly face weight bias can suffer serious, long-term psychological issues. “Body shaming and bullying, especially in childhood, are strongly linked with the development of eating disorders, negative body image, and chronic dieting,” says Katie Peterman, a Bay Area psychotherapist who works with adults and adolescents recovering from eating disorders as well as those who have struggled with body shame. Weight bias can also take place indirectly rather than overtly, for example, brands not offering inclusive sizes or plus-sized clothing displayed only at the back of a store.
The chronic stress of “internalized weight stigma” is as dangerous to your physical health as any sustained stressor. A recent study found that exposure to body-shaming can lead to a disordered relationship with food, such as binge eating and yo-yo dieting, both of which are linked to type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Body shame also places individuals at risk for other adverse conditions, such as the development of mood disorders and low self-esteem.
How To Support Body Inclusivity in Yoga
So what can you do? Following are actionable steps you can take to help prevent body-shaming in yoga spaces.
1. Create Change in Your Community
Stanley recommends that yoga studios and organizations either start or continue Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work—and commit to making this a lasting practice. Numerous well-intentioned companies launched DEI measures shortly after the George Floyd protests in May of 2020. Many have since abandoned or lessened those efforts.
Yoga studios can institute DEI councils, where managers and teachers regularly come together to ensure people from marginalized communities are represented in the teaching staff and student body. If your studio currently lacks diversity, consider hiring outside guidance from DEI experts.
Studios can also research and implement other ways to promote diversity. Jocelyn Solomon joined YogaWorks’s ADEI council (the “A” stands for anti-racism) in the summer of 2020. In addition to recruiting a more diverse teaching staff, says Solomon, the council created a scholarship program for their yoga teacher training. The council has been effective at making changes, says Solomon, although she acknowledges that there is more that can be done.
2. Take an Honest Look at Your Own Hidden Biases
“There is still a group of people out there who believe that certain bodies don’t belong in yoga classes or wellness or movement spaces,” says Dianne Bondy, the founder of Yoga for Everyone TV and Yoga for All, an accessible and adaptive yoga online certification program.
“If you’re coming to the space as a yoga teacher with your own fat phobia and your own internalized hate of body, you need to unpack that before you impart that on everybody else in the space,” says Bondy. “When you focus on the yoga practice as a way to a better butt or flatter stomach, you risk traumatizing the rest of us, as opposed to offering yoga for what it is, which is a way to a better understanding of our soul, humanity, and connection.”
While DEI training can prompt self-study, it can also be helpful to work one-on-one with a mental health professional to further explore any weight biases and self-image issues you might experience. From a psychologist’s perspective, Peterman says, “Yoga teachers definitely don’t need to be fully ‘healed’ or ‘recovered’ to lead a supportive yoga practice.” But she highly recommends teachers do ongoing anti-bias work. She also recommends teachers remain open, curious, and aware as you continue your inner work. Otherwise, your patterned belief systems can unconsciously influence your language.
3. Examine Your Language Around the Body
Peterman suggests that yoga practitioners note how frequently or automatically you might relate your yoga practice to your appearance or perceived worthiness. Teachers, especially, need to take note. “Refrain from using language around how a particular practice or pose is going to impact your student’s appearance,” says Peterman. “Or making any comments about ‘earning’ food or being more or less ‘deserving’ of rest.”
Instead, teachers can encourage students to listen to their bodies and attune to their personal needs throughout class, says Peterman, including water, breaks, stretching, or holding poses a little longer. “This is a beautiful way to encourage embodiment as well as healing from diet culture’s punitive approach to movement,” says Peterman. This not only helps students avoid shaming thoughts but supports a positive shift in awareness.
“Praise your students for listening to themselves,” says Peterman. “Each person’s needs and goals are unique, and what feels ‘healthy’ and truly supportive of well-being for one person may actually be the opposite for someone else.”
4. Remove the Body as a Conversation Topic
There is scientific evidence for the fact that size is not predictive of health or fitness. But misconceptions abound. Many of us continue to equate body shape with ability, which can look like someone thinking or commenting, “She doesn’t look like a yoga teacher” or someone wondering or asking why their yoga teacher isn’t “more toned.” It’s also assuming a person needs a particular type of yoga practice based on their appearance.
Observe when you notice yourself thinking or commenting on someone else’s body—and practice speaking up when others engage in that behavior. That means any comments. About anybody’s body.
“Yoga is for everyone,” says adaptive yoga teacher Rodrigo Souza, who leads accessible and adaptive online yoga classes from his wheelchair. “You don’t need to be a certain size, color, or able-bodied. A yoga teacher should look like someone that is consciously connected with humanity. Someone who makes decisions based on love and compassion, to learn, grow and serve others.”
If you are spending your time and energy looking outside of yourself, including at other bodies in the yoga room, then you are missing the point of the practice, which is looking within.
5. Make Your Yoga Mat a “Cease Fire Zone”
To help keep their focus inward, Bondy encourages students to see their yoga mat as what she calls a “cease fire zone.” As she explains, “That twenty-four inch by sixty or eighty inches should be a place where you get to show up exactly as you are and move your body in a way that feels good, without diet culture and fitness culture and white supremacy and patriarchy breathing down your neck. The mat is where we get to take a break from all of that nonsense. It’s the place we go to fortify our soul, so we are stronger when we step back out in the world to push against that which doesn’t serve.”
Tamika Caston-Miller, founder of the inclusive yoga studio Ashé Yoga, suggests shifting the narrative by exploring “body neutrality.” She explains this mindset as “a movement for decentering the body as a topic about which to speak. I’m not trying to celebrate my body; I’m trying not to talk badly about my body. My body just is. It serves a function. It moves in certain ways.”
Transcending attachment to the body is embedded in the yoga tradition. As the Bhagavad Gita explains in chapter 2, verse 22, these bodies are just articles of clothing over our true Self.
Fat phobia and related “-isms” are systemic problems, deeply embedded in our social structure. It’s okay to acknowledge how far we’ve come. But it’s important to be aware of the intolerance that persists. Long-term change will occur only when all of us continue to sit in the discomfort of knowing that there’s still so much work to be done
This is a form of tapas. The Sanskrit term, commonly translated as “heat,” is often explained by contemporary teachers through the lens of physical postures. But its meaning lies beyond practicing until you sweat.
Tapas also relates to how you show up in the world. It is the courage to be yourself when the world tells you are doing something wrong by simply existing. It is the willingness to step into the fire of other people’s anger, and even your own misunderstandings, in your pursuit of truth. And it is the patience that is required when participating in systemic change.
Eradicating weight-bias in yoga will not be easy or linear. As Stanley reminds us, “It may take one to two generations before we see real change. It’s always evolving, but as long as you’re living your truth, it will always resonate with at least one person.” There will be moments where it feels like we have made progress and others where it feels like things have gone backward. But change is happening, momentum is picking up. We just need to keep going.
About Our Contributor
Sarah Ezrin is an author, world-renowned yoga educator, popular Instagram influencer, and mama based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her willingness to be unabashedly honest and vulnerable along with her innate wisdom make her writing, yoga classes, and social media great sources of healing and inner peace for many people. Sarah is changing the world, teaching self-love one person at a time. She is also the author of The Yoga of Parenting. You can follow her on Instagram at @sarahezrinyoga and TikTok at @sarahezrin.