Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Yoga and Body Size: Lessons in Humility

When big students show up to yoga classes, teachers often just don't know what to do with them. They don't bend the same way, they don't move the same way, they're just not — the same. 

Yup, they're not. Same as beginners not bending and moving the same as advanced practitioners, same as 50 year olds not bending and moving the same as 20 year olds, same as inflexible people not bending and moving the same as flexible people, same as differently-abled bodies moving and bending differently. "Same same but different."

Generally in our foundational yoga teacher trainings, we may learn how to teach beginners in theory, but what we're actually experiencing is learning how to teach at each other's level, and in a YTT, that's usually advanced, or at the very least intermediate. Reality sets in when we get out there teaching, and "those students" show up to class: the absolute beginners, the round, the inflexible, the people who've been mostly sitting for 30 years.

A teacher told me recently that while working privately with a middle-aged couple who were both deconditioned and uncomfortable going to a group yoga class, she had the stark realization that most of the "beginner's" classes she was teaching were truly closer to intermediate level. I think we need to be honest with ourselves about the Asana we're teaching and whether it really can meet everyone well. It's okay if some styles or classes aren't appropriate for everyone, but I think it's important that we begin having honest discussions that some yoga classes really aren't "for everybody." If we described our classes really well and with acute honesty about level and intensity, it would go a long way to help channel prospective students to the right class — for them.

We can choose to see these students' limitations as a deficit, or we can take a step back into humility, and consider that perhaps the deficit is our own — missing skills to better meeting their needs. While most of us can't be everything to everyone, this stepping-back process can at least inform us of where we might like to do further training. And to realize that perhaps the lack of diversity we see in yoga classes isn't because there's only "one type" of person interested in yoga, but that perhaps the way mainstream western yoga has been offered attracts, or is only appropriate for, one type of person and actually excludes many.

The following are some things for teachers to consider with regard to working with bigger-bodied students. Many of them involve stepping back into humility and recognizing our own blind spots, which is always a great growth opportunity:

ne of the best ways teachers can serve their round students is to accept and claim ownership of their own privilege and internalized prejudice. Recognizing that privilege and prejudice are intertwined is a first step (as explored in this great article about thin privilege), and accepting that there are many negative and damaging stereotypes we've internalized about fat people and fatness (even fat people have internalized them). For example, seeing a fat person's body as a "cry for help" or something that needs "fixing" is stigmatizing and confuses "public health" as "claiming certain bodies as the public's business." As another example, assuming things about people's habits or health status because of their body size (a group of people sharing one physical characteristic are not all going to be the same — there are people across all sizes who are both healthy and unhealthy, fit and unfit, prioritize or don't prioritize health, eat healthily or don't — you can't make assumptions about habits based on body size). And most of all, please do not assume that your big students are in your class to lose weight. Some might be, but you're stereotyping if you make the assumption that they're there for weight loss because their body is big.  Here's one of my favourite quotes from a survey I conducted of plus-size women about yoga:  CLICK TO CONTINUE AT SOURCE