“What if I’m the fattest person in class and everyone stares at me?”
It’s a question yoga icon Jessamyn Stanley sees regularly in emails from nervous fans, and one she leads with in her new book, “Every Body Yoga.” The book also tackles other tough questions: “What gear do you recommend for curvy students?” and “What if I fart during class?” It’s rooted in the body-positive movement — an alternative fitness philosophy that encourages people of all shapes and sizes to feel confident in their bodies.
Speakingrecently at the Sacramento Public Library recently, Stanley told a mostly female crowd about her struggles with body image and how out of place she felt in yoga classes full of thin, white women. She said teachers stared at her as if they’d never seen a large black person in the studio.
Since then, Stanley, a self-described “fat femme,” has developed an at-home yoga practice for her own body type, which she shares with her 300,000 Instagram followers to help other yogis push past their doubts and get on the mat.
“I really do feel like the shame and the internalized hatred of being raised in a fat body is something I’m permanently in recovery from,” Stanley said from the stage, her bare feet curled underneath a ruffled purple dress. “Every day is a struggle to say, ‘I am worthwhile, and I do deserve to take up space.’”
Stanley isn’t alone. A staggering 91 percent of women are unhappy with their bodies, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Recent studies show that women with poor body image are at greater risk of depression and overall health problems, and are less likely to eat well and exercise.
Yoga classes can be particularly alienating for ethnic minorities, overweight or disabled people, and anyone else who doesn’t fit the mold, Stanley said.
Roughly 37 million Americans practiced yoga in 2016, up from 20 million in 2012, according to a recent survey from the nonprofit group Yoga Alliance. The most common reasons people said they’ve never tried yoga before were “I feel out of place” and “My body is not right for yoga,” the survey found. It didn’t break down yoga practitioners by race.
Nicole Geurin, a Sacramento nutrition consultant and registered dietitian, said body-positive instructors and studios are becoming more common. Geurin helps clients develop positive attitudes about their bodies, even if they don’t look like people they see in pop culture or at the gym. She organizes the annual Health at Every Size festival.
“There’s so much body stigma in this health and fitness world, where health is co-inflated with body size,” Geurin said. “We realized that the diet and weight-loss approach to fitness was harming people rather than helping them. Bodies just naturally come in different sizes. Our physiology is designed to protect our natural weight, and prevent weight loss for many people. I like the idea of promoting health in a weight-inclusive way.”
Dr. John Hernried, medical director of the Hernried Center for Medical Weight Loss in Sacramento, said it’s important to have a positive body image, but it must also be grounded in good overall health. Obesity remains an epidemic in America, and for some people getting healthy requires losing weight, he said.
A March 2017 report from the Journal of the American Medical Association found fewer overweight and obese adults trying to lose weight from 1988 to 2014. The authors suggested that “if more individuals who are overweight or obese are satisfied with their weight, fewer might be motivated to lose unhealthy weight.”
“If you are not healthy on the inside but feel like you have a positive body image outside, that’s a mismatch, and that’s not always a good thing,” Hernried said. “It can put people in a ‘futility cycle’ where there is little motivation to make changes to improve health.”
In her book, Stanley models yoga poses and modifications, such as giving more distance between the feet and fingers in a forward fold, or resting hands on blocks instead of reaching all the way to the floor. She also encourages students to use yoga and mindfulness to work through stress and other emotional holdups, rather than viewing them as means to weight loss.
“Yoga is about authenticity,” Stanley said. “It’s about seeing within yourself. And that journey is … messy. It might be confusing. It might be upsetting. And that’s the point.”