Health & Fitness

Is fat the new thin? How body-positive yogis are redefining wellness

Yoga icon and author Jessamyn Stanley practices a pose. Speaking at the Sacramento Public Library last week, Stanley told a mostly female crowd about her personal challenges with body image and how out of place she felt in yoga classes full of thin, white women.
Yoga icon and author Jessamyn Stanley practices a pose. Speaking at the Sacramento Public Library last week, Stanley told a mostly female crowd about her personal challenges with body image and how out of place she felt in yoga classes full of thin, white women.

“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 tough questions such as “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.

Speaking at the Sacramento Public Library last week, Stanley told a mostly female crowd about her personal challenges 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 before.

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 for depression and overall health problems, and are less likely to eat well and exercise.

The modern yoga scene can be particularly alienating for ethnic minorities, overweight people or yogis with disabilities 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, scheduled in East Sacramento later this month.

“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 that while it’s important to have a positive body image, 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 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.”

For Angela Graham-Parrish, a 43-year-old Elk Grove resident, getting confident about her size was the key to getting healthy.

“Every time I’d just give up, because every time I’d try to reach out, it was, ‘You’re not the right body type,’” Graham-Parrish said. “I’ve been able to develop a healthy home practice and it’s because of (Stanley). It’s because of people like her who have helped me feel comfortable. Yes, I AM beautiful, and I CAN do it.”

In the “All Bodies” class at midtown Sacramento’s Yoga Seed Collective, instructors guide students of different sizes and abilities into standing or seated poses, often suggesting foam blocks and blankets for support. Rather than model a pose and demand exact replication, instructors tell students to perform whatever version of a stretch feels comfortable, occasionally helping out with an adjustment.

Tami Hackbarth, a yoga instructor at the Sacramento studio It’s All Yoga, is one of about a dozen California teachers trained in Curvy Yoga, a certification to teach classes specifically for larger people. After years of feeling embarrassed at the gym, she eventually found a body-positive studio and got hooked, she said.

“Now, I approach the mat with curiosity – what does my body want to do today? And with kindness – would it feel better to use a prop? To lay down?” she said. “You can't get space, ease and peace if you’re comparing, or if you’re blaming, or if you are constricting.”

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.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola

Health at Every Size

What: A day of movement and interactive presentations

When: Saturday May 20, 1:30 to 4:30 p.m.

Where: Clunie Community Center, 601 Alhambra Blvd., Sacramento

More info: YouCaring.com/HAES

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