Who says yoga is just for skinny people? The industry needs to shape up, says the new (big) girl in class
Sat 11 Oct 2014 07.00 BSTLast modified on Mon 2 Jul 2018 15.07 BST
Deborah Coughlin queues for a yoga class with three thin women
‘I live in east London, which is much more diverse than EastEnders would have you believe – and yet the yoga studios are vanilla: yummy mummies with plenty of money,’ says Deborah Coughlin, above left. Photograph: David Yeo for the Guardian
Like a scene from Heathers (or Mean Girls, if you’re under 30), they cocked their heads to one side and gave me the smiley pity wince. “Sorry, babe. I don’t think you’ll feel comfortable. It’s full of skinny yoga bunnies. Even I feel fat in there.” I instantly regretted inquiring about hot yoga. For the next 20 minutes, as I ate my roast dinner, they attempted to convince me to have a colonic, to boost me towards slimness. After being told you’re too fat for yoga, there is nothing quite like demolishing a gravy-soaked yorkshire pud.
That was four years ago and I’d just turned 30. Until this point, I had always been very sneery about the health-conscious. Eye-rolling at decaf coffee. Laughing out loud at alcohol-free beer. Shaking my head at passing joggers. It wasn’t until I hit my third decade, with its robust facial hair and horrific hangovers, that I realised there wasn’t anything funny about choosing not to be healthy. Just like a chubby kid who becomes the bully, I had felt jealous. I had felt left out and as if I wouldn’t fit into being fit. I realised that it’s one thing being unfit in your 20s but it’s way harder in your 30s. Something had to be done. But how?
A graduate of the Oprah school of yo-yoing, at age 14 I was size 14, age 19 a size 20, age 22 a size 8. Over the past decade, I’ve been an 18, 12, 22 and 14. Now, at 34, I’m back up there again at a mighty 18 (top) and 22 (bottom). I have never been eating-gateaux-for-breakfast fat, or “I’ll have a pizza with cheeseburgers in the crust” fat – I am not a fool, and most fat people aren’t. Overweight people wear their issues on their arse and, being easily spottable, are often treated like idiots with no willpower. And yet they are invisible when it comes to images of sport, fitness and health.
Nowhere more so than when it comes to yoga and its marketing. “We found that yoga users are more likely to be white, female, young and college educated,” concluded a 2008 Characteristics of Yoga Users study. They are also above averagely wealthy and healthy, another survey published in 2013 by Kantar Media found.
Sign up for the Fashion Statement email
An image search for yoga confirms the stats: yoga is white, wealthy, female and really skinny; the Goop-reading, Hilaria Baldwins of this world. I live in east London, which is much more diverse than EastEnders would have you believe – and yet the yoga studios are vanilla: yummy mummies with plenty of money. But there is a revolution coming. We’ve had baby yoga, hot yoga, naked yoga and swinging yoga. Now, fat yoga is on its way.
Dianne Bondy is the founder of yogasteya.com, an online studio for all sizes and abilities, and a founding board member of the newly formed Yoga And Body Image Coalition. “I call myself the accidental activist,” she tells me, over Skype from her home in Canada. “I went to a yoga teacher training class and I was the only brown person, the only person past a size 14: I felt like this big brown spot in a sea of white faces. I thought, there’s got to be some other people who feel this way. So I got mad and wrote a blog: Yoga: Not Just For Young, Skinny, White Girls. It had 10,000 reads and the movement started from there.”
Dianne Bondy: ‘I went to a yoga class and I was the only brown person, the only person past a size 14: I felt like this big brown spot in a sea of white faces. I thought, there’s got to be some other people who feel this way’ Photograph: Courtesy of Dianne Bondy
Talking to Bondy is like getting a one-to-one with my hero. She is a natural-born communicator, compassionate and inspirational. In just under an hour, I had multiple “aha” moments. “I started thinking,” she said, “if there are all these people who feel this way, how can I change what I see? Can I post my own selfies as a big girl doing yoga, to counter the aesthetic of the skinny girls doing poses? Can I be the change?”
It took two years after being threatened with a colon wash before I finally built up the courage to go to a yoga class, at east London’s Stretch, and that was only because my mate Aquila was the teacher. It was enlightening, in the most hippy mind, body and soul way. She told all of us in the class to “feel the possibility”, and in just 60 minutes I realised I could do things I genuinely thought I couldn’t.
“Bigger men and women get put off when they see half the class has an eating disorder, and the rest are gymnasts,” Aquila says. “But I have seen bigger bodies do the most incredible things, and we have seen a rise in the diversity of practitioners, from all sorts of backgrounds, and all shapes and sizes.”
Yoga is big business: last month, the film director David Lynch created a line of yoga wear for women called Live The Process. Now, I love Lynch, but yoga Lynch turns out to be mean, with a fashion line that stops at a large – equivalent to a UK size 12. Fitness fashion is one of my great unrequited loves – and yet I often end up looking like a grown-up Little Miss Sunshine, wearing whatever I haven’t worn to bed the night before (there’s a crossover with my sleeping attire). Shouldn’t fat people be the target market for fitness wear? Aren’t we the ones supposed to be doing all the exercise?
Kerensa Sheen set up State Of Mind, for sizes 14-28, in 2012, after a eureka moment. “I went to a boot camp and the shopping experience was horrendous,” she says. “I ended up wearing men’s walking trousers – nothing stylish was available to me. I asked everyone at the boot camp, and the stories were all depressingly the same.” So she set up her business, but “we quickly discovered that plus-size women are reluctant to invest in active wear, because they are always a day away from the life-changing diet. We had so many comments about our pricing, people saying they didn’t want to pay so much for clothing they wouldn’t be wearing next year.”
I understand why: bigger women are in a strange psychological place, a place where we are told we will not be attractive, we won’t fit into things, and we will die young – yet something holds us back from being ourselves right now, this size, doing exercise, in clothes that fit us. We are holding off on living; we’re waiting until we’ve already lost the weight.
Michele Pernetta taught Bikram yoga for 15 years before setting up her own hot yoga school, Fierce Grace. “People tell me all the time at dinner parties, when they find out what I do, ‘I’m too old’, ‘I’m not fit enough’, to do yoga. I want really unfit people with injuries, people who have given up on their backs. People with difficulty. It’s advertisers who think it’s aspirational. But I don’t think it should be. Yoga should be about who you are now.”
So now, years after being ambushed by my “friends”, I find myself on a sweat-sodden towel in a warehouse basement, bent over and pulling on my toes, head dangling into my boobs, a sea of sweaty crotches in my eyeline. I’d finally come to hot yoga with my mate Marianne. (This after completing a six-week beginners’ course at the Yoga Place in Bethnal Green, east London.) Unlike the Heathers, Marianne had assured me I could do hot yoga. All I needed was some water and a towel. Plus, she promised that if I hated it, we could both leave and go to the pub. A clever ploy, but not quite enough.
The tipping point was that Fierce Grace’s flyers were different. They featured people who looked like the sort with whom I’d quite happily go for several drinks. They weren’t skinny, weren’t all doing it perfectly; it looked dirty, even a bit punk. The teacher, Nina, is warm and compassionate. This wasn’t what the Heathers had described. And I could do it, really well.
Deborah Coughlin doing a yoga pose
FacebookTwitterPinterest Deborah Coughlin: ‘I am no longer intimidated by all those fit mean girls.’ Photograph: David Yeo/Guardian
Pernetta is just like Bondy. She may be skinny, but the energy is the same. “I didn’t make a conscious decision to be different,” she says. “I’ve never tried to show yoga as yin, as ethereal, because it’s not. This is blood, sweat and guts here.” We meet in a coffee shop, and she berates herself for not having brought along a copy of one of the UK’s biggest yoga magazines. “I went through and counted how many photographs there were of skinny blond girls – it was something like 40, all of them sitting in the lotus position that has nothing to do with yoga. And this is Yoga Magazine! A) it’s boring, B) it’s not what yoga’s about, and C) that’s, like, 1% of who goes to yoga. They are just models.”
Rather than aha moments, with Pernetta I have a series of WTF moments. “If the overweight person can build some muscle, then they will find it much easier to lose weight, because they’ve got this muscle that is then burning calories. Whereas someone like me, if I could relax a bit and loosen up, be a little less intense, I could gain more. People with less muscle tone can gain weight more easily, but they are more flexible.”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing. This goes against received wisdom: by this logic, fat people should be awesome at yoga. But what about moves that seem impossible with massive boobs and a big arse? “It doesn’t matter if you’re skinny, big, perfect, or if you’ve had two hip replacements: everyone is going to come up against something. If someone feels suffocated by their boobs in the forward” – she bends over to illustrate – “they are actually compressing their stomach, detoxifying their internal organs, massaging. Day by day, they’ll go an inch farther.”
If obesity is the disease of the poor, are the big yoga studios guilty of not reaching out? “Maybe,” Pernetta says. “A lot of people are [priced out]. Yoga has got to change, start attracting a whole new level of people who don’t dare go now. Young, fit people need it, but they probably don’t need it as much as someone who’s just had a knee replacement.”
Our culture stigmatises fat people. They are made to look stupid on TV diet shows, forced to dance in nude underwear with camera angles the equivalent of a booming Lancashire brass band. The only psychological tool employed on these shows is the shock tactic of having all the fat you eat in a year presented to you in the form of a lard pig sculpture while a doctor repeats how horribly you’re going to die. It’s all stick and no carrot. If I’m going to be a yoga bunny, I need some carrots, please.
Stigma breeds fear, and now young girls are more fearful of being fat than of getting cancer, nuclear war or losing their parents. It’s a culture of fear that only creates more fat people. People who don’t need to panic, who go from a 12 to a 14, feel scared – that they won’t fit in, that they will look wrong doing yoga. So they wait in the margins and, as they wait, they put on more weight. Society makes people so anxious that they avoid the very things that will help them.
Fat yoga could change this. But first we need to get the people who will benefit most through the door, by showing dynamic, fun and smart fat people doing life-fulfilling stuff. We need people like Bondy, helping us to see the possibilities. “We exclude people and judge people, and they don’t feel great about themselves and start behaving in ways that are harmful.” Bondy looks at me over the Skype feed as if this is obvious. “Stigmatising fat people is the last prejudice we’re allowed.”
Make no mistake, Bondy says: “Yoga is not for weight loss. It’s great for strength-conditioning, bone density and lowering blood pressure.” It gets results for both mind and body. “If people come to the practice, learn to love themselves, and develop coping strategies for dealing with a very stressful, fast-paced life, I think they’ll figure out that they are worth looking after.”
She is right. I am no longer intimidated by all those fit mean girls. With yoga in my life I have finally found my balance, somewhere between the downward dog and a yorkshire pudding.