Big Body Yoga: Reflections on The “Weight” of Words

This blog post is written by Carol Kennedy, who is joining our staff to teach Yoga for Round Bodies for the Fall 2020 season.

Big, Body, and Yoga are three words that exist as distinct spaces for judgment. A whole gamut of adjectives are ascribed to Yoga, much like our bodies, and the construct of being “big.” This blog is a challenging one to write for me, as these three words, especially in conjunction with one another, conjure up so many emotions and images. 

Yoga has been described as exercise, movement, cult, appropriation, commodity, ritual, sacred, Eastern, and Western, just to name a few – and these descriptions are quite often shifting and morphing at the same time. Yet these descriptions of Yoga, and debates surrounding its definition remain external to us as individuals, allowing space for objectivity. This threshold of objectivity is crossed when the word “body” is connected to Yoga. Our bodies move us; hold our thoughts, our emotions. They nurture us, and can do the most miraculous of things, and they are what contain ‘us’ as embodied whole beings. 

The body is what makes Yoga subjective, and this seems almost redundant when put together. I mean, we all have bodies, and each of us have a dynamic relationship with it, and through it. So, what is Yoga without the embodied human? Is Yoga a tool for the body? Or is the body a tool for Yoga? 

Then we bring in the concept of “big.” This is the word that now defines our bodies, but only in the context of other people, and in Yoga, other practitioners. What does “big” mean? Does it mean height? Weight? Personality? Who gets to decide what “big” is? Who gets to take this three-letter word, connected to the embodied experience of Yoga, in a rapidly spreading notion of ‘big bodies in Yoga’, or some other spin on this combination? Who gets to pick the point of relativity from which “big and ____” (any word that contradicts “big”) move away from? The subjectivity of this idea is anchored in space and time, and is both fickle and so dynamic. In trying to carve out a space for those that are labelled “big,” you either have to own this term or concede to it, and participate in the labelling of bodies in one way or another. 

You might say that creating spaces for big bodied individuals to do Yoga is reclamation of sorts, an empowerment, yet it reinforces that big bodies are outside the “normal.” How would a “skinny” or “small” person Yoga class be received? Can you tell someone who is smaller in stature and has body dysmorphia, or an eating disorder, that they are excluded from a big-body Yoga class? Specialized classes or labels can elevate (or denigrate) from what is “normal” to be extraordinary, or to be abnormal. 

So, where does that leave me – someone who has always been taller than most of my friends, who is a powerhouse of strength, yet does not necessarily fit in with the “average” body, size, weight, (not to mention personality), nor the image of “big bodies” and all the expectations we have attached to them? 

When someone speaks of accommodating “bigger bodies,” there is an assumption that all big bodies are the same. But they are as diverse as any other group of people. My height has not hindered my strength, or my flexibility. My weight has not been an obstacle for my movement and gracefulness. Yoga feels like a natural fit for my body, and confining it to the label of “big body” does not come from me, but from an environment that is obsessed with compartmentalizing and labelling people, even with the intentions of inclusion. The underlying idea is that a “big body” is outside the scope of normality in Yoga, when in fact, a relatively bigger body can be just as well suited to the discipline of Yoga as any other. If we really want to shift spaces and initiatives, and the definition of “normal” to be more inclusive, it may be time to return to the simple connection of body and Yoga, and leave the hierarchical labelling of bodies off the mats. 

As I prepare for my very first teaching opportunity, one that I am incredibly proud of and grateful for, I am choosing to confront these complicated feelings about my own bigger body and its commodification. Despite my misgivings about the compartmentalizing of body types , I have found the perfect space for me to hone my craft but also engage with students who might hold some of these very same feelings: a 7-week course called Yoga for Round Bodies, a staple at Queen Street Yoga. My intention is to harness the strength and resilience of these bigger, rounder, sturdier bodies and bring them galloping (or gliding) into this challenging practice. I hope to bridge the gap between accessible and challenging, and empower some “bigger” bodies to find their place in Yoga. 

In her own words: “It wasn’t until I stepped into my first (of several) Yoga for Round Bodies courses as a student, that yoga really started to make sense for me. I am grateful for the incredible opportunity to teach Yoga for Round Bodies and am looking forward to meeting all kinds of bodies on the mat.” Carol graduated from the Queen Street Yoga 200hr YTT this summer. Congrats Carol and welcome to the team!

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