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"Fat Yoga" Tailors Yoga Classes to Plus-Size Women

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Exercise may be good for everybody, but most classes aren't actually good for every body.

"I practiced yoga for almost a decade and no teacher ever helped me make the practice work for my curvy body," says Anna Guest-Jelley, founder and CEO (that's Curvy Executive Officer) of Nashville-based Curvy Yoga. "I just kept assuming the problem was my body and that once I lost x amount of weight, I'd finally 'get it.' Then one day it dawned on me that the problem was never my body. It was just that my teachers didn't know how to teach bodies like mine."

This epiphany motivated Guest-Jelley to open her own studio, one specifically designed for real women like her. And the classes were an immediate success, which encouraged her to train others to teach "fat yoga." Now, studios for bigger bodies are popping up all over the country, changing the idea of fitness being exclusive for the fit. (See 30 Reasons Why We Love Yoga.)

The type of modifications Guest-Jelley incorporates into her classes include instructing students to move their stomach flesh out of their hip crease when bending forward, or using a wider-than-hip-width stance in standing poses—small tweaks the stereotypical lilthe teacher may not think are inhibiting the students to start with.

And the popularity of fat yoga across the nation is proof that these are all real problems for curvaceous yogis. But the goal of these studios, the instructors say, isn't just to make yoga accessible to people of all shapes and sizes. It's also to help them learn to love their bodies in the form they're already in, which is why teachers have embraced the uncomfortable-for-some label of "fat yoga."

"People think 'fat' means slovenly, uncontrolled, dirty or lazy," Anna Ipox, the owner of Fat Yoga in Portland said in a recent New York Times piece on the trend. "It doesn't." Guest-Jelley agrees, but adds that yoga teachers need to meet their students—regardless of size—wherever they're at. "While I'm comfortable referring to my own body as fat, and do because I think it's important to reclaim it as a neutral descriptor, I know that because of the negative bias it has unfairly gotten in society that not everyone is ready or wants to do that right away," she says, adding that there will never be one word universally loved by everyone, even "curvy." (Self-Love Has Been Dominating the Internet All Week—And We Love It.)

She also points out that the modifications she teaches can help people of all sizes. "Just because the classes are useful for curvy people doesn't mean they're only useful for curvy people!" she says.

Still, there is a reason the name exists. People should know that this yoga class is going to be different than the traditional, starting the moment they walk through the door, Guest-Jelley says. Students in her classes are greeted with open-ended questions to get to know them, rather than assuming they're beginners just because they're curvy (as she says too often happens in traditional classes). (If you really are a newbie, though, here are 10 Things to Know Before Your First Yoga Class.) Before the practice begins, everyone is given all the props they might need so no one has to leave the room to get something, which she explains people are often reluctant to do if they feel they're the only one who "can't do" something. Then each class starts with body affirming quotes, poems, or meditations.

The biggest change is the way the yoga itself is done, with an acknowledgment that more than just muscles and bones are involved. "We sequence both poses and the overall class to move from the most supported version of a pose to the least," she says. "Many traditional classes do the opposite, so while options may be offered, they're sometimes cast as less-than or 'if you can't do it,' even if implicitly. This can make it harder for students to choose what's right for them because no one wants to feel like they're the only one who can't do something."

Regardless of what you call it, yoga—fat, skinny, or otherwise—is about how to best help people to be wherever they are right now in their relationship with their body, she says.

"Our students often report that our classes not only give them the information they need to make the poses work for them, but also the permission to do it. That permission piece is crucial!" she says. "Because our classes are often more body diverse than others, and everyone is doing something slightly different from the person next to them, people can relax and focus more without worrying about if their body can make the same shape as everyone else in the class—because let's be honest, that's not possible anyway!"

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