When I opened my Bikram Yoga studio, I wanted to make it a safe and comfortable space for our clients. In my teacher training with Bikram Choudhury, he modeled a lot of behavior that I was intent on avoiding. Yoga Journal dubbed him the yoga community’s “bad boy,” and he reveled in the notoriety by frequently berating and abusing people in his classes. At the time, I thought it was a schtick, and I still believe it began that way, but the schtick grew into an abusive megalomania.
He loved fat shaming people, especially women. He framed it as truth-telling “for your own good,” as in, “I am the only one who will tell you the truth. You eat too much and my yoga will fix you.” And since his style as an instructor looked and sounded like a vaudeville performance, it was easy to disregard such statements as antic or irreverent hyperbole. It didn’t help that most of the people he spoke this way to laughed it off. But the insidious thing about shame is that it likes to stay hidden. Had I been more sensitive, more aware of how fat-shaming works, I would have better understood how harmful his behavior was.
Fast forward a couple years. My yoga studio had been open for several months and business was good. Our teaching philosophy was all about respect, support, and safety for everyone who walked in. We did everything we could to make everyone feel welcome and safe. Then, despite my intentions, I fat shamed someone.
It often happens that after class, one person lingers in the lobby hoping to get a quiet, private moment with the instructor, who was me on this day. It was a young woman I was just beginning to know. She told me she was struggling in her practice that her body felt like it was resisting the postures. She asked for some general advice on what she might do to make classes a little less difficult. I gave her a few words about taking it easy, lowering her expectations, recognizing that the struggle is part of the practice.
And then, with total sincerity, and as much compassion as I could gather, I looked her in the eye and said, “Of course, I’m sure you know you should probably lose some weight.” Blam! I was dead to her. The instant I uttered the word “lose” a light went out in her eyes. I fat-shamed her. And in doing so I lost her trust and confidence. Neither of us acknowledged it. We talked for another minute or two. She even thanked me before leaving. And I never saw her again.
She was not asking for my opinion about her weight. It was arrogant and condescending for me to bring it up. It was not my place to make assumptions about the appropriateness of her body shape or size. It was not my place to make assumptions about what she “knows” about her body. It was not my place to project my bias about body weight onto her. It was a hard lesson and still, many years later, I can feel my old shame surfacing as I remember it.
In the ensuing years, I have learned a lot about the human body. I have learned that many of our “common understandings” about bodies are false or incomplete. I have learned how to communicate better, and to be aware of my biases. I have become aware of how deeply fat shaming is entrenched in our society and institutions.
The only time it is ever appropriate for a yoga instructor (or anyone else!) to talk about another human being’s body weight is if that person explicitly invites us to do so. I also know that such conversations can only be productive if we leave our biases out of them and learn to listen fully, and to be guided by the speaker as to what is being asked.
I know there are people who talk freely about their bodies, including their weight. That’s their right. I know that body size can be a factor that results in some yoga postures being challenging, if not impossible. I also know it’s possible to offer helpful advice, suggestions, and/or modifications, without bringing attention to someone’s body weight.