Fat, Yoga

Happy Yogaversary to Me

It’s been a year now since I started the yoga class that made me fall in love with yoga. I started thinking about that in bed this morning, as I was doing your typical just-woke-up stretches. Instead of simply doing whatever felt good, as I did for the first 31 years of my life, I found myself instinctively correcting my alignment and isolating specific muscles. In bed. 30 seconds after waking up. And I said to myself, “Self, you’ve come a long way with this yoga shit.”

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: the most amazing, life-changing thing about yoga for me is that it’s allowed me to experience my body from the inside out. For someone who has no natural athletic skill and was conditioned, early and thoroughly, to fear the inevitable humiliation of physical activity, being tuned into what my muscles and joints are doing at any given time is a radical change. And a most fucking welcome one.

Like just about all girls in this culture, I was always taught that my body was primarily something for other people to experience externally, not something I actually inhabited. By the time I was 20, without even trying, I became an expert on which make-up colors suit fair skin and blue eyes, which styles show off fine, wavy hair to its best advantage, which cuts of clothing flatter an hourglass figure. I knew how many calories were in everything and how many pounds I’d have to lose to drop a dress size. But I was over 30 before I learned how to engage just my quadriceps–without the rest of my legs and my ass getting into the game–let alone how engaging just my quadriceps could affect what was happening with my feet. I was over 30 before I learned that deep, focused breathing cuts my anxiety in half. I was over 30 before I learned how fantastic it feels, mentally and physically, to put my muscles to good use on a regular basis.

Because no one ever taught me there was a point to any of that for someone like me. If you didn’t enjoy sports–and hoo boy, I didn’t–the only, only reason to exercise was to lose weight. Sure, plenty of people gave lip service to the idea of exercising “for your health,” but what that meant was “to lose weight.” Fat was bad and unhealthy. Exercise made it go away. That. Was. All.

So if I exercised and didn‘t lose weight, there was no goddamned point, obviously. I wasn’t getting any “healthier,” and I sure wasn’t getting any prettier, and it literally did not occur to me to consider how my body actually felt when I exercised. When I did it, there was only one thought in my mind: “If I keep this up for a really long time, I will be thin.”

And because the only goal was to be thin, I would inevitably overexert myself–if I fucking decimate my body every time, I’ll be thin a few weeks sooner!–which only reinforced the idea that exercise was a miserable, painful endeavor, a punishment for being fat. I’d dive into a pool and swim three lengths flat out, then want to die because I couldn’t breathe. I’d get on a bike and ride a mile the same way, with the same result. And then, of course, tell myself, “You are so disgustingly out of shape you can only swim three lengths/bike a mile! You pathetic piece of shit.” Treadmill, Stairmaster, aerobics class: ditto, ditto, ditto. I once spent an entire night vomiting and nursing the most colossally splitting headache I’d ever known after a tae kwon do class–I’d triggered a migraine but didn’t even recognize it as such, because I was that out of touch with my body. I just thought, you know, that’s what happens to lazy fatasses when they start an exercise program.

And inevitably, the morning after, my entire body would ache as though I’d been beaten. For quite some time. By several large men. So I’d give up on exercising. Not because it was hurting my body, of course, but because, like all fat people, I was lazy! Because I had no willpower! No persistence! Because, I gathered, I would have to be in shape to withstand a “normal” exercise routine, and that would clearly involve long, aching months of getting in shape… so, you know, fuck it.

Nobody ever told me that pouring on everything you’ve got in the first five minutes is not normal. Nobody ever told me to pay attention to what I was feeling in the moment, and stop doing anything that hurt. Nobody ever told me that I could exercise an hour a day for the rest of my life and not necessarily lose weight, but I might just want to do it anyway because it feels good–when you aren’t frantically straining yourself every time.

What they told me was, “Eat less and exercise more.” Less and less and less; more and more and more. Whatever it takes not to be fat. The only point, ever, was not to be fat, and the only point of not being fat–let’s face it–was so other people would look at me and think I was a good person, an attractive person. Health was irrelevant, no matter how often it was mentioned. I did fine on my annual physical, I wasn’t any sicker than anyone else (childhood–when I was thin–excepted)–and frankly, even if those things hadn’t been true, health would still have been irrelevant. I just wanted to be thin.

Everyone wanted me to be thin, as far as I could tell. But I wasn’t thin because I couldn’t stick to an exercise program that strained my muscles and shortened my breath and put me out of commission for at least 24 hours afterwards. That, I was led to believe, was how thin people lived. Because they were virtuous enough to withstand it, and I was not.

Nobody ever told me that isn’t how all thin people live. Nobody ever told me that thin people aren’t in pain all the goddamned time.

They just kept telling me to eat less and exercise more. And, with the exception of a few self-loathingly ascetic years in my early twenties, I just kept failing.

My first yoga class–when I was 25, I think–was literally my first experience ever of exercise that made me feel better when I finished than when I’d started. It was a “gentle” class, lots of old ladies and preggos, which I referred to as “yoga for wusses” over the several years I periodically dropped in on it. It was designed specifically not to hurt the tenderest, most out-of-shape student–yet it sure wasn’t nothing. I sweat. I gasped for breath more than once. I felt my muscles the next day–only this time, it was more like they were saying, “Hi, we’re here!” than “You evil bitch, what have you done to us?”

It felt good.

And it still took me more than five years to get serious about practicing regularly, to want that good feeling, because I was still so deeply convinced that exercise was a painful, demeaning endeavor with no point other than a sisyphean journey toward an imagined ideal body. I’d think about going to yoga and get anxious, start making excuses, start telling myself I’ll go tomorrow. When I did force myself to go, I enjoyed it, but the anticipation of going remained miserable. It was still exercise. Exercise was still the enemy.

It took over five fucking years to fully internalize that I liked it.

And it took meeting a yoga teacher who’s not built like a twig to fully internalize that liking it is the real point, not getting thin.

I don’t think that will ever stop making me sad.

Nor do I think the continued–maybe increasing–pressure on girls to see their bodies as objects for others’ consumption, instead of powerful machines they own and control, will ever stop making me sad.

But a year of sustained yoga practice makes me happy. Instinctively correcting my own alignment makes me happy. Feeling my legs shake as my muscles let go of an old, bad memory makes me happy. The thought of someday teaching other women to experience their bodies from the inside out makes me really, really happy.

All that’s not quite enough to stop making me sad about the other things, but it helps.

27 thoughts on “Happy Yogaversary to Me”

  1. Happy anniversary. You are the better half of us, today, for so many reasons.

    We are having IT band trouble, today. You must help our sore knee and crampy groin.

  2. Great post.

    I had somewhat different reasons for thinking “I don’t like sport” as a schoolkid. I was a complete nerd, for sure, but the other issue was that I had no idea how to play “girl” sports. Being at a traditional Anglican all girl’s school, we were made to play games like netball – games that were completely foreign to me. I gathered, from the way those around me already knew what positions to play, and how to stop and start, and do that hand-wavey-thingy that they do, that they had all grown up playing netball, but I was all at sea. Running in the wrong direction, taking steps with ball in hand, violating the rules all over the place. I had grown up playing kick-to-kick footy and driveway cricket, so this was a foreign world.

    Then they tried to make me run distances (I’m built for power, not for speed), and swim sprints (in the pool, I’m built for endurance, not for speed), and I got it firmly entrenched into my head that I was just not good at sports. Not athletic. A weak, slightly pudgy, unco-ordinated nerd. And sports were revered, so this was a Bad Thing. I gained academic honours, accumulated a pile of science prizes including a national one, I was head of the school choir, but being bad at sports meant I felt like I really wasn’t much of a rep for the school. (And this was Important, somehow, at the time).

    Ah, university! I loved university. I started playing squash, and was suddenly an athletic match for all my friends – “social sports” made sense again. I started weight-lifting, and I was powerful and strong, though it became difficult to buy shirts. I green-belted in karate, and played intervarsity judo, and went distance swimming. I was lighter on my feet, I could lift heavy stuff, and I could slam a 100-kg bloke onto the mat. Life was good!

  3. Thanks, lovelies.

    CG, I’m sorry we’re having band problems. I don’t know a short-term fix for knee issues, but I’ll keep working on strengthening our quads, now that I know where they are. :) As for groin crampiness, lying flat on your stomach with a small, firm pillow under your pelvis is supposed to be good. (I’ve got the perfect props from my old yoga studio, which were referred to as “belly bolsters,” but googling turns up nothing similar by that name. They’re like 7-8 inches in diameter, and essentially very tightly packed bean bags.)

  4. This post made me cry.

    I want to hike. I want to canoe. I want to swim. I want to row. I want to maybe, finally, make peace with bicycles again.

    But I don’t. Because, in my mind, the only thing more horrifying, more Proving Them Right about what an Awful Disgusting Fat Slob I am than audible intestinal gas, is sweating.

    I tell myself it doesn’t matter. I tell myself I have to start somewhere. I tell myself “Let them think what they want.” But still I don’t budge. I tell myself “Health At Any Size!” but that’s for everyone else. They aren’t fat like I’m fat. I believe in them and in their bodies and their right to inhabit and love their bodies. I just can’t believe in mine.

    I’m so happy to hear from someone on the other side. Someone who’s doing it and loves it and can post a picture showing it can be done.

    Thank you for giving me a little slice of hope.

  5. Oh, Thorn. I totally feel everything you’re saying.

    And that’s why I get so furious when people assume fat people are just too lazy to have any interest in exercise, or make snarky comments about how it’s so easy to just “get off the couch and do something!” (And of course, they believe, if we did that, we’d all become thin and acceptable.)

    It’s not easy. It’s not easy at all. Between ancient emotional baggage from gym class and the amount of courage it takes to go ahead and be The Fat Person Exercising–to let yourself sweat, let yourself be seen in tight workout clothes, let yourself be judged by others, silently or sometimes not–we have more than enough good reasons not to even try.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the people who go on and on about fat people’s health never seem to consider our mental health. For a fat person, avoiding public exercise in this culture is a matter of emotional self-protection. It’s a refusal to make ourselves vulnerable to even more rejection and humiliation than we get by walking out the damned door. It’s about dignity. It makes sense.

    Of course, saying, “Dammit, I deserve this” and getting out there and doing it is also about dignity. But it takes a LOT of confidence and a lot of effort to overcome old fears and emotional scars. It’s the farthest thing from “so easy.”

    fwiw, I just started a new yoga class on top of my regular one and home practice last week. The room was warm, the series was intense, and I sweat BUCKETS–to the point where I couldn’t hold poses because I was sliding off my mat. The teacher actually went and got me another, stickier mat to place on top of my own–which helped with holding poses but didn’t help with the fact that I had big patches of sweat all over my clothes, and my hair was soaked all around my scalp.

    So I’m completely mortified by being The Sweaty Fat Girl, for starters, and on top of that, mortified that I’m the only one in the room who has to keep coming out of poses–because NO ONE has the strength to hold standing poses for long on a slick surface. Even after I got the stickier mat, I still had to come out of a couple because my feet were so cramped and exhausted from trying to hold poses on the sweaty mat. So I was not only The Sweaty Fat Girl, but The Fat Girl Who Can’t Keep Up. AWESOME.

    I’ve been doing this long enough that I was able to shake it off and tell myself hey, it’s one bad class, it’ll be better next week. And hey, even if it’s not better next week, I know I CAN do all these poses; the problem is not that I’m too fat. And the important thing is that I have reasons for wanting to take this specific class, so I need to focus on those instead of obsessing about what everyone else thinks of The Sweaty Fat Girl. Especially when the reality is, only the two people next to me and the teacher even noticed I was there.

    A year ago, I would have started crying when I got to the car and never gone back.

    So yeah, I feel you. Sigh.

  6. I’m somewhat abashed to admit it, but it helps, in a weird way, to know there are other Sweaty Fat Girls out there.

    Thank you for sharing – I hope you continue to do so.

    And this – Especially when the reality is, only the two people next to me and the teacher even noticed I was there. is so true.

    When I do step outside my comfort zone a bit and take that chance, typically I realize that everyone else is too busy obsessing over whatever /they/ think other people are going to pick on them for to give a damn about what I’m up to.

  7. “Especially when the reality is, only the two people next to me and the teacher even noticed I was there.”

    I think this is focal. I think the more focused one can be on one’s own development and one’s own poses (this is critical, especially in Bikram and Jivamukti, where you’d better damn well focus or you can dislocate something) — or, in NOT!ballet dance class, on one’s own alignment, the more you can enjoy the workout itself FOR yourself, and the hell with the sweat.

    On the other hand, when you’ve been going to class so long that you’re better-skilled at the exercise of choice than a lot of the skinny people there, you can stride around wearing your sweat patches like badges of honor and occasionally toss them looks at the beginning and end of class — for of course, you are far too busy focusing on yourself in class; we just covered that — if they look at you funny, as if to say, “I’m working hard, because I know what I’m doing. How about YOU?” Because that’s what we’re all SUPPOSED to be there for. And they tend to look away and blush.

    (Although of course, I wouldn’t encourage such behavior. It might be bad for karma and I wouldn’t know anything about it. Hee.)

    Happy Yogaversary, Kate.

  8. Your story makes my heart sing. Kate, you have such a natural gift for putting your finger on the personal truth of your experience and making it recognizable to the rest of us. I met a yoga teacher in Encinitas and became a yoga teacher myself studying with her because yoga is too good to keep just for ourselves. I have bookmarked your blog and your beautiful teacher’s website. Hugs and a bow of namaste to you and your teacher, sister yogini!

    Happy Yogaversary!

  9. Wow.

    I’m the not-sweaty fat girl. I can do five miles on a bicycle without sweating. So I always feel like I’m not really trying.

    There. Is. No. Winning.

    Just give up. Let the culture have the culture and let us have our fucking lives.

  10. This is really good stuff . . . I think you articulated some things that I have had trouble identifying. I know that I hate, hate, HATE to exercise, and I know that I “need” to . . . and I give lip service to the fact that it’s not to lose weight, just to “get healthy” . . . (my doctor is honestly very gentle with me–but because my triglycerides are high (everything else is kosher), she would like to see me lose “a little weight” . . . and I would just like to see those triglycerides go down, weight or no weight . . . )

    You will probably think I’m nuts, but I have the added stigma that yoga is frowned upon in my Christian community (not by all, but by some . . . and I have enough qualms about it conflicting with my own beliefs that I would be uncomfortable taking a class) . . . I tried Tai Chi once, and would really like to do that as well, but same problem . . . although I may give in and try the latter . . .

    You give me hope, however, that someday I might be able to hate exercising just a tiny bit less than I do today . . .

    thanks, as always, for your honesty and openness. what’s the etiquette–am I supposed to ask your permission before adding you to my blogroll? (I just read that in someone else’s blog . . . or on blogher or something–or else I wouldn’t have even thought to ask . . . )

  11. Yeah, so I know this post is super old, but on the off chance that you read even old-post comments, I just wanted to say that … wow. This is corny, but I’m just so similar to you. Chicagoan, fat, (we look similar actually I think), and I just started yoga a few months ago. (Don’t worry – I’m not a stalker.) I absolutely love it — I feel so focused and free and limber and accomplished after practicing. I’ve been reading your website all day, (slow day at work), and I have to say I really need to do some thinking about …. myself. I’m sick of hating myself. I’m sick of telling my boyfriend “no I’m not” when he tells me I’m beautiful. I’m sick of convincing myself my life is worthless when I have everything else in the world going for me! And as I page through the archives of your blog, it’s like I realize that what you’re saying — it MAKES SENSE. And if it makes sense, it means a seismic shift in the way I think about myself.

    Thank you.

  12. Another way-late comment: I am a similarly sweaty yogini, I’ve found that using yogitoes skidless mats helps immensely. If you haven’t found them already, give them a try!

  13. I’ve become really interested in doing yoga after reading about Megan Garcia in the Smith Alumna magazine (yay Smith!) and after falling way, way off the “in-shape” wagon I’m trying to adjust to gaining weight and trying to get fit without beating myself up for 1. Not being able to do what I could do just a year ago 2. Not looking the way I looked when I could do that stuff.

    Just a note to say I really love the website and particularly the stuff about HAES and yoga–the Olympics have really been inspiring me to move again, and this is a great resource for getting back in the game without going crazy. Thanks!

  14. Rereading this following the “favorite threads” post. Re: sweaty girls & yoga; I had that problem in the class I took in college. My solution was to bring a hand-towel to class, fold it lengthwise and lay it across the top of the yoga mat, where my sweaty palms tended to slide right out from under me every time we did Down Dog — and we spent eternities in that pose, I tell you. I don’t know how well it would work for standing poses, though.

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