What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
It usually starts with widened eyes and a slight lift of the eyebrows.
As I walk over to greet a new student, they slowly stick out their hand to meet mine. "Hi, I'm Anna. I'm so glad you're here!"
"Hi," they say back. “You’re the...teacher?"
Most of the time when people come to a class called Curvy Yoga, they know what it's about. In fact, most of the time they've intentionally sought it out.
But sometimes, the day/time of the class just works for people's schedule, so they don't really care or pay attention to what it's called. And while I'd say at least 90 percent of people know that the class is for people with bigger bodies, there's any other number of things people think it might be -- including a class where we just make curvy shapes with our bodies the whole time (not that this is an entirely untrue assumption, of course).
After people grasp the fact that yes, I'm fat, and yes, I'm their yoga teacher, they usually go about setting up their mat and getting ready for class.
Sometimes, though, people first want to have a conversation with me. This usually goes something like:
Them (eyeing me suspiciously): "How many calories will I burn in this class?"
Me: "I couldn't say. This is a fairly gentle class, and each person's body is different."
Them (looking me up & down): "But will I burn calories?"
Me: "Yes, of course. We all burn calories all the time."
Them (all but saying, "Clearly, I won't be burning enough calories!"): "Okay, because I really want to burn a LOT of calories. I don’t want more curves."
Me: "Well, this is a great opportunity to see if this class is a good fit for you. Glad you're here."
After this, they usually roll out their mat and start anxiously tapping their foot or doing exuberant stretches, proving to me how ready they are to go, go, go.
Oh, and how not like me they are.
On a rare occasion, people slip out before class begins, hoping I won't notice they didn't want to practice with me. On a more rare occasion still, they leave a few minutes in -- after they've confirmed there's no way they're burning 2,000 calories in an hour like they were hoping.
The vast majority of students stay, though. So after class is where things really get good. The students who were suspicious at first are now eager to confirm what they knew all along -- they are not as fat as me, and that is a good thing.
Of course, they don't say it exactly like that. But I pick up the codes. In case you ever need a handy reference guide, here they are:
- "I'm used to a faster-paced class."
- "I've done more than that in the DVDs I do at home."
- "Did you know I can do Headstand?"
- "Do you ever do more Sun Salutations?"
- “How many calories do you think we burned?”
- "I feel relaxed."
Now, yes, people of all shapes and sizes could like a differently paced class. I totally get that. But when coupled with deer-in-the-headlights eyes, show-choir raised eyebrows and an interrogation about exactly how many calories we'll be burning, it paints a pretty clear picture.
Now, the last one is interesting.
"I feel relaxed," can definitely be a compliment for a yoga teacher since that is, after all, one of the benefits of practice. But when it's said with an Elvis lip sneer and a downward tone -- "I feel…relaxed," where "relaxed" could easily stand in for "gross" -- I pretty much know what they mean.
I'm fat. Not stupid.
What's even funnier than answering "You’re the teacher?!" questions in class is talking about what I do out of class.
In class, there's at least some context. People see that I'm at the front of the room. They have the experience of me coming over to them and asking them about their experience with yoga and if they have any injuries I should know about.
Two and two will add up eventually (at least most of the time).
But without the context, that's not always the case. When I meet new people in my off-the-mat life, inevitably they'll ask what I do. I'll answer that I'm a yoga teacher and writer, and I'll usually get one of three things:
- A quizzical look while they figure out if I'm joking or not
- Over-enthusiasm to show how "with it" they are (with still a hint of question in their voice) -- "Ohhh…HOW COOL!!!!!!!!!?"
- A guffaw -- usually followed by a sheepish grin when they figure out I'm not joking
While all these things do happen to me as a fat yoga teacher, most of the time what happens is the opposite.
People come into class, see me and feel palpable relief. Finally, they've found a class where they won't have to do 57 sun salutations, be barked at like they're in boot camp or be the only one who's not wearing an outfit made entirely of Spandex.
Or they’re just glad to be in a class where they won’t have to completely wing it –- hoping they can come up with modifications to keep them safe if the teacher doesn’t volunteer any (which happens more often than not, unfortunately).
I put these students, who are both bigger and smaller in body size than me, at ease because this is what they've been looking for -– and what I’m intentionally creating. A space to connect with their breath and body, even if just for this hour. A place where competition is not encouraged -- in fact, a place where everyone is given permission to be exactly where they are in this moment. A class where every body is welcome -- and that's not just a cliché I say to get people in the door before surprising them with Handstand three minutes in. A class where they’re given recommendations and modifications that fit their unique body.
And this is why I keep showing up as a fat yoga teacher –- even when I want to smack (yogically, of course) the next person who asks me if I’m really the teacher.