‘Why I started teaching Fat Yoga classes’

Starting out a new exercise can be intimidating, especially when surrounded by skilled, svelte instructors and students. Fat Yoga creates an inclusive space for everyone to access yoga and its many benefits, without the pressure. 

Uali Ahmat of Prahran, Melbourne, is just one of the students who has attended Fat Yoga classes and retreats.

“When I first heard about Fat Yoga, I took a step back and thought about the use of that word,” says Ahmat. “The fact is, I am fat. Just as I am Eurasian with olive skin. I think of ‘fat’ only as a descriptive word and I think our society has inappropriately placed negative connotations to that word. Fat Yoga is taking the word back…diminishing it’s negative associations.”

For *Sarah Harry, co-founder and Director of Body Positive Australia, starting “Fat Yoga” in Australia was about reclaiming the word “fat” from any negative connotations, and ensuring that students who identify as fat had a safe, inclusive space to practice. She tried words like “curvy” but they didn’t feel true to her intention, and she wanted her students to see that she was comfortable using the word “fat”, and owning it.

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Since beginning Fat Yoga classes in Melbourne around 8 years ago Harry, now in her late 40s, has been inundated with demand from women who had, until her classes began, either tried to hide at the back of yoga classes or avoided gyms and studios entirely.

The first to offer yoga for bigger bodies in Australia, Sarah Harry’s experience is broad. A clinician, researcher, author and yoga teacher, she’s both co-director of Body Positive Australia and the founder of Fat Yoga classes and retreats. Her classes run in various Melbourne studios, in addition to retreats and Teacher Training around body inclusive classes.

“I started Fat Yoga about eight years ago,” says Harry. “I had originally just planned to teach yoga to my students experiencing eating disorders and body image problems. I realised that it wasn’t just them looking for safe places to do yoga, there were a lot of people around Australia looking for spaces that would accommodate their size and be welcoming.”

VicHealth research shows that many women are being shamed for being too “fat” or “ugly” to be physically active, according to Head of VicHealth’s ‘This Girl Can’, Mel Fineberg.

“We’ve heard so many stories from women who’ve got up the courage and made the effort to go to the gym or sports club and then never go back because they’ve been told they’re too fat or too slow or too uncoordinated,” she says.

“We want these women to know that shaming is not ok. For many women (41%), these experiences were so negative that they withdrew from exercise altogether, or did not start in the first place.”

Ahmat found it validating and comforting to discover a class where other women’s bodies resembled her own. To feel she could achieve poses that had previously felt unattainable without the sense of competition that exists in standard vinyasa classes.

“Being with women who aren’t judging you is very empowering and satisfying,” she says. “Svelte yoga teachers cannot always understand that it’s hard to do some poses when you have big boobs, belly or thighs. Traditional yoga poses need variations to suit a bigger sized person. Think of the emotional damage a big person experiences each time they enter an everyday yoga class that moves too fast for them to manoeuvre their body. Think of the humiliation a bigger bodied person experiences when everyone in class can get into crow pose, except them. This can be very alienating.

“Sarah would not subject anyone to this. She keeps her poses accessible for her students. This is what draws me to her workshops and to her community.”

Harry explains that it’s not that teachers aren’t providing an inclusive space intentionally, but that students don’t feel safe in standard yoga classes.

“I have a lot of feedback from students where people have never felt that they had the right body for yoga and they’ve felt transformed by doing yoga when they felt that yoga isn’t for them. Their fear in typical classes is that they might be ignored or really spotlighted in class.”

In the States, Jessamyn Stanley is the most well-known proponent of yoga for all bodies. She has been the cover star of both The New York Times and Yoga Journal, amongst other mainstream publications.

Stanley founded The Underbelly, a streaming app with digital classes. “It’s a platform for people who may feel displaced, discourated, or overlooked due to not seeing themselves reflected in the health and fitness community,” says Stanley.

“I think the yoga practitioner population has always been much more diverse than the mainstream media has chosen to acknowledge,” says Stanley. “That said, I’ve definitely noticed that many more people of varying ages, body shapes, ethnicities, abilities, and gender identities have started practicing yoga in the past few years and I think that absolutely must be attributed to increased visibility of diverse yoga bodies on social media.”

Stanley’s first book, ‘Every Body Yoga: Let Go of Fear, Get On the Mat, Love Your Body’ is being followed up with ‘YOKE: My Yoga of Self Acceptance’ in June. It’s a series of essays on self-love, body-positivity, race, sex and sexuality through the lens of a woman who has been an advocate for the modern Black experience, the LGBTQA+ community and equity in the health industry. She also hosts a sex, relationships and lifestyle podcast, Dear Jessamyn, which she co-hosts with her girlfriend, ashe phoenix.

“I think fat women already run the world and it’s time for us to be more visible. Plus, sharing any life story authentically is the key to creating more love and compassion in the world.”

* It is with sadness that we have learned Sarah Harry, co-founder and Director of Body Positive Australia, has passed away due to illness since this article was written. Our condolences to her family.