I love to move. To twist myself into stretchy shapes, glide through vinyasas, take long, (but not too steep!) hikes until I’m out of breath. And I like it when my body cooperates with this.
The trouble is, movement’s physically taxing. And, no I don’t mean taxing in the way all exercise is taxing. I mean it’s harder, and more risky, to move a bigger body. My skeletal system is not twice as sturdy as that of a person half my weight. Sure, because of my history of practicing yoga, my bones may be stronger than those of another woman my size. But those teeny, tiny metacarpals in my hands, and the little muscles supporting them, have a lot more demand to meet in down dog than the same bones and muscles in the hands of most everyone else in the yoga studio. It’s not as if my muscle strength fluctuates steadily with my changing weight, no way that I have double the hand strength of a “normal” woman. And the impact of 200lbs as my foot hits the pavement, emphasized by the vehemence of gravity, is certainly more forceful than the impact of a 120lb woman’s stride on her relatively similar size 7.5 feet. In fact, moving, living, and yes, being, is harder the bigger I am. I’ve lived the span of a 100lb difference, and am telling you this first hand. Beyond the very real emotional and psychological versions of harder, exercise is harder on my body. And what’s worse, I often feel isolated in this knowledge.
Last night I took a yoga class from a skilled, compassionate teacher. I still had to explain to her, twice, that the pose she was asking me to do, when combined with the bulk of my breasts and arms was literally suffocating me. And so was her first attempt at modification. This is a normal experience for me in a group fitness setting, and one I’ve had to thicken my skin to. Consider it inspiration to offer a second post going against the common belief that all bodies are made equal.
I’ve seen the videos of women heavier than me doing deadlifts and deep, deep, unsupported back bends. I’ve read the many comments that follow, celebrating what “any body” can do. While I see this type of commentary as far better than the hate and shame that could be thrown in the direction of my fellow BBW’s, I can’t add my voice to the chorus. To do so would be downright irresponsible.
Let me illustrate. A while ago, I saw this viral video of a “Plus Size Woman Doing Burpees on a Box”. Watch the video closely and look at this athlete’s lower back when she is going into and out of the push up portion of the exercise. Do you see that wavy-wiggle? I’m certain that’s a back injury waiting to happen. In order to prevent some real damage, this woman would have to engage her abdominal muscles more strongly, lowering and raising herself with some serious control. Choosing to do this would slow her roll way down, and without the momentum of the movement, she, most probably, wouldn’t be able to do all those burpees after all. And who is telling her this? And why should they? The speed with which she is going through the activity is providing a pretty inspirational illusion.
But from where I am standing, it looks like she (and gravity) are tugging pretty mercilessly on her lumbar spine every time she raises and lowers herself. A person with less weight in her middle, while still doing the pose in a less-than-safe way (and still prone to injury), would have much less force yanking on her spinal column. She’d have to build muscle (but less of it to lift less of her) and correct her posture.
I imagine being the woman in the video getting that feedback. It would be downright heartbreaking. I want to be strong and badass. I don’t want to go back to square one. I know that the time it would take to see those changes take effect (more muscle to lift more of me) is so discouraging. So how do we get fit and strong when intense exercise is a long road? When no one wants to say, maybe this isn’t the best thing for your body to be doing.
Yoga, right? Everybody can do yoga.
Sure. Let’s get it out of the way that it’s uncomfortable to be the biggest girl in the yoga class. I won’t even rant about Eagle Posture, that ridiculous equivalent of stuffing a too-big sleeping bag into a very small case; I’ll brush over how I hate pulling my knees in to my chest and essentially eliminating all lung capacity; and I won’t dwell on the near panic attack that occurs when someone asks me to “squeeze in” between a couple of classmates. But let me discuss the devil’s own hell that is child’s pose.
Asking me to “rest in child’s pose” is like saying, “If you get tired, why not do some squats?” For someone with bulk (even a stretchy girl like me), this pose medieval torture. It’s the physics of it. Child’s pose is for resting if-and-only-if you can get your weight (i.e. your ass) back on your heels. Otherwise, your center of mass is still in the front of your body, and you’re basically doing the work of downward dog on your hands and shoulders while concurrently and urgently pressing the backs of your thighs and your calves together in a futile effort to lower that bum. (Think about squeezing two really firm pillows between your forearm and your bicep as you try to touch your fist to your shoulder. There’s no resting happening). And this pose is supposed to be my body’s chance to recover between more strenuous exercises. As. If.
So how do yoga teachers offer to relieve my visible distress? By offering to add MORE padding between my calves and thighs. C’mon! I have enough padding. This modification only makes matters worse. Let’s be frank: it’s the struggle against the padding keeping my butt in the air in the first place (remember, I’m stretchy!). And yet, teacher after teacher, I am offered this same modification. I should be transparent: this is a modification we are trained to offer people in this pose. And, in fact, the modification that works when the problem in the pose is caused by tension (i.e., muscles that are too tight to let the bum sink down, and there is visible space between the backs of the thighs and the calves). In that case, the pillow provides a place for the rear to rest, and thus lets the muscles relax in to the pose. (BTW, I have also been offered a bolster under my chest; again, more padding where I have enough, plus restricted breathing as a bonus).
It has been my experience that very few fitness teachers (including yoga teachers) understand the difference between big and small bodies, and this leads them to treat our bigger bodies irresponsibly (like the time a trainer wanted me to do box jumps on pogo-ball. Give me a break – like a broken ankle – no thanks!). I have walked away from so many programs and classes because I felt my body was being misunderstood or disrespected by the person charged with training me. Because people don’t look deeply at big bodies (we’re asked not to stare, after all!), they don’t see the differences in how we move and take up space and, therefore, have no schema for troubleshooting.
Few fitness experts seem to see that fat, like bone, can cause compression (a physical barrier) that literally changes the entire relationship of one body part to the next. (In nearly two decades of exploring yoga, I have had exactly two amazing master teachers who did see my body for the shape it makes, and with their compassion, I found my way into a safe and healthful yoga practice).
So back to that demon, child’s pose. For many years, I just struggled through the pose, accepted the blanket and then set it aside. But then, exasperated, I also I set out to find an alternative that would let me get some benefit for myself. At first, when I didn’t feel like struggling through the nonsense of it, I stacked my head on my fists or a block to make the shape of the pose, eliminating the constant work, but getting absolutely zero benefit from the pose because I was not stretching, strengthening or resting anything. I was hanging out awkwardly and wishing I could teleport myself somewhere to suffer my shame alone.
A few months ago, in a stroke of insight and experimentation, I put long, fan-folded a blanket under my knees, essentially leveraging my butt backwards toward my heels (shifting that center of mass!), and for the first time in my life, I found a way into this pose that didn’t leave me wishing for death. I even got that sweet stretch through my back. My butt’s still not on my heels (it’s like I’m doing the pose for the first time, and it will be a while before that changes), but now I’m working toward something with a modification that is addressing what’s happening in my body. A modification I stumbled upon after all this time practicing yoga, studying with multiple teachers, and having been a yoga teacher myself for eight years. And even now, it’s not a modification I’d offer offhandedly to others – there’s an issue of the knee joints that has to be considered that I won’t go into just now.
Take this struggle and lay it over every other bit of fitness instruction that is generally offered to the big bodied. It’s that clothes shopping issue all over again: just because you cut something out bigger doesn’t mean it will fit the shape of my body. I’m pretty confident, and most of the time I’m not afraid to gently tell a teacher to leave me to myself. But I won’t do it if I think it will stop the teacher and call attention to me in the room. And in reflecting on this, I imagine those of us who don’t even know the language of their own bodies, we who trust the experts the way we trust doctors, believing an expert’s insight will lead to what we ourselves could never access. Mostly, it leads to things on the spectrum between injury and insult.
And people wonder why we don’t just do something about it.
(Note: As I was writing this post I came across this pretty cool video of a smart, insightful plus-sized yoga teacher. Look at the bodies in her class: nothing extreme going on. Bodies can get strong and flexible doing work like this. But they’re not going to go viral for it.)