Yoga? Heavyset and Black Women Need Not Apply
Neelika Jayawardane | January 29th, 2014


What is it with the appropriation of yoga by white women—and skinny white women in particular? It’s like they all idolise the spare body of the nut-brown yogi who practices in his cave retreat, but want to ensure that they do it in clothing intended to show off their wealth, their superior style, and their sexuality. And anyone who isn’t (black people, and anyone 10kg over near-starvation need not apply). It’s not just me who sees this disparity. In “Yoga and the Exclusion of People of Color,” Rochelle Robinson writes that there are “very few yoga studios that aren’t predominately white and elitist.” Before you hail a firestorm of anger and denial, please read this “It Happened to Me” segment on XOJane, titled, “There are no black people in my yoga classes and I’m suddenly feeling uncomfortable with it” (I can’t make this stuff up).

Here, Jen Caron eagerly tells the tale of being made uncomfortable by having a black woman (who goes from being described as “fairly heavy” to “heavyset” and generally described only in terms of her race, weight, and lack of belonging in this space) “put her mat down directly behind” Jen and proceed to not do so well at the poses.

As the class goes on, Jen finds “it impossible to stop thinking about this woman. Even when I wasn’t positioned to stare directly at her, I knew she was still staring directly at me.” She imagines – and I say imagined because how does one know this?—that the woman next to her is feeling despair” which turns into “resentment and then contempt.” Not only that, but Caron feels that it was all “directed toward me and my body.” Amazing clairvoyance that yoga gave this Jen Caron. She goes on to describe her attire, her “skinny white body” and the studio which is usually only “populated…by students, artists, and broke hipsters.” None of whom seem to be black. Or over the weight requirement for her idea of the yoga-chick.

Jen remembers that the studio preaches “all-inclusivity” so wants to “help” her poor black mate without embarrassing her. Jen imagines that the woman is “trapped and vulnerable” and when she gets home, Jen “promptly broke down crying” from the sadness of it all. Hate to tell you, Jen, but I bet that woman coulda broke you in half. And told you not to project your nonsense onto her, in the name of “mindfulness.” Yes, it’s true, mindfulness changes all areas of life—including mindless eating, so one’s liable to lose some weight if one actually practices it. But the requirement, or the goal isn’t to lose weight. It’s to be mindful of your unconscious and conscious thoughts and actions—whether it’s that one’s eating mindlessly, or too focused on the relationship between one’s body, consumption of food, and the value and attention that it’s given by self and others. And Ms. Jen seems to be missing this point precisely. Especially when she spends the majority of her essay to compare “her own spiral of self importance and saviorism. Like, that whole paragraph that basically compared her “beauty” to the Black woman’s “flaws” was so over the top” (a commenter got that so well that I can’t think of a better way to put it).

I was in grad school when the resident needy girl (she wasn’t the only one, but by forcing all of us to call her “Ginger”—instead of her actual name, Jennifer—she took the attention-hoarding cake) decided that she was going to get up on a table and demonstrate “downward dog” for the benefit of the men in a classroomful of fellow grad students. Clearly, it was an English department, and in the heart of American hippy-wealth: Colorado. At that time, I wondered, “Why are the white girls all talking about (and showing off) yoga? And why are they using it to sexualize themselves?” As a person of South Asian descent, I understood yogic practice as something that helped one connect the physical body with one’s spiritual practice through movement, discipline, and focus on breath—carried out as part of one’s recognition that the body is impermanent, rather than a thing to be revered (sexually or otherwise). It makes one challenge, recognise and respect one’s physical (and spiritual) limits. It was the realm of the spiritually dedicated—not something that housewives and people wanting to be skinny did to display cultural power or billboard sexuality through a punished body.

But in the late 1990s and the 2000s, that’s exactly what yoga became, in pockets of wealth—in particular, pockets of white wealth. The confluence of body-obsession, food-aversion, and displaying a body with the markers of leisure activity—a tanned, muscular-but-lithe body—came to be associated with the “yoga body.” See Kathryn Budig, a yoga guru who’s created an entire industry of body/product-oriented envy-educement, in her nude poses  for Toesox ad-campaigns, you get the picture:

Kathryn Budig enjoys her Toesox

Yoga has became the way that wealthy women—white women, in particular—displayed their difference from the poor, the ‘lazy’ or the otherwise othered. So it’s no wonder that in South Africa—home to carefully guarded pockets of ostentatious wealth—and in other expat-rich areas throughout Africa, yoga is the go-to activity for the wives of the leisured gentry. One rarely sees anyone who is black, and any South Asians are there almost like decorative pieces to add authenticity. I’ve been to yoga studios in Cape Town where I was the only brownie present. It’s a place where ladies-who-lunch come geared up in very expensive outfits intended to display their status—a strange mix of their power as consumers (who else could spend close to a $100 on a pair of spandex tights?), and their power to deny themselves of other modes of more easily-accessible consumption—cheap, tasty, fatty food. So whenever I found myself in that sort of group, I basically did my thing, and didn’t care about whatever crazyness was happening around me (later, I switched to doing yoga at home, following to videos when they became available).

At the time, I was doing research for a paper on cosmetic surgery and cosmetic procedures in Cape Town. The Sea Point mega-gym I went to actually had an in-house “clinic” offering cosmetic procedures at the time, while also carrying many slogans touting the value of being “yourself.” I began to see the links between the mythical “yoga body,” the level of food-denial/punishing exercise it took to maintain that constructed ideal, and the ways in which this displayed body became yet another way to display difference in a location in which those were historically privileged felt that “threatening others” were encroaching on their territory. The yoga body showed that those with ostentatious wealth still stood apart; and the women—the locations of wealth/power display as they are in all patriarchal societies—laboured to ensure that they didn’t consume what was widely available to riff-raff (fattening, cheap food), so that they could wear/consume very expensive clothing intended to show off the fruits of those punishing regimes.

At the time, there was no forum on which I could express any of this (AIAC hadn’t gone public, and hadn’t become the collective effort it is now). Jen Caron was, in a way, only saying what people who populate many yoga studios generally believe and say to each other in private – so our irritation shouldn’t be directed only at her. Happily, people who jumped in to comment made it abundantly clear that yoga isn’t reserved by a velvet rope for any body type – and especially not skinny people.

Faves from the comments:

“I eagerly await the follow-up piece: “IHTM: I was Just Trying to Do My Fucking Yoga and This Weird-Ass White Girl Kept Staring at Me with Tears in Her Eyes”

“It was important that she clarify that her sports bra was “tastefully tacky” and her shorts high waisted just to emphasize the contrast between her and the Other.”

“Sounds like the author is the one failing at yoga. I mean for all we know the woman she refers to might have been aghast at this randomer’s sheer inability to concentrate in class. Also, assuming people are jealous of you because of your weight is one screwed up thing, but adding race to it?”

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7 thoughts on “Yoga? Heavyset and Black Women Need Not Apply

  1. as a yoga enthusiast this post really resonates with me. at my studio in venice beach some of the girls complained that we were focused too much on doing yoga to stay in shape and that it was disrespectful to the eastern traditions and beautiful people of all sizes so we made sure to have a free indian buffet (vegan only) to bring the culture back in and make sure that food was available to those who wanted. so yoga can also be a great way to spread awareness of different cultures and get in touch with your spiritual side.

  2. I’m curious to understand why the folk at XO Jane took to hiding the author’s identity and why it took me receiving an email at the dead of night as to the real identity of the author?

    Why wont XO Jane admit there are race tensions and there is the real problem of inclusiveness and inhibition from both black and white folk? Why did they have to choose to vilify a black woman who sought inclusiveness even if it risked making one young white woman too uncomfortable? But let’s get to the grit of the problem. What is it about the presence of black people that makes certain white people nervous and why won’t XO Jane find the courage to explore those themes???

  3. Fucking Awesome. Only in America could serving a vegan buffet (for free of course) be seen as a serious effort to “bring the culture back” to yoga. Its like something from the Onion, I’m sure your studio meant well but…….jeez,

  4. I’m confused. Isn’t ‘Jen Caron’ ridiculing her own assimilation into the “skinny white woman” yoga cult? To me it seemed that the black woman was a mirror that exposed Jen to her own absurdity, that the perceived resentment then contempt was actually Jen’s own resentment at the part she plays in homogenising the practice of yoga at the exclusion of others.

  5. As a ‘white woman’, who is married into a Ghanaian family and lives between a western country and her husbands family town, the raving on in this article is annoying. Sounds like you just needed a big whinge about one particular article. In Ghana there are yoga groups and many Ghanaians attend. The woman that runs one of them and brings yogis there to teach is actually a large woman. Who gives a hoot anyway! There is a Buddhist centre in Durban, SA where most of the followers are black South Africans. Can’t say they do yoga per see but they meditate. I think you should be less emotive in your article and more informative. Perhaps it’s that way in certain parts of America but not in any place I know, in either of the countries I live in.

  6. As a fat/heavyset/whatever person, I think its an interesting observation about the homogeneity of her classroom setting. While her telepathic hand wringing was way over the top, it was observed here also:

    But since moving to India, the idea that yoga requires any of these accoutrements, or that it is for any specific body type, is simply not true (as it is taught here). Its as much spiritual as well as physical, and anybody can do it… though I will tell you that many western teachers that I have encountered don’t know physioanatomy of more than one body type — and have not extended their teaching practice to understand the adaptations beyond increased access of handstands (or in the classes I attended, perhaps did not offer that knowledge to increase my practice… in some senses, in a telepathic handwringing way, it felt like they didn’t want to touch me, to show me what I needed to improve… for at 15 bucks per class, I can get that for free.)

    While she gets to have her epiphany — I’m more interested in seeing the actions she will take to next. Maybe, like that class where the white people or men, or christians don’t go, its fine for those spaces to exist as self selected activities, maybe she’ll work towards making they systems more inclusive…. So the observation– “my life isn’t as diverse as I thought” is a good one to make as long as you don’t stop there or at tokening, provided, that you wish to have a more diverse and inclusive existence.

  7. Speaking of yoga… tried my first Bikram yoga class. The instructor, Catherine, put me behind two women and said “these are my best students, just watch and copy them as well as you can.” So I did, and this led to the strangest hour and a half of my life.
    Both women were in their mid-20′s, but one was white and the other latina (I think). One wrapped her non-prominent curves into regular soccer shorts and a full upper body top; the other revealed the prominence of hers through her tiny bikini bottom and even tinier sports bra. One was shy, and obviously uncomfortable with being watched, stealing quick glances at me through the mirrored wall in front of her, while the other obviously relished being watched, stretching languorously, and almost erotically, obliviously aware of my gaze, but perhaps not of my growing discomfort with this setup.
    I wondered sometimes into it whether I was being set up for a hidden camera trick, as the ridiculousness of this all almost became unbearable.
    I could not look at the shy one because she was uncomfortable with it, yet couldn’t not look at her for fear she’d think she wasn’t worthy of my attention; couldn’t keep watching the “friendly” one for feeling like a pervert, yet couldn’t not acknowledge her efforts; couldn’t look away from both and watch someone else because it somehow could be a slight to either or both, yet could not keep watching them both.
    At the conclusion of the seance, left there feeling, at once, a pervert AND a bully, and pretty pissed off at Cat for having put me in such lose-lose position. Needless to say I haven’t been able to return, despite having felt some of the great benefits attached to it, and still feels like confessing something to my wife, though I am sure yet to what.

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