Does yoga have a skinny white girl problem?

Coalition member Dana Smith created "Yes, Yoga has Curves." (Photo: Yes, Yoga has Curves)
Curves, Yoga
Coalition member Dana Smith created “Yes, Yoga has Curves.” (Photo: Yes, Yoga has Curves)

Brigitte Kouba, now also known as “Gigi Yogini,” found yoga in college, and it transformed her life. But soon, yoga culture sent her a new message.

“When I got into the Los Angeles scene, it was a couple steps back for me, because I felt this incredible looming stereotype of what a yogi is. I didn’t identify physically with the person,” she says. “As yoga got more popular, I kept seeing that image. I kept saying, ‘When I lose 20 pounds, I’ll take a teacher training.'”

Instead, she rebelled against the image—the one that seemed to say only skinny white girls with expensive patterned leggings and limbs that stretch far and wide belong on a mat—and Kouba is now the co-founder of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, a new organization devoted to creating a more inclusive yoga culture that represents and welcomes all body types.

The Coalition is just one aspect of a larger movement working towards that goal. In October, Kouba’s Coalition co-founder, Melanie Klein, published a book, Yoga and Body Image, a collection of essays from high-level yogis like Seane Corn and Alanis Morrisette, on the topic. The co-editor of the book, Anna Guest-Jelley, is also the founder of Curvy Yoga, and she just opened her first permanent studio in Nashville.

Momentum for the issue has also building around a series of body-shaming fiascos—from XoJane’s column in which a white writer made a serious of unfortunate assumptions about a larger, black woman in her yoga class to Lululemon founder Chip Wilson’s now famed remarks about women’s thighs.

“People were fired up and said, ‘We want to take a stand against that feeling of body shaming,'” says YogaDork blogger Jennilyn Carson, who recently began selling t-shirts with the slogan “This is my Yoga Body.” “I think people are feeling like they want to express that everyone can do yoga and every body is okay. Every body is a yoga body.”


Yoga, Body Image
(Photo: YogaDork)

From Mat to Media

Most of the people involved in the cultural conversation around yoga and body image said that in classes and studios around the country, an enormous amount of diversity has been introduced over the past several years, with people of all races and sizes getting turned on to the practice’s benefits. But that diversity, they say, is not being reflected in popular culture—in advertising, on magazine pages, or online (Well+Good included)—as yoga becomes more of a commodity.

“I think the yoga world and the business of yoga, which includes the consumerism, clothing, photography, and products—it was really following along the lines of the fashion industry,” Kouba says. “Magazine covers generally show skinny white women. We have nothing against skinny white women, but we think it’s important to portray a wide variety of people who are benefiting from yoga.”

The ascendance of Instagram yoga stars, who tend to craft gorgeous shots of themselves executing difficult poses, has also contributed to that picture of who yoga is for, says Carson, who created her t-shirts out of frustration with those depictions and was inspired by other body-positive campaigns like My Real Yoga Body and #realyogaselfie.

Yoga and Body Image
(Photo: Yoga and Body Image)

The Yoga Pant Problem

Of course, many of the Instagram yoga stars are also sponsored by fitness fashion brands who are eager to have their leggings, crop tops, and Bikram hot pants displayed on long, lithe limbs for all the world to like (and shop). When Chip Wilson made the aforementioned remark about the width of women’s thighs being the reason the brand’s pants were too see-through, it was surprising to hear him say it (and prominent yogis responded with essays like “Chip Wilson Can Kiss My Fat Yoga Ass”) but most yogis already knew the clothes were being made to fit small women.

“I’ve been practicing yoga for 15 years…and I could never find clothes that fit me,” says Tracy Squillante, the founder of Haven Collective, a chic new line of yoga clothes made for all body shapes and sizes. “At my studio, it was all models and dancers in these tiny little shirts….”

And uncomfortable clothes are an even bigger issue if your teacher doesn’t know how to help you get into poses, either.

Teacher Training

Curvy Yoga founder Guest-Jelley started practicing yoga in the ’90s, and like Kouba, she says she thought if she just lost weight, she might eventually “get it” in a deeper way. Instead, she realized her teachers were not equipped to help her advance.

Curvy Yoga
Curvy Yoga founder Anna Guest-Jelley spreading the message. (Photo: Facebook/Curvy Yoga)

“It all kind of clicked together, and I thought, ‘Hey, maybe the problem with my yoga practice isn’t my body. Maybe people don’t know how to teach bigger bodies,'” she says. She created Curvy Yoga to solve for that problem and now has about 150 teachers trained in the method around the world, in addition to her dedicated studio.

Kouba addresses the same issue by posting instructional videos online that offer adjustments for different body types, like “Bakasana for Big Booties.”

Why It Matters

While that may sound more playful than profound, all of these women (and men!) emphasize that making yoga more accepting of all bodies is crucial for the most obvious reason—yoga is the reason they were able to accept their own.

“We get so many messages that our bodies aren’t good enough. So many people—and this is really true regardless of shape or size—have been disconnected from their bodies for so many reasons…and through that disconnection, it’s so hard to know, ‘What does it feel like to be in my body?” Guest-Jelley explains. “Yoga, by really asking us to notice, in clear detail, what’s happening, starts to make those connections.”

Yoga and Body Image co-author Melanie Klein, agrees. “You cant help but love your body if you’re practicing yoga in a safe space,” she says. Sounds like lots of people are working on creating more of those. —Lisa Elaine Held


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