This is my niece Gigi. I might be a bit biased, but I think her cuteness will be the ultimate source of renewable energy in the universe. Gigi herself is a little yogi, and she will very gladly jump on you when you're practicing to make things more interesting. She's helpful like that! But serious business, she brings new awesomeness to happy baby. Me, Gigi, and a chocolate cupcake: a love story.
I was playing a game with her recently that essentially amounted to jumping up and down like a maniac. At least, that was as much as I gathered when she explained the rules to me. The thing about being three years old is that you're old enough to be VERY SURE about what you want, but not yet old enough to communicate the details. Assuming we're not running into traffic or eating cement, I've gotten pretty good at rolling with it.
So there we were, jumping up and down. Much hilarity is ensuing. And all of a sudden, she stops jumping and says "Hold on, I'm tired. I will take a rest." With that, she laid down on the floor and closed her eyes.
Fifteen seconds later, she popped up again. "I'm back. More jumping!" And so it went.
She takes a break whenever she wants, whenever she feels the need. Sometimes in the middle of her favorite sport -- being tickled -- she will say, "Hold on. I need a rest." And she will lay down on the floor and close her eyes. Twenty seconds later she'll pop back up and demand the tickling resume.
The first couple of times I saw her do this, I thought it was the strangest thing I'd ever seen. I mean, how restorative could her fifteen-second rest actually be? Maybe it means she wants a real nap? Maybe she wants to switch activities?
Nope. She's cool. She just wants to chill for twenty seconds and then get back to the fun. She has a taken a micro-rest on the floor of a crowded restaurant, on a sandy beach, in the middle of a wildlife reserve, and anywhere else she damn well pleases.
And I realized something. I have all kinds of baggage around needing a rest. Here's this toddler, shamelessly doing what feels right to her, and frankly, she could not possibly care less if you don't dig it. Me? I try to soldier through lest people think less of me.
But to what end? What am I trying to prove, and to whom? Because here's the truth: a quick twenty seconds on the floor to catch my breath in the middle of a maniac jumping session would have felt delicious.
Gigi is part of a long, proud line of contrarians. She's a tough one, my little niece, and she doesn't let anyone tell her the "right" way to honor her body. And I'm reclaiming that. My campus has a giant set of steep stairs set into the middle of it, and there's a landing in the middle, where people often stand and rest before tackling the second half. In all the years I've been on this campus, I've never let myself take advantage of that landing. I wanted to look like the "good" fatty who had the endurance to climb those stairs without stopping.
I've believed for a long time that the "good" fatty script is horrible -- that it perpetuates the disgusting idea that it is only okay to be fat if you're "healthy" or "fit." Newsflash: it's okay to be fat. Period, full stop, no qualifiers. There are no bad fatties. Fatness is morally neutral.
But the ghosts of this "good" fatty thing still linger in dark corners, and they had occupied a small corner of my psyche around rest. Time to clear out the cobwebs. So last time I went up the staircase, I paused and "took a rest" on the landing. I didn't sprawl out on the ground -- though I should really do that next time, it would be AWESOME -- but I sat, meditated for about thirty seconds, caught my breath and kept going. And it felt so, so good.
She's a smart girl, that Gigi.
Me in the Snow Bunny Anorak Ski Jacket
Me on safari, keeping cool in Junonia Activewear
So there was an upside to visiting the snowy California mountains recently, and that was getting to experience some real winter. I will admit: we Los Angeles people are weak when it comes to weather. My husband repeats the (in)famous story of my first trip to Boston in the winter. Again, it was for an academic conference, and again, I had only "professional" shoes with me.
Except back then, my "professional" shoes were all sandals, and me stomping through snow in my open-toed numbers brought much hilarity to the locals (and my Pittsburgh-born husband).
So I've learned a few lessons. Don't dress for Los Angeles when you're not in Los Angeles.
Luckily, the people at Junonia are infinitely more wise -- and weather savvy -- than your humble narrator, and they sent me this adorable Snow Bunny Anorak Ski Jacket to review.
I have a long history with Junonia clothing. For a very, very long time, Junonia was the only purveyor of plus size performance gear, and they are still the best. In my youth, I traveled to some very remote places, and it was Junonia clothing that kept me from getting blistered by the sun in Tanzania and happily trekking through SE Asia.
I guess you could say that as a fat athlete and traveler, I always felt like Junonia had my back. And they did.
This Snow Bunny Anorak Ski Jacket is another example of that. I am not a skier, but I am a weak, weak SoCal girl who gets frigidly cold in the snow. But I didn't own a proper snow jacket, because frankly, I feel like a marshmallow in many of them. They are too bulky and cumbersome, and I don't have a lot of patience for clothing that doesn't do what I want it to do.
This jacket is very much the opposite of that. It is warm -- warm enough to keep me from complaining as I trudged through the snow -- but not at all bulky. The warmth comes from the performance fabric, not layers and layers and layers.
The jacket looks rather cute too -- it cinches in at the waist to help define your shape, and it comes in this non-boring color (yay for non-boring colors!). And because it's Junonia, there are a million thoughtful details. The hood is detachable, there is a zipper *and* snaps for closures, there are a million pockets inside for storing everything from gloves to conference programs, and it is long enough to keep your backside covered and warm.
Sizing wise, I am on the cusp of the size charts for this baby. I fall pretty solidly into the 3X measurements for Junonia, but I have 60" hips. I ended up getting the 4X in this coat, and I'm glad I did. It fit perfectly, and without a lot of room to spare in the hips. I would not have been able to fasten the 3X. For reference, I am 5'10 -- the jacket is generous in length, but not long enough to get in your way.
So add this to the arsenal of quality fat girl athletic gear. If you're a skier, you should own this. And if you're a pathetic SoCal girl who finds herself in the snowy mountains, you should probably own this as well. Thanks Junonia, for helping us get -- and keep -- our sport on.
Behold, my knee.
Pretty impressive, right? I managed to scrape up most of the side of my leg.
You see, I was attending an academic conference up in the mountains, and that meant snow. And ice. And when combined with "professional" shoes, well, that meant going a steep slippery path the hard way.
I don't think anyone *likes* falling, but I think it's fair to say that I hate it with a blinding intensity. As an athletic fat person, many trainers and medical professionals have tried to hex my knees, saying that it's only a matter of time until they explode in some sort of adipose-fueled fireworks display. Or something like that. Well, my knees are strong and healthy, but like any other body part, I know they can be damaged. This has had the effect of making me paranoid about falling and injury.
So as I was sliding to the ground, I felt that familiar terror. How bad was this going to be?
I slid, more or less, into pigeon, with my left leg in a split behind me and my right leg bent in front. It was not graceful. But when I surveyed the scene, I realized the damage was *literally* only skin deep. I scraped the heck out of my leg, but otherwise, nothing. No pulled tendons. No sore muscles. No knee pain.
This hasn't been true at other points in my life. Because my muscles were SO tight, I could always count on some debilitating soreness after even the most minor fall.
I know a lot of people preach yoga to help with falling, and most of that discussion tends to focus on the improved balance that comes with regular yoga practice preventing falls. But what I didn't realize -- until it happened to me! -- is that yoga can help even when you are actually going toes over tail. My improved flexibility let me emerge from this episode relatively unscathed, and in doing so, it helped me let go of some of my fear of falling. Because as I proved in spectacularly awkward fashion, falls happen. But man, it is so nice to realize that sometimes when they happen, the only injury will be to my pride.
I did a thing.
It is perhaps a crazy thing. But it's a thing I've been thinking about long and hard.
I've signed up for a RYT-200 teacher training. And not just any teacher training. I am ridiculously honored to be doing my training with Anna Guest-Jelley of Curvy Yoga. This means that I'll be traveling across the country for four one-week stays in Nashville (spread out over 2014).
Doing training with Anna was an easy call. Her book "Permission to Curve: Inspiring Poses For Curvy Yogis and Their Teachers" was (and is) an invaluable resource for me, and it taught me how to modify asanas for my body in safe and effective ways. Her TT (teacher training) is not merely focused on the physical poses -- it is also substantially oriented around issues of consent and privilege, spending a non-trivial amount of time on the philosophical underpinnings of yoga and teaching. And Anna is explicitly anti-diet talk (she doesn't let her "Curvy Yoga" brand to be used to promote weight loss!!!), so you know she's someone I'm proud to study under.
No, getting to spend time with Anna is the brilliant part.
The part that feels crazy is me doing a RYT-200 training in the first place.
I have never felt more under-qualified in my life. I am in my second year of a regular yoga practice, and in the past, when my friends asked me if I thought about doing a yoga TT, I always dismissed it out of hand. I mean, I'm not good at asanas! I am working on my forward folds, not rocking handstands. Don't yoga teachers need to have decades of yoga experience? And be able to do every pretzel-pose on the planet?
There aren't a lot of things that bring up insecurities for me like yoga can.
And in the end, that's why I decided to do this training. I realized something very basic. Yoga allows me to face myself and confront my own vulnerabilities. To embrace this opportunity -- to face the scary mental stuff -- I need to practice in a way that is physically and psychologically safe. I need to know that I am not inviting injury getting into certain poses, and that I can trust the compassion and wisdom of the teachers I study with. And no matter how well-meaning many of my yoga teachers have been, because they lack knowledge or experience with bodies like mine, that safety isn't always a given when I show up to a yoga class.
I am a professor by day, and I I love my job. I have no desire to make a living as a full-time yoga teacher. And I am no expert on the journey inward -- I am no guru, nor do I play one on TV. But with this training, there is something I can offer. I can offer that safe space. I can offer experience with bodies that don't look like the ones in Lululemon ads. I can offer anatomy and modification knowledge. And I can offer a commitment -- through actions, not just words -- to making my yoga classes radically welcoming places for every body.
So I shut down the voices of insecurity and signed myself up. I have been looking for safe yoga spaces for two years now, and it is time to put my money and effort where my mouth is. Here's to an amazing 2014.
Whenever I talk to fellow fat yoga practitioners, it doesn't take long for the following topic to come up in conversation: What the hell do you wear when practicing? While people wear as much or as little as they want in home practice (and birthday suits always fit!) fat yogis who take or teach classes need alternatives to nudity.Thus
, I'm going to take that ever-present clothing conversation out of the changing room and onto this blog. Every so often, I'm going to discuss athletic/yoga wear I try, and I've rounded up a few fat friends with different body shapes to talk about their findings. If we can learn what works from each other, all the better! (And if you have any plus size yoga or athletic wear reviews/experiences, feel free to submit them! I'll publish them under this tag.)
And hey, there is an upside to being a fat yogi! We never have to deal with Lululemon pants
.Here's to practicing yoga without wardrobe malfunctions or obscenity charges!
You go looking for vodka to clean your mat instead of to drink. Welcome to my life.
Confession time. There is one type of yoga I have stayed far, far away from. No matter how many people rave about it, no matter how life changing it's been for others... I have not tried hot yoga. Not Bikram, not other forms.
My reason are complicated. First, in general, I hate heat. I am the person who doesn't own an actual jacket or closed-toe shoes, which led to high comedy when I once got stranded in Boston during a blizzard. I keep my bedroom so icy that my husband sleeps with two comforters while I sleep with a sheet. I live in Los Angeles *despite* the weather, not *because* of it.
So yeah, the idea of voluntarily subjecting myself to an overly hot room? This seems insane. Someone needs to come up with Arctic Yoga, which you practice in leg warmers and cozy sweaters (with hot chocolate afterwards!). This is more my speed.
But there's another reason I haven't tried hot yoga. A side-effect of the hot room is sweat. Lots and lots of sweat.
As a fat woman, sweat is emotionally charged for me. I lived for *years* by the mantra "never let them see you sweat." Sweating in public makes me twitchy. People stare at sweaty fat people. And they judge. This is sort of the "bad fatty" stereotype, right? The sweaty, smelly fat person who takes up too much space.
When I was very young, I dated a professional football player, and he and I would lift weights together. We weighed about the same amount (though he was a few inches taller than me), and I would watch him work out. He was shameless about sweat. He'd work out until every inch of his shirt was drenched and clinging to him, his hair slicked back and dripping as if he'd been swimming. Up until this point, I went to ridiculous lengths to keep from anyone seeing me sweat. I'd get to classes early, so I'd have time to touch up my hair and makeup. I picked out clothes that would never show damp. And I never worked out hard enough to get really sweaty.
Watching him go for it, someone my size happily and intentionally sweating, was really a revelation for me. I think for him, sweating was a badge of honor, part of the joy he got moving his body.
So I decided to work on my neurosis about sweating in public. I learned that wiping my hair down with a towel could make me feel like a badass, if I reframed it in my mind.
But yoga has exposed that I'm not as sweat-proud as I'd like. I was waiting for a class to start recently, and some new students stepped up to the front desk to ask advice about classes. The front desk employee described my class as "relaxing and recharging, for when you don't feel like breaking a sweat." I looked down at the sweat towel hanging from my yoga strap. I sweat like a faucet in this class, and overhearing that description made me feel a jolt of shame and embarassment.
I've found that I sweat a lot more than my classmates in many of my yoga classes. Sometimes this is because I am hot-blooded and sweat easily, but sometimes it's because I'm exerting a lot more sheer effort. In strength poses, I am holding up over 250lbs, and when I can't yet enter into a flexibility pose, it turns into a strength pose. Much of yoga is about using your body weight as resistance, and I am working with a higher level of resistance. This doesn't bother me -- I love the feeling of pleasant exhaustion I get after a good class -- but it still makes me feel self-consious. After one of my early Yin classes, one of my classmates saw my sweat-drenched t-shirt and tried to comfort me. "Don't worry, it gets easier as you get in better shape!" she said. I tried (and failed) to think yogic thoughts towards her.
Because really, what the hell is wrong with sweating? It's a form of the body cooling itself, nothing more, nothing less. Sweat has been co-opted by the movement to shame people for their perceived lack of "health," -- especially for people who identify as women -- and frankly, that is so far from okay. 1.) A person's health is no one else's business, 2.) Sweating a lot is not a reliable indicator of health, and 3.) Even if someone is deeply unhealthy, they are human beings who do not deserve to be shamed.
So I am ready to get over this silly anxiety about sweat, immediately if not sooner. And maybe hot yoga should be a step on that process.
Can we talk about yoga straps?I don't mean
"talk about how great they are." I mean, they are
great. You should get one. Straps effectively make your arms longer, allowing you to get the benefits of poses like this hamstring stretch
, even if you can't reach your feet with your hands. In my precious Yin yoga classes, straps are a central tool, allowing you to bind yourself into certain poses, freeing muscle and allowing the connective tissue to relax.In short: straps are pretty damned wonderful.When they work, that is.Now, you'd think functionality would not be a huge issue with something that is, at its core, nothing more than a strip of fabric with a fastener.
I thought that myself! But I was wrong. Let me tell you about me and straps.I started as a baby yogini armed with only a mat. My studio assured me they provided all other props needed during classes, and they did indeed have mountains of bolsters, blocks, blankets, and straps. But one day, during a crowded class, I learned a sad lesson
. Not all straps are the same length. We were doing a pose where the strap was around our bodies, gently supporting our knees which were bent towards our chests. Most students had FEET of extra strap length -- they had grabbed the 8' straps. By the time I got to the strap cabinet, there were only 6' options. And given my generous dimensions and lack of flexibility, it was going to take more than 6' to support me in that pose.I didn't want to interrupt the class by asking someone to switch straps, so
I did what I could without any props and vowed that in the future, I'd bring my own 8' strap. That way, I'd always have one that fits!Thus began the Great Strap Hunt.My first strap was this one, from
Yoga Direct. It was cheap and sturdy, and I used it steadily for a few months. But the fabric is STIFF and the belt is narrow, so it was hard to tighten to comfortable levels without having the fabric dig into my flesh. After use, I sometimes had marks on my skin where the belt had rubbed me a bit raw. I'm not one to put up with gratuitous pain, so back to the drawing board.For my next strap, I decided to go with the high-end model, the Manduka brand strap.
Manduka is definitely the "cool kids" brand of yoga gear, and it has the price tag to match. I own a Manduka mat -- and full disclosure, I love it -- but I have mixed feelings about "name brand" yoga gear. I needn't have worried. The strap simply didn't work.The Manduka strap has a lot going for it. The belt fabric is wide and soft, and it didn't leave marks on my skin when I used it. The additional belt width made holding long poses especially comfortable. But these straps advertise a new "updated" closure instead of the traditional D-rings, and it simply would not stay put. Whenever I tried to tighten the belt, the second I put any pressure on it, the strap would loosen up beyond all usefulness.
No good!Attempt three was this strap, from
Aurorae. I bought it because it had a reputation for being soft, and it had a traditional D-ring closure. And I had high hopes! The width of the belt was much thinner than the Manduka, which made it less comfortable, and the weave of the cloth felt flimsy. But that wasn't its ultimate failure.The ultimate failure happened in public, in a moment of fat girl power.I broke the belt. In the middle of a yoga class.No really, I hulked it.
It was kind of awesome.The D-rings on the Aurorae are split -- meaning they have an opening in each ring -- and the metal is thin. So as I sat bound in a pose, minding my own business, I felt my strap suddenly lose tension. I set my feet down to investigate and discovered... one of the D-rings was now totally open and useless.
The strap had met its maker. Well, at least I now knew what wouldn't work for me. The ideal fat yogi strap is sufficiently long -- at least 8' -- and is made of durable fabric. The wider the belt, the more comfortable
, and the less likely to dig into your skin. Soft fabric is also far superior to stiff. Plastic closures are especially flimsy and prone to breakage, so metal D-rings are best, but those D-rings should be thick metal that won't easily bend. Knowing what I want is the easy part. Finding it is the hard part.I have a bestie who is also a new fat yogi -- I'll call her K -- and she sews! She
offered to take the sturdy D-rings off the YogaDirect strap and sew them onto the Manduka. I think that Frankenstein might be the perfect strap. But in the meantime, I'm using this strap
from YogaWorks. It's got STURDY D-rings that give me hope, and the belt fabric is pretty soft. It's not as wide as the Manduka, but it also doesn't require DIY skills.
And so the hunt continues. If you have a strap you love, I'm all ears!
Here's something people don't often talk about. During my first "return to yoga" class, I was in exquisite amounts of pain. Not the good kind of "discomfort" that comes from a rich and opening stretch. No, more like "This can't be good" kind of agony.
It was a class with a lot of poses involving kneeling, and it turns out that I actually bruised my knees doing these poses. Like, black-and-blue bruising. It took me three days until the pain started to fade.
Let me say this: I have great knees. I don't have any injuries or any reason to suspect that this was going to be painful. But I am a fat person who was not used to putting most of my body weight on this particular body part. In all of my mental and physical preparation for beginning yoga, no one told me this is totally normal -- and avoidable!
The teacher had told people to add a blanket under their knees, or fold up a corner of their mats, to add some cushion in these poses. And perhaps that was sufficient for most students in the class. But my bruises happened with both of those present, and frankly, they weren't cutting it.
If I was ever going to go to another class, I had to find a better way.
So the first thing I did was research knee pads. I picked up a heavy foam knee pad from a gardening store near me, and all of a sudden... I could experience what cat/cow felt like without blinding and debilitating pain. I carried this dorky knee pad to every yoga class I took for several months. It helped!
But gardening knee pads aren't very wide across, and if I sat on my knees for long enough, they'd hurt even on the pad. I wondered if there was a better way.
And then I found them: Kneelo Memory Foam Kneelers
. Behold their cuteness.
These puppies are ingeniously designed, with two layers of memory foam surrounding a heavy foam core. It feels like a gardening knee pad that has been wrapped in delicious cushioning, They come in a million fun colors, and they're easy to wipe clean if you get them sweaty (which, ahem, I often do in my yoga classes). They are also wide enough to support this fat girl's kneeling stance. They are, in other words, absolutely perfect.
But there is another advantage to these pads. They look like yoga props. Now, I am six steps past shameless, so I carried an ugly green gardening pad to yoga studios all over Los Angeles. And it got a lot of stares. But there is nothing about the Kneelo that looks out of place in the yoga world. In fact, the primary response I get when I bring it to class is unabashed interest, and other students and teachers often try it out for themselves and realize just how well it works.
I have no affiliation with the Kneelo company, nor did I receive any compensation for writing this. But I can say, without question, this is the most valuable prop I have in my yoga arsenal. With this pad, I can do yoga anywhere, even without a mat, and I can focus on poses without bruising or pain. If I ruled the universe, these would be kept in stock at all yoga studios. But until then, I'll bring my own!
My father died three weeks ago. He was in hospice, with all the pharmacological and technological assistance available to keep him comfortable and pain-free, but it was still, as deaths go, not a good one. I had flown in hours after I’d heard about his fall. He was in late-stage heart and renal failure, and this fall was the beginning of the end. When I arrived, a nurse popped into the room to check on him. “Are you in pain?” she asked. “Just a little,” my dad said, joking through his wincing.
It didn’t have to end like this.
My father was born larger than life, to a family of larger than life people. DNA sequencing showed we are almost entirely Viking stock, no great surprise given the height and breadth of our bodies.
When my father turned 20, he was over 6’2 and 300lbs. His feats of athleticism echoed like legends among his family and friends. There was the time he simply forward-pressed an enormous king-size bed from the sidewalk to a second-story window; it took six men to wrangle it inside. There was the time he and my mother were trapped in a collapsing apartment, and he picked her up with one arm and ripped the dead-bolted door out of its frame with the other. There was the time he stopped an attempted mugging by walking up to the assailant and plucking the knife out of his hand, like you or I would flick off a bit of lint. He was a giant, thriving and vital, built of strength and flesh.
But he didn’t want to be a giant. He wanted to be thin.
After trying and failing countless diet programs, he enrolled in an experimental program hosted by one of the most prestigious research universities in the world. The nitty-gritty: he’d live in their neuropsychiatric unit as an in-patient, and he would fast. He would consume nothing but water, calorie-free diet soda, and vitamin/mineral supplements. He would be kept in the hospital to make sure there were no hidden calories consumed. Researchers would learn how the body processes starvation. My father, presumably, would become thin.
He lived in the neuropsychiatric unit for eight months, consuming, on average, 30 calories a day. He recalls that the greatest challenge of this period wasn’t the fasting itself. It was the boredom. He stole a white coat someone had left behind and joined the team of doctors doing daily rounds, pretending to be a medical student. It was months before anyone realized he was actually a patient. I still have the charcoal sketches he made of his fellow inmates, a portrait of the hauntingly beautiful woman with schizophrenia he used to play cards with, or the baby-faced man with bipolar disorder who my father would later teach to drive.
The experiment was to end when my father reached his “normal” weight, which the doctors judged to be around 180lbs. And so he did. He was physically weak, with a newly developed arrhythmia, but he was thin.
This was one of the best moments of his life, and he would spend the next 40 years of his life trying to recapture it.
The thinness lasted less than two months. He obsessively counted calories and ate nothing but the minuscule amount of food his doctors had prescribed, but even so, he gained weight. A year later, he had gained everything back, with interest. He was now over 400lbs.
His pursuit of thinness never stopped. He took fen-phen, and ravaged his already damaged heart. He was still fat, but the hunt for weight-loss made him sicker and sicker.
Eventually, doctors found he had celiac disease. A wasting disease. No one had bothered to look for such a condition in a fat man. Years of being in and out of the hospital, and no one asked why he was throwing up all his food. They joked it was probably for the best that his GI system wasn’t working well. His intestines were scarred, and would never fully recover.
Even though he was as obsessed with thinness as a person can be, and as dedicated to its pursuit as is possible, he remained fat. And his doctors punished him for it. He was called names, refused care, and left without treatment, over and over again.
The last year of his life, he wasted away. His cheeks were shrunken, and his formerly massive shoulders started to look slight. I asked him to make sure he was eating, offered to send him food deliveries. He told me, no need. His doctors were thrilled he was finally “getting healthy” and losing weight. Every week, he gave me his excited “pounds lost” update. Every week, I hung up the phone and wept.
His last night in hospice, I sat by him in his room, his head resting on my shoulder. He was so small. His formerly massive legs had wasted to small sticks – like a child’s legs attached to a man’s body. He was a shadow of himself.
Nurses came and told me they wanted to resettle him in bed. He was partially supported by my body, and they were afraid I wasn’t strong enough to hold him. They were afraid he would fall. They brought four orderlies to help reposition him. Four strangers to move him since he was so big.
I told them no, that would not be necessary. I leaned over and gently lifted him off the bed, repositioning him so that now I cradled him, his entire weight supported by my body. I am more than strong enough, I informed them.
My father spent his years fighting his size, wishing he was smaller, weaker, less of a giant. He was taught to hate his body, and he was ashamed of the amount of space he took up. But he passed his strength to me, and I won’t squander my inheritance. I will not let myself be diminished.
I am my father’s daughter. I too am a giant, built of strength and flesh. And I am strong enough to carry myself and others, even when they can’t carry themselves.Originally published at More Cabaret.