safer spaces: an interview with the founder of yoga for round bodies, tiina veer

YRB Logo 2013Call it what you will: full figured yoga, big yoga, heavy yoga, curvy yoga, or even fat yoga – yoga for bigger bodies is becoming a force to be reckoned with.

IAYB sponsor Tiina Veer, founder of Yoga for Round Bodies™ (YRB), has been on a mission to make yoga more accessible to more people.  The Health at Every Size® enthusiast, anatomy geek and massage therapist started offering YRB classes in Toronto in 2004 as an attempt to fill the void that she had experienced herself at the beginning of her yoga journey: finding a yoga teacher who knew how to work with her body well, and studios/classes where she felt comfortable and included.

In this email interview, she tells IAYB why the world needs YRB classes, how “special” yoga classes are inclusive rather than exclusive, and what she thinks about those who criticize the movement.

Yoga for Round Bodies classes are designed specifically for round-bodied women. Why is there a need for this?

Though YRB in itself is not exclusively for women, they are the ones showing up and I think there are a number of reasons for this, including (a) the fact that yoga in the west is generally dominated by women all around; (b) though we know body image issues are on the rise in men, this has traditionally been more the domain of women, at least in the spoken world; and (c) it might take pretty big kahunas for the average guy to come to a class called “Yoga for Round Bodies.”

Tiina Purple squareLabels aside, the reason there’s a need for these special classes goes well beyond the fact that bigger bodies often require specific pose modifications. It’s about creating a safe, comfortable space for uninhibited exploration of our bodies in movement and in stillness. Living large in the world comes with a lot of negative feedback, both directly and indirectly, from others and from ourselves, and for many the idea of being witnessed in movement in a group borders on terrifying. While there are others who may not experience this much discomfort, they often still want to be in an environment where they are not the exception, where we can speak freely and unabashedly about our bodies, and dwell fully in the skin we’re in. Free of judgment, free of details like incessant fiddling with clothes to cover up exposed bellies or other body parts that in other contexts could bring discomfort and undesired attention. “Free to be fully me.”

Another key point about YRB is that it’s not about weight loss, it’s about yoga. YRB embraces a Health at Every Size (HAES) philosophy, where healthy habits are encouraged as the best path to a healthy body-mind regardless of size or weight. In other words, the focus is on health not weight. YRB classes, like all yoga classes, should be a haven where students can come with their own goals, aspirations and intentions unfettered by anyone else’s agenda, and where the yoga can speak for itself (it has so much to whisper to us, and we can hear it better when unnecessary noise is removed!).

In the past couple of years, the work of people like yourself and Anna Guest-Jelly (Curvy Yoga) has grown and had a greater presence in the mainstream yoga community. What do you think about this trend?

I am ecstatic about the trend!  We’re  still a very small contingent in the mainstream yoga community but I have see interest and conversation growing exponentially, especially in the past year or so with increased discourse around yoga and privilege.

More teachers, studios, blogs (yay IAYB!) and other yoga forums are beginning to explore the theme of privilege and yoga and it’s really opening our eyes about how yoga can be like an exclusive club. Many of us want to change that. For example, my colleagues over at Kula Annex in Toronto are meeting this head-on with a Positive Spaces Initiative, leading conversations about oppression and intersectionality in yoga, and adding classes like Queer Yoga and Brown Girls Yoga (YRB classes eventually also), as well as now including a fat-friendly-yoga module with me in each teacher training. Interest continues to grow in this work, and it’s really exhilarating to be a part of this next phase of yoga’s evolution in the west!

One of the most common criticisms of “special” yoga classes (like YRB, but also yoga for queers/transgendered/brown girls/etc) is that they are exclusive and contrary to the nature of yoga. Why do you think it’s necessary to have specially-created spaces for different body types/orientations/lifestyles/identities/etc?

It’s funny, where some see an exclusionary trend, I see, an inclusionary one.  I also see it as an adaptation of yoga therapy.  Yoga therapy is one-on-one prescriptive practice (this is also the most traditional transmission for yoga: one to one between teacher and student), which usually has to be compromised in groups, particularly in large, general classes.  Instead, bringing groups of people together with similar issues can allow practices to be focused more therpeutically, getting a little closer to the idea of prescriptive practice.

I have received this criticism of which you speak—a number of times quite scathingly—about YRB being “exclusionary.”  In the scathing cases had I replied, I would have inquired as to whether they found Seniors Yoga, Prenatal Yoga, or other niche-focused yoga exclusionary, or was it only the fat/queer/brown yoga they found objectionable?   Hmmmm…

Some people say they can understand why seniors, or pregnant women, or even fat people, need special classes because they may require specific modifications, but you don’t need special modifications because you’re brown or queer.  Well, maybe just maybe there’s been a veritable lifetime of situations—yes, from yoga too—where the necessary adjustment wasn’t in any asana, but in the attitude of others in the group.

These specially-created spaces offer prescriptive practice where relevant, but more importantly create safe containers in which to practice, regardless of the reason people are coming together as a specific group.  For anyone who feels in any way at the fringes of or marginalized by yoga in its current incarnation, doesn’t it make sense that specialized classes are available?  Doesn’t it indeed invite more people in?  Some people stay in specialized classes, others move on, using the specialized classes as their “gateway yoga” before experimenting with other yoga.

Not all of us are going to have the benefit (privilege?) of getting to practice within these wonderful personal safe-zones (think smaller towns where yoga resources are scarcer), but just let yourself daydream for a moment about how yoga could work its prolific magic with obstacles like discrimination pushed out of the way (a great image: picture Ganesh doing this).  How deeply could we go then?

Learn more about Tiina Veer and YRB on her website.
Check out her upcoming retreat, August 16 – 18.

4 Comments

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  1. There is so much love and beauty here! As an advocate for body diversity and body love I enjoyed hearing about what YRB is doing for change within our society. I truly believe that in order for people to heal their relationships with their bodies, they need safe, supportive spaces like the ones mentioned in this article. Places where people can discover the beauty of who they are and connect with their body in loving ways are priceless and I’m happy to see that the movement is expanding and growing!

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