When Nancy Roberts set out to become a yoga instructor in 2012, she’d planned to use the practice to reach troubled teens. During her yoga teacher training, Nancy started teaching a class in her home for work friends who’d avoided yoga classes in the past because they felt uncomfortable and out-of-place. Then one day, an off-the-cuff joke from a friend sent her down a different path.
“One afternoon on our way from work, a friend jokingly said, ‘Let’s go do our fat girl yoga!’ And so we started jokingly calling it that,” Nancy says. But from this joke she quickly realized that what she had created fulfilled a more serious need.
“When I realized that there were people who truly didn’t feel like they were welcome in the space or didn’t feel like it was for them simply because of their age or the size of their body, I started thinking maybe that was what we needed,” Nancy says. “And so I created Fat Girl Yoga.” Nancy has been teaching Fat Girl Yoga at The Yoga Circle in Birmingham since January of 2015. As the class description on the website explains, this class is meant to be “a welcome center for all body shapes, sizes and levels of fitness,” and “boys are welcome too.”
When setting up the studio for class, Nancy places yoga props such as blocks, blankets, bolsters and straps around the room so that if a student finds she needs extra support during a pose, it’s within her reach. Even the wall is used to help with some modifications. As with any other yoga class, Nancy guides her students through a dynamic sequence of poses — downward dog, upward dog, warrior pose and many more. But in Fat Girl Yoga, Nancy demonstrates more modifications for each pose than you would find in a typical yoga class. Her goal is to help each student find a variation that best suits his or her body.
“It’s not just about the poses, but the language that I use to take people into poses, giving them choices and letting them know that whatever they choose is not wrong,” Nancy says. “And they can always choose to not do something. They can always choose to look different from other people, and that’s completely accepted.”
It’s this atmosphere of acceptance that keeps Lee Ann Self coming back to Nancy’s class. Lee Ann says in the past she’d always avoided yoga classes because she felt “old and out of shape.” She says, “The hardest thing is that first day, and how people react to you can make all the difference.” When she came to Fat Girl Yoga earlier this year, everyone was welcoming and kind.
Nancy says she can relate to the apprehension many of her students feel. “When I first started practicing yoga I was a back-corner girl, and if there was another overweight person I was like ‘Oh, thank God it’s not just me,’” Nancy recalls.
Gwen Lurie has been practicing yoga for 20 years, and despite her slender frame, she’s been attending Fat Girl Yoga since August of 2015 because she’s a big fan of Nancy’s teaching style. “It’s always about the teacher,” says Gwen. “She helps people to be comfortable with themselves, with who they are, and that’s what it’s all about.”
As for the class being called “Fat Girl Yoga,” Gwen says she thinks of it as the old slang term “phat,” saying, “That means you’re hot!” Nancy does hope her class will help people reclaim and redefine the word “fat.” As the class description states, “‘Fat’ is only a mean word if we let it be; let’s make it beautiful!”
A body positivity movement has been sweeping the nation lately, thanks to the recent success and attention garnered by several plus-size models, actresses and fashion bloggers and due to social media and advertising campaigns that celebrate bodies of all shapes, sizes and colors. Some people, however, argue that celebrating all body sizes can promote an unhealthy lifestyle. Nancy thinks those people are wrong.
“I get that people say it’s unhealthy to promote overweight being a positive thing when there’s definitely a consideration of heart health and cholesterol health and all of those things,” Nancy says. “But I think the problem with that is people think that if they look at someone they can tell what their health level is. People might look at me and think, Oh she’s too fat. I look at myself and think that sometimes. But I’m not unhealthy. I don’t have high cholesterol, I don’t have high blood pressure, I don’t have diabetes. And I exercise every single day.”
Nancy says there’s also an assumption that the size of a person’s body determines his or her ability to practice yoga or other physical activities, and she admits this was one of the things that motivated her to bring Fat Girl Yoga to a local studio. “I got sick of people walking into my classes and saying, ‘Oh. You’re the teacher?’” Roberts says. “I think the biggest thing about the body positive movement that I love is that hopefully it’s changing those ideas that we have in our head that are so wrong. Yoga is supposed to be for everyone.”
Nancy Roberts currently teaches Fat Girl Yoga on Thursdays at 4 p.m. and Saturdays at 3:30 p.m. at The Yoga Circle, 1425 Richard Arrington Jr. Blvd. S. at 21st St., Ste. 200, Birmingham, AL 35205. For more information, visit theyogacircle.net or call (205) 266-7547.