About two years ago, I was teaching a (very) hot yoga class in a yoga studio and I invited my sister to come to the class. I got her set up in the room and then left to check students into class. At the time, my sister was not a yogi. She had only been to one or two classes in her life. When I got back to the room, I was surprised to see my sister standing there in only her sports bra and yoga pants. She wasn’t the only one, because it was 105 degrees in there, but I was only surprised about her and her lack of self-consciousness. Later, she would say “What? It was hot,” like it was no big deal.
But it IS a big deal for women of all shapes and sizes. At the time, my sister was not at her skinniest. She simply didn’t care who saw her belly rolls. She inspired me! Why should I struggle with my ill-fitting clothes instead of focusing on my practice? Why shouldn’t I be able to take off my shirt, too?
So I started taking off my shirt when I felt like it. If I was uncomfortable, or hot, I would practice in only my sports bra. I told myself I did not care if I had three rolls in my belly today. I told myself I did not care if people could see my back fat. Fake it until you make it, right? The truth is, I did care. If there were men in the class, or if most of the other women were thinner than me, I felt self-conscious. But I did it anyway. If they could, so could I.
Soon, this morphed into occasionally teaching without my shirt on. This was met with rave reviews. After many classes, women would approach me and tell me how “relatable” I was. They could relate to the fact that I couldn’t get into every pose, but also that I had a thicker body. (Great, just what every woman wants to hear after they take off their shirt. Insert eye roll.) Some even told me that they felt more comfortable taking off their shirts because I gave them permission to not feel bad about the way they looked. At first, the compliment stung. I did not want to hear that I was different than anyone else; that they felt better about themselves because they were not as heavy as me.
But then I started to own it. Yes, I am thicker. I wear a size 12 or 14 pants. I weigh around 175 pounds, although some days it’s 180. (I’ve stopped weighing myself more than once/month because honestly, the number on that scale does not reflect how I feel about myself and I’m tired of beating myself up like it does, but that’s a story for another day.) I do not have the body you see in ALL yoga marketing for classes, studios, retreats, clothes, and stock photos.
My hips are wide. My butt is big. I have a small upper body and I’ve worked really hard to increase muscle definition in my arms, but my lower body is bigger. My thighs are thick. They touch when I stand still and rub together when I walk (the horror!). All of this is true, but it’s also true that I still practice yoga and I love yoga. And I’m not alone.
Many of my students are not who you think of when you imagine the stereotypical yogi. They range in age from 16 year old boys to women in their 70s. They range in size from the petite to big boned. Some are really flexible, most are not. Some are scared to go upside down, some spend half the class in a handstand. We are all beautiful and unique as people and as students of yoga.
So why are so many of us afraid to take off our shirts?
I teach hot yoga full time, and since getting in touch with my inner shirtless goddess, I’ve started noticing who feels comfortable to practice in a sports bra or without their shirts. Not surprisingly, the majority of the people practicing shirtless are sporting washboard abs.
Was this just my experience, my perception?
I decided to ask my students for their experience with this topic. Here’s what I found.
Both women and men can be self-conscious without their shirt on in a yoga studio. These same people might be completely comfortable in a bikini on the beach, but the stigma or culture of the studio would determine whether they could practice shirtless. Rachel S., a 30 year old yoga student and teacher, said that she would be more comfortable practicing in her sports bra if she was on a beach or near a beach. Why does she feel uncomfortable in a studio? She mentioned the “ongoing project” of learning to love the skin she’s in.
Simone, a 62 year old yoga student, agreed that practicing in anything too revealing makes her uncomfortable. She feels as though she’s “hanging out”. It doesn’t bother her when other people practice shirtless, but she feels she’s more modest.
Rachel P., a 20-something yoga teacher-in-training, almost exclusively wears a sports bra in class, but she usually puts her towel over her stomach in savasana because she’s self conscious about her belly fat. She also feels as though people are judging her back and side fat in twisting poses because it’s more noticeable in those poses. There has never been a time where someone treated her differently, but when people comment on how small she is (she is petite!), it doesn’t change the way she sees herself.
Shauna, a tall, thin 20-something yoga teacher and student, believes that it is helpful for her to take off her shirt when she is practicing or teaching because it gives other students permission to take theirs off as well. If she looks around the room and sees students fidgeting with their shirts, she feels that they are unsure of the culture of the studio, so if she removes her shirt, they will know that it is okay for them to do the same. Nevertheless, she still feels self-conscious of her own “softness”, particularly around the midsection.
Michelle, a very fit woman in her 50s, commented that she feels more comfortable taking off her shirt now that she’s in shape. Before she got into such good shape, she was afraid to take it off. When I asked why she practices without her shirt, her answer was practical: “So I can drive home in a dry shirt!”
Brian, a self-described middle-aged white male, began his yoga practice in the Bikram style of yoga. There, everyone takes off their shirts. At first, he was uncomfortable due to his own body image, but he quickly adapted and embraced it because “it’s way more practical to be shirtless and wear hot yoga shorts in such a hot sweaty environment….Plus, any shirts you wear quickly become permanently stinky and have to be thrown out.” He did note that it is harder to dress this way in a studio where not everyone else is dressed the same way because you start wondering if people will judge you or your body. It’s a lot easier when it’s the cultural norm. Rachel S. said the same thing about culture. To her, teaching yoga in just your sports bra was unprofessional. However, she did recognize that it is the cultural norm in other areas.
Monica, a petite 35 year old with a very athletic figure, was quick to answer yes to taking her shirt off, mostly because it is hot, but also because sometimes she’s wearing a cute sports bra. (And she’s not alone; I do the same thing!) However, she was very aware that her body type is what society deems “acceptable” and that is why she does not experience outward judgment (inward judgment is another story: she can be critical of her tummy). She says, “I am aware of a certain amount of privilege I have as a result of being in a smaller body and work on being body positive and not focus on body shape, size, etc. during class, and really appreciate it when there is a diversity of size (and gender and race and ethnicity and age) of yogis in the room….I think it’s important that people feel included, accepted and comfortable in yoga...and that people don’t have to look or be a certain way to practice it.” Amen, sister.
Diversity--or lack thereof--was mentioned by most of the people I spoke to. Brian pointed out that outside of the Bikram studio where the ratio is more equal, most Vinyasa yoga classes have about 9 women for every 1 man and this can make it harder on the man to take off his shirt. Simone has observed that she’s usually twice the age of most of the students in class and this contributes to her wardrobe choices.
Rosie, a 35 year old yoga teacher from Philadelphia, admits that when she sees a plus-sized woman take off her shirt, she thinks “get it girl!” but when she sees a skinny woman in just her bra, she feels that makes the yoga room feel exclusive and sends a message that you have to be skinny to practice or that is the “goal.” Nevertheless, Rosie acknowledges that maybe she is feeling jealous that she, herself, is too uncomfortable to take off her shirt and that’s why she judges others. Meanwhile, I’m over here wondering why more women don’t take off their shirts, no matter what their size or age. Maybe I need to stop worrying about what everyone else is doing on their mat too!
So what do you think about this issue? How do you approach your own yoga or exercise practice? So many of the people I talked to had the same experience no matter what their size -- they don’t love their belly and so they feel judged. Not by others, but by themselves! We are so stupidly critical of our own bodies, and worse yet, of our bellies. Why do our bellies rule how we value our looks or ourselves? Every single person, myself included, specifically called out their belly as a problem area.
But as Brian says, “Every [one] should have their shirt off in hot yoga, regardless of body because we’re all there for the same purpose: to be healthy. No one cares what your body looks like. They respect the effort and conviction.”
My purpose in addressing this issue was to call out to people everywhere: as your yoga teacher, I respect your decision to wear or not wear your shirt in yoga class. But if you are keeping your shirt on because you are worried what someone else will think about you during class, you don’t need to worry. Everyone is so wrapped up in their own perceived imperfections that they are not thinking about yours. Which is another great reason why we must reach more people with a yoga practice. There is still so much work to do to quiet the thinking, judging mind and tap into that quiet place inside where you are perfect just as you are.