A 300lbs woman was inspired to become a yoga instructor – after teachers IGNORED her in class because of her weight.
Jessica Rihal, 35, says slim instructors refused to offer guidance and sometimes didn’t even look at her as she attempted poses on her mat.
Now the account manager, who is of African American and Indian heritage, teaches weekly yoga classes and is on a mission to prove it is not just for thin, white women.
Jessica, of Irvine, California, USA, said: “According to the media and the society we live in, fitness and wellness are reserved for thin, white and able-bodied people – but that’s just not true.
“I knew I needed to be the change I wanted to see, I wanted to let other people who look like me, or relate to my body, understand that you don’t have to be thin to practice yoga.
“I wanted to help people in marginalized bodies understand they can de-stigmatize exercise and actually find joy in it instead of shame or a fleeting end result.”
Jessica, who wears a US size 26 (UK size 30), first tried yoga in 2007.
She now shares her experiences as a plus-size yogi on Instagram, under the handle @round_the_way_gal, where she occasionally receives mean comments from other users.
“From time to time, I get a weird comment, usually a backhanded compliment like: ‘Oh I’m glad to see you love yourself, however carrying that much weight is going to kill you’,” she said.
She has also been accused of ‘promoting obesity’.
“Those people who say I am promoting obesity, I think they are promoting ignorance,” she said.
“All I’m saying is: ‘Let’s breathe, let’s move our bodies’.
“It’s just a way to skirt around discrimination.
“For whatever reason, it’s fairly acceptable to discriminate against fat people.
“Turn on the television and you’ll hear fat jokes in almost every show.
“I’m not saying eat burgers twice a day.
“I’m bringing wellness to a group of people who have been under-served.
“I’m telling them: ‘You can have a piece of this pie’.”
Jessica initially tried yoga as a quick fix for weight loss, but she soon discovered that the ancient practice could also ease her anxiety and depression.
She said: “Practising yoga helps you make peace with your body and creates a ceasefire in your mind where the negative thoughts stop and are replaced with positive ones.”
But she couldn’t help but notice how few of her instructors looked like her and she was often ignored in class where teachers did not offer modifications of movements for her large size.
She said: “When I became more heavily involved in the yoga community, I realised that there wasn’t a lot of diversity in the instructors I was seeing.
“Don’t get me wrong, there are some instructors who understood anatomy and really cared and are amazing, but there are so many instructors who would never even look at me.
“Some of them never offered modifications if there was something out of reach for me.”
Jessica explained that certain yoga poses should be adapted so that plus-size women, who carry more weight, can also try them.
She said: “In some poses, you suddenly realise, ‘Oh my stomach is in the way’.
“You shouldn’t ignore that and teachers should offer modifications when they can.
“There were other instructors who were always coaching me for ‘someday’ when I would be able to walk on my hands or hold myself up in crow pose without falling on my face.
“That mystical ‘someday’ is not a reality for so many of us and can be downright discouraging.
“Besides, isn’t the goal to be present in the here and now?
“It made me feel like the way my body is today is unacceptable and I must be eager to change it.
“These experiences played a major role in my decision to become an instructor.”
She also criticised what she called the ‘Westernization’ of yoga where the practice, which originated in Northern India over 5,000 years ago, has become synonymous with bendy white women and expensive sportswear.
She said: “I’m part Indian and I feel that yoga is something that belongs to me despite the Westernization of yoga.
“It’s an ancient practice from India that was actually intended for young boys.
“Being plus-size and a woman of colour makes me hyper visible, a lot of people scratch their heads.
“But I think those qualities attract students to me and followers online.”
In May 2018 Jessica completed her 200-hour yoga teacher training and now practises around five hours a week and teaches a class every Saturday at Asteya Fitness in Costa Mesa, California.
She is committed to helping all of her students, including plus-size women, experience all the benefits of yoga particularly body acceptance.
She said: “It has made me more confident in my body.
“It changes your perspective and the way you look no longer becomes the most important thing in your life.
“I do other exercise alongside yoga.
“Ever since I abandoned the weight loss goal, I am the healthiest I have ever been.
“I’ve always been large and diets have never helped me.
“In fact, I’ve found them a toxic cycle which it has been difficult to break free from.”