If your yoga teacher was fat – if you could see her body jiggle in her spandex – would you still respect her? Would you still take her class?
Trina Hall wanted to find out.
Earlier this year, Hall, 34, who's taught yoga in Dallas for six years, gained 40 pounds. She did it on purpose, as "an experiment in empowering people to love their bodies and not try to fit society's mold," she wrote on her blog. "Instead, reality of my latent insecurities came like a football team's kicker being put in as the center. My identity was pummeled."
Hall, who's 5 feet 5 inches, weighed more than 170 pounds at the experiment's peak. She opened up to U.S. News about what she learned and what she hopes to teach others. Her responses have been edited:
What made you decide to embark on this project and intentionally put on weight?
I went about it in the first place because one of my best friends was crying, telling me that she was very upset about where she was in her life. And she said, "I don't want to be known as the fat yoga teacher." I was taken aback by that statement because I don't see her in any way classified as fat. And I wanted to explore why I was so triggered by her comment. And prove to her that it's not about that – it's not about what you look like on the outside. It's more important who you are on the inside. And then I discovered way more than what I had set out to.
How did you gain the weight?
I wasn't trying to gain a certain amount of weight – I just let go of any control or dietary restrictions. My style of eating has always been eating for health. And I changed that to eating anything and everything and all amounts of food that I desired or wanted or thought, "Oh, that would be great." I ate a lot more every day – and I ate a lot of Mexican food. Forty pounds just came as a result of that.
Did you feel guilty as you ate foods you had once considered "bad"?
I did feel bad about it, because I had always eaten for health, and your body feels good when you eat that way. You're nourishing your body and giving it fuel. I was turning it into eating for the sake of eating, and I definitely felt like I shouldn't be doing that. You know, it's bad to eat a bar of chocolate every day.
How did you feel as you started to gain weight?
As the pounds were coming on, I was learning that I had fears I wasn't aware of. I was afraid that I would be judged based on what I looked like. And I learned that I was judging myself when I would look in the mirror, and I would create this idea around: No one will love me this way. I always had this idea that, "Oh my gosh, everyone should look more inside because that's what it's all about." But I discovered that I was just as guilty as the next person of being obsessed with my external appearance.
What kind of reaction did you receive from those around you?
Well, I didn't see what I thought I would see. I thought I would see more judgment, but no one in my classes said anything about my weight gain. And I found that I was hiding it. Instead of typical yoga spandex, I was wearing dresses over my yoga clothes while I taught.
In June, I shared my experiment with some friends and my intention to do a photo shoot showing my belly fat. They were supportive.
When I shared this with my mom, she understood what I was doing, but she was concerned people would not receive it in a positive way. She constantly reinforced my self-esteem by telling me I am beautiful regardless of my size.
You received a much stronger reaction when you wrote about your intentional weight gain online. One commenter wrote, "What kind of energy do you bring to your classes when it is obvious that you are so hung up on your appearance? Here you are drawing attention to yourself to prove some arbitrary point." At the same time, another praised your "brave exploration." How did you respond to that?
I was surprised at the reactions from people after I published my piece. Everyone seemed to have an opinion. My friends and family were incredible; my students seemed to feel empowered.
Overwhelmingly, the Internet response was positive – but there were some seething comments. People were attaching to whatever part of the process they either resonated with or were offended by. The bottom line is the reactions belong to the people, and I tried not to argue with the readers. I allowed myself the space to observe my feelings about their reactions but remain distant enough that I didn't take it on myself. If I don't want to absorb the negativity, I can't become attached to the positivity either. I tried to remain neutral as an observer of my personal experience.
Yes, it feels less then empowering when someone attacks your character when you really want them to look at and own their own thoughts and reactions to the piece. Ultimately, I had to release control of the outcome. It was an art piece and I am speaking from my place of truth. I allow others to do the same. I believe in Freedom of Speech.
The experiment ended in July, and you're back to eating healthfully – though you haven't weighed yourself since then. Has yoga been helpful in taking off the weight?
It's been very helpful, and so has taking nature walks. But I have not given up Mexican food!
What other lessons did you learn?
I thought my identity was about how I treated people and the actions I took to make the world a better place. But those things were only a piece of my identity. I learned that I was – and still am – very judgmental about physical appearance. I was afraid of dying alone – I noticed that was a thought coming into my mind. I'm single, and the thought kept coming in, "You're going to die alone. You're going to die alone." And so I started to see that I had that thought process, that fear of not being loved, even when I weighed much less.
Do you think there's a stigma against overweight people within the yoga community?
I do think that exists because there is a society-wide idealized version of a human being. We've got all those magazine covers – and yoga magazine covers in particular represent an image of a fit and trim yoga teacher or yoga practitioner in general. And yoga aims to get people past that.
What do you hope others take away from this?
I would love for people to see their reactions to what I did – and know that those reactions are more about them than they are about me. I'd also like them to know that it's very helpful to become more self-aware.
[Read: People Changing the Face of Yoga.]