Practising not being perfect by Megan Whelan

After lockdown, Megan Whelan headed to the yoga studio. She didn’t find what she expected.

I have a distinct childhood memory. The height of summer in Canterbury, running in circles around the park attached to my school, red faced, puffing, the shame of coming in last in the cross country. What torture we put children through sometimes.

Back then, I loved sport. I followed a family tradition and played basketball – but genetics conspired to have me end up a 5ft 2 adult with poor hand-eye coordination, so I was never going to end up in the NBA.

Like many New Zealand girls, I languished as wing defence on the netball court, the position that no one wants. Endurance sport was never going to be my thing.

When, in an online article, I came out as fat — as though those who’d seen me never knew — I got mostly positive feedback. People thanked me for baring my soul so they could see themselves reflected back. But a handful of people sent me all caps emails asking, “BUT WHAT ABOUT YOUR HEALTH???!?”

My official, professional advice is that you should only respond to trolls if you have the energy, and I think my health is really only of interest to my doctors and loved ones. I’m also not sure that asking me to prove that I’m healthy achieves what they wanted to achieve, nor that there’s one definition of good health.

But it has come to my attention that my health is maybe something I should look after. But how, when actual medical professionals, who went to school for a really long time, take one look at me and make a bunch of assumptions? That, for example, my depression was caused by my fatness and my fatness was a result of my depression. A never-ending vicious cycle I never get out of.

As a fat adult, running still fills me with dread. At the risk of being uncouth, the only sports bra that would make running comfortable would involve a feat of engineering up there with the Burj Khalifa. Besides, I’ve been in enough gyms to feel the judgemental weight that accompanies a fat person to the treadmill.

Here’s the thing: I am an anxious person. If overthinking were an Olympic event, I’d medal. So, for every well-meaning person who tells me to start walking, I want to say: ‘Yes, because what I need is more time alone with my thoughts.’ Ditto swimming, which I love, but which comes with the added frustration of trying to find plus-sized swimwear that’s functional and doesn’t look like it was designed by a toddler.

During lockdown, I felt the need to move my body, though. Maybe being stuck inside made me want to escape, maybe it was how I hurt my knee in the first weekend and felt old and broken hobbling round my house. Or maybe I just saw way too many tweets about Yoga with Adriene and succumbed to peer pressure.

In illustration of various yoga poses

When we were allowed out again, I headed to yoga — something I’ve toyed with over the years, but that didn’t really click for me until this godforsaken year. I went to one studio, where I felt super unwelcome — it wasn’t anyone’s fault, but the big chain that makes yoga leggings doesn’t make them in a size anywhere near mine, and I didn’t look like anyone else there.

But when I found a place that suited me? What a revelation. It has people of all shapes and sizes and ages and abilities, and I’ve never felt so welcomed in an exercise space. I’ve never felt the joy of switching off my brain, and just focussing on being in my body. Feeling it move and stretch and breathe. Is this what it’s been like for all of you all along?

I can spend 10 minutes just focused on what the outer edge of my foot is doing. If it’s planted just right, I can feel the muscles in my inner thigh stretch taut in Warrior two. I feel strong and powerful and focussed in a way that wandering the streets listening to podcasts has never delivered.

I’m also not sure that asking me to prove that I’m healthy achieves what they wanted to achieve, nor that there’s one definition of good health.

Sometimes I think I must be comical to look at — my tree pose looks more like a shrub — and sometimes I burst out laughing at what the teacher thinks my body can do. Once, I leaned weirdly on my wrist, and set off the voice assistant on my smart watch. “How can I help,” she asked. “Make me more flexible,” I blurted out to the whole class.

But I don’t care, because butterfly pose feels so damn good. One of the teachers I follow online used the seminal hip hop classic “Back that Azz Up” to describe how to do downward dog, and I finally understood how to move my body that way.

Sometimes I get frustrated with my body — sometimes it gets in the way. Sometimes I can’t do things I wish I could, and I wish I was one of those thin blonde women at that other studio. But it turns out I don’t have to be perfect at it. It turns out that teachers call yoga a practice for a reason. (And what a life lesson that was.) If you’d asked me a year ago if I’d get out of bed at 6am to exercise, I’d have laughed in your face.

I wish those people who emailed me, back when I wrote about being fat, to ask why their taxpayer dollars should pay for my inevitable burden on the healthcare budget understood this. The best exercise I’ve ever done in my life — the best I’ve ever felt physically — coincides with the one thing that took my brain out of the equation. It hasn’t been about losing weight, getting thinner, or proving anything to anyone. It’s even made my injured knee better.

Maybe if we talked more about that, about feeling good, however that feels to you, we’d get somewhere. If that’s running, you do you, boo. It could even be your couch, a bag of chips, and binge-watching romcons. I’m not your doctor or your therapist or your life coach. But maybe if we focussed on feeling good, instead of what our bodies look like to strangers on the internet, we’d all be a little healthier.