fitspo: what is it, and why does it matter?

This month I’m going to be writing about toxic fitness culture – what I call fitspo. 

It’s important, and hopefully by the end of the post you’ll agree with me.

What is fitspo?

The moniker “fitspo” comes from the instagram tag for “fitness inspiration”. Another interchangeable phrase: toxic fitness culture.

“Fitness” and even “wellness” in America generally means:

  1. slim
  2. able-bodied (or “inspirationally” disabled)
  3. youthful
  4. athletic/strong
  5. white and/or light-skinned
  6. a “positive mindset”
  7. affluent or giving the appearance of wealth and ease

A simple “yoga” tag search for on Instagram, currently our largest social media platform, is illuminating (notice – even the illustrations are skinny!):

"fitspo culture has gotta go - here's why" on toxic fitness and wellness spaces by Agni Hogaboom of Little Switch Yoga | Grays Harbor Hoquiam Aberdeen Washington
"fitspo culture has gotta go - here's why" on toxic fitness and wellness spaces by Agni Hogaboom of Little Switch Yoga | Grays Harbor Hoquiam Aberdeen Washington

(also note the tag “yoga” yields almost all physical/asana work – no mention of ethics, social observances, pranayama, philosophy, or history. But those are topics for another day!)

Who is welcome, in the fitspo world?

Youthful, slim, athletic (strong), racially and socioeconomically statused individuals are seen as more worthy and more desirable than their counterparts.

Fitspo ties in with our race, our age, our body shape and size, our socioeconomic class. You can’t really separate fitspo from patriarchal and white supremacist constructs.

But perhaps more than anything else, fitspo incorporates and supports ableism.

What is ableism?

Ableism places “well” bodies, “healthy” bodies, and able-bodied individuals as morally, ethically, and pedagogically superior to sick, unhealthy, or disabled individuals.

I don’t need to be a disabilities scholar to spell this one out.

We all know ableism is real, if we are honest.

If we haven’t felt ableism’s sting – well, that is probably because we’ve been operating from our own little bubble. If we haven’t been excluded or maligned, that’s because we fit in, in some way or other.

For instance I’m white; most fitness influencers you see out there, certainly the ones who get acclaim and book deals et cetera – most of them are white. So my entire life, I’ve been in the “in crowd” – at least with regards to race – in the fitness and fitspo world.

I am also able-bodied (at this time in my life) – so again, experiences like mine are spotlighted and held up as the “norm”.

In other ways, I don’t fit in so much. I’m old (at least according to the fitness world) and I’m fat, so in that sense I’m definitely sidelined. (I happen to currently be very strong and bendy – but most people don’t expect that, just by looking at me). I’m nonbinary, and boy oh boy are we excluded from discourse – everywhere!

It should go without saying: we shouldn’t have to be young, fit, thin – any of those things – to be included, welcomed, and supported in the physical movements space.

Aren’t you making a big deal of nothing? Isn’t it a good thing, to want to be in shape?

Sure! Kinda.

There is nothing wrong with working to be stronger, more mobile, and have more energy reserves. There is nothing inherently wrong with a workout!

In fact for the vast majority of human bodies, movement practice is recommended. 

But be careful.

Fitspo can still sidetrack you – even if you have the best of intentions!

Because remember: fitspo is above all about hierarchy, and trying to scramble into a place of cultural acceptance.

Fitspo tells us: we aren’t good enough, unless we’re better than other people.

And if we aren’t worthy, we should be TRYING to get more worthy.

In the fitspo world it is okay to be old, or fat, or not-white, or poor – as long as you’re putting in work to “better yourself”.

So when I say “be careful” I really mean it – because to the extent you buy into fitspo culture, you will suffer. Unfortunately, when we seek to “better ourselves” from a place of loathing, self-hatred, or even a sense of “less than”, lots of crummy things happen:

1. We won’t experience true joy in the process – because we are more focussed on the ends than the means;

2. We have a low tolerance for failure, injury, mishaps or slow progress;

3. We may end up aspiring to something that may not actually be appropriate or even achievable for us;

4. We are hyper-sensitive to what our fitness instructor thinks and/or the sleights (real or imagined) from our fitness community; 

5. After suffering from all the above ^^^ we usually give up on our movement practice, and blame *ourselves* for failing. This perpetuates a cycle of shame, sadness, and even apathy.

***

Trends in fitspo come and go – a few years ago there was a huge emphasis on being STRONG (mostly through weight lifting and so-called “clean” eating) but I’m reliably told that “heroin chic” is going to come back again (particularly with the skyrocketing popularity of Ozempic and other weight loss modalities).

So this month I invite you to look around the yoga space. Who isn’t there? And why are they missing?

Are we doing all we can, to let them know they are welcome?

(My Code of Conduct addresses that, at least in large part!)

I want something better than fitspo for myself, for my yoga space – and for the world at large.

The rest of this month, I’ll talk more about some antidotes to toxic fitness culture – and some constructive action we can take.

Resources:

“yoga” tag search on Instagram

“Understanding toxic fitness culture”, Ninjathlete at Medium.com

“How to talk about disability sensibly and avoid ableist tropes” , Shruti Rajkumar, NPR.org

Jonny Landels, male body image and strength coach

“I’m too old / fat / out of shape for yoga”

This last week – for the first time in my life – my feet lifted off the floor in the very tricky arm balance bakasana (or crow pose).

I am almost half a century old and a couple weeks ago – for the first time in my life! – I conquered that fear of falling on my face, and I had patiently gained the strength and core integrity to balance on my hands.

This is more impressive than you might realize!

It is a lot harder as an adult to learn new physical skills or feats of strength – than it is to return to habits of childhood!

I didn’t grow up with any gymnastics, calisthenics, or attendant practice. When you see me doing what I can do – I had to earn that in adulthood, after decades of life, after giving birth to two children, and while living as a working class artist (meaning: life is hard!)

The hanumanasana (front splits) you see me chilling into, in class – well you are seeing me do something I’ve never done before.

I had to get there with these weathered bones and aged muscles! LOL

Another thing:

You also might have noticed I am fat. It’s true!

And –

It has to be said I don’t dress like a “yoga teacher”. I am not in fashionable leggings and a cute sports top. Half the time my hair gets in the way as we flow and I’m always trying to tie and push it back.

It’s not that I don’t take pride in how I dress, it’s that I have had to carefully allocate yoga funds to building the space. I’ve put retained yoga earnings into shelving, rent, security deposit, insurance, licensure etc etc. And that’s okay – because I made these priorities with intention.

Here’s what I mean, though:

It’s true I don’t look like a yoga teacher, or even a yoga practitioner.

But if I’d waited to start yoga until I “looked the part” –

I’d never have started.

***

Why am I sharing all this? Because:

I am trying to WREST the true nature of yoga away from the American fitspo culture chokehold.

If you scroll the Instagram “yoga” tag (Instagram is currently the largest social media platform out there) – you’ll see youthful, slim, mostly white, aspirationally-dressed and very athletic practitioners hitting difficult poses – usually showcased in elegant, pristine locations.

The truth is…

Yoga isn’t like that.

I mean SOME yoga will look like that – all tidy and slim and clean and wealthy or wealth-adjacent. And that’s just fine.

But…

If you wait to have all those ducks in a row, you’ll never start.

And precisely WHO is getting cheated if you skip yoga until you “look like” a yoga practitioner?

(Spoiler: YOU are getting cheated).

Yoga is messy and goofy. Yoga we’re practicing in a thousand-year old sports bra. Yoga we spy a hairball in the corner of the room as we’re moving to chill in our ardha kapotasana. Yoga is arriving almost-late to class and feeling cranky and annoyed. Yoga is getting a bitchy attitude that someone else in class can do a pose “better” than you. Yoga is accidentally farting in pavanmuktasana (hey, there’s a reason it’s called “wind-relieving pose”)!

Yoga isn’t about perfection.

It’s about daily intention – and the action to back our intensions up.

I’ve created the Little Switch Yoga space to be clean, reliable, and electric.

No hairballs! 🙂 I’ve created a peaceful space with good props, a lot of laughs and some music and tea to share!

I’ve carved out this space, right here in Grays Harbor.

There won’t be another space like it, if it goes.

Now is the PERFECT time for you to see if yoga can serve you –

The way it has served young and old, fat and thin, disabled and temporarily able-bodied, rich and poor.

You are worth going through this trouble.

You really are!

I’d love to see you on the mat!

six ways to dismantle a fitspo mindset

One of the hardest things to dismantle when it comes to anything like physical exercise is a fitspo mindset.
 
That includes a sort of defensiveness and self-consciousness about one’s abilities (or lack thereof).
 
We have been indoctrinated to feel bad about ourselves.
 
Like if we eat two slices of cake (or three, or four, or the whole cake) we’re a bad person. If we sit and watch ours of mindless telly instead of doing the dishes or going for a wlak, we’re lazy. If we’re not as disciplined or as put-together as someone else (seems to be), then they’re a better person than us.
 
This all leads us to feel rather sorry for ourselves and, sadly, SHRINK into ourselves a bit more. 
 
Well I can’t fix ANY of this for you but I can tell you I’ve fixed – or improved – a lot of this within myself.
 
It took years.
 
In my case, I had to learn, deep-down learn that I was going to love and treasure myself, NO MATTER WHAT.
 
This is such hard work and also so much PATIENT and persistent work, I certainly don’t have time to write it all out now!
 
Here are six practices that might help you dismantle these kinds of fitspo attitudes.

1. Recognize fitspo is real.

It’s going to be a lot easier to change how we feel if we recognize how much we’re up against. Our entire culture and most of our familial culture values thinness, weight loss, youth, whiteness, those kinds of things. It’s huge, it’s massive, it’s everywhere. If we acknowledge this presence and power we may appreciate our successes – however small they may seem – all the more.

2. Ask yourself if you truly want to change.

When we actively reject fitspo, we actively reject the fantasies that come with it. We also dismantle the fitspo privileges we have – if we are thin, able-bodied, white, young, cisgender. We still BENEFIT from those privileges, but we actively work to dismantle them. This is a lot of work. So ask yourself if you’re ready!
 

3. Soften – and widen – your gaze.

Fitspo encourages us to make it all about US. We are jealous, defensive, we start this strange self-absorbed cycle where we ruminate on all the wrongs and unfairnesses against us, and we stop SEEING the beauty and hard work that other people show up with. Fitspo wants us in this place – it doesn’t want us to really LISTEN to and value others.
 

4. Mind your business!

So speaking specifically about yoga. I had a teacher that used to say, “Mind your mat!” In other words, pay attention to YOUR mat and your body. Don’t try to “copy” the instructor or other students, don’t strain, don’t compare.
 
I love looking at the other practitioners who can do amazing things. Some of the things they can do… well maybe one day I can do them too! But sometimes it’s pretty obvious I’ll never do what they can do! (For reference: check out my friend thetysonedwards on Instagram!)
 
I should not diminish other practitioners’ beauty, joy and practice by relentlessly comparing it to my own!
 

5. Commit to loving yourself – even if you’re faking it!

I had to act AS IF I loved myself, for a long time before I felt it.
 
And some days it’s a struggle!
 
But I’m so committed to myself and my love of feeling better, stronger, and feeling happier –
That I won’t give away my own joy by comparing, or (the twin cousin): getting defensive, making excuses, lapsing into self-pity.
 
It took me years to get to a better place. And I re-commit regularly.
 

6. Give yourself props!

Please remember fitspo is just another entrenchment of white supremacist capitalism. Fitspo actually isn’t personal, rather a system that wants you to feel despondent, disempowered – and wants you to SPEND MONEY out of your rut. Resist! In fact your very resistance is a loving commitment, and it is very brave work!
 
***
Okay peeps – thank you for reading and thank you for being a part of my community!
 
 

do you feel like you aren’t good enough to deserve nice things

A lot of people won’t commit to a contemplative or physical practice because they don’t yet feel “good enough” to invest (time, money, energy).

Let me explain:

They aren’t good at meditating, so they don’t want to try.

They are “out of shape”, so they want to somehow first (magically) get “in shape” before they join the gym.

They won’t be as fit/strong/capable as others in the yoga class – so they stay away.

I get it – I really do.

***

These days I am a daily yoga practitioner. But for many, many years I went in and out of practice. I’d sign up for month-long challenges, work my butt off, complete those challenges – then I’d take a break off the mat. One day turned into two days turned into three weeks turned into months.

Don’t get me wrong, I was more committed than most. For example: post-Covid we had precisely ONE weekly yoga class here in town and I was there, every week. Many weeks, I was the only student there. I shared about the class on Facebook and Instagram in hopes more would attend, because I knew it was unreasonable for the teacher to keep teaching with just one person there! Eventually she stopped. I am still so grateful for the time she gave me.

But I digress.

All this to say: the stop-and-start yoga approach is really, really typical.

(And nothing to be ashamed of.)

So what happened, to make me a daily practitioner? (And a daily meditator!)

***

In late 2021 I started really thinking over my desire to become a yoga teacher. I love yoga so much and my favorite thing about it, is the way we can share. I also have had a taste of a yoga community – and it’s wonderful. I knew that if I took the training, I could start building that community.

I also knew if I started teaching classes, I’d bring my A-game – and I’d actually practice more.

I was right – about all of it.

I hacked my own system – my drive to be consistent and quality in everything I do – because I knew I would commit to practice more deeply.

***

I also built the yoga practice I wish we had here in Grays Harbor. I longed for a consistent teacher who left fitspo and fatphobia at the door. I wanted a group that dedicated itself to all the teachings of yoga – instead of treating it like another workout modality. I didn’t want anything to do with “wine yoga” or “beer yoga”. And frankly, while yoga helps a great deal for physical strength and mobility – I didn’t want a fitness-oriented approach.

Yoga is so much bigger than that!

What I wanted – and what I still experience, and what I bring to the mat – is for people to feel joy in their practice!

When we feel joy in something we do, we are sure to return it.

***

I am proud to say every week so far, I’ve had at least one student in class. I wish I had a minimum of more like five students, as that would help me cover expenses and pay myself a living wage.

But I am also very patient!

I know I’m a good instructor.

So: why is attendance so low?

Part of this is the summer. People fall off their programs, during the summer (and also during the holidays).

But a big part of this is:

People don’t think they’re worthy.

If they commit to yoga once a week, they are committing to looking at, feeling, and experiencing their bodies in a deep way.

Many people just don’t want to.

They know they want to feel better –

but they don’t want to start at Square One, and become a beginner (again!) and stick with it.

Because if you don’t commit to practice, you can keep that fantasy that well, the day you DO commit to practice, you’re going to rock it and all your dreams will come true!

It’s easier to live in that fantasy – counter-productive as it is – to be curious about the reality.

It’s easier to be a strong yoga practitioner IN THEORY/in a fantasy future – than to start where you are, today.

And yes, I get it.

No judgment here.

***

I am not here to talk anyone into adopting a consistent practice – yoga, meditation, or otherwise.

I am only here for two things:

  1. to remove the barriers that are keep you from doing what you already want to do; and

  2. to share how much yoga as benefitted me, personally

To some people, it will seem like I’m trying to talk you into class so I can make a living teaching.

But if you know me – you know that’s not true.

I am regularly sharing many other practitioners’ mindful and joyful movement classes!

Because I want you to find what’s best for you.

But I also want to tell you: no one will do this work FOR you.

You have to seek it out, and you have to commit to extended practice – to know what benefits you may reap.

I am so, so glad I found committed practice in my life.

***

My yoga and meditation practices have helped me more than counseling, more than medication, more than book clubs, more than support groups.

(all those things are wonderful AND I’ve used or continue to use them all!)

But as far as benefits; yoga has helped me the most.

Yoga is one of the only times I get a guaranteed respite from self-absorption, from worry, from obsessive thoughts.

Yoga is always there for me. If I can breathe, I can practice.

Yoga never lets me down.

I have always felt better after I stepped off the mat!

Meditation is trickier – it took a lot longer for me to consciously experience benefits. (I’m grateful I stuck it out as long as I did!) I plan to write a lot more about meditation this year. I hope you stick with me!

And in the meantime:

I’m here, if you want to join me.

I’m ready when you are!

It’s the adventure of a lifetime!

“I don’t need props” – a different perspective

I believe in using props for yoga asana practice.

If you are starting a home practice, the supplies I recommend are (in relative order):

Comfortable, clean clothing
A yoga mat
Two yoga blocks (standard size of 4″ by 4″ by 9″), preferably foam
A yoga blanket (or two) – any firm, throw-sized blanket will work
A strap (non-stretch)
A bolster (firm)

If you have the above, you are well on the way to creating a safe, joyful practice!

If you are short on funds and/or time resources, or you cannot find a friend to loan you these items – please know that really, any nonslip surface (including your carpeted floor) will work for yoga.

But I want you to think about something.

By even considering making yoga a part of your life, you are investing your most valuable resource – time.

If you are willing to invest time, finding some funding is a way to respect that commitment. It is worth the time – and saving pennies, even – to invest in a mat and blocks.

You can find both for under $25.

Don’t worry if they’re not “top of the line”. I didn’t start with “top of the line” stuff – and by the way, I still mostly wear t-shirts and sweatpants to practice.

***

Don’t get too over-worried about props. There are loads of accoutrement for yoga! So if you’ve made a start on the basics above, you’re doing well.

Yoga has been around about 5,000 years! Unfortunately in America, yoga is often looked at as a workout, a fitness regime, or an extreme flexibility practice. Due to the Western colonization of yoga we’ve developed a distinctly white-washed, classist, fatphobic, culturally appropriative, ableist, Capitalist and FITSPO concept of yoga.

I have a lot more to say about the above at some other time!

But for now I will say: all of the above are problems. But when it comes to “I don’t need props” – fitspo is probably the biggest obstacle.

Fitspo transforms the practice of yoga into another workout in which we want to:

demonstrate impressive-looking results to the class (or instructor),

and/or achieve a certain look, physique, or series of abilities, 

and/or compete with other students.

Fitspo focusses on results like weight loss, or getting “smaller” – but fitspo may also focus on making your poses (called asana) LOOK good.

And that’s where people will refuse props, telling me they “don’t need them”.

I see this all the time. I’ll help lead a class into their version of a split – hanumanasana. I’ll encourage them to use blocks under their front extended leg – as many blocks as they need to feel stable. I’ll further encourage them to use blocks under their hands as well, so they can “rest” in a split – feeling a wonderful sensation without pain – and let gravity help them find ease and exhilaration in the asana.

Inevitably, the student who told me they “don’t need props” will be struggling to get their pelvis as low to the ground as possible, propping the weight of their body on their arms, and not only looking shaky but risking a very real injury – a hamstring or groin strain or tear.

If you’ve been that student – if you’ve ever hurt yourself while trying to “keep up” or look good –

Well, so have I!

Welcome to the club!

So: no one should feel bad about this!

It can take a long time – sometimes even years! – to start listening to the instructor’s cues, and (far more importantly) to begin listening to our body’s signals.

It can also take a lot of time – and hard work – to feel confident about using props, instead of being worried what other students (or the instructor) will think. It takes courage or self-confidence to stop while the other students are practicing, and walk over to collect more props to assist you in the pose.

But that is exactly what I invite you to do.

Students who behave this way – who listen to their bodies with care – show me they are invested in the journey, and they’re going to learn to love the practice.

***

One more point:

Props don’t just help you stay safe.

They can help you achieve an alignment, posture, or relaxation which allows you to more fully experience the benefits of the pose.

Here is one example.

If you are not able to comfortably bring your forehead to the mat in child’s pose (balasana), even with your knees apart, the use of props to provide support to your forehead, chest, belly, knees or arms – may make all the difference in the world! Instead of feeling pain, strain or uncertainty – and trying to mask your ragged breath – you’ll relax into this restorative pose and access your pranayama (breath-energy) all the better.

***

I invite you to stop seeing props as a challenge to your ego.

If nothing else: please trust me that if you make yourself miserable on the mat, you won’t want to come back.

So if you’re planning on making yourself hate practice – well, why start in the first place?

You began your practice of yoga because you believed in it – or at least, you were willing to approach with an open mind.

So let props help your body.

You’ll come to love them as much as I do!

***

I did not include links in this post for two reasons: I am not trying to sell anything (or get a kickback for link sales), and also – these things are pretty simple to find. If you have any questions, schedule a private session or come to class!

My every aim is to be helpful.

Here’s a pretty good article breaking fitspo down. If the link doesn’t work, let me know and I’ll update this post with a new one!

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