At age six, Shannon Kaneshige started practicing yoga with their mother, following Lilias on her show “Lilias, Yoga and You,” which aired on PBS from the 1970s to 1999. (Kaneshige is a non-binary person who uses they/them pronouns). This was pre-internet, so they expanded their practice using books and videos.
“I was heavier than other kids around me when I was 8 or 9,” they remember. “I avoided activity in public because I would be teased for my body or slowness.”
Kaneshige continued their yoga practice into adulthood, adding weight training ten years ago. To avoid fat phobia, they learned from YouTube instead of going to a gym because “I had so many bad experiences in gyms and ‘fitness’ spaces that I wasn’t willing to put myself through that again.”
Two years later, Kaneshige moved to Hawaii and started hiking and scrambling a couple times a week. Scrambling is similar to hill walking, rock climbing and mountaineering, often described as hiking on steep terrain, involving your hands.
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Body Positive Fitness
In 2018, they moved to Toronto and found Body Positive Fitness. Founded by anti-diet personal trainer Jenna Doak, the studio promises “no weight loss talk, no diet talk, no body shame and 100% size inclusive. ALL fitness levels welcome!” Kaneshige joined and was delighted to start weight training in, as they put it, “an environment I felt safe in.”
Kaneshige had always been drawn to activities that increase strength and allow them to track their progress so they can see improvement. Hiking and weight training fit that bill. But it wasn’t easy. They found that there was also a lot of ego wrapped up in weightlifting. “It also took me a long time to remove the idea of self-worth being tied to external indicators,” they say.
And while Kaneshige enjoyed the time in nature that hiking provided, they did not enjoy meeting people on the trails. People would often assume that they were a beginner (because of those hikers’ stereotypes about fat people) and feel the need to provide reassurance, which Kaneshige found both frustrating and insulting.
Because of fat phobia, Kaneshige was “often actively discouraged from participating at gyms and yoga studios” — until they discovered Body Positive Fitness. Until then, Kaneshige recalls “assumptions were made about my abilities, or it was assumed I was there for weight-loss.” As a non-binary person, they are also often misgendered.
Yoga for All Bodies
When Body Positive Fitness began offering yoga with Shanèl Dear, Kaneshige didn’t hesitate. Dear taught variations for different body sizes and shapes and, for Kaneshige, it was a revelation: role models of larger bodies doing poses. And they learned that the modifications they had been making intuitively in their own practice were actually encouraged. “I realized I didn’t have to look like the people on the DVDs to have a serious practice.”
While their yoga practice began as a way to measurably improve flexibility, it grew to be much more. “After years spent disconnecting and ignoring my body because society said it was wrong,” Kaneshige shares. “Yoga has helped me restore the mind-body connection and heal my relationship with my body.”
Kaneshige’s journey into body acceptance was also deeply influenced when their six-month-old son was diagnosed with cancer. They recall, “I realized I had almost no pictures with him. I had been so mean to myself and my body, when it had served me so well. It really reframed my relationship with my body. I also wanted to be able to set an example for my son, that no matter what society says about your body, it is yours and worthy of compassion and respect.”
Wanting to share that with others, Kaneshige made the decision to teach yoga. And so, Fringeish — their fat-positive yoga company — was born. Kaneshige is active on TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, where they have over 8,000 followers. One of their favorite things as an instructor is “helping someone find a pose variation where they can truly experience feeling strong and connected to their body, without self-judgment or shame. Helping my students gain confidence and reconnect to their bodies by using their practice for self-compassion.”
Doing that work comes with personal sacrifice. “I am constantly trolled online, told that I am too fat to be teaching. I try very hard to remember that it is a reflection of their own insecurities much more than my abilities or appearance.”
Because of their experience being judged, excluded and on occasion actively mocked or harassed, Kaneshige is dedicated to helping people build a home practice, giving them a chance to feel safe and build confidence before deciding if they want to join a group class at a studio
When I ask Kaneshige in what ways they feel they aren’t a “stereotypical” yoga practitioner and teacher, they respond, “I honestly think I am more stereotypical of yoga practitioners than the media would suggest. People of all body types, races, abilities and genders practice asana, but you generally only see images of straight-sized, cisgender, white women. I am white, but I am super-fat and non-binary. Many people automatically see me as an outlier, but the irony is that I am not, especially when we look on a global scale. The image of a white, perfectly flexible practitioner is the outlier.”
How to Make Fitness Studios More Inclusive
How can studios be more welcoming and inclusive? Kaneshige offers some suggestions:
— Include images of fat bodies participating without it being in a weight-loss context.
— Hire fat teachers.
— Training straight-sized staff in variations that are accessible for all.
— Include non-binary and LGBTQIA folx by respecting pronouns and use ungendered language in yoga classes.
— Be mindful of the dysphoria a lot of transgendered folx experience.
— Become educated about how to provide a supportive environment.
For teachers and practitioners, they add, “honestly, just don’t make assumptions about someone based on how they look. Fat people can do all types of asana. Don’t assume gender, and tell people what your pronouns are. Make space for those who need mobility devices, and treat people with kindness.
Kaneshige’s son is now four years cancer free. During September, Childhood Cancer Awareness month, they used their platform to raise funds for Hawaii Children’s Cancer Foundation, which provided support during their son’s treatment. They are also teaching yoga to people around the world using Zoom, “helping folx learn how to take up space in the world, both on and off the mat.”
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Correction 01/13/21: A previous version of this story misstated Shannon Kaneshige’s gender pronoun.