By Amber Karnes
Throughout my life, I’ve often arranged my own body to make myself appear smaller than I actually am.
Have you ever sucked in your stomach to look thinner? It’s such a universal experience that I actually don’t know anyone who hasn’t done this. Our culture holds up a flat stomach as the “right” way for a body to look, regardless of age, gender, or body type. But sucking in your stomach to make your body appear smaller means you’re not able to take a full, deep breath.
Fatphobia has had a profound effect on my relationship with my breath. I’m a yoga teacher and so I teach people about their breath: how it works, how to change or control it, how to use it as a tool to facilitate calm, how to use it to build or dissipate heat or energy, and more.
When you suck in your stomach, you have to engage your abdominal muscles in a way that keeps your ribs still. In teacher training I learned that in order to take a full breath, your ribs have to move. As your lungs fill with air and become bigger, the belly “expands” as pressure changes inside the body and the organs move to accommodate the lungs. The ribs must move and the belly must expand, poke out, and appear bigger in order to take a full breath.
This means that even though I had practiced yoga for 7 years when I learned this, I realized that I had never taken a full, deep, unrestricted breath. I had a habitual pattern of sucking in my stomach to appear thinner. My nervous system was trained to constantly hold tension in my abdominal muscles. I did it without even realizing, almost all the time. Internalized fatphobia kept me from breathing fully and disconnected me from my greatest resource for self-regulation, my breath.
Diet culture teaches us to distrust our bodies, including the way we breathe. We are conditioned to believe that heavy breathing or being out of breath is something we should feel ashamed of. We are taught to feel shame when we breathe heavily because it usually signals that we are “out of shape.” But I want us to get honest about what we really mean when we say we are out of shape.
When we say we are out of shape, we usually mean things like:
This of course has nothing to do with physical shape. Healthy and unhealthy people come in all shapes and sizes. Athletes come in all shapes and sizes. You cannot tell how “in shape” someone is by looking at them.
Health is not a shape. Fitness is not a shape. But the language we use around this matters. It reinforces dominant culture’s ranking of bodies as good or bad, desirable or undesirable, right or wrong.
Before pandemic times, I spent 2-3 weeks of my year leading yoga retreats. Most of the people that come on my retreats are women in larger bodies. When I held a retreat in Mexico last summer, there were a lot of stairs. The communal dining space was 4 flights up. Every single one of us arrived at meals breathing heavily. Folks were apologizing for being winded or talking about how they were out of shape. One person even pulled me aside and told me she was angry with her body for being out of breath. This was a retreat focused on body acceptance and it was clear a reframe was necessary.
My friend Deb Malkin was on the retreat and I enlisted her help. Deb is a badass longtime fat activist, specializes in massage and movement for fat bodies, and does wild stuff like climb Mount Kilimanjaro. (Follow her on Instagram, or you can check out her website.) I asked her to help me give a pep talk to my retreat participants about why being out of breath is actually awesome. It went something like this:
Once upon a time I hated being out of breath. I am fat. I had so many thoughts about being out of breath—that I was lazy, or out of shape, or a loser. I avoided situations in which I would be out of breath, especially in front of other people.
Once I became a massage therapist and studied the lymphatic system, my entire understanding of myself as a HUMAN BEING shifted. My fat body, just like everyone's body, has a multitude of systems that are all conspiring to keep me alive. I was not only a skin suit full of FAT like my doctors led me to believe.
The lymphatic system is a circulatory system in our body that we pretty much ignore until something goes wrong. The lymphatic system basically draws out fluid from our in-between spaces, moves it through a series of tubes where it gets processed through the lymph nodes. Lymph nodes analyze the fluid and decide if there's immune-related issues that it needs to respond to by sending out B or T cells. Lymph also contains oxygen and nutrients which feed the surrounding cells. The processed lymph continues on through its journey and that fluid re-enters the bloodstream or is eliminated through urination.
So it's very important that lymph MOVES. It's both feeding and removing waste from your body all day long. When lymph doesn't move through its circulatory process, it kind of hangs out in the body and is called edema (swelling). That lymph can be protein rich which makes it delicious for bacteria and can cause an infection called cellulitis.
They say the lymph system doesn't have a pump like our blood circulatory system (the heart). But in fact, the lymph system has lots of LITTLE PUMPS all over your body. Once the fluid is in the lymph vessels, joint and muscle movements push it through the system opening and closing valves and undulating it along.
Meaning, whenever we exert ourselves or change positions after sitting in one for a long time, or stretch, or take a 30 second wacky dance break, we are doing what I call pushin’ lymph. Once I learned that the diaphragm and sternum are full of lymph nodes and that the largest receptacle of lymph, the cisterna chyli which is connected to the thoracic duct, is in the belly, I had a complete 180 about heavy breathing.
Breathing deeply is a healthful process. We are activating this essential circulatory system. We can choose to engage in an intentional breathing practice like in yoga, but we are also doing this when we run for the bus, when we walk up the stairs and stop to catch our breath on the landing, when we finish carrying in our groceries or laundry and find ourselves breathing deeply from the exertion.
I don't think of it as embarrassing to be a fat person breathing heavily anymore. I think of it as a rebellious act that is literally nourishing me or taking away the waste (like other people's fatphobic bs).
As a community, we decided then and there, that every time we climbed the stairs, if we started to feel awkward or ashamed about our breath, we'd yell PUSHIN’ LYMPH in a loud voice*, and whoever was within earshot would echo, PUSHIN’ LYMPH!
*When I yelled it, I was channeling Hulk Hogan’s raspy voice... PUSHIN’ LYMPH, BROTHER! I do not know whose voice other retreat participants were channeling.*
PUSHIN’ LYMPH became a rallying cry and a reframe we all needed. It reframed our lived experience in a way that brought the power and agency back home to our own bodies and what they could do (rather than some arbitrarily weird societal expectation that nobody is ever supposed to breathe hard).
I’m here to convince you that being out of breath is awesome. It's where the magic happens. It's where capacity is built. It's where you get better at doing something so that the next time it's a little easier, and the next time it's a little easier.
A fatphobic medical system and diet culture have taught us to blame everything on our weight. I’ve hiked next to so many fat women who apologize to me for being out of breath while they are climbing a literal mountain.
I usually ask them this: If you were hiking up a mountain next to a thin person who was carrying a 100-pound rucksack and they were out of breath, would you be critical of them? Would you assume that they're out of shape?
I ask this because a fat person weighing 50 or 100 pounds more than a thin person has functionally the same set of human lungs, but of course requires more oxygen to complete the task (just as a thin person carrying a rucksack would).
The amount of oxygen a person needs for physical activity is dependent on that body's capacity (how “trained” they are for the task) and the demands that are placed on the body (including weight, whether that’s your bodyweight or a rucksack).
Being out of breath during exertion is normal. Yet many people of all shapes and sizes have told me they avoid physical activity because they don’t want to feel shame for being out of breath.
Listen. There are thin people who get out of breath climbing the stairs out of the subway. And there are fat people who can sing and play a flute while dancing for hours and not be out of breath (all hail Lizzo).
Breath capacity is something that can be trained, if you want to. It is not dependent on body size. The SAID principle applies here, as in all things. SAID = Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. It’s a principle from movement science which means that we get better (more functionally efficient) at an activity by doing that activity.
If you want to get faster at running, you don’t practice riding a bicycle. You get faster at running by practicing running.
If you want to be able to climb the stairs without being winded, you can train for that. You just have to climb a lot of stairs. This might or might not be important to you.
I don’t really like climbing stairs. So personally, I’d rather unlearn the illogical and harmful belief that breathing heavy is bad or wrong. To me, that is a lot easier than climbing a ton of stairs to prove to myself (or let’s be real, other people) that I’m “in shape” because I’m not out of breath when I climb them.
Since I am in charge of my own brain, that means I get to decide what I think about breathing. I have decided to reject the idea that breathing heavily is wrong. I have decided to believe instead:
I think we have to reckon with the ways that fatphobia affects our capacity for breath, especially those of us who are yoga teachers, fitness instructors, massage therapists, and other practitioners who work with folks’ physical bodies. I’m a yoga teacher, so I have addressed this connection between fatphobia and breath in a few ways in my classes.
We can all start to unlearn concepts like in shape and out of shape. We can start to reframe our feelings about bodies and breath through understanding our humanity.
Body diversity is normal. Human variability is normal. Breathing heavy is normal. And I think it’s kinda awesome.
Now unclench your belly and take a deep breath.
If this post got you thinking about the ways that diet culture has infiltrated your brain and your life, come learn more with us. Making Peace With Your Body is an online course (and a community) where we are working toward accepting our bodies, building unshakable confidence, and living our lives out loud. This course is a roadmap to body acceptance through the lens of yoga philosophy, mindful awareness, and social justice principles. Registration starts October 19.
Amber Karnes, E-RYT-200, is a yoga teacher trainer, ruckus maker, the founder of Body Positive Yoga, and a lifelong student of her body. She trains yoga teachers and movement educators how to create accessible and equitable wellness spaces for liberation and belonging. She also creates community for folks who want to build unshakable confidence and learn to live without shame or apology in the bodies they have today.
Amber is the co-creator of Yoga For All Teacher Training and the Accessible Yoga Training School, an Accessible Yoga Association board member, and a sought-after contributor on the topics of accessibility, authentic marketing, culture-shifting, and community-building. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with her husband Jimmy. You can find her at bodypositiveyoga.com.