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Working out in a body-positive Vancouver gym

“I want to change the narrative of what it means to have autonomy when it comes to training our bodies,” said Ruby Smith-Díaz

By Collins Maina , in City , on March 13, 2019

Listen to Ruby and Ben’s story here: 


Ruby Smith-Díaz’s goal is to turn the personal-training business on its head.

As an educator, advocate, and multidisciplinary artist, she was fed up with gyms that weren’t inclusive for all clients. She decided to open Autonomy Personal Training in east Vancouver.

The specialized service, started up in January 2018, is a body-positive practice that vocally centres Indigenous and black, people of colour, as well as queer and trans folk.

Ruby started the service because most of the current personal-training models that exist in the city under-serve many communities.

Ruby guides Ben Joslyn through a set of warm-up exercises.

“I want to change the narrative of what it means to have autonomy when it comes to training our bodies,” Ruby said. “For me, that also means centring bodies that have been marginalized by our society.”

Letting the client “guide the process”

Ruby customizes training programs for her clients.

She takes into account the client’s restrictions – including what movements they dislike and what triggers they may have around their own bodies or the space.

“I’m not here to critique their bodies and I’m not here to dictate what they need to do to ‘have a better body’ – if we even want to use that terminology,” she said.

Ben Joslyn, one of Ruby’s first clients, says working with Ruby is a welcome change from the  masculine community centre gyms he used to go to.

“[Ruby’s] intention was to acknowledge the diversity that there can be,” he said.

Client Ben Joslyn works through a series of core-strengthening drills.

“One piece is about gender and me being trans and feeling supported in that way, and knowing that she supports other gender non-conforming and trans folks, folks of colour, and fat folks.”

Ruby uses gender-neutral language, she tailors workouts to clients limits, and, in little things, she does what she can to make the space warm – like letting Ben decide what kind of music he wants.

“With the inclusive space, it’s okay to rest and breathe and not push through something you don’t need to push you through,” he said.

Reducing barriers and increasing inclusive spaces

Ruby says many clients face barriers that get in the way of their training. Some cannot afford to pay, others describe fat shaming or places that don’t include people that look like them.

Ruby debriefs with Ben at the end of the session.

Autonomy’s website reflects sliding-scale prices to increase access for low-income individuals who are Indigenous, black, queer, trans, non-binary and racialized, through their Right to Movement Community Access Fund sustained mostly by donated funds.

Autonomy is one example of several inclusive workout spaces popping up around the city.

Queer Box Camp, which operates in the same east Vancouver gym space as Autonomy, was founded in 2011 and offers technique, fitness and conditioning classes based on boxing training to similar underserved communities.

The City of Vancouver also currently has two initiatives that create specific time slots for trans, gender-diverse, and two-spirit people to swim and work out within specific city facilities.