Sizing Up: Yoga for Larger Bodies

by Bess Hochstein

It’s an all-too-familiar scenario: Someone I meet for the first time is surprised to learn that I have a serious Ashtanga Yoga practice, simply because I don’t look like a svelte “yoga babe.” I’ve got curves, and I do yoga, and I’m fine with that, but even after decades of classes at shalas across the country, I can’t stop myself from scanning the room to see if there are others on the mat who don’t have that “yoga butt”—others, like me, who don’t conform to the stereotypical image of a yoga practitioner, the one we see again and again in the media.

While yoga is good for everybody, these images send the message that yoga is not for every body. But a growing number of teachers are bent on encouraging people who don’t look like string beans or bend like pretzels to get onto the mat and into a whole new mindset.

New York City–based instructor Michael Hayes, creator of Buddha Body Yoga, knows from experience how isolating it is to be the largest student in the classroom, or to use props when no one else is. When he began taking vigorous vinyasa classes about 10 years ago, “I was the only person using blocks,” he recalls. “It was challenging, feeling like you’re on training wheels when everyone else is riding the bike.” He realized there was a need for yoga tailored to larger students when he noticed that teachers would regularly point him out as a model for other big-bodied students looking to modify poses.

“I was usually the biggest guy in the class, and you get a sense that most teachers don’t know how to deal with that,” says Michael, who’s also a trained bodyworker and former dancer. “People of size need different help. Most schools have a routine that they’re following rather than looking at the individuals and seeing what they need.” Inspired to serve this population, Michael got his yoga teacher certification, studied yoga therapy, and traveled to Thailand to work with master teachers.

Nearly as soon as he began offering classes for plus-size students, The New York Times ran a story featuring Buddha Body Yoga, and demand for his classes went through the roof, prompting him to find a larger space and offer more frequent classes. He limits class size to four (and limits his students’ size to large) and encourages them to speak up, ask questions, and give feedback. “It’s not a quiet class,” he says. “I’ve got very rambunctious students. They let me know what’s going on in their bodies.” He uses plentiful props—super-sized blocks, chairs, physioballs, bolsters, and extra-long straps—that enable students to approach asanas in a way that works for their shapes.

Rather than building a base of long-term students, Michael’s goal is to arm practitioners with the knowledge and confidence that will empower them to join “mainstream” yoga classes. But, given the demand for his classes, as well as the many people who are too intimidated to even try yoga, he says, “Eventually, I’d like to see every school of yoga have a place for large bodies.”

Lanita Varshell, founder of A Gentle Way Yoga Center in La Mesa, California, was originally one of those too intimidated to try yoga. At 250 pounds, suffering through chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, and a bad marriage, she finally went to a class, at a teacher’s persistent urging, “just to prove that I couldn’t do yoga, and to get her to leave me alone,” she recalls. “I cried quietly during the entire class. Not because it was hard, or hurt, but because it was something my body could do without pain, and because I was feeling body, mind, and spirit working together for the first time. I knew this was something that I had to do for the rest of my life.”

Not only did she commit to a yoga practice, she also committed to bringing this experience to others facing similar challenges. After years of practice and study, she created two unique approaches to teaching plus-size students: Meditation in Movement Style Yoga, which she describes as easy but deceptively deep floor-based yoga for the back, spine, hips, and mind; and Aalamba Yoga, a joyful, more active form of healing movement, done with support. She’ll introduce principles from both approaches in her Kripalu program this fall.

As a teacher since 1996, and a veteran trainer of yoga teachers on how to adapt their classes to larger, older, less mobile, and health-challenged individuals, Lanita allows her personal experience to guide her approach. “My concerns as a teacher when working with students carrying extra weight is getting into an asana safely—the extra weight and gravity can take them down toward the floor too quickly—how long should they hold it, and can they come out of it safely without injury?” she says. “These are safety concerns that I am always aware of, because I’m still living in a large body, whereas a small teacher may not even think of something that she or he isn’t feeling themselves.”

Beyond asana, Lanita also addresses issues such as confidence and self-esteem in her classes. “Sadly, I get students on a regular basis who were either turned away by another style of yoga, even told that they were ‘too fat to do yoga,’ or could simply not do or keep up with other classes and styles,” she says. “My goal is to get their focus off their weight, and use relaxation techniques, breath, and yoga principles to help them accept and even love their bodies and their lives, just as they are today.”

The elephant in the room, so to speak, is the hard-to-kill hope that your practice might eventually get you that yoga butt, or at least help you lose a few pounds. And while both Michael and Lanita agree that regular practice often results in weight loss, they don’t view this as the goal. Dean of the Kripalu School of Yoga Cristie Newhart, who has taught in Kripalu’s Healthy Living program Integrative Weight Loss, says she knows of no direct correlation between yoga and weight loss. “What I do know,” she says, “is that regular practice brings more mindfulness to one’s experience and creates more body awareness, which leads to greater sensitivity to the body. All of these things are key to lifestyle changes, and lifestyle changes do correlate to weight loss. The important change people make is that they stop speaking so much in terms of weight loss, and more in terms of wellness. They stop seeing themselves as a body that needs to be overcome, perfected, and changed.  They’re willing to be happy now, and let any weight changes be part of an overall lifestyle plan.”

My own long history with yoga has demonstrated this to be true. Over years of practice, my diet has changed—seemingly of its own accord—and I know I have to go to bed earlier and eat lighter to get up for class at the crack of dawn. I’ve also gained a greater appreciation of all that I can do, rather than focusing on the asanas I can’t get into—yet. And I chuckle silently whenever I’m in a posture—like Upward Boat—where a little extra padding instead of a “yoga butt” actually gives me a bit of an advantage.

Bess Hochstein, a freelance writer based in Sonoma County, California, writes about yoga, travel, spas, the arts and culture, food and wine—all the good things in life.

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