Years ago, Darshana Weill was a dancer who found herself battered by messages about her body. She constantly felt she had to lose weight, she recalls, and as a result, she developed what she felt was an unhealthy relationship with food. Eventually she began practicing yoga and, particularly after studying in the Kripalu yoga tradition, integrated a new way of relating to food and weight. She wanted, she says, "to find some peace with my body." And, she says, she found that "[yoga] calmed me around my relationship with food, stopped me from having an eating disorder and from obsessing."
Eventually Weill started a business called Fruition Health, based in San Francisco, which uses yogic philosophies to teach new ways of dealing with food and body image. She instructs clients how to cook satisfying meals with whole foods and runs yoga classes designed to welcome students of all sizes.
Having classes that explicitly cater to fuller-bodied yoga students is an important shift in a world in which yoga is often seen as the territory of thin people whose bodies twist easily into Gumby-esqe shapes. But even without specifically focusing on larger students, there are many ways teachers can subtly shift their classes to make students of all body types feel welcomed.
"Originally [yoga] was for young men, but we've Westernized it and it's for everybody," says Weill. "Everybody breathes and everybody has a body and a spirit." Fundamentally, she says, it's about returning to the essence of yoga. "If yoga is about freedom and understanding our true nature and our true essence, it's not really about twisting into a specific position."
Christina Sell, author of the book Yoga from the Inside Out, reminds teachers that most students are going to have some hang-up they're dealing with. "Thin, fat, stiff, or loose—on the whole, people are vicious to themselves. That dynamic of running an inner monologue—that affects people of all shapes and sizes…[We tell ourselves] 'I should be other than I am right now.'"
So a big part of the practice, Sell says, is simply learning to sit with—and get comfortable with—who we are. The asanas are a tool, but the practice is less about fitting precisely into the most difficult physical form of a pose than it is about working with breath and movement at every level. "As teachers, we need to endeavor to become aware of our own biases," says Sell, who runs an Anusara Yoga studio in Prescott, Arizona.
It is important also to remember that many fuller-bodied students don't face limitation and can do most-if not all-poses, depending on their physical condition.
Even so, points out Julie Gudmestad, a physical therapist and yoga teacher who writes Yoga Journal's anatomy column, it's good to consider how your classes could better suit people of different needs. "A lot of bigger folks have had a lot of frustration and embarrassment in P.E. class and other places. It's good to offer a forum where they won't be frustrated."
The key, she says, is to make things possible. Weill agrees, and recommends demonstrating how to use props as often as you can to take away the stigma of altering poses. She also suggests teaching to the least experienced person in the room—so there's no shame in being the one person using a block and strap—or working with a variation of a pose that others might seem to be able to do with less struggle.
Gudmestad adds that teachers need to get to know their students' backgrounds and abilities. Partly it's acknowledging the obvious: Beginning students of all body types belong in beginner classes.
But it's also essential to learn about each student's strengths and weaknesses. For some heavier students who have lived a sedentary life and who have limited upper body strength, poses such as Sirsasana (Headstand) or Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose) may be particularly challenging, notes Gudmestad. Other students could be quite curvy but might also be very strong and flexible. So, as a teacher, you should present options, and then watch to see whether or not there are poses that might be unsafe for your students.
Ultimately, it comes back to one of the basic lessons of yoga for both student and teacher, what Weill calls "feeling the fullness of who you are"—in other words, being present with what is, which hopefully leads to increased honesty about your own health and abilities.
As Sell puts it, "In our appearance-based culture, we're doing an apparently physical practice. So I'm always reminding students that it only looks like postures. In reality, it's a practice of awareness and self-respect. You can't say that too many times."
Writer and yoga teacher Rachel Brahinsky lives in San Francisco.