Thank you to Patagonia for your support of our editorial coverage of yoga for every body.
For decades, Anna Guest-Jelley felt disconnected from her body. But then, standing in a yoga class sometime in her late 20s, she felt a glimmer of a connection when the teacher cued her to feel what was happening with her right little toe. “After so many years of quashing my body’s signals in favor of following the rules of my latest diet, it had become all but impossible for me to notice anything going on with my body,” writes Guest-Jelley in her new book, Curvy Yoga. “But this time, as my inner awareness woke up, I felt the uniquely squishy, yet firm, sensation of the mat underneath my baby toe. And I noticed how the inside of my toe was pressed down more than the outside was, telling me I wasn’t fully engaging my whole foot in the pose.”
Guest-Jelley now brings this acute awareness into every yoga class, whether she’s practicing or teaching. It’s the same awareness that allows her to understand the ebbs and flows of her body and its weight. “The only truth of the body is that it’s going to change,” Guest-Jelley says. “You can accept this body you have now, and that it will change.”
Body acceptance. Body confidence. Body positivity. There are abundant ways to refer to the often elusive concept of feeling at home in your own skin. It’s elusive because “we live in a culture where there is enormous pressure for people to look a certain way in order to feel OK,” explains Linda Bacon, PhD, author of Body Respect and Health at Every Size. “At this point, the myth of the thinner body being a healthier, happier one has become culturally well established.”
If you are battling to accept your size, Bacon recommends separating functionality from appearance—for example, if you can, take a walk and notice how amazing your legs are as a means of getting around, rather than thinking about how fat your thighs are—and practicing yoga. “If you have a larger body, you may not be able to get into certain poses, but you don’t need to,” Bacon says. “There are other poses you can do. If the yoga instructor is doing poses that are not supporting, or adapted for, larger people in the class, the instructor is the problem—not the bodies of the participants.”
Yoga has been shown to be an effective way to help people appreciate and enjoy their bodies. And Guest-Jelley has noticed more and more larger people in class over the past decade. “More teachers are realizing that supporting all students in their classes is a win-win for everyone,” she says. For a more comfortable practice, try the tips from Guest-Jelley, which she designed to help bigger bodies find comfort in poses in the moment and, ultimately, create acceptance by affirming the body as it is.
Take this opportunity to converse with your body exactly as it is, inviting your whole self to participate. Throughout the following sequence, you’ll be able to experiment with different pose options, finding the versions that work best for you. Then, use what you’ve learned to inform other, similar poses in your practice. Before beginning, come to a seated position and place your hands over your heart. Breathe at your own pace for at least 5 breaths, feeling the connection between your hands and your heartbeat, while also feeling your legs and bottom in contact with the mat. Let these physical sensations invite you into awareness. It is from this place of presence that you can begin the conversation of yoga, getting curious about what your body needs as you go. Use your yoga practice to build a foundation of acceptance—affirming your body by being with it and meeting its needs as they are today.
From Down Dog, experiment with stepping your right foot directly forward, either between your hands or behind your right hand. If you run into any challenges with this motion, here are two ways to come forward that will give you more space to move:
A From Down Dog, lower your knees to the ground briefly for Tabletop. Lean a little toward your left knee, and then step your right foot to the outside of your right hand. From there, lift your hips and bring your left foot up to meet your right, coming into Uttanasana.
B For a quicker transition, or if coming onto your knees isn’t possible, try this version: From Down Dog, lift your right leg up into the air, and then, in one or more steps, place your right foot to the outside of your right hand. From there, move your back foot forward (in one or more steps) to meet your right foot in Uttanasana.
Use these practice tools to gain leverage, space, and mobility in other poses in which stepping forward is required.
Sit with your legs extended in front of you in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Use a blanket if you have tight hips (as shown). Experiment by folding forward on an exhalation. If your belly feels compressed, come up and try the follow- ing two options to determine which works best for you:
A Place a block outside of each thigh. Put your hands on the blocks as you inhale and lengthen your spine; exhale and fold forward, sliding the blocks along with you. Go as far as is comfortable. Try to keep your arms straight. You may want to play with the block height to find a comfortable level; they will give your body space to be in the pose comfortably, allowing you to extend your torso without compression.
B Bring your hands to your low belly. Press your belly in and down toward your pelvis, moving it any amount so you can fold over it. If it’s more comfortable, lift your belly to create space to fold into. From there, inhale and lengthen your spine; exhale and fold, reaching for your feet or legs—or incorporate the blocks like you did in variation A.
Use these practice tools to make space in other seated and standing forward bends.
Move into Sukhasana (Easy Pose),or a cross-legged position. Place your right hand under your right sit bone and move the flesh out and back. Repeat on the left side. Then, extend your left leg in front of you and bend your right knee, placing your right foot on the floor by your left knee or thigh. Inhale and lengthen your spine; exhale and twist to your right, bringing your right hand behind you and your left hand (or elbow) to the outside of your right knee.This will give you a gauge by which to assess the following variations:
A If your belly felt at all compressed or stuck on the thigh that you twisted toward, try this: Bring the sole of your right foot to your left thigh. Bring your right hand to your low belly on the right side. Move your belly to the left, in the opposite direction of the twist. Then, bring your knee up (widen your stance if needed) and come into the twist again. Release your belly.
B If your left arm gets stuck on your chest as you twist, lift the arm, and with your right hand, move your left breast under your left arm in order to make room for the arm. Then, bring your left hand to the outside of your bent, right leg; twist, and release your chest, bringing your right hand behind you for support.
Use these practice tools to move your belly toward the center of your torso—and your chest under your arm—in other seated and standing twists.
Begin standing with a wide stance—your feet 2–4 feet apart. Turn your left toes in about 30 degrees and rotate your right leg and foot out 90 degrees. Bend your right knee, making sure it doesn’t move past your ankle. Bring your right forearm to your right thigh and assess how the right side of your body and hips feel. If they feel compressed, come out and try this:
A Create space on your right side by bringing your right hand to the right side of your lower belly. Move your belly a little to the left, keeping the right side of your body long as you bring your right forearm above your right knee. Release your belly. Next, roll your left shoulder up and back and extend your left arm alongside your left ear.
Use this practice tool to alleviate compression between two parts of the body in a pose.
Finally, return to Tabletop. Begin to sit your hips back toward your heels as you walk your hands forward, coming into Child’s Pose. If your hips don’t come down comfortably, if your belly feels compressed, or if you feel a bit suffocated by your chest, try this:
A From Tabletop, place a block in front of you on a low setting. Take your knees as wide as the mat, with your big toes touching each other. Begin moving your hips back. Your belly will have more space now that your legs are wider. Walk your arms forward and bring your forehead to the block, which will allow for more room to breathe.
Use these practice tools to take your legs wider and support your breath in other forward bends—both seated and standing.
Patagonia's mission is to build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. Learn more at Patagonia.com
Sign up now for Yoga Journal’s new online course Inclusivity Training for Yoga: Building Community with Compassion for an introduction to the skills and tools you need as a teacher and as a student. In this class, you’ll learn how to better identify student needs, make compassionate and inclusive language choices, gracefully offer pose alternatives, give appropriate assists, reach out to neighboring communities, and expand and diversify your classes.