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Hatha yoga isn’t just for the slim and slinky. A few basic modifications can make Hatha Yoga’s gifts—flexibility, balance, strength, stress reduction, and increased awareness—accessible to every body.
Midway through her first yoga class, Kay Erdwinn wanted desperately to disappear.
Erdwinn had come to the class, not far from her Southern California neighborhood, in search of a noncompetitive, inwardly focused way to exercise. Instead, she found a teacher who demanded that she upend her five-foot-two-inch, 260-pound body into Halasana (Plow Pose).
The teacher hunkered down beside her on his hands and knees, egging her on like an overadrenalized sports coach: “Come on, come on, you can do it,” he barked. Each yell made her feel more inadequate and humiliated. Erdwinn, then 23, didn’t have enough self-confidence to gently tell the teacher what she was thinking: “I know you want me to do these asanas really well, but I am not here to compete and get really aggressive.” She fumbled though the class as best as she could, then ran for the nearest door and never came back. “The whole thing scared me away,” she recalls.
But Erdwinn didn’t stay scared. She still wanted to find a meditative movement practice. In addition, she had fibromyalgia and had read that yoga might help relieve the muscle pain, sleep disturbances, and chronic fatigue that accompanied it. Erdwinn tried practicing from a book, checked out a few classes in nearby health clubs, and finally, years later, found the class her instincts had always told her must exist.
Unlike her first experience, this class was small and warm and welcoming. The instructor, trained in Ananda Yoga, began each session with meditation, offered advice gently without singling anyone out, and routinely told her students that if any asana didn’t feel possible, they should feel free to explore ways they could make it work for them.
Erdwinn felt as if she’d come home. The classes offered her the meditative, spiritual atmosphere she’d been hoping to find. As she practiced, she grew stronger, more flexible, and less easily winded. She didn’t lose weight, but she felt much healthier. And, she says, yoga has put her in much better touch with her body. “Being very aware of my body has been a tremendous gift,” she observes, noting that this awareness has grounded her, emotionally and physically, and provided a number of benefits in her everyday life, including greater relaxation and better posture.
Today, Erdwinn, who has recently completed medical school and will soon begin a residency in psychiatry, practices yoga regularly and sometimes teaches Ananda Yoga classes she designs specifically to welcome all body types. She is among a growing number of yogis with expansive bodies who are twisting, balancing, and bending. They’re exploring this ancient tradition and making it their own.
They are learning that yoga is an equal-opportunity pleasure. The ease, relaxation, power, and joy of settling into a pose are all available to people of every size. Once a few special issues are addressed—some personal and some cultural—large yogis can get the same benefits from a physical yoga practice as anyone else: flexibility, balance, strength, stress reduction, increased awareness, and a better link between mind and body. With 64 percent of Americans now labeled either overweight or obese by doctors, this message has never been more needed. And it is a message that is increasingly being heard.
Fat and Fit
For large folks interested in exploring yoga, it can be helpful to explode the myth that good health comes only in thin packages. Body size is far less critical to overall health than even many doctors realize, says Glenn Gaesser, director of the kinesiology program at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and author of Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health.
In analyzing numerous medical studies, Gaesser found that inactivity and a bad diet contribute more to poor health than weight itself, and that it is possible for large people to lead fit, healthy, and long lives. “The benefits of weight loss have been kind of oversold,” he says. It is much easier for a large person to be (or become) fit than to become slim, and the health payoff is likely to be greater, Gaesser adds.
Weight itself—separate from the issue of a sedentary lifestyle—puts relatively few limits on a yoga practice. A heavy yogi’s joints will be under more stress and so should be treated more gently. Some asanas may need to be modified to allow for big bellies, backsides, thighs, and upper arms. Finally, for safety reasons, inversions may need to be omitted. In terms of general cautions for heavy yogis, that’s pretty much it. Other modifications differ from individual to individual; large people, just like thin ones, vary enormously. They run the gamut from fit to deconditioned, strong to weak, and flexible to stiff.
In fact, many of the preliminary steps on the road toward a personal yoga practice apply to everyone—young or old, big or small. If you’re a newcomer, it’s important to first determine what you want. Do you mostly want relaxation and help meditating? Do you want to bring increased movement into your life gently, or would you prefer a rigorous, athletic workout? Would you like a tool to help you lose weight, or would you rather accept and value yourself exactly as you are, without any expectation that your weight should change?
It’s also important to honestly assess how fit and healthy you really are. When starting any new fitness regime, people should know their health issues so they can practice safely. Erdwinn thinks everyone older than 40 should see a doctor before taking up yoga. In addition, she says, “large people tend to avoid health care, because they hate to get hassled about their weight, so there is a greater risk that they have undiagnosed problems.”
Also, people who don’t exercise or eat well might have certain health conditions that should be considered when deciding what to include in a yoga practice. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can make positions with the head placed below the heart—including some backbends, some forward bends, and inversions—dangerous. Diabetes can hamper the sense of balance. Holding the breath while inverting can be dangerous for anyone with a history of heart disease.
In addition, those starting a yoga practice should take stock of any existing joint or muscle issues and be aware of potential weaknesses. Carrying a lot of weight puts a great deal of stress on the feet, ankles, and knees. And someone with a big belly might need to modify certain asanas to protect the lower back.
After assessing health, it’s time to consider fitness—probably the biggest physical factor in choosing which type of yoga to pursue. Unless you already exercise often and strenuously, you should avoid yoga traditions that stress jumping into and out of poses, because the rapid moves increase the risk of injury. At least in the beginning, you may also want to rule out yoga styles that stick to a set of predetermined asanas, such as Bikram Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga. Larry Payne, director of the International Association of Yoga Therapists and coauthor of Yoga for Dummies, says that “a canned, one-size-fits-all approach” can be inappropriate for people who would benefit more from a practice that puts greater emphasis on modifying poses to suit each individual.
Reza Yavari, a Branford, Connecticut, endocrinologist and clinical faculty member at Yale University, has developed guidelines for matching his patients with the styles of yoga that best meet their needs. Yavari works with five yoga instructors at his Beyond Care clinic to design personalized programs to lower stress and manage osteoporosis, diabetes, weight loss, and other health issues.
He likes to prescribe flowing vinyasa-style sequences, often taught by Kripalu Yoga instructors, for his relatively fit but bulky patients, many of them men. For large patients with less muscle tone, he prefers Kundalini Yoga. “Instead of focusing on strength and balance,” he says, “Kundalini focuses on short intervals of repetitive movements. It builds lung capacity and tones the cardiovascular system.” For large people with back problems and neck pain, Yavari recommends restorative yoga classes. He does not advocate Bikram Yoga for anyone who is weighty and unfit, believing it leaves the door open to potential injury—although most Bikram instructors disagree, as do some heavy practitioners who swear by the Bikram method.
A Full-Bodied Approach
With a little knowledge, research, and perseverance, aspiring plus-size yogis can find their way to a rewarding yoga practice. Some people, like Kay Erdwinn, run into roadblocks on their journey. It can be hard to feel welcomed in a world where yoga has an image as the exclusive territory of the lean and the limber, where ads glamorize buff yoga bodies, and where teachers aren’t always knowledgeable about and sensitive to the needs of large students. For others, such obstacles never arise. Some large yogis move easily into a comfortable and appropriate practice, nurtured by understanding teachers or branches of yoga with traditions of shaping the asana to the individual.
“I was so lucky that the first teacher I tried turned out to be the right teacher for me,” says Kevin Knippa of Austin, Texas, who wandered into a recreational class near his house six years ago. He saw quickly that it didn’t matter at all to his teacher—or to the essence of his yoga practice—that he weighed 270 pounds at five-foot-ten or that his belly got in the way of forward bends and demanded gentler twists.
As Knippa continued to practice, his flexibility grew. His asthma lessened. His weight remained stable, while his health flourished. Knippa, who has recently signed up for a teacher training program, firmly believes his entry into yoga was smoothed by his teacher’s emphasis on avoiding competition and moving toward pleasure, as well as by Knippa’s own “as if” philosophy of life. “I act as if I’m supposed to be there,” he says. “I act as if I’m comfortable doing something. And I pretty rapidly become able to do it and comfortable doing it.”
If you’re a large student getting started in yoga, perhaps you’ll be as fortunate as Knippa. Maybe you’re lucky enough to live in an area where specialty classes with names like Big Yoga or Yoga for Round Bodies can be found. If there is no such specialty class near you and you live a fairly inactive life, classes labeled “gentle” can be more appropriate than those dubbed “beginner,” which can be quite rigorous.
After finding some classes that look promising, you can learn a lot by phoning in advance and arranging to speak with the teachers. Ask whether they have experience or interest in teaching large students. Inquire about the age, fitness level, and size of the people in their classes. Ask if there are chairs, bolsters, blocks, or other props available, and if there’s an unmirrored wall that can be used as a prop. If the instructor’s attitude about weight and weight loss will be important to you, make sure you discuss those topics.
Once you have found a class to try, go into it with these all-important cautions. First, move slowly into and out of poses.
Second, stop any movement that is painful. “Yoga is meant to be something where you challenge yourself but don’t strain yourself,” explains Payne, who helped create a course in yoga at the David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA. “You’re not supposed to stay in a posture that feels intuitively uncomfortable.”
A Practice That Fits
After sizing up your goals and health, finding a yoga style and teacher suited to you, and beginning to practice, you will find yourself confronting the special issues that need recognition. Large students should seriously consider excluding inversions from their practice, or at least significantly modifying them. Inversions can put strain on the neck, and extra weight can be too difficult to balance. A commonly recommended alternative is Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose), in which you lie on your back with your buttocks at a wall and your legs perpendicular to the floor and supported by the wall. All the other elements of a physical yoga practice—forward bending, backbending, stretching the sides, twisting, and balancing—are accessible to large students, although they can present their own difficulties.
The biggest challenge can be the stomach. Because the weight and bulk of the belly can change the way many poses feel, shifting it with the hands can improve a student’s experience, says Genia Pauli Haddon, a retired Kripalu Yoga instructor who in 1995 made two Yoga for Round Bodies videos with fellow teacher Linda DeMarco. “In belly-down positions, like Cobra, it is necessary for someone who has a large belly to reach beneath it and smooth those soft tissues up toward the diaphragm,” she explains. “That allows your pelvic bones to more readily come into contact with the floor.”
Other teachers stress the importance of manually positioning the belly in many different asanas: lifting the flesh and centering it on the forward thigh to avoid becoming unbalanced in lunging poses, for instance, or shifting it to the side to improve comfort and balance in standing twists like Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose). Along with repositioning the belly, large people may also need to modify poses to make room for it—by spreading the legs in Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) or Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), for example. Some teachers advise spreading the knees and using props under the forehead or beneath the hips to modify Balasana (Child’s Pose), while others say this pose simply may not be appropriate for big people.
Yoga props can be invaluable for large students. A sturdy chair supporting both hands can gently ease any less fit practitioner, over time, toward the full demands of Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose).
Placed beneath the lower hand in Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), a chair can also help bear the weight of a heavy torso. In general, a chair or wall can be enormously reassuring in balancing poses. A strap can help bridge the gaps for students who can’t quite grasp their toes or clasp their hands behind their backs. And sometimes props can be essential for safety. If done without support under the buttocks, Virasana (Hero Pose) can damage large people’s knees. Sitting on a bolster or a low bench can prevent bulky thighs from really overstressing the knee joints in this pose.
A final area to consider in hatha yoga practice is the selection of asanas. There are no universal guidelines for this. Some specialists in teaching large yogis believe it’s critical to include many hip-opening poses; others stress chest openers. Some downplay balancing poses; others omit Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) and other flowing sequences. The most important thing is to simply be attentive to how you respond to each pose and to learn to trust the messages you get from your own body.
Along with the unique physical demands of practicing yoga with an expansive body, another set of challenges can exist: the ones in your mind and perhaps in the minds of those around you. People who practice yoga aren’t necessarily free from the belief common in modern Western culture that thin is good and fat is bad.
Some yoga instructors have come out against having large yogis teach, saying it sets a bad example for students. There are even some teachers who have been known to single out large students during class and grill them about their eating habits. Conducting careful research before selecting your yoga environment will usually help you avoid many of the attitudes you find least appealing.
If the journey toward a fulfilling yoga practice still sometimes seems difficult, try to keep in mind how sweet the rewards can be. Deepening awareness and acceptance of the body can be particularly liberating in a culture that declares those bodies unacceptable.
“Fat people may have a tendency to separate mind from body, because it can be painful to live in a fat body in a fat-hating society,” says Mara Nesbitt, a licensed massage therapist in Portland, Oregon, who has made yoga videos for the very large. “Yoga is a really good way of getting back in touch with your body and making friends with it again.”
Large yogis may also have to battle with their own ideas about their bodies. They can be afraid of being judged, of putting on exercise clothes, of being surrounded by people who are thinner and seemingly more capable. They can be uncomfortable handling the stomach, an area fraught with symbolic meaning for many people troubled by their size or shape.
If you find yourself struggling with such feelings, it can be helpful to remember that viewing the belly—or anything about your own body—with shame creates unnecessary barriers to moving comfortably exactly as you are today. If you have a copious “Buddha belly,” try simply acknowledging it without judgment and then accommodating it with gentleness. Consciously developing such a stance can pay big dividends in freedom, comfort, and tranquility.
Lilias Folan, creator of the much-loved public television series that bears her name, believes that developing such an attitude can contribute enormously to a healthy yoga practice—and that the culture of yoga in America has never before offered such a supportive setting. She is excited by the courage it can take for large students even to come to a yoga class, and she is thrilled to be seeing them more frequently. “Right now, it seems the door has opened. Now, I will have two or three women of size in a class, and they were not there maybe 10 years ago,” she says. “There is more acceptance of all sizes, shapes, and ages coming to classes.” Furthermore, she notes that as teachers gain more knowledge about props and pose modifications, they become better equipped to help students deal with a variety of challenges.
Folan encourages all yogis to explore their inner lives as they practice. That can mean being aware of any negative thoughts or myths about your body that run through your head as you spend time in a pose. Are you letting yourself ridicule your stomach or worrying about what the students behind you think of the size of your backside? When such thoughts come into your mind, trade them for new mantras. Folan suggests focusing on positive thoughts, such as, “I am strong; my body is strong.” She advises, “Don’t look to the right or left of you. You do your thing. You’re perfect the way you are.”
Teach Your Teachers
It’s harder to find a yoga class tailored to large students than one designed for other groups, such as pregnant women or seniors. But a special class isn’t really necessary. A weighty would-be yogi can help any open-minded teacher become a specialist.
First, before you even come to class, grit your teeth and at least think about not wearing especially baggy clothes. Tuck in a T-shirt instead of letting it hang out. If your teacher can see your spine, joints, and movements clearly, she can help you avoid injury.
Next, be prepared to share plenty of health information with your teacher. If you have any injuries or health issues, discuss them before your first class. Even if you are basically healthy, make your teacher aware that the larger you are, the more care should be taken with your knees and spine. The less fit you are, the slower you should move into and out of poses.
After each session, or during if it’s appropriate, give your teacher full and frank feedback. Unless she has thighs, upper arms, a backside, or a belly just like yours, she won’t know how a pose feels in your body. It’s important that you tell her.
To communicate well, you’ll need to become aware of all the sensations you experience in a pose. Then you can let your teacher know what feels like it’s stretching, what feels tight, what feels strong or weak, and what, if anything, feels uncomfortable. If an asana perplexes you, use the time before or after class to ask the teacher what you’re supposed to be experiencing in the pose and to discuss ways you can move toward feeling those sensations.
At all times, make brainstorming your mantra. Improvise props if there aren’t any available: An old bathrobe tie can be a fine yoga strap; if you’re in a fitness studio, an aerobic step can be an excellent substitute for a yoga block. Browse through books on gentle yoga, yoga for seniors, and yoga for people with health issues. Rent, buy, or borrow videos to see how poses can be modified. Share the ideas you come across with your instructor. If you can, find another big yoga student or persuade a large-size friend to become a fellow student, so you can be a source of ideas and inspiration for each other—and for your teacher and other big yogis.