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YJ LIVE! Presenter Michael Hayes, founder of Buddha Body Yoga, offers advice for working with bigger bodies in yoga classes.
As a yoga teacher at Equinox locations around Los Angeles, it can be somewhat intimidating to see a plus-size student walk into my class. But that’s all Michael Hayes, Yoga Journal Live! presenter and founder of Buddha Body Yoga in New York, sees (as also recently reported in the New York Times). I wanted in on his secrets. I was looking for modification tips but ended up with a lot more.
1. Know it’s not all about size.
Hayes pointed out that large bodies are completely capable of beautiful, strong asana practices. Point being, as with all students, it’s necessary assess the individual, not the stereotype. You truly can’t assume anything.
“If you are big person and you’re able to do yoga really, really well, is it about the weight? No. If you’re a small person and have a hard time doing yoga, is it about the weight? No,” Hayes says.
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2. Get acquainted with how bigger bodies move.
Hayes points out that people with larger bodies spend a lot of time trying to hold themselves “in” to take up less space—on the train or bus, in a chair or a car, at the grocery store or mall, you name it. Bigger bodies are relentlessly fighting gravity in order not to expand, which leaves their muscles contracted and tight.
Hayes encourages teachers to watch, notice, and become curious about how a person of size moves in everyday life. After a while, you will begin to pick up on different holding patterns in bodies of different weight, which you can then apply to the practice of yoga. Use those holding patterns to help plus-size students increase their own awareness of how they move and then to offer the necessary support to be able to move in their bodies as well as to release.
3. Work with gravity, instead of trying to fight it.
Larger people also hold their weight differently. Take Downward-Facing Dog for example: If you’re a bigger-bodied person, then the weight of the belly is continually pulling you forward, tightening the glutes among other things. So the first step is to release tight muscles. Working with gravity, rather than fighting it, Hayes does a lot of floorwork, using props for leverage, to allow the weight to begin to drop and the muscles to begin to release.
“If you can start releasing yourself then you have the possibility of changing,” Hayes says. “Not so much from the asanas but for your own personal life. To be able to move, to be able to go into a cab without a problem, being able to be happy without thinking, ‘the only way I will be happy is to lose weight.’”
TIP Look for ways to use blocks as support to allow the weight to drop and rest without holding.
For example, place a block under the back knee in a lunge, giving the back thigh a little more length and allowing the hips and belly to release forward.
4. Have larger, plus-size props available.
Hayes also points out that most studios, and the majority of classes aren’t set up for larger bodies. Everything from the mats and blocks to sandbags and straps need to be bigger. He suggests having some larger yoga mats and blocks (three times the size of blocks you find in most studios), as well as longer straps, bolsters, and chairs for when you have plus-size students in class.
TIP Look for ways to use the blocks as leverage.
For example, use blocks under the hands in Sun Salutations, as they step back into plank, lower through Chaturanga Dandasana, and extend forward into Upward-Facing Dog. This helps keep their bodies lifted off the floor and allows for better articulation of the spine.
5. Break poses down into their individual parts.
“I realized that if you broke down the postures and worked with the articulations of what everything is doing, you then have a broader sense of how to work,” Hayes says. So he spent years studying and dissecting the yoga poses in his own body and then building them back up. “It might not look as pretty as the asanas but eventually everything will gel.”
In class, he deconstructs the asanas down to their lowest denominator. Working with larger-size blocks, bolster, straps, chairs, and what Hayes calls “the great yoga wall,” he helps students find the freedom to allow their body to understand the actions required. When they do eventually build the final pose, students are amazed by what their bodies are capable of doing. Sudden bursts of tears are common in Hayes’ classes as people begin to do things in their bodies that they never imagined possible.
6. Welcome bigger bodies into your class or studio.
Hayes would really like to see a class or two specifically for bigger bodies at studios across the country in order to serve an entire subpopulation of people that really need yoga. “It’s time for yoga studios to make way for plus-size people,” he says. “Even if they don’t have anybody in the class, start offering the class. There really isn’t a way to make people comfortable, unless they are hard-nosed like me.” That is, unless you turn thinner people away, which Hayes wholeheartedly believes in.
Meagan McCrary is a 500 E-RYT and writer with a passion for helping people find more comfort, clarity, compassion, and joy on the mat and in life. She’s the author of Pick Your Yoga Practice: Exploring and Understanding Different Styles of Yoga, an encyclopedia of modern yoga systems. You can find her teaching and retreat schedule, along with her latest offerings at MeaganMcCrary.com, as well as on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram.