The Pluses of Plus-Size Yoga
Bends and twists can be genty manipulated to suit the needs of larger bodies.
Overweight doesn’t have to mean out of shape, though a glance at a typical yoga class, where fit students tend to predominate, may indicate otherwise. While yoga encourages poses, or asanas, for all people, the reality is that even an experienced instructor may have no clue how to help an overweight student. “I don’t know if it’s large people who shy away from yoga or yoga that shies away from us,” says Jeanne, 56, a yoga student from San Francisco who prefers to not use her last name. “We’re assumed to be candidates only for restorative or senior yoga, which is not to say that we can’t use some guidance. It’s just that the prejudices of the world are still present in the yoga world.”
Sally Pugh, RYT, instructor of Yoga for Large Women in the San Francisco Bay Area (www.sallypugh.org), explains, “For large people in particular, the idea of attending a yoga class and facing that kind of size discrimination they face every day of their lives can be intimidating.” Too bad. In addition to increasing flexibility, studies show that yoga can alleviate problems linked with heart disease, anxiety, stress, asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression and epilepsy, and improve the quality of life for cancer patients. Depending on the style yoga routines can be strenuous, making it more taxing on plus-sized students. (Some teachers offer classes for larger people; search the internet for “plus-size” or “gentle” yoga in your area.)
“The most important thing is to protect the joints, especially knees, hips, low backs and wrists,” says Pugh. “If a new student has knee injury, weakness or instability, I encourage her to pay attention to how everything we do feels in her knees and to avoid doing anything that causes pain or discomfort. We then work to modify what needs to be modified.”
To protect her students’ joints, Pugh stresses proper alignment of knee to ankle to hip in standing poses. If someone is unsteady in a balancing pose, Pugh will suggest standing close to a wall or adjusting the toe or foot position. If a client can’t reach her ankle with her hand, Pugh applies a strap around the ankle. Many standing poses can be performed sitting in a chair if one’s knees or lower back are at risk. Pugh consistently strives for her students to develop core strength for physical and energetic support.
“We modify the poses only when necessary, and each student’s ability and need for modification is unique to her,” says Pugh. “You don’t have to be able to do a posture in the ‘correct’ way to feel its essence. If you are receptive, present in your breath, with mindful awareness, you can be led by the pose to experience its energy and consciousness. You can receive its medicine.”
Paula Atkinson turned to yoga after an eating disorder caused her weight to fluctuate drastically.
Now a certified instructor teaching Body Positive Yoga in New York City, she considers yoga a gift that helped her recover. “I started to think of it as ‘accidental exercise,’ as exercise had always been something I had to do because I was ‘bad’ and ‘fat,’” she says. “But yoga really nurtured me in a way I never thought moving my body could.” Atkinson takes a hands-on approach with her overweight students. “I had an obese student once who was so impressed by my willingness to touch her,” Atkinson recalls. “Other teachers had avoided her.”
“Shame is a killer; it kills the human spirit,” says Atkinson. “Yoga is the magic elixir that can erase the shame. It’s the only thing that works for me.”