Overweight Yoga

Midway through her first yoga class, Kay Erdwinn wanted desperately to just disappear. Erdwinn had come to the class, not far from her neighbourhood, in search of a non-competitive, inwardly focused way to exercise. Instead, she found a teacher who demanded that she up-end her 157cm, 118kg body into Halasana (Plow Pose).

The teacher knelt down beside her on his hands and knees, egging her on like an over-adrenalised 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 to back off. She fumbled through class, then ran for the nearest door and never returned to that studio. “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 practising 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 began each session with meditation, offered advice gently without singling anyone out and routinely told her students that if any asana didn’t seem 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 began to practise more, 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.

Erdwinn 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—larger yogis can get the same benefits from a physical yoga practice as anyone else: flexibility, balance, strength, reduced stress, increased awareness and a better link between mind and body. With 60 per cent of Australians now labelled either overweight or obese by doctors, this message has never been more needed. And it is a message that is increasingly being heard.

 One Size Does Not Fit All?

For large people 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 realise, says Glenn Gaesser, author of Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health (Gurze Books, 2002).

In analysing numerous medical studies, Gaesser found that inactivity and a bad diet contribute more to poor health than being overweight 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 pay-off is likely to be greater, adds Gaesser.

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 out of condition, strong to weak and flexible to stiff.

Once a few special issues are addressed—some personal and some cultural—larger yogis can get the same benefits from a physical yoga practice as anyone else

In fact, many of the preliminary steps on the road toward a personal yoga practice apply to everyone—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?

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 practise safely. Erdwinn, now a medical professional, 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. Being overweight 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.

Take a full-bodied approach

Beyond overall health, consider your current fitness level in choosing a yoga style. 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, co-author of Yoga Rx (Broadway Books, 2002), 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.

With a little knowledge, research and perseverance, aspiring plus-size yogis can find their way to a rewarding yoga practice. Some people run into roadblocks on their journey. It can be hard to feel welcomed in a world where yoga has an image as being the exclusive territory of the lean and the limber, where ads glamorise 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, who wandered into a recreational class near his house almost 20 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 122kg at 178cm or that his belly got in the way of forward bends.

Yoga Changes You

As Knippa continued to practise, his flexibility grew. His asthma lessened. His weight remained stable, while his health flourished. Knippa 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 rapidly become comfortable doing it.”With a little knowledge, research and perseverance, aspiring plus-size yogis can find their way to a rewarding yoga practice.

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 labelled “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 that 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. “You’re not supposed to stay in a posture that feels intuitively uncomfortable.”

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.

No tummy troubles

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 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,” explains Haddon. “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: centring the flesh 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 such as 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.

Give yourself props

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.

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 that 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.

“Yoga is a really good way of getting back in touch with your body and making friends with it again.”

Along with the unique physical demands of practising yoga with an expansive body, another set of challenges can exist: the ones in your mind and in the minds of those around you. People who practise 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 massage therapist 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.

Embrace yourself

If you find yourself struggling with negative 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 judgement and then accommodating it with gentleness. Consciously developing such a stance can pay big dividends in freedom, comfort and tranquillity.

Explore your inner life as you practise. 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. Focus on positive thoughts, such as: “I am strong; my body is strong.”

Modified Paschimottanasana (Modified Seated Forward Bend)

This version is accessible to people whose legs and stomach get in the way in the standard legs-together position. The pose lengthens the spine and gently stretches the muscles along the back of the body. Sitting on the floor, extend your legs in front of you in an easy V, wide enough to make space for your belly. Softly bend your knees, tilt your pelvis forward and lengthen your spine. Place your fingertips on the ground near your thighs. As you exhale, keep the spine long, hinge from the hips and walk your fingers forward. Stop and hold when you feel a gentle stretch in the backs of your legs. As your hamstrings release, walk your hands out farther and/or straighten your legs. Hold for 30 seconds to a minute or more. When you are ready to come out of the pose, walk your hands back toward your hips and push down to help you lift your torso. Keep your spine long as you come up.

Salamba Eka Pada Pavanamuktasana (Supported One-Legged Wind-Relieving Pose)

For people who find Balasana (Child’s Pose) uncomfortable because it puts too much pressure on the knees or ankles, or because the belly and thighs get in the way, this pose can provide some of the same benefits. It gently compresses the abdominal organs, stimulating digestion and elimination; releases the groin muscles; and gently stretches the lower back and hamstrings. Lie on your back with your knees bent and the soles of both feet on the floor or a bolster (whichever is most comfortable). Draw one leg toward your chest. Clasp your hands around your shin just below the knee if you can reach. Otherwise, clasp your hands around the back of your thigh or grasp a strap looped around your shin. To intensify this pose, extend the opposite leg, resting the knee and lower thigh on the bolster or the floor and gently flexing the foot to bring length to the back of the leg. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds; then release and repeat on the opposite side.

Chair Twist

This pose provides a spinal twist in which the belly does not impede the movement. It’s also easier to lengthen the spine while sitting on a chair than while sitting on the floor. Twists stimulate digestion and elimination, and strengthen and stretch various muscles in the abdomen and torso. Sit sideways on a sturdy, armless chair, with both feet firmly planted on the ground. (If you’re short, place a firm folded blanket under your feet.) As you inhale, lengthen your spine; as you exhale, twist slowly from the base of the spine, rotating until you can place one hand on each side of the chair’s back. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds; then release and repeat on the opposite side.

Modified Adho: Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose With A Chair)

This version provides many of the benefits of the full pose without putting as much stress on the arms as when the hands are on the floor. It lengthens the spine; builds arm and leg strength; and stretches the shoulders, the back and the backs of the legs. Place a sturdy, armless chair with its back against a wall or in some other spot where you are sure it will not slip. Place your hands on the chair’s seat, about shoulder-width apart. Walk slowly backward, allowing your spine to lengthen and your head to come between your upper arms. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. When you are ready to release, walk forward to the chair and bend your knees, keeping your spine long as you lift your torso to an upright position.

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana Prep (Extended Hand-To-Big-Toe Pose Preparation)

This pose allows heavy students to work on one-legged balancing without putting any unnecessary pressure on the knee joint of the standing leg. It strengthens the muscles—especially in the hips and legs—needed for one-legged standing; it also trains the body to make the small adjustments necessary for balance. Place a sturdy chair with its front legs braced against a wall. Stand with your right hip next to the chair’s back and your right hand on it. Using the chair to steady you, shift your weight to your right foot and lift your left leg off the ground, bending your knee toward your chest. Aim to bring your thigh parallel to the ground, but stop the lift before that if it seems more appropriate. If you would like to challenge your balance, lift your hand from the chair for just a few seconds. If that feels comfortable, release your hold on the chair entirely. Stay in the pose for 15 to 30 seconds; then release and repeat on the opposite side.

Modified Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose With A Wall)

In Bhujangasana done prone on the floor, a large belly and chest can get in the way. This variation allows for an easier and more controllable back arch. It stretches the front body, opening the chest and heart centre and expanding the lungs. Stand facing a wall at about arm’s distance from it, with your feet hip-width apart, and place both palms on the wall no higher than your shoulders. Step very slightly closer to the wall, so that your elbows bend a little. As you exhale, bend your legs, round your back and look down. Then, as you inhale, straighten your legs and slowly arch your spine back. Try to arch primarily in the middle and upper back instead of in the lower back; to help with this, keep your hips above your feet instead of thrusting them forward. Without moving your hands, press them into the wall as though you were dragging it down to the floor. Look up at the ceiling if doing so doesn’t compress the neck. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds.

Modified Balasana  (Child’s Pose With Two Chairs)

For students who find Balasana on the floor unpleasant, this option can be more restful. This asana gently compresses the abdominal organs, stimulating digestion and elimination. It also releases the groin muscles and gently stretches the lower back and hamstrings. Place two arm-less chairs so they face each other. Sit in one chair with your legs spread comfortably apart to make room for your belly. Lengthen your spine. As you exhale, stretch forward and down and bring your arms to rest on the facing chair. Rest your head on your arms or on the chair’s seat. Breathe deeply and fully, relaxing more with each breath. Remain in the pose for 15 seconds to 2 minutes.

Carrie Peyton Dahlberg is a “round-bodied” yoga teacher and writer.