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If you think that yoga is only for lithe, rock-bodied contortionists, it's high time you revised your ideas. People of all shapes and sizes can reap the benefits of this ancient Hindu practice, including you -- whether you're practically double-jointed or can't (yet) touch your toes. As an inclusive path to mind-body wellness, yoga is fast becoming the fitness program of choice for growing numbers of real women just like you.What Is Plus-Size Yoga?
Yoga moves, like bathing suits, are far from one-size-fits-all. More and more teachers are now recognizing the demand for a yoga style tailored to shapely figures. Plus-size yoga adapts the traditional postures, or asanas (AH-suh-nuhs), to accommodate the body's curves. "Plus-size people can do almost everything that their skinny counterparts can do," says Megan Garcia, a NYC-based yoga teacher and plus-size model, "but they need to modify around their bodies."
Fortunately, yoga's inclusive nature allows for alterations. Unlike competitive fitness activities, yoga focuses on the individual student's journey. No preordained requirements (or barking instructors) dictate whether a person is "good" at yoga or not: you keep the pace that feels right to you. Most often, this pace is a soothing one, moderated by deep breathing and meditation. This relaxed focus means that even those who tend to shy away from physical activity can participate in yoga without overexerting themselves or becoming dangerously short of breath.How It Works
To customize poses that can be uncomfortable for people of size -- such as standing-forward bend, in which a large belly can obstruct breathing -- Garcia recommends a technique called "moving the flesh," which is as simple as it sounds. Students carrying extra weight around the middle may "need to actually reach down, move the flesh of the tummy out of the way, and then they can fold over further." Modifications such as this one allow the student to maintain proper form -- the bare-bones foundation of any yoga practice.
Basic equipment can also help make classic postures doable for plus-size yoga practitioners. Chairs, straps, yoga blocks (or phone books), and even an unoccupied wall can compensate for lack of balance or reach. But the real secret to practicing plus-size yoga is simple: Know thyself. "Everybody carries their weight in a different way, and so everybody kind of has to adapt in their own way," points out Meera Patricia Kerr, a yogini based in Michigan whose DVD Big Yoga promises, "You don't have to be thin to enjoy the benefits of yoga!" The best way to perfect your poses is to experiment with different techniques to find what works for you.
The dramatic improvements that Garcia cites are numerous: from stronger and more limber muscles to relaxation and improved heart health. One of the outcomes that you won't hear plus-size yoga teachers pushing, though, is weight-loss. Students may drop pounds as they challenge their bodies, but yoga's true focus remains set on the mind-body journey toward self-awareness. Sally Pugh, a San Francisco Bay Area teacher who has been instructing plus-size students for six years, sees the spiritual side of yoga as the core of her classes. "I think that we've kind of commercialized yoga, and made it into this athletic sport, and we've taken out the spiritual aspects and the personal growth aspect," she says. "I think that [the mind-body experience] is really very healing for everybody, and especially those who are discriminated against" as a result of their weight.What to Avoid
All students should know their personal limits to avoid a yoga-related trip to the emergency room. Most experts advise heavier students to steer clear of headstands, which can overwhelm the spine and result in neck problems. Similarly, if any pose triggers a twinge of pain in delicate joints, such as the wrists or knees, the student should modify the pose or skip it altogether to avoid a nasty strain. And those with high blood pressure should take care not to hold postures in which the head hangs below the heart for more than a beat -- the head rush could be dangerous.
Despite these concerns, many yogis stress that their students of size can conquer advanced postures just as adequately as slimmer ones can. "Most plus-size women and men who start practicing yoga are told to go to a gentle class," Garcia observes. "I don't believe in that. I think that gentle and restorative classes have their place in a practice, but if you would really like to see your health dramatically improve, try the regular hatha class once you learn how to modify the poses for your body. Because when you challenge yourself you'll be stronger."
To practice yoga comfortably, you'll need a pair of pants or shorts that stretch and a top that's snug enough to stay put during inverted (upside-down) poses. (No shoes required -- bare feet are best.) Check out the plus-size offerings from Danskin (danskin.com), Junonia (junonia.com), and Always For Me (alwaysforme.com) for workout-worthy style.
You can find all the equipment you need to modify common postures around the house: a carpet can be used as a mat, phone books or dictionaries can double as blocks, a belt or a scarf can serve as a strap. If you're in the market for props designed specifically for yoga use, check a sporting goods store or an online shop (such as yogaprops.net).Learning at Home
Ready to begin? Step one begins in your doctor's office: get his or her okay before you embark on a fitness program. And let your physician identify any potential problem areas (weak knees, a bad back) so that you can work around them.
Once you've got the green light to get moving, read up on yoga's philosophy and techniques. Learning the proper form for breathing methods and basic postures is essential to mastering the practice -- and staying safe while striking a pose. Begin your yoga education with one of the hundreds of beginner guides at your local bookstore or library. We recommend Megan Garcia's Megayoga, which is designed specifically for a plus-size audience and covers topics such as breath, alignment, modifications, and props. Garcia, who is plus-size herself, demonstrates in the book's many color photos how a curvy form can interpret classic postures.
A workout DVD can provide another great starting point for the yoga newbie. Get a sense of how yoga works in three dimensions with Meera Patricia Kerr's Big Yoga: Beginners' Hatha 1 or Garcia's Yoga Just My Size. Both offer postures (and modifications) that plus-size beginners can tackle.
Should you opt to join a class, take the time to figure out which one is right for you. A class designed for curvy bodies will take into account each student's unique shape. If you can't find a plus-size class in your area, look for one with the word "beginner" or "gentle" in the title: these will feature postures appropriate for those new to yoga, or to physical fitness in general.
With plus-size classes popping up across the country, many women are weaving support networks of fellow yoga enthusiasts who look -- and move -- like them. For Pugh, a strong community spirit is what allows this branch of the practice to stand out. "My students have talked about the fact that they feel comfortable, and they feel safe in my classes," she says. "They know that they can go to the class and nobody's going to talk to them about losing weight; nobody's going to make comments about their size." Both Pugh and Garcia are now teaching at yoga retreats planned exclusively for plus-sizes, something that wouldn't have been possible a few years ago.
For her part, Kerr is reaching out to fellow yoga teachers, educating them on the need to offer adaptations tailored to individual students' bodies. She also considers herself a role model for plus-size yoga devotees: "I'm 60 years old -- I'm not a kid anymore. If I weren't doing yoga I would be a mess. I'd probably be sitting on the couch eating potato chips," she admits. But, "thanks to yoga, I'm healthy...I'm just a little fat, that's all. But that's okay with me."
Don't be afraid to move on to more advanced classes as your skills develop -- even if you're the only plus-size in the room. The best way to promote awareness of the curvy community's needs is to make them visible. As Garcia reflects, "The whole concept of being fat and fit is relatively new." Let the future of plus-size fitness start with you!For More Information
Sign up for Megan Garcia's NYC-based class: megayoga.com
Find out about Meera Patricia Kerr's Michigan classes and other projects: bigyogaonline.com
Learn about Sally Pugh's Bay Area "Yoga for Large Women" (and be on the lookout for her upcoming DVD): sallypugh.org
Locate certified teachers in your area: yogaalliance.org
Originally published on LHJ.com, March 2007.