I remember the last day of yoga teacher training when a svelte former gymnast taught a modification for a pose that required us to lay back on the seat of a folding chair with our legs THROUGH the back of it, pictured here at Yoga Journal (near the end of the article). My thighs were unable to fit and despite having years of yoga training, I felt my self-concept cave in.
I was the only person in the room who couldn’t perform the modification and because the instructor was in training, she had no alternatives for me, despite the fact bolsters, stability balls, or other props would accomplish the same goal. In class when there is a pose that your body isn’t ready for, we encourage students to take some time in child’s pose, but this was the first time had to sit out of the class activity until they were done, not because I lacked the physical ability to perform the pose, but because the modification itself was inaccessible. I can’t imagine how upsetting that moment was for the trainee instructor who never considered how thicker bodies would perform. I do know how it impacted my own teaching.
I swore I would never allow a person to feel that excluded, that non-existent in a class. If my own confidence in my ability as a yoga practitioner could be so easily shaken, what would happen to a new student who was just learning yoga for the first time? Would she ever return? Would she ever start the path that could lead her to the self-acceptance necessary to make productive and informed changes in her life? Or would she considered yoga another failed attempt, and chuck the mat into a closet with her Zumba DVDs, TaeBo VHS, diet books, and dusty aerobic step?
Since we’re talking size, we should talk numbers. In the decade plus I’ve been practicing yoga, I have ranged between 145 lbs (which for me was around a size 6) to over 225 lbs (which for me was around a size 20-22.) As of writing I am in the 185 range and on the 14/16 border. Over the years, I’ve had a weight stay the same (such as 185 lbs) but over that time be as many as 3 different dress sizes! I’ve had students who are larger than I am (though may weigh less), and I’ve had those who are smaller in clothing size. I can only reflect my own experience in my own body, but have found that the common experiences of plus-sized practitioners are often based more in the “plus”, than in the “size” itself.
For instance, many potential plus-yogis, regardless of actual size, are unable to even find workout clothes! For the majority of my yoga career, I have been unable to shop at Lululemon, where clothing sizes end at a Large, and the bras for many years topped out at a 36C. This is not unintentional, as a recent Huffington Post article suggests that Lululemon short orders and avoids putting out even Large sized clothing, preferring the corporate image of an 8 or smaller clientele. In teacher training you are sometimes advised to avoid wearing black clothing as it can obscure what you are demonstrating in the body (as you might notice in the attached photos). Unfortunately, for many years it was rare for me to find something in a color other than black in my size.
Even now people are often surprised to find I am a yoga instructor, as so many people are now accustomed to the Western image of yoga as being a “size 2, white, upper middle class, females age 27-35 only” activity (This is not unlike Lululemon’s Ideal Client, Ocean.) Many of us who have found value in the practice are working hard to combat those images. Now that my own body is once again changing, I feel it is especially important to document how minor the differences in practice can be between a size 20 and a size 10.
The fact is that extra fatty deposits rarely accumulate in the immediate area of the joints themselves, and thus don’t influence flexibility in the ways people sometimes think. In wide-legged poses, for instance, I am able to make enough “clearance” room for my belly that my hip joints are able to achieve a significant range of motion, as pictured in the photos below from two years ago. In closed twists, where you turn toward an extended leg as in Revolved Triangle pose pictured here, I simply adjust the material in my midsection before deepening the pose. In child’s pose, I widen the space between my knees so I can get my belly closer to the ground and enable my lumbar spine to extend to greater lengths.
The modifications to encourage a plus-sized practitioner can often be very small. I have seen many women find confidence in knowing that they possess elegance, flexibility and grace in form regardless of what tissue happens to be attached to them. Sometimes something as small as widening a stance by a few inches or finding the right way to enter and exit a pose can drastically influence a plus-sized yoga students experience of the physical practice of yoga.
This is not to state that there aren’t challenges unique to having a lot of material to work with. In some classes, I’ll occasionally share the story of my first time instructing halasana, plow pose, where a student kicks their legs up and overhead. As I specialize in beginners and there is a lot of prep involved to avoid neck injury in this pose, I didn’t teach it very often. Imagine my surprise when I had failed to account for an inability to verbally instruct while demonstrating the pose! After explaining how to kick the legs back and overhead, my verbal instruction was unexpectedly interrupted by… an abundance of upper torso tissue. With comedic effect.
It is here that yoga shines as a tool for those who break the commercial, media image of a yoga student. Rather than echoing the prior experience of a physical difference separating me and excluding me from participation, the class was able to commonly experience something silly that naturally arose from my unique characteristics, even if it was not an experience they could directly share.
All yoga, regardless of size, is essentially about sharing and seeing past the things that divide and differentiate us, so that we can more easily discern the things that unify us. The differences themselves are simply the distractions and noise we haven’t noticed and screened out yet. Thus my ample adipose tissue became a teaching moment for students of different bodies and my personal story became an ice breaker or empathy exercise for future classes. I do not believe, however, that there need to be classes, teacher trainings, certifications, or videos solely for plus-sized practitioners, as this further leads to separation and exclusion.
Previously I’ve mentioned that I don’t like people considering “plus-sized yoga” a specialty or division of yoga, because I do not believe the physicality is as drastically different as is sometimes portrayed. More important to the idea of a specialized need in “plus-sized yoga” is emotional acceptance. My inability to perform Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana due to my thighs being wider than the width of a chair is physically irrelevant, as I can still regularly practice this pose with a stability ball. The emotional impact of feeling excluded or too different to be considered, however, is the unseen burden that hangs around the necks of plus-sized students and is the albatross that can sabotage any wellness goals. I recall a larger, female family member once telling me about giving up on a weight-loss fitness regimen because of the appalling treatment she received at the gym.
If I am to accept that there should be a specialty in the arena of plus-sized yoga, it is in the emotional and psychological value of yoga. Students who practice ahimsa, the principle of non-harm in word, thought, and deed, can learn to reinforce positive, motivational messages that drown out some of the whispers and layers of past experiences. Students can develop better skills of equanimity and compassion, allowing them to better learn when to let go of the past or to stay committed to a present intent.
Even as I write this, however, I still believe that the values specific to a plus-sized practitioner– those of acceptance, compassion, non-attachment, self study, body awareness, and health– are not unique to any one type of yoga practitioner. Instead, it is the intense focus on the variations in the material, the “stuff” of the body, that distracts us from the inner traits that unite us.