In the yoga biz, the standard way to gain credibility is to be an RYT-200. That means Registered Yoga Teacher with 200 hours of training. Well, I’m an FYT>200; that’s a Fat Yoga Teacher at over 200 pounds. I’m very conscious of the fact that there aren’t a lot of us. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, but that statistic is not reflected in yoga teachers or in yoga classes. I wish that were different.
The skinny (usually white) girl may be the picture of yoga that marketers want to sell us, but in real life, yoga teachers have never been anything but gracious to me. Sure, there have been a few misguided attempts at unsolicited advice (“Have you tried fasting/juicing/hot yoga/etc.?”), but I've always been welcomed with open arms.
Students, on the other hand, sometimes don’t know what to make of me. Often there's a quickly concealed look of surprise when they find out I’m the teacher. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been tempted to blurt out, “I’m genetically predisposed to obesity and I’m on a medication that causes weight gain! I go to the gym; I do my cardio! I’m a vegan, for crying in the sink!”
But I don’t. The way other people deal with being confronted by a yoga teacher who doesn’t fit the stereotype is their own baggage.
The point is this: yoga isn’t just for the thin and flexible. Anyone who’s open to it can benefit from it. It can adapt to any and every body. If you're a bigger-bodied yogi or yogini, it may help to keep the following in mind.
1. Take it easy.
We're conditioned to think that exercise needs to be fast and hard to be worthwhile. This mindset has infiltrated yoga to the extent that the faster-paced vinyasa styles have become the mainstay. However, one of the best things you can do for your body is s … l … o … w ... d … o … w … n. Slower forms of yoga improve flexibility and strength while balancing the nervous system; plus, they flush the chemicals released by stress that cause inflammation and weight gain. If you’re just beginning, look for “gentle” classes. If you’re lucky enough to live near a studio offering Yoga for Bigger Bodies or something similar, take advantage of that!
2. Follow your instincts.
The most important disposition you can have to keep yourself free from injury and gain all the mental benefits of yoga is to listen to your body when moving into and out of every pose. Every single body on the planet is unique. Not all postures will work for every body. Plus, there's no requirement for teacher trainings to cover the special needs of larger bodies. Listen inward just as much as you listen to the teacher.
3. Think of your weight as a weight.
Keep in mind that if you’re in a room full of smaller people, you're doing a lot more work than them. For example, in arm balances, I’m lifting at least 50 pounds more than most other people in the room. Don’t give yourself a hard time for respecting the needs and limitations of your body. That’s the real work of yoga.
4. Use props.
You can always use straps to make your arms longer or blocks to bring the floor up to you. In lunges, if your hands don’t reach the floor, use blocks. When the teacher guides everyone into a bind and your hands don’t reach each other, grab hold of your shirt or pants to find the twist or stretch. If getting up from the floor is tricky business, consider the ultimate prop and try a chair yoga class. In any situation you encounter, don’t hold back from being creative. Determine the intention behind the posture: is it to build strength or to stretch a certain set of muscles? Figure out a way to make it happen.
5. Find the right teacher.
Don’t waste your time in a class that doesn’t help you feel good about yourself. Move on until you find a teacher you enjoy. Yoga should leave you feeling refreshed and renewed, ready to face the world with clarity and compassion, or at least a little more tolerance and patience.
6. Remember why you’re there.
Yoga is first and foremost a mental practice. The postures provide an opportunity to practice staying present with our physical experience, observing and accepting ourselves in this moment exactly as we are. The process gives us the chance to exert control over our thoughts. For some of us, myself included, the hardest part can be letting go of the constant stream of negativity and self-badgering that wrecks us, taking away our confidence and any sense of ease.
The mental practice of yoga is demanding but it’s entirely worthwhile. We cannot be at peace if we're at war with our bodies. Choose peace!
Amy Vaughn is the author of Yoga to Ease Anxiety: Practices and Perspectives to Help You Enjoy Life Again. She’s also a walking cliché: a vegan yoga teacher, an over-educated at-home mom, and a teacher trainee mentor. She makes her real life home in Tucson and her virtual home here.