Try a Google image search of “yoga,” and what do you notice about the people in the photos? For one, most of them are women–skinny, fit women. There’s a thin woman on the beach in warrior pose; there’s a thin woman in front of the sunset in tree pose; and hey, there’s a thin woman in the woods in lotus pose. This theme of skinny yogis isn’t wrong, and it’s hardly surprising–thin sells, especially fitness routines. But even if it’s not implicitly said, including only skinny women in yoga images and including only poses conducive to skinny bodies in teachings can make yoga, well, not so inclusive. You get to thinking that yoga and its health benefits, such as stress reduction and improved fitness, are best for thin people, and not so much for the 36 percent of U.S. adults who are obese. Not true. Yoga is for all types of shapes and sizes if you just know how to start.
I’m overweight or obese. Why do yoga?
“I think yoga can be a wonderful form of movement that bigger-bodied people can adapt for themselves,” says Anna Guest-Jelley, founder of Curvy Yoga, an online resource for yogis and instructors. For folks carrying more weight, low-impact exercises like yoga may be more comfortable than, say, running on the pavement. And most postures can be modified to fit your body.
Plus, yoga isn’t that cycling class with the drill sergeant instructor. It’s not the Insanity Workout. The mental component of yoga–the deep breathing, positive meditation and awareness–can boost confidence for people of all waistlines. “Yoga helps give you insight, and perhaps that insight can help you make better choices and eliminate negative self-talk,” says Abby Lentz, founder of the HeavyWeight Yoga classes and DVDs.
How is yoga different for people who are overweight or obese?
For bigger people heading to a beginners’ yoga class, “one of the scariest parts is walking through the door,” Guest-Jelley says. Like the Google images, the class may be full of women who are half your size, and the pace and some of the postures may be particularly challenging for bigger bodies.
“If you’re overweight or obese, you’re going to move slower, and the transition from one pose to the other takes more time,” says Lentz. “It’s the time it takes to turn a luxury liner versus a kayak.”
And some poses, like those that involve balancing on the shoulders, will not work for bigger-bodied beginners. “You have to be able to observe the pose and think, ‘I’m not doing that,’ and be OK with that,” Lentz says.
But don’t be scared off from group classes by assuming you’ll fall behind and have to sit out poses. Call or meet with the instructor before class to see if he has experience with bigger yogis. The two of you can work together to prevent pacing issues and plan modifications and alternative poses to those that will be uncomfortable. “This is another part of yoga that you’re not learning on the mat,” says Lentz, “to be proactive, and to speak up and say why you’re there and what you need.” Plus, Guest-Jelley adds, if you don’t have a good experience the first time, keep trying.
If you don’t go the yoga class-route, there are plenty of resources to practice at home. Check out Lentz’s HeavyWeight Yoga DVDs, Guest-Jelley’s website, and YouTube channels like BodyPositiveYoga, which includes videos such as, “Keeping your boobs out of your face during yoga,” and “Savasana (corpse pose) for big butts.”
I’m in. What tips can make yoga more comfortable for me?
— Widen your stance. In many standing postures, feet are often supposed to be hip-width apart. But if you’re bigger, it may help to spread your feet farther until they’re at a comfortable distance to increase stability, Guest-Jelley says.
— Know your body. If the skin of your belly, thighs, arms or breasts get in the way, grab on and move it, Guest-Jelley suggests. This type of instruction may not be written in the scripts of most traditional yoga classes, so take the initiative to make yourself more comfortable.
— Use props. If your instructor wants you to touch your hands to your toes for a hamstring stretch, don’t respond with a sarcastic eye roll. A yoga strap can help you achieve this stretch and support you in other poses, too. And a yoga block can provide support as well, by helping you connect with the ground. Ask an instructor to demonstrate the best practices for using these props.
— Be positive. Yoga isn’t about competition, and it’s not about perfection. Use the practice as an opportunity to connect with your mind and body. “Loving yourself is the only way to true health,” says Lentz. “And it makes life so much easier.”