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Weigh in on Plus-Size Yoga Classes

Kay Adcock, left, and Paula Leonardo, right, stretch along with yoga instructor Joy Anandi at the Rice Diet Program in Durham, N.C. (AP Photo/Jeffrey A. Camarati)

A story in last week's New York Times drew attention to yoga classes designed specifically -- and solely -- for overweight and obese students. The article's been commented upon at length, and with good reason: The question as to whether such classes are a good idea cuts to the core of several weighty issues.

The yogic knee-jerk reaction would be to say that people of all shapes, sizes and abilities should be able to come together to practice yoga in harmony with one another, and that concern about how one looks compared to other students in class is not compatible with yoga's egalitarian ethic.

But the reality is that it takes a certain hard-shelled breed of person to brave a yoga class where everyone around you looks more fit and is able to execute yoga poses with greater ease. I've seen overweight women do it with aplomb, sticking with their yoga classes even as they huff and puff while those around them glide effortlessly through their sun salutations. These good-spirited women tend to take inspiration from their classmates, and I've seen several of them gain skill and confidence as they've progressed.

But I've also seen too many overweight women come to class a time or two and then disappear. Not having conducted any exit interviews, I can't say for sure that they left feeling defeated or that they simply felt out of place or poorly served in a class designed for fitter, more experienced practitioners.

The argument that any yoga teacher should be equipped to help every student modify poses and make other adjustments to fully enjoy any yoga class points to an ideal that doesn't always hold up in reality. There's no binding set of standards or universal licensing process for yoga instructors; in truth, just about anyone can call himself a yoga teacher, regardless of training or experience. (Of course, those hired by gyms, YMCAs and private yoga studios are generally expected to show evidence of training and to have some experience teaching.) So while a yoga teacher might be expert in teaching the finer points of triangle pose, he or she might have no clue how to help an overweight student achieve that pose. And many yoga classes are so large (in number of students, that is) that even a highly skilled teacher might be hard-pressed to provide individual instruction to all comers.

Of course, overweight doesn't equal out-of-shape; many heavy-set people are excellent practitioners of the physical as well as the mental and spiritual sides of yoga. Still, those floor-to-ceiling mirrors common to yoga studios can be daunting to people who are insecure about their bodies, overweight or not.

For what it's worth, my 48-year-old body faces its share of challenges in yoga class; for one thing, my nose is too big for me to comfortably rest my forehead on the mat during child's pose. Part of my personal practice is to cheerfully accept those shortcomings and either work through them or around them.

One thing I do know: Yoga is good for just about everybody, and the world would be a better place if everyone practiced it regularly. So, if it takes a special class to get some people there, then I'm all for special classes. (Not that I was able to find a class for plus-size students at any of the Washington-area yoga studios I Googled. If you know of one, please tell us about it in the comments section.)

What are your thoughts about yoga classes for larger students?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  May 20, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness , Obesity , Women's Health  
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Willow Street Yoga in Silver Spring has a class called Excel Yoga for round bodies. I take their regular level 1 and have found the instructor helpful to people with all sorts of challenges.

Posted by: SilverSpringYogi | May 20, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for the class info, SilverSpringYogi!

Posted by: Jennifer LaRue Huget | May 20, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

I've tried various yoga classes. Beginner, for seniors, for people with chronic health issues, "gentle yoga" etc.

I've found a lot of beginner classes are aimed at getting technique right, pushing people, and advancing them to later levels.

People who are struggling to keep up can push themselves too far. I got a sprained thumb from trying to rotate my arm the way the instructor said in downward dog. Also, instructors might not be able to tell a person what to avoid.

People who can't do a move, or can't hold it as long don't get their money's worth. They just watch the class while the rest do that action.

Yoga for seniors (although I was ~30 at the time) was helpful, although the seniors who had been doing the class for a while were pretty good.

The plus-size yoga did not have good enrollment. Possibly because there was a stigma involved.

One of the yoga for chronic illness classes tried to use Ayurvedic medicine to tell which poses would cure their illness. Even when those were more advanced and/or inappropriate for other physical limitations.

I've had the best result with the gentle yoga classes offered by Fairfax County Parks and Rec. Most of the instructors have been very good at taking things slowly, and saying "don't do X if you have Y injury". I've had a few problems with some of the substitute instructors or with ones that were assigned as instructors at the very last minute. Or it may be personal style.

Posted by: g_alice | May 20, 2009 11:27 AM | Report abuse

I'm a plus-size yogi who has gotten a lot out of yoga classes over the years. I've had mixed experiences: I've had some wonderful teachers who took the time to provide modifications while still encouraging me to work as hard as possible and I've also met with the horrid skinny praying-mantis type who've sneered at me and assumed I was just too lazy to do a pose right. The key is for the teacher to identify the goal of the physical pose (a certain type of stretch in the hamstrings, for example) so that each student can strive for that to the best of his/her ability.

Beyond a baseline of compassion and knowledge about modifications, I'd say the best thing for less-fit beginners is not a plus-size class but a smaller class. A lower student-teacher ratio allows time for modifications without leaving other students hanging too long in a pose. After all, all kinds of students need modifications, not just plus-size ones.

Posted by: csdiego | May 20, 2009 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Willow Street Yoga in Tacoma Park is great. They didn't have the Excel class back when I went there; I just went to the regular Level 1 and 1/2 classes. It was very open and accepting of whatever each person could do.

Posted by: webbrats | May 20, 2009 3:37 PM | Report abuse

I'm so glad there are more and more opportunities for us curvy gals (and beefy guys) to try yoga. As a yoga teacher or size, I would like to encourage those who are having trouble finding a sympathetic class locally to have a look at the several excellent DVDs that are available. The New York Times article mentioned Megan Garcia and Abby Lentz. I'd like to offer my own program, Big Yoga, an adapted practice for the larger body. Patterned after Integral Yoga, which focuses on postures that tone the organs, glands and the endocrine system, Big Yoga Hatha 1 has a meditative flow to the class. The DVD has been available for a few years, and now I have a book, Big Yoga: A Simple Guide for Bigger Bodies, which will be available from Square One Publishers soon. My new DVD, Big Yoga Flex-Ability, is in production, to address the needs of students who may need to simplify their practice before going on to a more challenging class. Bottom line: You don't have to be thin to enjoy the benefits of yoga!

Posted by: bigyoga | May 21, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

I'm pleasantly surprised not to see a bunch of comments saying that allowing a plus-size yoga class just encourages people to be fat. I was imagining complaints about clothing manufacturers making plus-size yoga togs. Glad to know that even in the blogosphere people sometimes practice tolerance and acceptance. Yay team.

Posted by: esleigh | May 21, 2009 10:47 AM | Report abuse

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