Teaching Yoga for Round Bodies

In our current Western culture, no one wants to be fat.

To be fat is to feel ugly, to have difficulty finding attractive clothes, and to have always to think about restaurants, theaters and airplanes in terms of whether or not one will be able to fit. To be fat is to be judged as gluttonous, emotionally ill, stupid or lacking in will power.

Both the allopathic and holistic health care industries condemn fat as unhealthy, increasing susceptibility to certain diseases, and inevitably causing early mortality (none of which, incidentally, has been proven). To put it mildly, being fat can be a drag.

I have been fat all my life. And I have heard all the stereotypical reactions to it. “You have such a pretty face, it’s a shame about those extra pounds, dear.” “You are afraid of intimacy.” “You have a problem with anger.” “You can lose that weight if you just put some effort into it.” “Have you tried Jenny Craig?” (This last was from a complete stranger on the street!)

All the well-meaning comments aside, my actual experience with being fat is that if I eat reasonably (not perfectly or “diet portions”) and get a reasonable amount of mild to moderate exercise, I feel fine. But healthy eating and exercise don’t make me thin, just healthier. And as much as it would be easier to be thin in our culture, fat is just the way I am.

Like most other fat people, I have felt embarrassed to exercise in front of others. Elementary school physical education classes were a nightmare of being singled out and teased by classmates and teachers alike. And as the teachers would not acknowledge me for what I was good at — folk dancing, tennis, dodgeball and cricket — I got a C in P.E. regardless.

As an adult, exercising is easier because I have a thicker skin, and on average grown-ups are more polite than kids. But I still get comments from people around me, still get shown plastic models of “5 Pounds of Ugly Fat” when I look for a new health club, and still get flack from doctors who assume that I need a reducing diet before they’ve even looked at my medical chart, let alone at my eating and dieting history.

Enter Ananda Yoga®

I’m going into all this not to rehearse old grievances — we’ve all got plenty of those, fat or thin. Rather, I want to demonstrate just how much courage I had to have — and that any fat person must have — to walk into a yoga class.

I was lucky. It was an Ananda Yoga beginners class taught by the warmest, least judgmental person alive. (Okay, I’m exaggerating. Still, Lin Turner, who teaches in Davis, CA, is a wonderful person and an excellent teacher.)

She not only taught me the asanas, she encouraged me to find ways to adapt them to my size if I needed to. After about two years, she suggested that I enroll in the Ananda Yoga Teacher Training course at The Expanding Light.

My reaction? I panicked. I scoffed. I laughed hysterically. And then I enrolled anyway. What Lin wants, Lin generally gets.

I was convinced that the course would improve my practice immensely. I was equally convinced that they would not give me a certificate that said I could teach yoga even if I levitated for an hour in lotus position. I was fat, and fat people could not be yoga teachers.

But the funniest thing happened in that class. Initially, I covered my terror of being judged with Attitude. I started belligerently pointing out that some of what they were asking us to do wasn’t possible for me as a fat person. I expected to be told condescendingly just to keep trying, but that wasn’t what happened.

Instead, Gyandev and Jyoti started asking me what I could do to modify the asanas and my entries/exits. They wanted to know precisely how my experience as a fat person was different. They listened, asked questions, and thanked me for my input. And my classmates were interested, too.

I was floored. All through that month, I went back to my room after many classes and cried for joy. I’d never been so accepted. It was then that I realized that maybe I could offer something as a yoga teacher. My fat was suddenly a vehicle of healing and compassion for other fat people trying to find a safe place to exercise. Darned if Lin wasn’t right!

Now I teach a weekly yoga class in Placerville, California. I call it “Yoga for Round People,” although everyone is welcome. Usually 75% or more are fat people from 200 to 400 pounds. I have found real joy in watching other fat people learn the asanas, get stronger and healthier, and learn to make some peace with their fat bodies. And as with any yoga teacher, teaching makes my practice stronger.

Physical Considerations for Fat Students

So what exactly is different for a fat person practicing yoga? And how can the yoga teacher, who most likely has never had the experience of being truly fat (I’m not talking just 20 extra pounds here), make fat students feel safe and accepted, not just tolerated and their difficulties politely ignored? How can one help fat students to adapt an asana if needed, and still maintain good alignment and safety?

Let’s start with what the general physical differences are for the fat person (beyond the obvious, I mean). Any pregnant woman knows that having a big tummy changes things. Her center of gravity is different; her balance is different. Her gait is thrown off. She can’t cross her legs when she sits down anymore. And she has to lean over a book or dinner plate in a very different way than she did when she was thin.

The same difficulties are true for a fat person, From what I have observed in myself and in my fat students, there are four main ways that being fat affects one’s movement:

  1. Bending forward is in varying degrees hampered by the abdomen. If one is quite fat, it’s like trying to lean over a beach ball.

  2. The fat person usually finds it difficult to internally rotate the hips. Fat on the thighs spreads the legs apart, outwardly rotating the hips. This accounts for the characteristic widebased gait and open-legged seated posture of the fat person. The resultant contracture (if a person has been fat for a long time) in the external rotators makes postures that require the legs to remain together difficult and even painful.

  3. Fat in the upper arms and the upper/middle back makes putting the hands together behind the back difficult, as does the fat person’s increased ratio of torso circumference to arm length. Take the Circle of Joy, add a fat person, and presto! — instant Circle of Frustration. (Actually, this is easily solved simply by moving the arms behind one instead of clasping the hands.)

  4. Fat people tend to have some neck difficulty, because of the habitual need to crane the neck forward to get closer to something to read, eat or whatever. If the tummy dictates that the person must sit further from a desk, the neck and shoulders bear the brunt of bringing the head and hands forward to lean over a book or dinner plate. Unlike in pregnant women, for a fat person this “lean forward” part happens for an extended period of time; it could lead to a chronic unhealthy curve in the cervical spine, and even a “widow’s hump.”

It’s interesting that, because of these four differences, it’s often the simpler asanas that are difficult for the fat person, whereas some more challenging ones are actually easier for most.

For example, I can do a mean prasarita padottanasana (wide-stance standing forward bend) and anantasana (lying on one side, with that same side’s elbow on the floor and the head propped on that hand, with the top leg raised and top hand holding the big toe of the raised foot). However, padahastasana and balasana are very difficult for me — and I’ll explain why below.

One additional note: In inversions such as halasana or shoulderstand, large-breasted women will have an additional difficulty — breathing — that a man or less well-endowed woman will not have. A firm but stretchy bra may help relieve this, but these too may be uncomfortable if they “cut” into the flesh too much.

I’ll return to the physical difficulties later in this article, going through each of the asanas taught in the current Level 1 AYTT. For now, let’s move on to the psychological difficulties.

Psychological Considerations for Fat Students

First of all, fat aspiring yogi/yoginis who screw up their courage to even walk into a yoga class are laying themselves open to anything from furtive stares to outright insults to well-meaning put-downs. This stuff happens even in classes that are designed for beginners, although the Power Yoga or Bikram classes obviously see more of it, since they’re designed more for ambitious, competitive athletes.

Some fat people who are more self-accepting may be able to handle it and simply do the best they can. Others, perhaps the majority (although I don’t know that for sure), are wearing their heart on their sleeves and are ready to run for cover at the slightest sign of impending humiliation. I certainly was. I have several suggestions for putting the fat yoga student at ease in a class:

1. Examine Your Own Feelings about Fat People

If you privately think that fat people are always couch potatoes with poor eating habits, then however nice you are, the fat person in front of you will still know what you’re thinking. It’s like radar. (Most likely, actually, it’s non-verbal body language.)

What I have seen, and try to convey to others, is that fat people run the gamut of eating styles and levels of physical activity, same as thin/ normal-sized people do. Some may be compulsive eaters and haven’t walked a block since 1974. Others may eat fairly well and go for a 30-minute walk every day.

A few might be really into fitness, like Cheryl Haworth, the champion weight lifter, or Judy Molnar, the triathalon athlete. A few may have the diseases traditionally associated with obesity, like diabetes or hypertension.

However, even if obesity does double the risk of these diseases (which is by no means proven), that means the risk goes from something like 0.5% to 1%. (Read Dean Edell’s book Eat, Drink and Be Merry for further discussion of this point.) So most fat people don’t have these diseases. Don’t assume.

2. Expand Your Definition of Beautiful

Include images of fat people in your definition of beautiful, and more importantly, include images of fat people in your definitions of beautiful yoga asanas.

Lillian Russell was considered to be the most beautiful woman around in the early 1900’s. She weighed over 200 pounds. Marilyn Monroe wore a size 16. A fat person practicing an asana who is in alignment and feels that centered joy that yoga can give us, can be beautiful.

On a practical level, I have found that all of us, including fat people who are new to yoga and may be out of shape, have at least one asana that is “ours.” Our bodies do it perfectly and effortlessly. If I judge that a fat student has found his/her asana and won’t freak at the attention, I have him/her demonstrate it for the class. This can be a much-needed confidence booster.

3. Include Differences in Body Type in Your Teaching

As a matter of course, use phrases like, “Short people will need to choke up on the strap,” or “Those with knee problems should probably use a cushion under the knees,” or “If you have a bigger tummy that’s getting in the way, open the legs to accommodate it.”

These go a long way toward reassuring people that their differences will not only not get them injured, but will also not be ridiculed.

A few quick reminders about internal practice, not comparing yourself to other class members or pictures in books, and the benefits of practice at any level of ability will also help. I have seen well-meaning teachers, however, make these very speeches, then proceed to choose only their hotshot favorites to demonstrate asanas, or follow up the speech with the supposed weight-loss benefits of yoga.

At the other extreme, it’s also possible to over-focus on fat students. Giving them too much attention — by, say, adjusting them in every pose — can embarrass them. Lin had a very nice way of offering a brief suggestion or giving me a strap, then telling me to play around with it to see how to adapt the pose for myself. That works well once a student has some experience.

I advertise my class as focusing on large people. In addition, I am fat myself, so I can address the subject directly. Often I will simply demonstrate the difficulty a fat person could have with an asana, show what to do about it, and ask a thinner person to demonstrate the asana without the problem.

I realize it may be difficult not to seem like you’re singling out fat people if you’re a thin teacher. But I believe frank, matter-of-fact discussion of differences can be tremendously reassuring, as long as it is free of condescension. Refer back to #1.

4. Do You Sell Yoga Accessories?

If you sell T-shirts, leotards, mat carriers with shoulder straps, etc., then please be sure to carry them — or have quick access to them — in large sizes.

Nothing makes a fat person feel more welcome than to be able to wear the same T-shirt as everyone else. I suggest having them available up to 4x and able to order them to 6x. Be aware that clothes are available, by mail order at least, in sizes up to 10x.

Junonia, Making It Big, and Casual Male Big and Tall are good on-line sources of large-size T-shirts, leotards, leggings and sweat pants. For the shoulder strap problem, look for adjustable ones, and acknowledge the problem for the fat wannabe mat carrier owner: I’m not aware of any that would accommodate more than about 2x or 3x.

Final Considerations

Yoga is an excellent exercise and spiritual discipline for people of any size. For some fat students, simply being made aware of body mechanics differences and being made welcome in a class are enough to bolster their confidence and allow them to progress.

Others are extremely out of shape and will need lots of adjusting with cushions and straps — and if they have cardiovascular or musculoskeletal problems, some asanas may even be contraindicated. Still others may be at a reasonable level of fitness, but be so ashamed of and uncomfortable in their bodies that they need lots of nurturing before they can actually start tuning into their physical selves.

For these last two groups — those who need lots of technical help and/or lots of moral support — I truly believe that having a separate class for large people is the way to go.

As long as the teacher is compassionate, has no hidden weight loss agendas, and understands the differences for fat people doing yoga, the teacher’s size probably doesn’t matter. What matters is having other fat people around, supporting each other and improving together. Fat people spend their whole lives trying to fit into a world that neither fits nor accepts them. Having a separate space to explore one’s physical self — and one’s spirituality — with others who have the same goals, is tremendously healing.

Teaching Yoga for Round Bodies

Introduction

  1. Adho Mukha Shvasana
  2. Ardha Matsyendrasana
  3. Balasana
  4. Bhujangasana
  5. Chandrasana
  6. Dandasana
  7. Dhanurasana
  8. Garudasana
  9. Janushirasana
  10. Jathara Parivartanasana
  11. Matsyasana
  12. Padahastasana
  13. Parvatasana
  14. Paschimotanasana
  15. Salabhasana
  16. Sarvangasana
  17. Sasamgasana
  18. Savasana
  19. Setu Banghasana
  20. Siddhasana
  21. Standing Backward Bend
  22. Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation)
  23. Tadasana
  24. Trikonasana
  25. Ustrasana
  26. Utkatasana
  27. Vajrasana
  28. Viparita Karani
  29. Virabhadrasana
  30. Vrikasana


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All authors are graduates of Ananda Yoga Teacher Training.

Ananda Yoga Registered Yoga School for 200 and 300 hours

About the Author

Kay Erdwinn, M.D., teaches “Yoga for Round Bodies” in Placerville, California.


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