May 15th, 2009
ON a recent Thursday evening at the Bon Vivant Diner in Lower Manhattan, three round-bodied women sat at a booth, gabbing happily about warrior poses and downward-facing dogs, when they were interrupted by a heavyset woman in the adjacent booth.
“Excuse me, are you talking about a yoga class?” she asked.
The three women, Cynthia Ayers, Beth Garner and Bridget Clark, told her about their class, Buddha Body Yoga, and gave her a slip of paper with the Web address.
Looking at the paper skeptically, she asked: “So they have all levels, all sizes?”
Ms. Clark, 41, a location manager for “Law & Order” looped her finger around the table at her plump classmates and said, “We go.”
Typically, yoga studios are not havens for the plus-size set. The ancient practice might be based on philosophies that stress self-acceptance and noncompetitiveness, but that can be hard to consider when entering a studio filled with lithe, limber bodies twisting like taffy and gliding effortlessly into handstands and backbends.
“I go to those classes and I walk out feeling horrible,” said Ms. Ayers, a 35-year-old massage therapist. “When you are a larger person, there are certain things your body is not going to do, no matter how skilled you are. I’m actually fairly flexible. But I go into a regular class and it becomes clear that no one is going to help me modify a stretch to help my body. You either do it or you don’t.”
Then Ms. Ayers found a posting on Craigslist for Buddha Body Yoga, one of many yoga classes for people of size that have sprouted up over the last decade, including Mega Yoga at East West Yoga in Manhattan, Heavyweight Yoga in Austin, Tex., and Yoga for Round Bodies at Whole Life Yoga in Seattle.
Buddha Body Yoga is not for people of all shapes and sizes. “It’s only for big people,” said Michael Hayes, the owner of Buddha Body Yoga.
“I’m not interested in teaching small people,” said Mr. Hayes, 49, who has been teaching the Manhattan class for five years. “There are so many other classes for them.”
Mr. Hayes, who is 5-foot-11 and weighs 250 pounds, said that the concern goes beyond feeling bad because you don’t look like the 22-year-old actress on the next mat. Most yoga classes, even beginner courses, don’t address the needs of big bodies, he said.
Poses considered standard for those who are fit or slim — standing with the feet together in mountain pose, kneeling with the forehead on the mat in child’s pose — are often difficult or even impossible for heavier students. Forward bends and twists are hindered by extra girth. Weight-bearing exercises like arm balances can also be more difficult.
At a recent class, Mr. Hayes weaved though the room methodically guiding students into poses using props like blocks, straps and bolsters. At one point, he instructed them to lie on their backs with their legs lifted on chairs and exhale deeply before taking a forward bend.
“I can get my stomach out of the way,” Ms. Garner said. “I’ve never done that before.”
Ms. Garner, a 51-year-old legal assistant, later explained that drawing in her lower abdomen before taking the bend enabled her to move more deeply in the pose than she had done before.
A few blocks away at Mega Yoga, Megan Garcia offered her students another way to manage belly fat: just pick it up and move it. Demonstrating a seated spinal twist at the front of the room, Mrs. Garcia, a plus-size model, lifted the flesh of her midsection and moved it to the side, which enabled her to twist more deeply.
While all sizes are welcome at Mega Yoga, Mrs. Garcia, 36, said that tailoring the class to heavier people creates a more comfortable environment for students who are sometimes self-conscious about their weight.
“A lot of plus-size people are very embarrassed about sweating and struggling in front of people,” she said. “They try to be very well groomed and not stand out. Yoga can get very sweaty and awkward, so it’s easier to do when you’re surrounded by people who look like you. You don’t want to be the one sweaty, fat person in class.”
While understanding the appeal of these classes, Kelly McGonigal, the editor in chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, thinks there is something unfortunate about heavyset students segregating themselves.
“There’s something wrong that we’re doing as a community if people have to be shunted off to these classes designed for their size,” said Ms. McGonigal, 31, who has a Ph.D. in psychology and is an instructor at the Avalon Art and Yoga Center in Palo Alto, Calif.
Ms. McGonigal said that most people don’t practice yoga to lose weight or do circus tricks, citing surveys that say relieving stress, reducing chronic pain and maintaining overall health are the primary incentives.
After hearing about the complaints of Ms. Ayers and her classmates, Ms. McGonigal also expressed surprise that apparently there are many yoga instructors who can’t modify poses for an overweight person.
“They ought to be able to adjust for someone with one leg,” she said.
Rather than creating separate classes for plus-size yogis, Ms. McGonigal said, she would prefer to see studios work harder to attract a broader cross-section of students to their open classes. She pointed to the Samarya Center in Seattle, which has marketing materials that forgo the usual 100-pound model putting her foot behind her head.
Instead, Samarya’s Web site features practitioners with gray hair, big bellies and even crutches demonstrating the poses. Since that design change in 2005, Molly Lannon Kenny, Samarya’s executive director, said that attendance had doubled — though this can also be attributed to the fact that in 2007 the center cut its class fee to $8, half the going rate.
THE owner of Whole Life Yoga in Seattle, Tracy Weber, agrees that courting people with less-than-Olympian physiques is the future of yoga.
“There are plenty of people teaching gymnast-style yoga,” said Ms. Weber, 44, whose Web site also features practitioners of varying ages and sizes and advertises series classes called Yoga for Real People and Yoga for Healthy Backs. “The demand will be for these underserved populations.”
She said that students from the center’s Round Bodies series frequently take Whole Life’s regular drop-in yoga classes as well.
For their part, Mr. Hayes and Mrs. Garcia say their goal is for students to feel comfortable and knowledgeable enough to take any yoga class, anywhere.
“My dream is to have my students go into a regular class and just blow people away,” Mr. Hayes said.
By Sara Eckel
The New York Times