OK, let's face it: If you're an average-height woman nearing (or over!) 200 pounds, you do not fit in the "yoga body" category. Tall, long, lean, lithe, elegant—not me. I've done tai chi and qigong in the past and loved them. But honestly, in my mind, I've put yoga and bikinis on the same list: Not for me.
Here's part of the problem of being overweight or obese: It can sideline you. (And that's the last thing you need.)
If you were ever the big kid left warming the bench while everyone else played softball, after a while the bench feels like the place you belong. That can keep you from trying new things—things you may need to do if you're going to get active and shed pounds. Going to a class, or even to a gym where other people can see you in gym clothes, can be really intimidating.
Take my first yoga experience: I tried a yoga class at my Y one night to experience moves I found difficult, moves I found painful, and moves I found downright impossible: I burst out laughing when the instructor suggested pressing our knees to our elbows. (Yeah, right, lady!)
My after-class conclusion: Yoga for overweight and obese people definitely needs a different approach.
In the past few weeks, a few yoga products meant for full-figured people crossed my desk, and I decided to give them a try.
The first product for full-figured folks I received is a book titled Plus-Sized Yoga: Beginners Yoga for People of All Sizes by Donald Keith Stanley (plussizedyoga.com, $19). It introduces kundalini yoga, which involves meditation and mantras as well as postures, and does a good job of introducing the importance of breathing and hydration, as well as some yoga terms.
Stanley suggests meditations to suit your moods, and also ways to modify postures if you're uncomfortable. (Have a hard time sitting with your legs crossed? Lean against a wall to support your back, or put a pillow under your butt—it helps to have your bottom higher than your feet.)
As much as I loved the explanation of postures, the rest of the practice in this book seems best for dedicated beginners who are seriously interested in studying and making kundalini yoga a part of their life. I wasn't sure I could pick and choose moves to try (Stanley encourages you to do some in the order they're given in the book), and it felt strange to begin by myself what can grow into an intense practice.
The second product is a DVD called HeavyWeight Yoga 2: Changing the Image of Yoga, led by Abby Lentz (heartfeltyoga.com, $17). If you're intimidated by yoga, Lentz holds your hand through it, and the DVD will change your image of a "yoga body."
I was impressed with the people in the video; they are some of Lentz's students who are overweight and obese people of all ages practicing yoga (in leotards, no less) with beautiful, admirable confidence. I also liked the way Lentz modified poses so they're easier for people who are overweight. The commentary track is especially valuable—it's where Lentz explains the variations on poses that students do (for example, there is a student who's had multiple knee surgeries who uses knee-friendly options).
I called Lentz (who, at over 200 pounds, not only teaches yoga, but is a marathoner and a triathlete!) to talk about her approach to yoga and the benefits it can have for people who are overweight or obese.
"If you're obese, you may look at yoga and the body images typically associated with it and you think it doesn't apply to you. You think yoga's something you have to lose weight in order to do. But the benefits of yoga can be yours, regardless of size or your condition," she says.
And to Lentz, yoga is a great way to begin an exercise regime and get in touch with your body. "So many people describe themselves with such loathing—'I hate my thighs, I hate my belly.' But if yoga helps you develop affection for yourself, it's easier to make better, more loving choices to take care of your body—like more salad and less dessert."
Lentz's careful instruction suggests moves that are easier (her version of Child's Pose feels relaxing instead of like I'm cutting off air to my body) and safer for heavier people.
"It would be very reasonable to come into a class for the first time and think you could do a Half Shoulder Stand; it's a beginner's pose. But if you're overweight or obese, you're sending all that extra weight on your shoulders, neck, and throat. You could injure yourself. So I take apart the Half Shoulder Stand and give you the same benefits in different moves so you're safe," she says.
If you need another reason to give yoga a try, practicing may help you watch what you eat.
Oh, and need some yoga clothes? Lentz recommends Decent Exposures for plus-size activewear in lots of colors.