People with bigger bodies are discovering comfort and empowerment in yoga studios around the globe. Use these tips to help support yourself, or your students, on the mat.
For decades, Anna Guest-Jelley felt disconnected from her body. But then, standing in a yoga class sometime in her late 20s, she felt a glimmer of a connection when the teacher cued her to feel what was happening with her right little toe. “After so many years of quashing my body’s signals in favor of following the rules of my latest diet, it had become all but impossible for me to notice anything going on with my body,” writes Guest-Jelley in her new book, Curvy Yoga. “But this time, as my inner awareness woke up, I felt the uniquely squishy, yet firm, sensation of the mat underneath my baby toe. And I noticed how the inside of my toe was pressed down more than the outside was, telling me I wasn’t fully engaging my whole foot in the pose.”
Guest-Jelley now brings this acute awareness into every yoga class, whether she’s practicing or teaching. It’s the same awareness that allows her to understand the ebbs and flows of her body and its weight. “The only truth of the body is that it’s going to change,” Guest-Jelley says. “You can accept this body you have now, and that it will change.”
Body acceptance. Body confidence. Body positivity. There are abundant ways to refer to the often elusive concept of feeling at home in your own skin. It’s elusive because “we live in a culture where there is enormous pressure for people to look a certain way in order to feel OK,” explains Linda Bacon, PhD, author of Body Respect and Health at Every Size. “At this point, the myth of the thinner body being a healthier, happier one has become culturally well established.”
If you are battling to accept your size, Bacon recommends separating functionality from appearance—for example, if you can, take a walk and notice how amazing your legs are as a means of getting around, rather than thinking about how fat your thighs are—and practicing yoga. “If you have a larger body, you may not be able to get into certain poses, but you don’t need to,” Bacon says. “There are other poses you can do. If the yoga instructor is doing poses that are not supporting, or adapted for, larger people in the class, the instructor is the problem—not the bodies of the participants.”
Yoga has been shown to be an effective way to help people appreciate and enjoy their bodies. And Guest-Jelley has noticed more and more larger people in class over the past decade. “More teachers are realizing that supporting all students in their classes is a win-win for everyone,” she says. For a more comfortable practice, try the tips from Guest-Jelley, which she designed to help bigger bodies find comfort in poses in the moment and, ultimately, create acceptance by affirming the body as it is.
Take this opportunity to converse with your body exactly as it is, inviting your whole self to participate. Throughout the following sequence, you’ll be able to experiment with different pose options, finding the versions that work best for you. Then, use what you’ve learned to inform other, similar poses in your practice. Before beginning, come to a seated position and place your hands over your heart. Breathe at your own pace for at least 5 breaths, feeling the connection between your hands and your heartbeat, while also feeling your legs and bottom in contact with the mat. Let these physical sensations invite you into awareness. It is from this place of presence that you can begin the conversation of yoga, getting curious about what your body needs as you go. Use your yoga practice to build a foundation of acceptance—affirming your body by being with it and meeting its needs as they are today.