The Fat Girl’s Guide to Yoga

28 Jul 09 - Loving Our Bodies, Sports + Recreation - Toni - 11 Comments

Yoga instructor Stacey Shulman (photo by Melissa Mimms)

If you’re unfamiliar with yoga and your only impression so far involves media images of svelte women who appear to be contortionists, you’ll want to check out our Fat Girl’s Guide to Yoga, featuring a Q&A with Stacey Shulman, a certified yoga instructor in Atlanta, Georgia. Stacey has been practicing yoga for five years and recently founded a class called “Yoga for Curvy Girls and Big Guys.”

How did you get started practicing yoga?

When I started doing yoga, I really loved it but I didn’t feel like my body was understood and I needed more support to learn some of the poses. There were very few props in the studio, and if I needed something, I had to ask for it and they had to dig around in the back for it. So I left yoga for a little while, tried different aerobics, worked hard and pushed myself and I kept finding my muscles getting tighter and tighter, and I couldn’t walk around without pain. So I started back into yoga and I stumbled into a class that had a lot of support and I said, “I’m home now.”

What got you interested in teaching?

One time I was getting a massage from a plus size massage therapist who said she only went to the pregnancy yoga classes because that’s the only place where she felt like her big belly was accepted. That really got me started on the path to help people find acceptance of their bodies on the yoga mats regardless of their size or shape at the time.

How can practicing yoga specifically help fat girls?

Well, for one, it’s a wonderful way to move your body, especially if you haven’t moved it a whole lot. Many times when we carry extra weight, we limit our movements and yoga is a wonderful way to start moving again. Second, as we begin to move our bodies, we find ourselves able to cultivate more grace as we find our bodies in space. Third, yoga helps improve your sense of balance, and it also helps lengthen and strengthen your muscles.

Yoga can really help with stress, anxiety and depression – because yoga focuses on the breath, there are specific breathing techniques and the movement to calm the nervous system. If you’re feeling lethargic, doing yoga also helps energize the nervous system to elevate your mood, again by combining breathing and movement techniques.

Yoga can help you become more strong and flexible, but a strong and/or flexible body does not necessarily make you an advanced student. Advancement comes from learning about your body’s own abilities and limitations – and making peace with them. Knowing your physical and emotional edges and working with them rather than pushing boundaries and risking injury to look like someone you saw in a magazine or on TV isn’t what yoga is about.

Can yoga help people lose weight?

Different teachers will tell you different things, but here’s my experience: my weight has fluctuated over the years, but not to any real extreme. Yoga has helped me become more connected to my body, mind, and spirit in order to reshape my figure. The more yoga I do, the more in touch I am with my feelings. As someone who struggles with emotional eating, this is a very good thing, allowing me to release some of those patterns.

Are any special clothing or gear required to practice yoga?

No. Yoga is practiced in bare feet, so you don’t need special shoes. Wear loose, comfortable clothing. You should get a yoga mat, because many yoga studios have wood floors, and a mat provides a cushion under your feet and knees. You can find starter mats for around $20.

As far as accessories such as straps, foam blocks, or bolsters, check with your studio to see what they have. A strap works wonders and it’s so easy to tuck in your bag. You can use a strap as an extension of your arms or to grab your feet when you can’t reach them. Blocks bring the floor to you when leaning into a forward bend pose. I recommend having some kind of pillow, firm cotton blanket, or bolster to sit on – I take mine around with me like a teddy bear. This helps  elevate your hips up when sitting on the floor.

What’s the difference between using a DVD or video versus attending a class in person?

There’s no comparison between a live class and a DVD. I appreciate videos and DVDs and in fact, when I was first starting out, I had a couple of videos that I liked to use once in a while. They’re handy for situations when you don’t have access to a regular class or you missed class and want to do something. But a DVD can’t give you the same kind of instruction, support, and adjustments that a live teacher can to give you.

What should fat girls look for in a studio and instructor?

Some key words to look for are “gentle” or “beginner” yoga. Look for classes with “restorative” or “relaxation” in the title to help with stress or anxiety. Call the studio and say you want to take a class, and ask them about their teaching style and how they feel about beginners. You can get a feel by their answer how comfortable they are having students of different sizes, shapes, and abilities in their classes.

If you’re new to yoga or feel shy about coming to a class, many teachers will do private instruction, and you may be able to find one to do a private session for you and a couple of friends. This allows you to get to know that teacher and their style, and you can ask questions about form in front of a private audience.

Any parting thoughts for our readers?

I want your readers to know that yoga can be really fun. It’s a great way to spend a girls’ night out doing something that makes you feel healthy and vibrant in the company of good friends. There are so many great teachers out there, all with their own styles. I’ve gone to yoga classes that feature live music, drummers, and yoga and dancing. Try them all until you find the one that fits you best.

Questions? Comments? Stories to share? Post them in our comments section. You can learn more about Stacey Shulman at her web site, AbundantBliss.net.

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nyc yoga says:

Yoga is one of the most ancient Indian exercise which is being practice all over the world. People who loves to maintain a fit body Yoga is the most effective exercise for them.

Tee says:

Lindsey, that is so freaking cool. Come back and let us know how it went, and thanks for letting us know we inspired you to get out there and try it. That gives me the warm fuzzies :)

Lindsey says:

Tonight is my first fat girl yoga class! I am nervous that I’ll be dripping sweat and out of breath within the first 5 minutes, but I *need* and *want* to be active and try something new. I hope I love it!

PS: This post is what originally gave me the idea to search for classes for bigger girls. I was always so intimidated by the possibility of being the biggest person in the class, far behind everyone in strength/endurance, etc. So, thank you for the idea!

Toni says:

Gina – My yoga studio is the same way; everyone is welcome and I never feel self-conscious there. And yes, you are right about the self-awareness yoga brings, too.

Emily – Try calling some local studios and see who gives you the best vibe. And come back and tell us about your experiences. Good luck finding a studio and instructor that feel like a good fit.

Moe – Yes on DVDs vs. live instruction. I hope you’re able to find another class soon.

Moe says:

DVDs serve a purpose – can’t get to class, self-conscious etc. There definitely is no comparison between a DVD and live instruction. One of the best things I did was take a yoga class. I really lucked out with my instructor. She was incredibly open to having a plus size woman in her class and was especially attentive. Unfortunately she moved away. :( But overall, it was a great experience.

Emily says:

Great article. I haven’t found any local yoga classes that seem well suited for me, but I’ve never actually spoken to the instructors to see how they would feel about a rotund person on their class- or how they might be able to help me adapt during the class.

gina says:

thank you so much for posting this! I’m the largest woman in my beginners’ class, and it’s the only place where I don’t worry about ‘belonging’ or not; the instructor has been wonderful. I love the self-awareness that class brings, and I’m starting practising by myself at home because of it.