Use simple modifications to accommodate obese participants.
According to the 2002 IDEA Fitness Programs and Equipment Survey, 85 percent of businesses offer yoga programs. Although yoga can be one of the most accessible and beneficial forms of exercise, obese and morbidly obese people typically do not participate. This is unfortunate, because plus-size individuals can particularly benefit from yoga’s positive physiological and psychological effects. However, many in this population feel intimidated and ashamed, lacking the courage to enter the classroom. When an overweight person builds up the nerve to visit a yoga class, the instructor may tell her to lose weight before beginning. If welcomed, she probably feels embarrassed and self-conscious when the teacher works with her. If she makes it to class on her own, the fast-paced Sun Salutations can be dangerous and almost impossible for her to do.
The good news is that some plus-size students have been doing yoga successfully for many years, and it has changed their lives. Practicing yoga can be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding ways for this population to become healthy, build confidence and self-esteem, and sometimes achieve weight loss. Fitness professionals can help by having a welcoming attitude and learning “gentle yoga” modifications that ease the transition to health. Gentle yoga—modified hatha yoga with stress management as its main component—is a perfect place to start.
There are generally four types of people to consider when teaching yoga for obese people— and many variations within these types. One size—or one way of thinking or teaching—doesn’t fit, inspire or help all.
The Athletic but Fat Person. This type carries more weight than is considered healthy, but it is pretty evenly distributed over the entire body. He is active, positive, motivated and heavy, and will do everything he can to prove that he can keep up with your class, even though it may kill him for the first 2 weeks. This person can fit into a lot of traditional yoga classes, but you should encourage him to come out of poses earlier than more fit students and not place too much weight on his ankles and knees. He may need props and extra blankets to help his body into a pose.
The Soft, Large and Flexible Plus-Size Person. This person is usually quite willing to begin an exercise program after being convinced that like-minded people will be there. She may, however, feel embarrassed and intimidated. Most of the weight sits in her belly, stomach and buttocks. She can sit on the floor with legs either spread or crossed and may even be able to touch her head to the floor. She can do many of the poses and enjoys stretching her body. Sun Salutations, lunges, headstand, shoulder stand, triangle pose and balance poses are not recommended. Instead, begin with floor-based, back-supported and simple standing poses.
The Very Inactive, Inflexible, Unhealthy Person. This type may sit all day at a desk and then go home and watch television most of the evening. He knows he should take his health more seriously, but can’t seem to motivate himself or doesn’t know where to begin. He is usually pretty inflexible all over and will never have dreamed he could do yoga until someone drags him to a class. This health-challenged person can be suffering from any number of stress- and inactivity-related issues and may not fit into a regular class very well. Begin this student very slowly, preferably in a private or specialized class, to “open” his body slowly and carefully, while building confidence.
The Supersized Person. This type is well over 100, sometimes 200 to 300, pounds overweight. Simply lifting the arms can be a challenge. The supersized individual can’t get up and down off the floor or be on her feet for long periods. Embarrassed and humiliated by her weight and health, she spends a lot of time at home. This type desperately needs yoga’s stress-reducing qualities and gentle movements. She can do chair yoga and sit-and-stand yoga quite successfully; however, you need to work with her individually or in a small group. If emotional issues come up, she may benefit from working on them with a qualified health professional.
The “no pain, no gain” attitude does not work for plus-size participants. They have been carrying around so much pain for so long that purposely seeking more discomfort to be healthier does not compute. If you provide a safe environment and focus on relaxation and pranayama (focused breathing), the pain will lessen and these people will eventually be inspired to stretch gently into simple poses that will relieve their pain even more.
Following are three basic, traditional poses with plus-size modifications, described for a class that has no blankets or props. These modifications are for students who can get up and down off the floor and be on their hands and knees. While these poses may seem simple, they bring great relief to plus-size students and can make a remarkable difference.
Knees-To-Chest Pose (Vatayanasana)
This pose gently massages the digestive system and gives relief from excess wind in the stomach and intestines. It also relaxes and stretches the lower back.
Traditional Pose. Bend your right knee, wrap your hands around it and press it to your chest, keeping your left leg long and straight on the floor. Flex both feet, toes pointed upward, left heel reaching out for the wall ahead of you, right knee pressing to your chest. Using your abdominal muscles, raise your head and bring your chin to your knee. Breathe. Release, and repeat with the left leg.
Plus-Size Modification. This pose is important for the back and hips, but hard for the plus-size student because there is so much bulk in the stomach. It is difficult to bring the knee forward manually and be in proper alignment without straining the back, neck and shoulders. Teach this pose progressively, beginning with this simple modification:
Lie on the floor, both feet close to the buttocks, knees facing the ceiling. (This supports the back). Each heel is centered with each buttock; toes point straight ahead; hands are on the floor by your sides.
On an exhalation, bring the right knee slowly in toward your chest, keeping it toward the center of the body rather than letting it wander out toward the hip. Hold it there for one full breath, visualizing your right lower back melting into the floor; then take the knee down, rest and repeat on the left side. Practicing this pose will begin to awaken the fat in the belly and release tightness in the back.
Child's Pose (Balasana)
This pose relieves lower-back tension, gently stretches the spine, massages the abdominal organs, refreshes the legs and quiets the mind.
Traditional Pose. Sit in a kneeling position with the tops of the feet on the floor and the buttocks resting on the heels. With an erect spine, exhale and bend forward from the hips, folding the abdomen to the thighs. Lower the forehead to the floor and rest the arms alongside the body, palms turned up. Feel the motion of the breath against the thighs and at the sides of the rib cage.
Plus-Size Modification. If you can easily get down on all fours, open your knees and feet equally and as much as you need to as you push back toward the heels and drop the belly and chest toward the floor. (If the knees and feet are not equally open, it becomes a hip opener more than a back stretch.) The hands might need to go under the head, creating a pillow so the head does not feel it’s sinking into the floor. If the hands aren’t needed, relax even more by stretching both arms out toward the wall ahead of you, gently walking the fingertips forward until you feel a “little” back stretch. Now focus on breathing into your spine.
Corpse Pose (savasana)
This pose relaxes and soothes the sympathetic nervous system, helps treat high blood pressure and removes physical and mental fatigue (Iyengar 2001).
Traditional Pose. Lie on your back, feet spread about 18 inches apart, hands about 6 inches from your sides, palms up. Ease yourself into the pose, making sure your body is symmetrical. Let your thighs, knees and toes turn outward. Invite your eyes to sink deep into their sockets, and focus on your breathing—both the sound of the breath and how it feels flowing through you.
Plus-Size Modification. From the start position, bend your knees and bring the feet closer to the buttocks to take pressure off the lower back. Knees can be touching or close, with feet a little apart, pigeon-toed style, to add back support. The focus is on softening and relaxing the belly.
Gentle yoga enables students to advance in stages and progress at their own rate, while benefiting from stress management and positive affirmations. The more people learn how to relax, the more their bodies open and heal. Gentle yoga helps with back pain and injuries, since so much of it is floor-supported and the stretching is easy but effective. With obesity quickly becoming “globesity,” we have an obligation to provide safe, supportive programs that help people get healthy and stay healthy. Our nation’s health depends on it.