By Genia Pauli Haddon
Reprinted from the Winter 1995 issue of Radiance
When we were kids, I was considered the brainy one; my sister was the
graceful athlete. She'd be doing back bends and cartwheels and headstands all over the
yard, while I could barely do a somersault. My chunky build and the mildly derisive,
although perhaps good-natured, laughter of my family at my first attempts had taught me
not to try. So it seems miraculous that, at age fifty and with as chunky a body as ever, I
now find myself committed to practicing and teaching (of all things!) yoga.
While very young, before I got the
message that I was fat and clumsy, I had enjoyed playing energetically outdoors: softball
with my brother and sister, cowboys and Indians; pumping the swing so high it seemed I
might sail right over the frame - and then "bailing out" to see how far away I
could land. During those years, we lived on a country road, with no neighbor children. My
only playmates were siblings and occasionally cousins. In those days, I didn't think much
about the fact that I was "fat." If anything, I felt proud to be bigger than my
cousins of the same age.
Entering public school changed all that. Realizing that others saw me as
fat and expected me to be sedentary and awkward, I began to develop a self-image that
said, "I can't" to most types of physical activity. I poured my energies instead
into being a good student. I genuinely loved using my mind, so the transition was not
difficult to make. The only part of school I disliked was recess. I well remember the day
"Anna-Banana," the kid everybody picked on, and I were the final two left as
teams were chosen for softball. When the captain of Team A chose her, the entire B Team
groaned at being stuck with me. I felt a mixture of shock, anger, hurt, and shame.
Judging my round body to be ugly and shameful, I tried to become
acceptable by losing weight. Between ages ten and forty, through such varied regimens as
The grapefruit diet, Dr. So-and-So's miracle diet, prescription diet pills, depriving
myself of all desserts, eating only once a day, Weight Watchers, and the Cambridge liquid
diet plan, I periodically achieved a false slimness. When my husband and I started dating
in college, I was in one of those artificially svelte phases. Fortunately, when my weight
returned to normal, he discovered he genuinely prefers my natural build, finding my soft
roundness very sexy. Despite his approval, in my heart I never felt good about my shape.
Feeling ashamed of my body, all my life I shunned situations that would
expose or call attention to it. No wonder I hated high school gym classes, where I had to
wear a shorts uniform and publicly move my chubby body for all to see. No wonder I
"covered up," wearing a raincoat in fair weather, avoiding shorts in the summer,
and seldom if ever daring to don a swimsuit. Who would have believed that, without
losing weight, someday I would be comfortable enough with my body to star in a yoga
I first heard of Kripalu yoga when my friend Linda DeMarco returned
radiant from a week-long program at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, located in the
Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. Linda is both tall and big; I am short and plump.
She assured me that a week of yoga was not high school gym class revisited. Something
stirred in me as she described the absolute love and respect with which she had been
treated by the Kripalu teachers and the joy she had discovered in moving her body in new
ways. But yoga? Didn't you have to be ascetically lean and able to twist yourself
into tortured postures? Yet here was my large-size friend, glowing as she described her
successful first experiences with hatha yoga.
Despite her reassurances and a deep-down yearning to reconnect with the
physical vigor and body comfort I had enjoyed in early childhood, I was filled with
misgivings as the date of my first Kripalu program neared. My mixed feelings came to
tangible expression in the fact that I was eagerly packed and ready to go a whole day
early - and when I arrived, discovered I had mistakenly come a day late!
Unlike some hatha yoga systems, Kripalu yoga does not strive for
"perfection" and conformation to external norms. At every level of practice, the
body is respected rather than judged, listened to rather than coerced. Above all, Kripalu
yoga teaches love, defined as clear awareness and unconditional acceptance of what is. The
staff at Kripalu Center did genuinely accept me, giving me permission in turn to cultivate
true acceptance of my body, as is. Eyes closed and deeply relaxed, I discovered how
to move slowly and gently into classical yoga postures while noticing every nuance of both
physical and "inner" experience.
Through daily practice of Kripalu yoga, I learned, and continue to
learn, both on the mat and in all of life, to accept myself as I am and as I change. The
fact is, much more has changed than just my attitude toward my body. I am more serene,
even as I have more energy and enthusiasm for life. The discipline of practicing postures
with intense attention to detail helps me develop greater and greater ability to focus my
attention single-pointedly on other activities as well. Being compassionately with myself
on the yoga mat has cultivated in me a greater capacity for compassion toward others. Even
my inner sense of connection to God/dess has deepened.
Within two years, I had progressed to the month-long intensive Advanced
Yoga Teacher Training course, which only a small percentage of Kripalu students choose to
take. Linda and I were the only large-sized trainees in the group. On the second
afternoon, moved by an impulse much deeper than conscious intention, I found myself
volunteering to hold an informal teaching session to share with my slim colleagues what my
own body had taught me about tailoring classic postures to the rounded physique. To my
surprise, more than twenty people signed up to come.
"Oh no!. What have I done?" I lamented to Linda during the
break, as the old "I can't do this" syndrome took hold again. In reality, I did
have something valuable to share. You see, in spite of the supportive attitude of all my
Kripalu teachers, not a single one of them had known how to help me adjust postures to fit
me. The suggestions they sometimes made just didn't work. By attuning ourselves to our own
bodies, by experimenting throughout the months and years, Linda and I had discovered for
ourselves what would work. By sharing this now with our fellow yoga teachers, we might
empower them to offer genuine help for their own large-size students.
Linda and I spent the rest of the break brainstorming together, and that
evening we presented an informal show-and-tell session that was so well received we agreed
to do an encore the following night. We taught the other teachers tips for supporting body
weight safely and comfortably. We demonstrated subtle modifications of postures to
accommodate the reality of big hips and breasts. We talked about negative cultural
attitudes toward fat bodies and discussed the blatant or subtle messages of disapproval
they might be giving their heavier students. We began to develop graceful language for
talking openly about large bodies, in ways that communicate respect, support, and
For me, physically demonstrating postures under the scrutiny of
twenty-some slim yogis and yoginis was a coming-out party. Although their respect and
admiration were gratifying, what really mattered was that I felt confident and good
about myself the whole time I was revealing my body in ways that had formerly exposed me
Afterward, one of the men said, "You and Linda are a dynamite
teaching team. You should make a video."
"A video?" I asked. "But what would we do with a
"Sell it, of course. That way you could reach people who aren't yet
ready to sign up for a public yoga class. And what your bodies have taught you, most slim
instructors simply don't know. So your video would be a wonderful teaching tool to augment
regular classes, too." Through his suggestion, the unformed impulse that had first
moved me to share my round body's wisdom with my colleagues became concretely focused in a
commitment to share Kripalu yoga with hundreds of round-bodied women.
It is said that when one is nobly motivated and makes a firm commitment,
the whole universe cooperates. Linda and my motivation for creating Yoga for Round
Bodies was to give other large women a fitness program that doesn't make them feel all
wrong and that can help them enjoy their bodies just as they are. The universe brought us
to Jim Diaz of Tele-Media, a superb video producer who was so captivated by our project
that he found ways to partially subsidize the cost of professional shooting and editing to
stay within our shoestring budget.
All during preparation and production, each time I came up against the
old "I can't...," the noble purpose of serving others gave me the courage to
dare the impossible. We could afford to buy the rights of no more than one commercially
produced musical background, yet our videos contained six sessions. So, with Linda on
flute and me on keyboard, we discovered the exhilaration of musical improvisation,
creating original selections we still can hardly believe are our own. When Jim visited the
yoga studio only a week before the shoot and told me the walls were too light to look well
on video, I created an eight-by-twenty-five-foot mural in gorgeous shades of blue and
green. Again and again, I discovered that limitations are the product of the habitual mind
and that limiting self-images can be transcended.
The universe also reflected back to me the mixed feelings I still carry
in a corner of my mind about the liabilities of being fat. Both production and marketing
phases brought times of confronting old biases, as well as confirmations of deepened
While envisioning the project, we sought technical support from Kripalu
Center. Without exception, resident teachers who already knew us and our yoga abilities
enthusiastically encouraged us. But when we sought an official okay to shoot background
footage about the origins of Kripalu yoga, we had several conversations with a
representative of the organization who expressed distaste and fear about having the
Kripalu name associated with fat people. "Our image is important," he explained,
and he disallowed any direct reference to Kripalu Center in the videos. Ironically,
Kripalu Shop later set aside a standing policy of selling only Kripalu-produced yoga
videos so that they could carry our two-volume set, which quickly became one of their
best-sellers. Eventually Yoga for Round Bodies was recommended as a teaching
resource in the Kripalu Yoga Teachers Newsletter. Linda and I have been thrilled to
receive calls and notes of appreciation from both students and teachers around the
country. One of the most gratifying endorsements came when our favorite master teacher at
Kripalu exclaimed, "This is beautiful! I want a set for my mom."
Whenver a catalog or retailer has decided to carry our videos, sales
have exceeded expectations. But convincing a buyer often means facing old stereotypes. One
commented, "Who's gonna want to look at a couple of dumpy housewives doing
yoga?" Another told me that although he was impressed with the quality and scope of
the course, he would not offer it in his specialty catalog of fitness videos. "It's
well done, but you've created a product for which there's no market. Heavy women aren't
interested in fitness." So far, even copies of our good reviews in Radiance
and BBW have not convinced him that many large-sized women do enjoy movement and
fitness. The videos have also been recommended by reviewers in such national magazines as New
Age Journal, New Age Retailer, and Yoga Journal. The crowning recognition to
date has been an invitation from Yoga Journal to write an article about my teaching
techniques (the September/October 1994 issue).
Throughout the making of our master tapes, our purpose stayed clear: to
model for other heavy women self-acceptance, the joy of moving attentively, and the
gracefulness that comes from those attitudes. It wasn't about losing weight. Yet, on the
strong advice of a marketing expert, we went against our principles by highlighting yoga's
weight-loss benefits in promotional literature. "That's what will sell," she
convinced us. Not surprisingly, by putting out the line that being thin is what it's all
about, I found myself falling for that same lie again, beginning to feel my body isn't
okay the way God made me. As the old self-consciousness tapes began to play again, I found
myself resorting to "covering-up" clothing and feeling guilty about my normal
way of eating. I'm proud to say that we have now brought all promotion in line with our
true intentions. But how easy it is to relapse to those old, false, unhealthy attitudes!
The stakes are even higher for Linda if she falls for the old lies about
the wrongness of her body. Half a dozen years ago a diagnosis of cancer had plunged her
into a devastating year of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments. It took
another year for her to regain strength enough to resume work. It was during this recovery
period that she discovered Kripalu yoga. "I used to be afraid of relapsing," she
acknowledges. "Kripalu yoga taught me how to cope with fears, move beyond them. I
began to live each day on a deeper, fuller level and learned to love my body exactly as
it is. Now I no longer worry about getting sick again."
has taught me that the most powerful agent for transformation is conscious, loving
attention. Instead of fixating on the ways in which you want your body to be different,
become exquisitely observant of your body as it is. Discover how each posture lives within
your own unique body, even as you pay careful attention to these presspoint instructions
for good alignment.
Publishing our set of videos for national distribution was for me the
ultimate "coming out," exposing my fat body for all the world to see. Having
done so, now I find I can risk lesser exposures easily. For example, I have been at ease
doing several TV interviews, and have felt comfortable seeing my "unstylishly"
round body on the screen when these shows were aired. Our intention for creating our
videos was to love and serve our round-bodied sisters. In the process, I have honored and
On the day of the shoot, Tele-Media arrived at my yoga studio with a
crew of five, three cameras, six studio lights, and their huge mobile unit for
live-editing the footage as it was shot, to achieve a more natural result than is possible
with cut-and-paste assembling of clips. We were "on the set, live" for fifteen
hours a day, two days running.
The final segment we taped was a Postureflow, a feature distinctive to
Kripalu yoga. Guided by the body's own energy, a person slowly moves spontaneously from
posture to posture. It's an intimate experience, choreographed by the body itself.
We weren't sure we could accomplish the necessary level of concentration
under those bright lights. We told the crew we needed not only their best technical
expertise, but also their deepest attention to create a real Postureflow under those
It worked. As we moved from posture to posture for nearly a half hour to
Steve Roach's haunting "Structures from Silence" there wasn't a sound in the
room but our breathing and the music. I entered into deep communion with my body,
experiencing peace, well-being, and bliss, amd watching as my body took itself into
positions I had never before achieved. I felt truly beautiful, inside and out. When
we finished, the entire crew remained suspended in silence for several minutes longer,
some with their eyes closed as though entranced by what they had just witnessed. It was
one of the most moving experiences of my life. We chose the best few minutes of this
footage for the opening sequence of our video. Now, when I fall into old patterns of
thought, disrespecting my wonderful round body, I can watch that opening postureflow and
realize afresh that I am a person of grace, dignity, and beauty who can stand forth in
quiet confidence for all the world to see.
Using blankets as padding; some bath towels for support, as described
below. Allow a half hour. Begin by sitting quietly for a few moments, and then flow
through this posture sequence.
Navasana: The Boat (figure A) This posture strengthens and tones
the entire back, legs, and arms. If your upper body and breasts are large, even with
considerable extension and lifting of the torso, your body may still appear to rest on the
mat. Just focus on the skeleton and realize that the posture is being entered when you
engage the presspoints, even if the upper body does not appear to be lifting off the
Stretch out on your mat, face downward. Slip the hands beneath the hips
at the bikini line, palms up. Sliding the palms toward the ribcage, smooth the soft
abdominal tissues upward and away from the bikini line. This allows good grounding on the
mat. Extend your legs straight out behind you, hip-width apart. If upper legs are very
heavy, smooth just the soft tissue of the thigh-fronts toward the outside while retaining
the original alignment of the thigh bones. Extend your arms out in front of you,
shoulder-width apart, framing the ears, palms facing each other. Connect with your breath,
and on an inhalation engage the following presspoints to enter Navasana: Picture the
thighs rolling outward as you begin to press the bikini line firmly into the mat.
Simultaneously press the tips of your toes toward the wall behind you, press your heels
upward, your fingertips toward the wall in front, and your crown away from your shoulders.
Allow this combined press to lift torso and legs. Hold in position for three to eight
full, slow breaths. To release, exhale the entire length of the body down onto the mat.
Garbhasana: The Child (figure B) This position offers a
counterstretch to The Boat and transition from a belly-down position to hands and knees.
Sit back onto your heels, spine upright, pressing your sitzbones downward. Before folding
forward, make space for your belly by widening the knees farther apart. Connect with your
breathing. Press the crown away from the shoulders. On an exhalation, fold forward at the
bikini line, keeping the back flat and reaching the collarbone as far forward as possible.
Finally, allow the back to round, bringing your forehead to rest on the floor, with your
arms at your sides. If needed, place a folded towel beneath your forehead to fill any gap.
Relax deeply into me posture, inviting the force of gravity to help the lower back
"let go." When you feel complete, come back up onto the hands and knees.
Adho Mukho Svanasana: The Tent or Downward-Facing Dog (figure C)
This position stretches the hamstrings, strengthens the arms, and promotes alignment of
the whole spine. Supporting body weight without pain to wrists and palms is the special
challenge this posture poses for large people. Tightly roll a bath towel, forming a tube
three to four inches in diameter - small enough to comfortably grasp. Curve your rolled
towel into the shape of handlebars, loosely grasping it with palms directly beneath your
shoulders. Press shins and palms into the floor; move the tailbone and crown in opposite
directions. Curl your toes under. Connect with your breathing. On an exhalation, press
your tailbone skyward, straightening your legs. Picture straight channels for energy to
course between heels and tailbone, and between palms and tailbone. Allow the back of your
neck to soften and lengthen so that your ears are centered between your arms. Come into
full expression of the posture, as pictured, by pressing the palms and soles downward, the
tailbone upward, and the crown away from the shoulders. Hold through five to ten full,
slow breaths. To release, bend the knees as you exhale.
Postureflow: With the eyes gently closed, allow your body to
move, stretch, bend, and flow without plan. Luxuriate in the joy of being in your body,
just as you are.
Sarvasana: Posture of Repose. End your Postureflow by stretching
out on your back. Spend at least five minutes relaxing in this final posture. Bend your
legs and slide both heels close to your buttocks. Relax, and notice the sensation of your
lower back in contact with the floor. Very slowly slide your feet forward, gradually
straightening the knees more and more, keeping your attention on the lower back. At the
moment when the lower spine begins to lose intimate contact with the mat, stop. Support
your legs in this position with pillows, rolled blankets, or towels. Only if needed, place
a folded towel under the head (not the neck). Now relax deeply, with arms at your sides,
palms up. Release from this posture by rolling to one side before gently getting up.©
GENIA PAULI HADDON is a certified Kripalu yoga teacher and author of
Uniting Sex, Self and Spirit (1993, Plus Publications). She lives in Connecticut. For
information about Yoga for Round Bodies, call 800-793-0666 or write to Plus
Publications, Box 265-R, Scotland, CT 06264.
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