Yoga For Round Bodies
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 video?
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 acceptance.
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 to ridicule.
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 video?"
"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 self-awareness.
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."
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 transformed myself.
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 conditions.
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 floor.
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. Relax.
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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