Yoga for Every Body

This ancient practice offers myriad benefits for any client, but some believe they don’t have the physique for it. Here, steps to help dispel the stigma for people with overweight or obesity … and turn thoughts of “I can’t” into “I can.”

by Dana Bender

With some smart strategies and pose modifications, you can say “welcome ohm” to more clients.

Among individuals who are less familiar with yoga, there is a false idea that this discipline is only for the fit and agile, and that you have to have a specific body type to practice it. This mindset is not rare, and for many clients there is a stigma about practicing yoga. For some, the idea of putting one's body into flexible poses might seem impossible, which may prevent them from trying out a yoga session. Further, images of people practicing yoga can appear intimidating, such as those on the covers of popular yoga magazines and in personal social media posts showcasing acrobatic yoga poses. The truth is that yoga is for all bodies, regardless of physical makeup or ability.

As fitness professionals, it is important to be aware of how a limiting mindset can affect our clientele, including those affected by obesity. Fitness professionals need to teach and promote that yoga can be done by all. In fact, individuals who have excess weight need to know that they can progress and succeed in yoga, as can people with various health conditions and restrictions.

There are three specific responsibilities fitness professionals can uphold to help clients with obesity overcome their reservations about yoga: Provide education, empower a positive mindset and encourage them to progress safely beyond their comfort zone. Here are strategies for putting these objectives into practice, along with tips for making yoga more accessible for clients affected by overweight.

Communicate Yoga's Benefits for Every Body

The fitness professional's first responsibility is to educate our clients who want to participate in yoga but seem nervous about it. There is a need to convey both the short-term and long-term benefits of yoga, including (but not limited to) weight loss, improved flexibility, reduced stress, enhanced kinesthetic awareness, and full-body strengthening.

There is a need to explain that having excess weight or physical constrictions may make doing yoga challenging, but not impossible, especially with modifications. Any individual can learn, progress and maintain a sustainable yoga practice. If individuals try yoga with the mindset that "everyone can benefit from and do yoga," they might surprise themselves over time and enjoy long-term success.

Help Clients Shift Their Mindset

The second responsibility is to help our clients reframe their thoughts, expectations and assumptions about trying yoga. In other words, help them shift to the mindset that yoga is for everyone, and that they can participate. This requires fitness professionals to promote a positive, open-minded attitude toward the idea of trying something new so that clients feel less intimidated when entering the fitness room. More specifically, if a client says, "I can never do yoga," fitness professionals can offer examples of people who defy the yoga stereotype.

You can also utilize your clients' successes in other areas of their life, and in other areas of their fitness program, to remind them that, once they put their mind to something, they have been able to persevere. This may motivate them in the context of yoga. It will be important to help clients initially reframe their thoughts from "I can't" to "I'll try," until they are able to shift to "I can" and "I am." Teaching this shift in word choice can be helpful in shifting clients' long-term beliefs. Sample questions to help you talk to clients are: "In what other areas of your life did you try something new and get more proficient over time?" and "Why don't you shift your word choice from 'I can't' to 'I'll try' and see what happens?"

This process of reframing takes time, but providing this support and motivation can play a significant role in shaping our clients' view of themselves and their abilities.

Empower Them to Progress

The third responsibility is to empower our clientele to push themselves outside of their comfort zone in a way that is safe, supportive and anatomically sound. More specifically, it is important to teach our clients to be mindful to pain cues, and never to push through pain during yoga. It is also vital to recommend the right yoga-class fit. For example, power yoga classes or fast-paced vinyasa flow yoga classes might be too challenging for beginners. That being said, it will be important for fitness professionals to recommend hatha yoga, beginner, or gentle restorative classes instead so that clients can become more comfortable with the physical expectations.

Last, it is vital to educate our clients that sometimes physical modifications might be necessary, no matter what class they choose. But modified yoga poses are still yoga poses. In truth, modifications are offered in most group exercise classes, and many people choose to do them for a wide variety of reasons. An instructor who is supportive and encouraging in this respect will provide an environment in which clients feel comfortable performing modified yoga poses whenever they feel the need.

Adapt Yoga for Every Body

Listed below are takeaways on how yoga can be made more accessible. If a client has any medical conditions, they should talk with their medical provider before beginning yoga.

Use yoga props. Blocks, bolsters, blankets and straps can help make yoga poses more accessible. For example, in triangle pose, clients can place blocks underneath their hands to extend the length of the arms.

Begin with vertical standing postures. These will be more comfortable for clients with excess weight since they require less transitioning on and off the floor. Also, they can be done with the support of yoga blocks (as shown below) and the wall (by placing the hands or foot against a wall when doing warrior III, for example). Over time, clients can progress to other poses. Seated postures might be most difficult for yoga beginners and/or those who have excess weight.

Pay attention to breathing and other physical cues. Make sure to always practice the yoga poses without the breath getting constricted and fast paced. Maintaining this breathing approach is a safe way to stay at a comfortable pace in class. A pose might be too challenging if a client is experiencing constricted breathing, pain, chest discomfort, dizziness, etc. When this happens, it is important for clients to stop what they are doing. Provide a modification to a less intense variation that does not result in these symptoms.

Offer options for transitions. There is no right or wrong way to transition between two poses, as long as it is safe and supportive. Transitioning in a class might be difficult at first, so let clients know that it is okay to lower out of a pose in order to transition into a new pose. For example, individuals could lower their knees to the floor from downward-facing dog before stepping one foot forward into a lunge.

Suggest a wider stance. Setting up a standing yoga pose with a wider base of support in the feet will make many poses more accessible. For example, in a forward-lunge pose, students can move their feet wider apart so that they have more stability to balance, as well as more freedom to square their hips forward.

Make use of the walls.

When practicing standing poses, being near a wall can make balancing more accessible. For example, while practicing tree pose, students can hold on to the wall in order to find vertical balance. Also, being near a wall can allow clients to test their balance in a safe way, since the wall can be easily reached if needed.

Finding the Right Words

Modified Triangle Pose (With Block)

How we speak to people who are affected by overweight or obesity matters more than we may realize. Using the wrong phrasing can be hurtful and perpetuate both discrimination and bias associated with weight. "Trainers and fitness professionals, those who are often working with people who are trying to lose weight, should understand that shame and blame are not effective tools for promoting weight loss," says Rebecca Pearl, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. "In a recent study, we found that individuals seeking weight loss who had high levels of internalized weight-related blame and shame had worse cardiometabolic health than individuals who had not internalized these negative messages."

According to the Obesity Action Coalition, the Obesity Society, and the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, people-first language is the key to speaking mindfully and sensitively. This has long been recommended for people who have health conditions such as diabetes (saying "a person who has diabetes" rather than "a diabetic person"). In other words, "a person with obesity" or "a person affected by obesity" are both acceptable, but "an obese/heavy/overweight person" is not. Also avoid using words with a negative connotation, such as "afflicted by" or "suffering from," and never use the three-letter F-word (fat).

"Obesity is a complex health issue, and it is not a reflection of an individual's internal qualities," Pearl added. "It is important for everyone, including fitness professionals, to treat people with obesity with respect, discuss weight with sensitivity and without judgment, and give support and encouragement to those who struggle with weight management."

The American Psychological Association notes that not everyone prefers people-first language. In fact, the National Federation for the Blind promotes "identity-first language" ("a blind person" instead of "a person who is blind").

Bottom line: If you're unsure of what to say or how to say it, the APA recommends asking an individual what they prefer. For example, "I'm going to use the word 'obesity,' since this is recognized as a medical disorder. Is that all right with you? Is there another word you'd prefer?"

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Modified Standing Forward Fold (With Blocks)

When leading yoga, suggest and demonstrate modifications like these as you go, so clients will have options that are achievable for them. Remember to encourage people to use modifications when they need to and to be supportive of others who are making modifications.

CHILD'S POSE

Pressing the hips all the way onto the heels might be too challenging for clients who have excess weight. If child's pose causes discomfort in the knees and hips, clients can place the pelvis vertically over the knees instead, while using the same upper-body position. This is called puppy pose. Placing a yoga blanket under one's knees can provide relief if there is knee sensitivity.

DOWNWARD-FACING DOG

One modification for this pose is to bend the knees toward the floor without changing the lift of the hips. This will allow the pose to be more accessible for anyone who has excess weight or tight muscles. Puppy pose (described above) is also a great modification for downward-facing dog since it provides the same elongation of the side body.

CAT/COW POSE

Typically this pose is done in tabletop position; people can place a blanket under the knees for any knee sensitivity. Cat/cow variations can also be done standing with knees softly bent into a slight squat, if one cannot weight-bear on the knees, and then placing one's hands on the thighs, pressing the hips back and chest forward for cow pose, and then contracting the abdominals and rounding the spine in for cat pose.

STANDING FORWARD FOLD

Clients can position their hands on yoga blocks placed in front of them at the top edge of the yoga mat for support. There are three levels of block heights: low, medium and high, depending on how you place them. Clients can place two blocks on the highest level in front of their mat underneath their shoulders to make this pose more accessible. Extra blocks can be stacked if additional height is needed.

Meet our experts

AFM-Author-Bender Dana Bender, MS, Dana Bender works as an assistant program manager for Exos | MediFit in Philadelphia, Penn, a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT), ACE Personal Trainer, and an ACSM Exercise Physiologist. Dana has an MS in clinical health psychology and counseling.

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