September 29, 2010

6 Tips (+1) for Teaching Curvy Yoga Students.

Have you ever been that eager kid in class who wants to draw attention to themself and answer every question?

The one who has their hand in the air before the teacher has even finished the question?

Me either.

One day during my yoga teacher training, we worked on twists.  We talked about a variety of things that make twists hard for people and how to make them more accessible. The teacher invited us to share more options, and I averted my eyes–too embarassed at the time to acknowledge my truth: it’s hard to get around my belly and thighs.  (I mean, who really wants to say “excuse me, 30 fellow trainees, if you’ll all come over here and look at my big belly, you’ll see another obstacle to twists”?  Not me–especially not then.) Now that I know what to do about it (tuck the skin or start from easy seat instead of a bent knees position), it’s fine and I’m free to twist as much as I want.

But back then I just felt awkward.

More and more people are practicing asana (or yoga poses) these days, and according to the CDC, 68% of Americans are overweight or obese. Math is not my forte, but even I can deduce from these numbers that more overweight people are or will be practicing yoga.

If you’re not signed up for a teacher training on this issue anytime soon (or even if you are but it’s not, say, today), here are some tips for when curvy students come to your next yoga class:

1. Focus on alignment: it’s extremely important for all students to practice safe alignment. Duh. However, that is even more the case for curvy students, whose joints are at greater risk because they are supporting extra weight. Depending on where and how the student carries their weight, some poses may be inaccessible to them based on typical instruction. My favorite (insert sarcastic tone here) example of this is when a teacher instructs “belly to thighs” in a forward fold. Well, guess what? If I’m bending forward (seated or standing), my belly is touching my thighs already! If I come further forward, I feel squished and uncomfortable. If I focus on grounding through my feet or legs, though, or reaching my sternum forward, I can still have a great and safe experience in the pose without fretting about whose belly is where and why.

2. Offer props: I’ve found props to be extremely helpful both in my own practice and when teaching curvy students. I love using any and all props, but I especially love chairs when they’re available. Chairs give students the ability to work on alignment (especially in standing poses) more fully because they take the pressure off (literally) having to stand for a long time.

3. Have a chat: Do you know a curvy yoga teacher? Do you have a great relationship with a curvy student? Have you met one online of whom you could ask questions (hint, hint)? If so, gather some questions together and then invite them for tea and a chat (or a Skype). You don’t want to make them feel like they’re part of a circus sideshow, but many people appreciate being recognized for their unique attributes and skills. Be respectful of the expertise these people can offer you about what works for them, realizing that, while no one’s practice is universally applicable, you could still pick up some helpful insight.

4. Study up: there are several great books and DVDs out about practicing as a curvy yogi or yogini and/or teaching them. If a curvy practitioner comes to your class and you’re not sure how to help them create a safe practice, you can always do your best based on the tips above and then tell them that you’ll find out more for next time. In my experience, just acknowledging to a student that you’re not sure how to best help them but you’re happy to find out can go a long way toward them walking through the doors of your class again next week.

5. DIY: I thought this sounded really corny the first time I heard it (and it still kind of is), but it can work. Strap a blanket around your belly (and/or boobs, butt, thighs, etc.) and try practicing yoga. No, a blanket is not the same as extra skin, but it can be educating–especially about the inability to go as far into certain poses, not because of a lack of flexibility, but because of a need to get over extra skin. I don’t suggest sharing this experience with your curvy students (because nothing is more charming than having your belly compared to an experiential exercise), but it can give you the opportunity to experiment and develop some strategies.

6. Don’t assume: This is another no-brainer and should go for any and every yoga student. However, I’ve found that assumptions often come quickly for curvy students. So, here is a list (in no particular order) of things not to assume: that the person has never practiced yoga before, that the student doesn’t know how hard the class will be, that the person is out of shape, that the person is there to lose weight, that the person wants to lose weight, and/or that the person gives a flying #@*& about their weight.

I’ll throw in one more tip, too. If you’re not sure what to do, or the student is really struggling, have them lie on their backs in savasana. Child’s pose is often tricky for curvy folks, and if they’re already feeling frustrated, it may compound the issue. Having the student lie back and check in with their breath will give them a much better experience in the class. They will be able to center, connect with their breath, and move on when they’re ready. And isn’t that what we all want–on and off the mat?

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