Monday, August 12, 2019

Claiming Our Space: Not Just for Curvy Students

Yoga Teacher Amber Karnes
By Rose Bak

For years I hid in the back of yoga classes, making myself as small as possible.

As a plus size person, I was always very aware that I was the largest person in any yoga class. It made me uncomfortable. I would see people moving into positions that I couldn’t access easily, either because of the size of my body or because half of my spine is fused and doesn’t bend.

Back then I thought that everyone had to look exactly the same in yoga poses, like those synchronized swimmers you see in the Olympics. I was the oddity, the one who didn’t fit in. So, I tried to be invisible.

For the most part, my yoga teachers ignored me hiding back in the corner, because they didn’t know how to teach someone like me. Someone whose stomach got in the way in a forward fold. Someone whose spine can’t bend to do a wheel pose. Someone who needs an extra step to bring their feet to their hands when moving in and out of lunges.Someone who needs blocks and straps to move into certain poses. Someone who can’t do yoga the “right” way.

Eventually I found a studio that specializes in accessible yoga. At my new studio every pose was offered with numerous options. The teachers talked about working with your own unique body mechanics, and the teachers were unique as well, some larger, some older. Because the studio had a motto of “unconditionally welcoming,” for the first time I was in classes with other larger people, with people who have disabilities, with people who didn’t fit the young, thin, Pinterest yoga model stereotype.

It was like coming home. I felt empowered and gradually I moved away from the back corner. I began to take up space. When I stopped worrying about how I looked, my practice flourished, and I started connecting more with yoga.

A few weeks ago in yoga class we were talking about this concept of taking up space. It was a “Curvy Yoga” class for larger people, taught by someone who is also curvy. As our teacher talked about the ways larger women in particular are trained to make ourselves as small as possible, I could see every head in the room nodding.

The teacher encouraged us to stretch our arms wide, widen our legs, to breathe deeply using our diaphragm, and to use all the props we wanted. Seeing the women in my yoga class use the expansiveness of their poses to take up space, I was heartened.

Taking up space isn’t just about the physical space around your mat. Taking up space is also speaking up when the teacher asks if anyone has any requests for class. It’s about asking questions or waving the teacher over when you need assistance. It’s about deciding that a few moments in child’s pose is a better option for you than what the rest of class is doing. Taking up space is about getting all that you want and need out of your practice.

Earlier this year I became a yoga teacher. I enrolled in the very first accessible yoga teacher training cohort at the studio where I practice, and there we learned how to teach people of all shapes and sizes and abilities.

“How would you adapt this pose if someone recently had a knee replacement?” our instructors would ask. “What would you suggest as an option if the person can’t get down on the floor? What if they only have one arm?”

The central focus in our training was on how to make the practice work for everyone’s unique body. We were encouraged to teach the “heart” of the pose instead of one perfect shape for the pose. We learned that it’s not about doing a magazine-cover perfect pigeon pose, it’s about stretching the hip; we learned that you can do a sun salutation without ever getting up off the floor and still get the same benefits.

I teach classes at two studios now. The owners at both locations studied under the same teacher, so both studios share a commitment to fully accessible yoga and creating an inclusive and welcoming environment.

When I used to practice at more mainstream studios, I was usually crammed into a room with thirty or more students, our mats only a couple of inches apart. It was difficult to claim any space in those classes, even if I had felt comfortable doing so. For me, the crowd was distracting, and took away from my practice.

Both the studios I work and practice at now intentionally keep their classes small, with as few three students, but never more than fifteen. This gives us all a larger “bubble” around our yoga mat so we can stretch out, use a chair or other props, move and reach without fear of intruding on another student’s space. We can each take up as much space as we like.

As a teacher, the small classes allow me to provide individual attention to each and every student. It gives me the ability to truly focus on guiding my students, to answer questions, offer options, and provide assistance when needed.

I was a substitute teacher at that same Curvy Yoga class a few weeks after the class where we talked about claiming space. I wore a tank top despite my jiggly arms, because part of taking up space is allowing my body to be comfortable in hot weather.

As we moved through the practice, we spread our arms wide and reached up towards the sky, without worrying aboutif our shirts were riding up and showing our stomach rolls. We widened our stance to allow space for our stomachs in forward fold. We used blocks to support our knees as they opened wide into cobbler pose.

I looked around the room, and every single student looked different in their poses. This was not "perfectly synchronized yoga!" All the students were focusing on the heart of the pose in a way that honored each of their unique bodies. The practice was expansive, fun, and joyous.

At the end of our time together, we put one hand on our heart and another on our stomach, took three slow deep breaths, and offered gratitude to ourselves and our bodies for the gift of our yoga practice. We made space for ourselves and it was beautiful.

Rose Bak is a RYT-200 registered yoga teacher with the Yoga Alliance. She offers both private and group classes, including gentle yoga and flow yoga. Rose is passionate about teaching yoga to people who say “yoga is not for me”, including people living in larger bodies, people with disabilities, people who are middle-aged or older adults, people with scoliosis or back issues, and anyone who thinks they are not “bendy” enough.

Rose is also a freelance writer and author, living in Portland, Oregon with her family and special needs dogs. For more info see:

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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  1. YES!!!! To put some names to these studios & teachers - Rose took our RYT-200 program at Unfold. She teaches at Unfold & Yoga NW, both in Portland, Oregon, and the teacher that both studio's owners studied with is Molly Lannon Kenny! Rose, you are such a great writer & such a great advocate for accessible yoga! I"m so thankful for your voice!!!!! Big love & respect, EB

  2. Thankyou. You made me believe that I can try doing some yoga again after 12 years and a slipped disc in my back. Everything you described I have felt in yoga classes (since my injury) and my size receives quiet judgement and ignorance. Thankyou <3