When Life Gives Your Curves
By Anna Guest-Jelley
How to modify your practice to get the most out of yoga.
I had done yoga for seven years before I saw someone else who looked like me. Oh, not in class. In a book. It took another three years before I did yoga side by side with other curvy-bodied practitioners. I learned firsthand how rare it is to feel solidarity with others in the room. So now, when I see another curvy-bodied person in class, I probably spend way more of my time smiling at her encouragingly than is appropriate.
After years of feeling like I was the only one whose belly felt smushed in forward bends, or worried that her breasts might literally suffocate her to death in inversions, I discovered I wasn’t. And once I became a teacher, I became a girl on a mission to encourage as many people as I possibly could to try yoga. I was disheartened to hear how many actually wanted to try yoga, but had decided it just wasn’t for them—they weren’t the right size.
The fact is, yoga’s for every body. Those of us with larger frames just need to know how to modify the practice to make its magic work for us—physically and emotionally. Fortunately, I’ve put together a few tricks of the trade that will enable us to feel safe, cared for, and happy doing yoga—no matter what.
Get in Line
Figuring out proper alignment on a curvy body takes practice. Most of the yoga resources available to teach us poses either show a very thin body or an anatomical model (aka a skeleton) demonstrating each pose. Neither is particularly helpful when you have curves.
While larger-bodied people may look a little different from an anatomical model when they practice a pose—thank goodness, right?—that doesn’t mean their bodies aren’t aligned properly. The first time I saw a picture of myself in parshvakonasana (side angle pose), I was shocked. I mean, completely. All this time I’d thought my body was lined up correctly, but when I looked at the photo, my knee looked locked and my hip completely cockeyed.
I decided to come into the pose again, building it up bit by bit in front of a mirror to confirm. And that’s when it hit me: what I’d labeled as misalignment was actually just the shape of my body. Because I was used to seeing straight lines and angles in yoga books, I hadn’t realized how different the pose looked on my body. What a revelation!
So now I encourage curvy students to approach alignment from the inside out—feeling the position of each muscle and bone and joint and, at the same time, doing their best to set themselves up safely (hopefully with the help of a knowledgeable teacher).
Structurally and anatomically, of course, curvy people’s bodies are no different from anyone else’s. Although there are certainly variances in bone length (and even shape, to a certain extent), from person to person, we are all relatively similar on the inside.
With this in mind, let’s talk through some things to look out for to ensure that you are practicing safely and comfortably for your body. Not everyone will experience all (or any) of these issues, but I see them often enough in my teaching that I think they’re worth mentioning. Of course, if you have specific concerns, it is always wise to consult a doctor or a physical therapist before beginning any movement program.
FEET. If your feet have a tendency to roll in or out, you have an extra special job to do: press them down firmly. Pretty much all the time. Grounding your feet can keep you stable in your poses and can also help you build strength in your feet and ankles to keep you safe both on and off the mat.
If you have any type of foot pain—plantar fasciitis, heel spurs, swelling—shorten your stance in standing poses. Sometimes the feet can grip too much in these poses because they’re trying so hard to keep your body upright. Give them a break by alternating between front- and side-facing poses.
KNEES. If I had to name the number one body part my students complain about the most, it would be the knee. So let’s break it down. Knee pain usually shows up in two ways: crunching or shooting pain when you move and discomfort when you kneel.
Crunching, shooting pain. When moving into standing poses where the knee is bent—virabhadrasana I and II (warrior I and warrior II poses) or parshvakonasana (side angle pose)—go slowly. You don’t get a blue ribbon for rocketing your knee straight down to 90 degrees. Instead, ease into the pose on your own breath: inhale, bend your knee; exhale, straighten your leg. Do this a few times and use it as a guide to determine where your knee belongs. That way, when you’re ready to hold the pose for a few breaths, you’ll know how far to bend and (added bonus) you’ll have warmed up the joint a little.
Pain when “standing” on knees.
If you have pain in kneeling poses, you have a few options: (1) Don’t do them. Seriously, there are plenty of other good choices, so why risk something as valuable as your knees? (2) Modify. For example, turn a kneeling posture into a seated or standing one. (3) If you can kneel without pain but you don’t like the feeling of your knee digging into the hard floor—and who does, really?—place a blanket under your knee and see if that helps. If not, go for option 1 or 2 above.
LEGS. Most of us learn to practice tadasana (mountain pose) with feet together. However, because of our flesh, especially around the thighs, this position can be uncomfortable at best and unsafe at worst. For example, in my body, if I stand with my feet together, my knees buckle out. Throwing my body out of alignment to conform to a narrow (literally) idea of a pose is hardly yoga. If the same is true for you, scrap it! Step your feet a comfortable distance apart and build your alignment from there. You’re still safe doing it this way—and, in fact, if this is what is best for your body, you’re actually safer.
SHOULDERS. Many curvy folks have gotten the message—both implicitly and explicitly—that we should take up less space in the world, that our body is not okay and we need to change it. This kind of message exacts an emotional as well as a physical toll. Subconsciously, we may close down our heart and try to shrink from the world. Physically, this causes our chest to collapse and our shoulders to round as we vow to take up less space. While others may not notice, even a small amount of collapsing and rounding can make a big difference in how you feel in a pose (and in your life). So lift your sternum and broaden across your collarbones. You have arrived! And you’re gonna take up however much space you dang well please.
WRISTS. These delicate and finicky creatures can experience some discomfort in yoga poses—especially poses with an arm balance component like adho mukha shvanasana (downward-facing dog pose). If your wrists give you trouble in poses like that, try one of these suggestions: (1) Roll up the front edge of your mat and place the roll at the center back of your hand to take a little pressure off the wrists. (2) Use a yoga wedge to do the same thing. (3) Or make fists with your hands and do the pose on your fists (bottom of the hand on the floor, not knuckles). (4) Hold on to 3- or 5-pound dumbbells instead of using your fists to make it easier on your hands. (5) Do another variation of the pose, perhaps with the wall or a chair, that involves less wrist pressure.
Now that you’ve got the alignment down, here’s a bunch of suggestions for making your practice curve-specific and comfortable.
BOOTY. When you have a little more to love in the booty department, it can be difficult to lie on your back comfortably. Your upper back and neck get crunched along with your lower back. You have several options; you can: (1) Find a more comfortable position for shavasana—maybe on your side. (2) Place a folded blanket under your head, which might give you just enough height so you can align your neck and shoulders more comfortably. (3) Put a bolster or a rolled-up blanket under your knees to release your lower back. (4) Combine options 2 and 3. Feel free to use these tips in any lying down poses that you’d like.
BELLY. I think the belly is the area that makes curvy people most uncomfortable—physically, but also emotionally. We’re not usually taught to touch, much less love, our bellies.
I usually recommend two things to give bellies a little more space: step your feet wider and move the belly skin. Stepping your feet wider works well in standing and seated poses (such as forward bends). When the feet are too narrow in these positions, the belly can feel stuck or compressed by the legs. A wider stance can reduce or eliminate the issue; feel free to go mat-width or more—whatever you need to feel good.
Moving the belly skin itself is also a radically awesome option. It’s radical not only because it works so well but because it puts you in touch (literally) with your belly, which is something we can probably all benefit from. I usually offer two options for this: lift the skin up, or tuck the skin down. I personally prefer the latter, but I’ve come to find that it’s largely a matter of personal preference. Some people find more help with lifting, others with tucking. I say whatever floats your boat is a-ok!
Doing this is about as easy as it sounds: Take your hands to either side of your belly, closest to your hips. Either pick the skin up and move it out, or tuck it down toward your pelvis. Remove your hands and voila! You now have a little more room to move comfortably into your pose.
BOOBS. Ah, the dreaded death-by-boob smush. This happens most often in inversions, and yes, it can happen to men, too. I find binding with a strap most helpful for this (cinch a strap at the top of the breasts). If that doesn’t work, give another pose a try—like viparita karani (legs-up-the-wall pose), which can offer the same benefits with way less risk of boob strangulation.
We all have skin to accommodate, no matter our shape or size. The more we can talk about this as both students and teachers, the less alone we all feel.
Anna Guest-Jelley, a yoga teacher, is the founder of Curvy Yoga, an inspirational portal for curvy yogis and their teachers, and the author of Permission to Curve: Inspiring Poses for Curvy Yogis and Their Teachers.