Individuals who have physical limitations associated with obesity may perceive yoga to be intimidating, uncomfortable and even impossible to attempt. However, in reality, the benefits of a yoga practice are available to every body shape and size.

The primary benefits of yoga include strengthening, improved flexibility, and both physical and emotional balance.  Additional potential benefits include better posture, improved cardiovascular health and circulation, heightened focus, and more positive self-esteem and outlook. Many yoga teachers go to lengths to emphasize that a yoga practice is all about showing up and trying your best. Breathing and holding the postures as best you can is what strengthens a practice—not the number of twists in your physical pretzel.

There are a number of ways you can make yoga easier and more approachable for your clients who inhabit larger bodies, whether you are using yoga as a warm-up, teaching yoga classes or encouraging your clients to practice yoga on their own.  By introducing clients to yoga in a physically and emotionally safe manner, you can open a world benefits to clients who might not be inclined to try it on their own.

Here are a few modifications you can offer clients impacted by obesity so that they can enjoy the benefits of yoga without stress or intimidation.

Ditch Hip-width Distance

It is very common for yoga poses to begin with the instruction: “Place your feet hip-width distance apart.” For clients impacted by obesity, however, this seemingly simple start may be complicated and fraught. Because placing feet at hip-width distance might not offer enough room for larger thighs, that particular instruction can create discomfort and instability.  Here is a modification to ease comfort and buttress balance: Replace the cue “stand hip-width distance” with “Place your feet a comfortable distance apart from each other so that you are standing with stability.”

Utilize Standing Poses

It can be difficult for clients impacted by obesity to easily move up and down off the floor.  For that reason, plan initial yoga poses to be standing ones, which will provide a friendly introduction. Mountain pose, tree pose and the beginning warrior poses are all excellent ways to begin a yoga practice, and allow room to grow and deepen as a yoga practitioner.

For clients impacted by obesity, it is important to utilize standing twists, because twisting on the floor might not be easily accessible without discomfort.  Supine Spinal Twist and Seated Spinal Twist are two common floor twists that can be easily replaced by standing poses offering the same twisting motion. Twisted Goddess and Revolved Side Angle poses are both easily accessible standing twists.

Forsake Forward Folds

Forward folds might not be accessible to clients who carry a lot of weight around their abdomen, and asking them to perform these bends can create discomfort and poor balance.  Instead, consider folds as more of a movement outward than a movement downward. The hamstrings and lower back will get the same stretching and strengthening as the upper body hinges at the hip. In fact, “hinge at the hip” is an appropriately modified cue for “fold forward.” A client impacted by obesity may wind up hinging at closer to a 90-degree angle than reaching for the floor, but can enjoy similar physical benefits.

Using props can help modify forward-bending movements and ensure balance.  For example, if Downward-facing Dog is inaccessible to your client, offer a chair for the hands. In this modified Downward Dog, your client can reach approximately halfway down and still get the same sensation up the back of the legs and in the lower back.

Hands Interlocked

Because of different body size ratios, asking clients impacted by obesity to “interlock their hands behind their back” may cause pain, stress or simply be impossible. Instead of asking for that, cue clients to “reach backward while moving the shoulder blades toward each other.” Eliminating the expectation of the hands meeting will give your client a safer and more comfortable position, while still opening the chest and working the shoulders and arms.

Modify the Exercise Environment

As with all exercises that are new, you want to make sure your client feels physically safe and emotionally supported. If your client expresses concern about participating in yoga, it may be beneficial to open up a frank conversation about what would make him or her feel the most comfortable. Approach the conversation with an openness to any barriers he or she might perceive and some ideas about what might possibly create an environment that would allow for a positive yoga experience.

If your clients are looking to deepen their yoga practice outside of the scope of your training, help them consider the following in order to have a positive environment:

  • Many yoga studios offer classes for larger bodies, which guarantees a teacher equipped with appropriate modifications. If that isn’t available, make sure your client finds a teacher who is knowledgeable of the pertinent issues. Ensure your clients that it is appropriate to call a yoga studio and ask about the experience of the teachers.
  • Some clients would rather practice alone until they feel more comfortable. There are numerous online resources and videos dedicated to yoga specifically for people impacted by obesity. Becoming comfortable with their own modifications prior to joining a class means they won’t have to entirely rely on the instructor’s cues.

Finally, make sure your clients understand that yoga is open to and beneficial for every one. It is not how one practices yoga that is important; the value lies in simply practicing at all.