Carly Stong’s yoga class isn’t for waifs.
The 33-year-old describes herself as “bigger-bodied” and planned a programme with similar-sized people in mind.
“If someone says they don’t identify as bigger-bodied, but wants to come to a class anyway, the answer is no,” she said.
“If they consider themselves as bigger-bodied, then they are welcome. The class is for people who find the shape of their body is limiting them in the yoga space — whether they feel like they are not welcome [in typical classes] or they have actually done yoga and they have found it difficult.”
Ms Stong lives in Ontario, Canada, but flies to Bermuda “every few months” to teach classes at Just Breathe Yoga.
She had to learn to love her curves. She was a dancer and weighed 90lbs when doctors discovered she had a brain tumour at 17.
“When I was well enough to focus beyond survival, I found myself in the body of a 200lb-plus person that I did not know or understand,” she said. “My life was dramatically different. I had to ask for, and accept, help for nearly everything.”
She discovered yoga in her twenties while studying health and education at Queen’s University. Although she loved it, the classes weren’t organised with her body type in mind.
In Child’s Pose, for example, students were asked to start on their hands and knees and then sink back so their bottom was towards their heels.
“When I did that pose, because my belly and my thighs were bigger than the person teaching me, I would be tipped over,” Ms Stong said. “The teacher would say, ‘We’re coming to rest in Child’s Pose’ and I would be, ‘Uhhh … it’s not working.’”
When she asked for help, she was told to ‘just keep trying’.
Eventually, she learnt how to modify the poses.
“I loved it so much I persevered and figured out my own way,” she said. “You have to think about the intention of a pose. If you are bringing your knees into your chest for example, what you are trying to do is create some space in your back.
“But I think that everyone does that — whether they are bigger-bodied or whether they have an injury, or whatever. I think there should be as many variations in the room as there are people in the room. We all just have different needs in the class. I think it is more about teachers encouraging people to have that perception to listen to their bodies and allow them to change the shapes to suit whatever feels the best in their bodies.”
She completed a teacher training programme in 2009 after university and began teaching classes for plus-sized people the following year.
In 2015, she was invited into the Yoga and Body Image Coalition as a community partner for her work and advocacy as a bigger-bodied person.
“A bigger-bodied person could probably go to any yoga class, but there is a sense of safety in going to a class called Yoga for Bigger Bodies,” she said. “A lot of the discomfort and feeling like you are alienated or feeling like you don’t belong in the space is eliminated.”
Although the philosophy behind yoga is inclusive, the problem often lies in its marketing.
“I think by virtue of showing one type of body in most of the media — very able-bodied, fit people wearing expensive brands of yoga clothes — that is what alienates people and makes them feel body shame or makes them feel they are not welcomed in the yoga space,” Ms Stong said.
But she thinks things are getting better.
“Yoga is really a microcosm for what is happening in the wider culture,” she said. “You can see it in commercial culture, but there is more diversity in the types of bodies that are shown and modelled and designed for, so there are more and more options.”
In her teacher certification classes she talks of the importance of making not just bigger-bodied people, but also differently-abled and older people feel welcome.
“I try to teach them how to teach their classes in a way that caters to everyone, not just people who look and move like they do,” she said. “There are obvious ways that we enforce body positivity and less obvious ways — like not having mirrors in the class. Teachers can also give people options in ways to move the body, instead of dictating exactly how their body is meant to move.”