There is an old Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Tiina Veer, founder of Yoga for Round Bodies, is living this wisdom. Not content with simply offering yoga classes in her hometown of Toronto, Tiina has created a teacher training program to give others the skills to teach safe and effective classes for bigger bodies. In this email interview, Tiina talks about her experience as a round bodied yoga practitioner, her vision for a practice that is accessible and available to every body, and empowerment through anatomical knowledge.
What is Yoga for Round Bodies?
Well, now it’s about two things. First came the Yoga for Round Bodies classes (and occasional countryside retreats) offered in my community, downtown Toronto, which I am still teaching. The classes motivated me to evolve it further by filling a much-needed gap: training yoga teachers in Yoga for Round Bodies.
The Yoga for Round Bodies (YRB) classes are about Hatha and Restorative yoga practices specifically geared toward the rounder-bodied student. Only practices that can be modified for everyone are included. Yoga props are well-used tools in our classes, both for Restorative practice, and for creative pose modification. Offering YRB classes provides an opportunity for people who otherwise may not come out to yoga classes at all the chance to have a safe, fun and non-judgmental environment in which to practice and explore yoga.
The YRB teacher certification program is about preparing yoga teachers to better meet not only the round students who attend their “regular” yoga classes, but further to offer Yoga for Round Bodies classes within their communities.
What do you mean by “round” bodies?
Our cultural concept of “round” (fat) is clearly warped. Women think of themselves as fat if they don’t look exactly like the airbrushed and PhotoShopped models and celebrities that are impossibly thin even before the digital alterations. One of Cindy Crawford’s famous quotes is, “I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford.” As we all know, there are multitudes of women who consider themselves fat who are nowhere close to being so, and in fact can even be slender (or even emaciated, as with many of the eating disorders) by comparison. There are women who are simply svelte and voluptuous – in a Marilyn Monroe kind of way – who consider themselves “fat,” but where yoga is concerned, they don’t have a belly or thighs that impede their practice at all.
How did you decide that there needed to be yoga classes designed for round bodies?
After practicing massage therapy for seven years (now fifteen), I wanted to take up yoga as the perfect counterpoise to the wear and tear of a full-time bodywork practice. I quickly fell in love with yoga itself, but had a challenging time finding teachers who were able to work with my round body. I even felt glaringly unwelcome in a couple of studios along the way. I’m often amazed that I stuck with yoga at all, the beginning of the journey was so discouraging, but I clearly loved it so much I was determined to continue and eventually found a few teachers and classes more suited to my needs. My knowledge of anatomy also allowed me to be creative at applying safe pose modifications in my practice.
It was not long before I yearned to become a yoga teacher myself so that I could teach classes for bigger students, because I knew I was not alone in my experience of being in a bigger body wanting to practice yoga but not able to find a comfortable place to do it. Now there is. There are a few teachers doing this in North America in a few cities and communities, but not many of us. Soon there will be more, a lot more, now that I am training yoga teachers in Yoga for Round Bodies!
Do round bodies have different needs than other body types in a yoga asana practice?
A rounder student may encounter difficulty mostly due to belly and/or thighs occupying space. For example, in seated or standing forward bends, even with flexible hamstrings, a round student may not be able to “fold” forward because of the belly meeting the thighs so soon. This may not only impede an effective (and safe) asana, but may also impede the student’s breathing, as the belly has nowhere to go when pressing against the thighs and instead presses back in to the student’s abdominal region creating pressure the diaphragm cannot descend against. Buddha bellies and voluptuous thighs can also impede twisting. Round women with large breasts can have breathing negatively affected anytime gravity brings their breasts to their face (obviously any kind of inverting – I stick with Vipareti Karani and wall-supported Sarvangasana only – and even Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, Uttanasana, etc. can present this problem). If someone has extra self in the upper back region, being supine (lying on the back) can hyper-extend the neck (which a folded blanket under the head and neck can alleviate).
We must not make flash at-a-glance assumptions or judgements about the health status of round students (or anyone for that matter): you will have many round students in your classes who are fit and in good physical health, big doesn’t necessarily equal poor health. However, there may be some general issues to look out for in students who may be quite round or less fit (note these issues can present with all kinds of students, not just round ones): hyper-extended knees; hyper-lordosis of the lumbar spine (which can lead to same in the cervical spine); pes planus (flat feet); genu valgum (“knock” knees). These are things that can present in ANY student, but teachers should be aware that these are issues that may be seen more often in a round demographic and look out for them.
Beyond that, there are few other differences. Also, there are many poses that do not require modifications for round students that you wouldn’t offer to any other student (Trikonasana, for example). For teachers it’s important to note that in a survey I did of almost 100 round women, one of the most recurring comments was, “Please don’t assume I’m taking yoga classes to lose weight.” Round students are seeking yoga for the same reasons anyone else does. Some may actually be seeking weight loss, but teachers, please don’t assume it on sight!
What kind of yoga practice is suitable for round bodies?
Any kind of yoga that is welcoming, safe and appealing to the student can be undertaken. I’m personally a fan of learning Hatha and Restorative Yoga first (for any student, not just round), and exploring the many other forms after learning foundational poses and principals, and how to breathe and relax the body. This doesn’t mean I don’t support other forms of yogasana, this is just my own opinion based on years of experience in bodywork, rehabilitation and applied anatomy. I’m also a big fan of yogasana practiced with certified Iyengar teachers as the alignment principles are very sound and rehabilitation potential high.
One type of yoga that can be more challenging or frustrating for round students with bigger bellies and thighs is sequence or series based yoga such as Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Flow. It’s not impossible for round students to practice these styles, but they can present a unique problem: the often necessary multiple mini-adjustments between poses in a series makes it difficult to keep the pace of the breath with the movement, not to mention keeping pace with the group. Modifications can be made to series like Sun or Moon Salutations that a student can practice in time with their own breath, or that can be practiced as a group in Yoga for Round Bodies classes.
Are your classes only for round bodies, or can anybody take them?
There are a small group of teachers in North America focusing on plus size yoga, and some of them have definite “size restrictions.” I understand this, especially if they have limited space in their classes. Of course this was something I considered when I began my own classes, but I always wondered how to actually administer this. Do I enforce a size/height cutoff? Do I put a “fat enough” checkbox on the registration form? I quickly let go of that idea, acknowledging that women have their own idea of what “round” means, so I don’t have any restrictions around “body size.” Until now, in my classes and retreats I have focused on women only, but when I can offer more weekly classes, at least one (hopefully more) will be co-ed (I think men who are willing to come to a class called “Yoga for Round Bodies” have serious kahunas and for that reason alone should be granted entry). Maybe one day there will also be a men-only round-bodies class if it’s something that’s wanted. Yoga for Round Bodies for Teen Girls is also in the works.
Also, some students want to come with a friend or partner who may not be round, I wouldn’t want to take that experience away from anyone. Many “women of a certain age” who were of average or narrow body size have also taken the class because they just wanted to do yoga in an unpretentious, non-competitive, intimate environment. Women are welcome to take the class regardless of size as long as everyone understands that the classes are designed with the round body in mind.
How long have you been offering YFRB teacher training? What kind of teachers take this training?
I have been offering Yoga for Round Bodies teacher training during this last year. I taught a short introductory workshop at this year’s Toronto Yoga Conference, and gave my first Level 1 Intensive in June. I have also enjoyed teaching anatomy to yoga teachers and yoga teacher trainees. I’m an anatomy geek and I *love* getting to share the geekery. Several of the first grads didn’t wait for the fall, and are already teaching Yoga for Round Bodies classes in their communities this summer (my dream is coming together, I want to see these classes happening in communities everywhere!).
All kinds of yoga teachers take the training. I’m located in Toronto, but I’ve trained students from all over Ontario (and Montreal, QC) and am increasingly receiving inquiries from all over Canada and the United States. It seems as soon as teachers find out about the training, most comprehend its value to their teaching and their communities immediately, especially with the girth of the population increasing everywhere. It’s not just happening in North America – it’s happening globally, anywhere there is affluence.
So far all of the teachers who have been to my trainings have been women, but it is open to all teachers. I have conducted a few surveys and of the teachers who responded, ALL of them reported they wanted to improve their knowledge and skills working with round students so that they too can get a full experience in their classes; MOST responded that they were interested in starting Yoga for Round Bodies classes within their communities; ALL reported a desire for more anatomy knowledge.
One interesting observation is that in my Toronto trainings so far, the participants have been almost exclusively from outside Toronto, most from smaller cities and communities. I don’t know what to make of this trend yet, it’s too early to speculate, but it’s interesting. I want this knowledge to get to communities everywhere, so I know I will need to do some traveling to get it to more communities. Interested groups can invite me, or interested studios can host a training with me.
For more information about Yoga for Round Bodies teacher training programs, contact Tiina.