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Turning yoga’s image on its head

Sitting on the ground with her legs straight out in front of her, yoga instructor Annie Carlin demonstrated her problem with seated forward bend. It’s not an issue of flexibility – Carlin has the bend part down pat. It’s that the size of her thighs makes it physically impossible to keep her feet together.

So she prefers to keep them hip-distance apart, as she explained to the students enrolled in her four-week Yoga for Larger Bodies workshop series at Washington, D.C.’s Golden Heart Yoga, which began this month.

“The other thing we can do is move our butt flesh out of the way,” she added, noting with a grin that “yoga teaching is the only time I get to say ‘butt flesh.’ ”

Other teachers can say it, but most of them don’t actually have much of it. And that’s what can prevent people who look like Carlin and her students from feeling as if they belong in a yoga class even though they derive the same benefits from stretching, strengthening and breathing deeply as everyone else.

“I stand out no matter what I do,” said Carlin, 31, who admits that even she’s wary whenever she walks into a new studio. But with certain modifications and props, Carlin can be comfortable in any class, and that’s her goal for her students, too.

Every person brings something different to the yoga mat, Carlin said, and it’s not always visible. In her case, it’s a decade of practice that started when she fell for yoga while studying at New York University. Over time, she experienced changes in her career – which brought her to Washington in 2007 – as well as her body.

“I’ve lost 100 pounds and gained it back,” the Takoma Park, Md., resident said. “For a really long time, I was angry. All these moves, I couldn’t do them anymore.”

But Carlin still adored yoga, and in 2010, she went ahead with her plan to take teacher training, despite being the only “larger person” in the program. Beyond lessons on prenatal yoga that required her fellow trainees to strap big pillows to their bellies, most had no firsthand experience working with different bodies.

To a certain degree, that doesn’t matter, Carlin said. None of her teachers have been anything other than skinny, and they’ve all been able to help her grow in her practice. Even when two people physically resemble each other, she said, they’re not likely to have the same amount of strength, tightness or flexibility.

As Carlin tells her students: “The idea that my body will do (poses) the same way as one of you is ludicrous.”

But what Carlin understands better than most instructors is that being larger doesn’t mean weaker. It just means there’s more to lift.

“Plank pose is basically bench-pressing your body weight. That’s just physics,” she said. “So it’s not that I can’t do plank pose, but I just don’t hold it as long.”

For similar reasons, in her Yoga for Larger Bodies series, Carlin is focusing on alternatives to downward-facing dog. Resting on your hands and feet in an inverted-V shape is generally considered a soothing stretch in yoga. But putting excess pressure on the wrist joints doesn’t feel so nice.

“If a teacher has you hold it for 10 minutes, there’s always another option,” said Carlin, who offered wall dog, which involves hinging from the hips and placing your hands on the wall instead of the floor. A more discreet choice is puppy, which is similar to downward-facing dog except your knees rest on the mat.

That move also works as a replacement for child’s pose, another popular yoga position that’s not as comfortable in bigger bodies. When Carlin brought up this subject in the first session of the workshop, 30-year-old Emily Goodstein led the group in a round of applause.

“You don’t want to be the only person who says, ‘I don’t like child’s pose,’ or the only person using props,” said Goodstein, who researches extensively to find “body-affirming” yoga environments. It’s tougher than it should be to find classes that don’t feel competitive and instructors who don’t use weight-loss-focused language, she added.

And it’s even more of a challenge to find a class that fits her criteria that’s actually challenging. “I’m not new to yoga. I know what I’m doing,” Goodstein said.

Carlin plans to build each week through the series so students really get the chance to see what their bodies can do.

“I feel like I haven’t moved in two years. So I like a class that can ease me back into it,” said Michelle Weiner, 31, who was attending the workshop after a lengthy hiatus from yoga.

Armed with her techniques and advice, Carlin hopes the women she’s teaching show up at every yoga studio in the area, and end up teaching them a thing or two.

“The more we’re out there,” Carlin said, “the more people will learn I’m not a unicorn.”

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