Tips for yoga teachers working with students of size

Since I am wrapping up my last plus size series today, I thought it was worth posting some tips and ideas for the yoga teachers who are hopefully inheriting my students for the time being.

Here’s the thing – you don’t need to be a larger yoga teacher to teacher larger-bodied students.  None of my yoga teachers have been anything but thin (which is a whole ‘nother issue but not one for this post) and yet here I am, a large-bodied devoted yoga student of 10 years and a yoga teacher.

I find the idea that you can only teach people who’ve had the same experience as you perplexing.  I have no trouble teaching smaller students.  And yet, when I signed on to teach the plus size series, I was told (conspiratorially, I might add) that the last teacher was…shhhhh…skinny.  That’s why, they explained, the class failed.

I think it’s more than clear that while the teacher’s thinness might have been an issue, it couldn’t have been the sole reason for the non-success of the class.  I do think that having experience with the issues the your students are facing is helpful, but not necessary, to being a good teacher.  In the end it comes down to understanding and respect.  My yoga teachers successfully taught me because while they didn’t necessarily relate to my experience, they respected it.  They trusted me enough to know when I said I wasn’t going to do something, there was a reason.  They knew when to gently push me to re-evaluate my perceptions, but didn’t insult my intelligence in the process.

I do think some teachers are at a loss on how to navigate the delicate balance required to teach larger-bodied students for any number of reasons, so here are my top tips for how to approach yogis like me.

1.  Understand that large DOES NOT equal weak.  In some ways large-bodied yogis may be stronger than your average yoga student.  It takes more strength to hold more weight up.

2. Remember that poses that are easy for you may not be easy for your student and that poses that were difficult for you might be easy for your student.   Never assume that large = beginner.

3. Respect that weight-loss may not be your student’s goal.  Respect that any weight-loss talk might trigger destructive thoughts in any of your students.  An offhand comment* can be enough to alienate a student forever.

4. Modifications and props are not crutches, they are enhancers.  Using props or modifications does not cheapen the pose.

5. Gentle yoga, though fabulous,  is not the only option for large-bodied students.  As a teacher, it is your job to find a way to make the practice work for the student, not the other way around.

6.  Understand that simply coming to a general yoga class, sticking out as perhaps the only larger student, could have required extreme emotional effort.  Be welcoming and offer help if needed, but try not to make the student feel singled out.

*I think the rhetoric of weight loss is so ingrained in any kind of physical activity that teachers don’t always realize the impact of what they say.  Most of the comments I’ve gotten haven’t been malicious, just careless.  For example, I’ve mentioned to teachers and fellow yogis that over the course of my practice my body has changed quite significantly.  I almost always get the same response – some variation of, “Oh – I’m sure you’ll get back to where you were.” Which – no, I won’t…and why would you assume that I’d want to?

I hope this helps – I don’t want my students to end their yoga journeys with me.  And I’ve always been of the firm belief that my money buys the same space in a yoga class as anyone else’s.  I’m so grateful to my teachers for guiding me on the path with the same respect they show their other students, no matter what size I am.

Comments
4 Responses to “Tips for yoga teachers working with students of size”
  1. Yogitastic says:

    Thank you for this post. Now can you tell my larger students that just because I’m thinner than they are it doesn’t mean I don’t understand? 😉 Or that they have to wait to become thin to truly do yoga? I should bring my thin friends who can’t touch their toes. The world really could use more plus-size yoga classes and yoga for men classes.

  2. Ha – I could…but I think it’s more important that you just keep on providing the non-judgy space for all to practice, toe-touching ability or not. Actions speak louder than words, after all. 😉

  3. Well said. Students of all sizes will enter the room with their own unique ability and it is our job as teachers to not judge someone’s ability based on our first impression.

    • Yes – I think, in general, teachers shouldn’t be making assumptions about any students based on appearance. You simply cannot know what anyone brings to the mat. It is so so important to take a moment to chat with any student who walks into your class that you don’t know and to check in with your regulars from time to time! I can’t tell you how often yoga teachers assume that I have little to no experience. When you assume…

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