Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported where the Lil Omm yoga studio is located. It is in Washington’s Tenleytown neighborhood, not the Palisades. This version has been corrected.
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 Petworth’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,” says 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 says, 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 resident says. “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 says. 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 says, 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 says. “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,” explains Goodstein, a Dupont Circle resident 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 adds.
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 says.
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 city, and end up teaching them a thing or two.
“The more we’re out there,” Carlin says, “the more people will learn I’m not a unicorn.”
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When the topic of plus-size classes recently came up online in a Washington area yoga instructor discussion group, Annie Carlin was surprised to read so many comments from people who dismissed the idea. “I think it’s easy to say something isn’t needed if you don’t need it,” she says.
One stat supporting her position? The number of programs for yogis who don’t fit the stick-figure mold. Beyond Carlin’s approach, which she calls Supportive Yoga (supportiveyoga.com), there’s Body Positive Yoga (bodypositiveyoga.com) out of Norfolk, HeavyWeight Yoga (heartfeltyoga.com) in Texas and New York’s Mega Yoga (megayoga.com). Big Yoga (bigyoga.net) founder Meera Kerr, who’s based in Michigan, offered a workshop in the District last summer. And Fat Yoga (fatyoga.org), a studio in Portland, Ore., has been making national headlines since it opened in January.
Probably no one has done a better job spreading the message than Nashville’s Anna Guest-Jelley, creator of Curvy Yoga (curvyyoga.com). The social media maven’s blog, which has featured an interview with Carlin, discusses such issues as avoiding “death-by-boob-smush.”
Her program has certified instructors all over, including the Washington area: Dena Kahn offers Curvy Yoga at Lil Omm in Tenleytown and a similar class at the National Center for Weight and Wellness. (She doesn’t use the “Curvy” name for those sessions to avoid scaring away male students.) Kahn, who isn’t plus-size herself, was drawn to Guest-Jelley’s approach as a more inclusive style of teaching.
“We don’t use bony landmarks. We don’t talk about the hip points and setting the feet a certain distance apart,” says Kahn, who’s been amazed at how far her students will travel to take a class that’s more welcoming.
Students in Virginia won’t need to go far once Hilary Mughloo, another certified local teacher, starts up Curvy Yoga classes in Alexandria in July. (Get details on wiselightwellness.com.) Although she’s nearly 6 feet tall, Mughloo’s not exactly a bigger yogi. “But the language and modifications,” she says, “can go across a spectrum of size and shape.”
— Vicky Hallett