GARCIA CRYSTAL
Kathy Willens  /  AP
Yoga instructor Megan Garcia, left, works with student Kristie Lee Crystal at the beginning of their plus-size yoga class May 23 at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
updated 5/24/2005 2:52:58 PM ET 2005-05-24T18:52:58

As Megan Garcia prepares to do a twisting yoga pose, she reminds her students to lift their bellies up and over their legs. Wearing a one-piece purple leotard, she’s not shy about the love handles around her waist or the extra flesh on her thighs.

Many of Garcia’s students are overweight or obese, and she adjusts traditional poses to ease pressure on joints. She encourages them to use a chair for support or has them move to a wall to do poses meant for a mat.

She reminds her students to pay attention to how their bodies feel. Let the flesh hang, she says. Definitely don’t worry about it.

'She looks like me'
“It helps to have a teacher who doesn’t look like Jane Fonda,” says Garcia, who is 5-feet-10 and 210 pounds. “People can think, 'Wow she looks like me and she’s standing on her hands. Maybe this is something I can do.”’

Yoga is a 5,000-year-old discipline that has been gaining steam in this country for years. More than 16.5 million practice yoga, and they spend about $2.95 billion on classes and props every year, according to a study in Yoga Journal’s February issue. Yoga’s appeal is partly the calm, controlled breathing, the meditation and the goal of bringing mind, body and spirit into unity.

“Now is the time for there to be exercise instructors that reflect the body type of the American population,” Garcia said. “If you are aware of your body, you can then see what you need to do to make you a happier, healthier person.”

Weight loss not the goal
Garcia, a plus-size model, said yoga was the only exercise she would stick with, and she dropped a few dress sizes when she started doing it, mostly because she toned up. She recently released a DVD called “Just My Size Yoga,” in which she shows off her adjusted poses and doesn’t push the idea of weight-loss.

Her students say they are more comfortable and relaxed than when they took more traditional classes.

“I have nothing against someone who is a size 2 or 4,” said student Christie Lee, who’s a size 16. “But when their body is in a position, their stomachs were really far from the ground. But my stomach was touching the ground, and I thought I was doing something wrong.”

When she takes Garcia’s class, she can see her own body reflected and is able to relax. Lee, 28, is a drummer in a band and said yoga has made her more flexible and stronger, but not skinnier.

'It empowers them'
Instructor Sally Pugh, who teaches yoga to overweight and obese people in Berkeley, Calif., said her students often come up with their own adaptations.

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“It empowers them,” she said. “The become their own expert on their body, and they know how to take control, and how to feel good about it.”

Pugh is average-sized but has been teaching yoga for more than 20 years and finds she’s able to relate to her students.

Adjusting poses for overweight people is another trend in the practice, said Sandra VanOosten, director of the Yoga Alliance, a national registry for yoga studios and teachers.

“There are restorative styles of yoga which can be done with heavy, older people and as the population ages, you’ll have more people doing these gentler sorts of yoga,” she said, citing chair yoga for older people.

VanOosten, who has practiced since 1974 and teaches, said she’s seen larger people coming to class. She said teachers of any size are trained to modify poses and to be ready for all body types.

“People are learning that yoga can be done by everybody, you just have to modify,” she said.

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