For the past eight months, I’ve been taking an Iyengar yoga class in town. The teacher is really wonderful: she steered me toward a slower-paced class in the beginning—where the predominately over-60 folks made me feel quite welcome—and has nudged me forward to not giving up quite so quickly when I start to get tired. The Iyengar approach, with which I was unfamiliar before starting this class, is well-suited for my particular challenges with its emphasis on props and modifications. I have flexible but achy joints, strong but chronically tight muscles, a skeletal structure that likes to slide out of alignment with minimal provocation, and a history of injuries that can make it difficult to know when pain is something going wrong or just the aforementioned tight muscles finally opening up a bit. Having just a bit more time moving into and out of the poses makes an enormous difference in my ability to actually get something out of them, and having a good teacher makes me confident that I won’t be either pushed beyond my limit or allowed to slump into something that really isn’t a pose at all but feels easy at the time. After attending more than one yoga class taught by a skeletal 20-something exhorting me to feel the burn, this class is a relief and a joy.
Knowing what it’s like to struggle to find a yoga class that fits, I was quite interested in the recent New York Times article discussing the pros and cons of having yoga classes specifically designated for larger people. Since I participate weekly in a class designated for people over 60, who have been kind enough to allow me to join them despite being a few years short of that marker, I see the benefits of having classes tailored for groups of folks with similar kinds of challenges. Certainly people over 60 are not excluded from the other classes our teacher offers, and it is a testament in part to the Iyengar method that there are a mix of ages and body sizes in all of the classes I attend. I know from experience such diversity can be hard to find, though, and I’m not sure I could hack another class where I was the largest and the oldest and the slowest. That had been my experience at all classes besides those at the Ann Arbor zen center, once I crept up to and beyond age 30. Not that being larger and older necessarily means being slower, although it often can; it certainly doesn’t mean being weaker, it just often means needing a little more time to get everything into place without injury.
To return to the article, I do agree that it’s the responsibility of every teacher to be able to incorporate modifications and adjustments for the variety of students in their classes, to prevent injury and make sure that students are getting the benefits of the poses. From the teaching perspective, I also agree that there is a typical pace to a class at each level and there are limits to the degree to which pauses for modifications can occur without disrupting the flow of the whole process. Some balance between the two interests is required. As much as I would like philosophically for everyone in the United States to just calm the heck down and stop treating yoga like aerobics or spinning classes, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. I also am not sure that I would trust teachers in that mindset to offer me modifications that were suited to my body rather than to their goal of moving me into the correct alignment for each of the poses we were attempting. Certainly I was much better off seeking out a different style of instruction than I was staying and trying to make it work, and I was somewhat surprised to not see Iyengar mentioned at all as an alternative.
In the end, the question posed as the premise of the article is a bit silly, because of course people should be able to attend classes where they are comfortable and shared needs are addressed. The real issue is whether classes are welcoming places for larger students and whether there are classes for all ability levels. While it may be surprising to some people to consider that it’s harder to stay as long in a weight-bearing downward pose when you’re bearing 250 pounds of weight rather than 115, it’s not exactly neuroscience. Ditto with standing poses and arthritic joints or forward-bending poses and large stomachs. Certainly teachers should learn how to modify poses for all students, but that’s not the same as saying that all classes should accommodate all abilities. Rather than always being the one to go into a pose last and come out of it first, however supportive the teacher and other students might be, it’s far nicer to be one of many in a class moving a different pace.