NY studio plus-sizes the pleasures of yoga

NEW YORK Wed May 11, 2011 11:26am EDT

1 of 4. Yoga instructor Michael Hayes, owner of Buddha Body Yoga, warms up before teaching his class in New York City May 7, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Andrew Kelly

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Buddha Body Yoga in New York City, offers small classes, individual attention, and plenty of blocks, bolsters, belts, balance balls and blankets to ease recalcitrant limbs into warriors poses.

But there won't be the usual bevy of pony-tailed sylphs making pretzel shapes. Buddha Body yoga is strictly for the plus-sized practitioner: no sylphs allowed.

"When I tell 120-pound (55 kg) people they can't come, they get very offended, which I find fascinating," said Michael Hayes, owner and operator of Buddha Body.

Hayes describes his clients as plus-sized, not overweight.

"There are heavy people who are fit and not necessarily fat," he explained. "We have body builders who can't stretch because they're muscularly tight. If you think of a sumo wrestler as fat, then you have a problem."

Personalized yoga, with classes, books and videos catering for plus-sized people, the elderly and others is a growing industry.

Hayes, who has studied and taught yoga for 14 years, said Buddha Body is the fruit of his own struggles with the ancient practice that ties breath to movement.

At nearly six feet and 240 pounds (109 kg), Hayes said he grew tired of taking yoga classes and not making the progress he wanted.

Frustrated, Hayes started bringing his own props to class. At Buddha Body, people are aided by an abundance of props and Hayes' great yoga wall: six adjustable levels of straps.

"The wall and the props help you understand the function of the shape," Hayes explained. "As your body adjusts, you use fewer props and less wall."

Hayes isn't a fan of the quiet reverence that pervades many yoga studios.

"People don't really ask questions, won't tell you when something hurts," he said. "I teach a very rowdy crowd, there's call and response. It's very easy going."

Beth Garner, a regular at Buddha Body, said she felt completely out of place in regular yoga classes, where she said she was usually the fattest person there.

"I never had a yoga instructor who was able to help me beyond saying things like 'just do the best you can,' " she said, until Hayes' step-by-step approach allowed her to relax into poses that bedeviled her before.

"It might take me a little bit longer than someone who's more athletic, but I haven't run into anything I can't do," she said. "Overall I'm a lot more flexible, and more confident in the ways I use my body."

Dr. Kara Mohr, a weight-loss expert with the American College of Sports Medicine, said yoga not only helps a person move more freely, it can open the door to other types of activities.

"People think of yoga as these really complicated poses so they shy away from it," she said, adding that anything that can be done to make exercise more accommodating is beneficial.

Hayes, who also certifies yoga teachers in plus-size instruction, said some clients have lost as much as 30 pounds.

"They're moving more freely, able to get to the floor more comfortably, and sitting cross-legged more easily. There's an emotional component. They trust more."

Hayes said in almost all yoga classes there's a younger brighter star rushing through it. He offers an alternative.

"If you feel big, you should come to my yoga class," he said. "If you feel comfortable in your practice, you don't need my class."

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