Just five breaths in downward dog felt like an eternity for Dana Falsetti when she first started attending yoga classes in 2014. “I remember feeling really defeated…. I think that’s a common thing for any beginner,” she says. Her shoulders felt weak attempting to hold her bodyweight — and her ego took a hit, too. “It was sort of a double whammy — I can’t do any of these poses and I’m also sort of the fat girl in the room.”
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After years of struggling with her weight, which has fluctuated between 170 to 300 pounds since she was in eighth grade, Falsetti turned to yoga at age 21. Yet, as other students began kicking up into handstands, Fasletti feared that her body was too big for such feats.
Turns out her anxieties on the mat were unwarranted. Now, just over a year after she started practicing, Falsetti can easily pop upside-down to perform inversions (like the pose in the photo below). Her personal transformation — documented on her popular Instagram page — even motivated her to get her teaching certification and tour the country leading yoga workshops this summer.
“People often ask me, ‘How do I get stronger?’, and I simply tell them to keep practicing, but practice smart,” says Falsetti. “Practice with alignment in mind, with body awareness [and] with integrity.”
“It starts making you wonder what other things in your life you’re telling yourself you can’t do, that you can do.”
Your Body on Yoga
Though you might picture all yogis as long and lean, yoga transcends size. Body type or gender do not automatically predict skill level, either. “I’ve learned that size doesn’t necessarily matter,” says Kent Katich, an LA-based yoga instructor who has worked with NBA players for over two decades. “I’ve been blown away by the grace and balance of [seven-foot tall] guys and amazed at how weak some of the supposedly powerful ones are.” Tap your way to #curvyyoga or #yogadudes on Instagram and you’ll see almost 100,000 posts from folks of all shapes and sizes, as they twist into gravity-defying arm balances, and crazy configurations.
Roughly 10 percent of U.S. adults practice yoga, and for good reason. It delivers a slew of benefits, including improved blood circulation and better sleep. And plenty of those people are nowhere close to a size zero (like Olympic snowboarding champion Jamie Anderson and NBA star Lebron James, pictured above).
Yoga’s benefits extend beyond the physical, too. Falsetti’s journey has helped her feel more confident than ever. “It starts making you wonder what other things in your life you’re telling yourself you can’t do, that you can do,” she says.
Strike a Pose
Yoga can be a challenge for any beginner, no matter their body. Even the fundamental postures require a great deal of strength, says Falsetti. Luckily, modifications can help make yoga accessible to everyone. “Instead of seeing an advanced pose and thinking, ‘Impossible,’ break the asanas, all of them, down into shapes,” she says. “If you can understand the shapes, the alignment, the concepts, then you can practice with [more] body awareness.” The rest, she says, comes with a healthy dose of patience and discipline.
Where’s a yoga newbie to start? We asked Falsetti to share a few tips to help beginners of all sizes get started on their own yoga journey.
4 Ways to Make Yoga Poses Work for Any Body
1. Forward Fold
How to: Stand at the top of your yoga mat. Your toes can come to touch or you can place your feet hip-width apart, making sure they are parallel (a). Engage your core by drawing your navel towards your spine. Bend forward from your hips, leading with the chest (b). Bend your knees as needed so your belly and thighs touch. Hands can come to the floor or can rest on blocks, or can wrap around your calves (c).
Pro Tip: The objective of this pose is to lengthen your spine, so don’t worry if you can’t straighten your legs completely. The best thing you can do is start with bent knees even if you think you don’t need to, says Falsetti. Once your chest and thighs are touching, you can then try to straighten your legs.
2. Downward Dog
How to: From a forward fold, place your hands shoulder-width apart on the mat (a). Step your feet back as though you are coming to a plank, but keep them hip-width apart or closer. Your legs do not have to be completely straight and your heels do not have to be flat. Maintain a nice flat back and long spine (b). Lift through your hips (moving upwards with your shoulders) and press the floor away from you, pouring your weight into your fingertips and not your wrists. Keep your head in between your upper arms and gaze towards your belly (c).
Pro Tip: Try bending your knees in order to get a flat back (it’s even OK to let your chest rest on your thighs), Falsetti says. Put a rolled-up blanket under your heels for extra support, she adds.
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3. Dolphin Pose
How to: Start in downward-facing dog, then drop your forearms to the ground (a). Make sure they’re parallel to each other, since a lack of shoulder mobility may cause your elbows flare out slightly. (Correct this by engaging your triceps and broadening your shoulders.) Each arm should form a 90-degree angle (b). Press your shoulder blades out but away from each other. Like down dog, lengthen your tailbone and lift your hips to the sky. Keep your head between your upper arms (c). Gaze towards your belly to open your shoulders more.
Pro Tip: Keep your knees slightly bent and your heels slightly lifted if you find your upper back rounds when you try and straighten your legs. As you feel more comfortable in the pose, try and walk your toes closer towards your elbows, says Falsetti.
How to: Kneel on the floor, legs hip-width apart, and place your hands on your hips. If you’re a beginner, place blocks next to your ankles or keep the toes tucked. Bring your hands to your chest and touch your palms (a). Draw your shoulders down, away from your ears, and lift your chest towards the sky. Lift up and out of the hips as you send them forward, initiating the back bend here (try not to compress the low back) (b). Breathe in, engaging your core and lengthening your spine, and slowly come back to an upright position. Hands can come to the low back or sides to encourage lifting the hips Slightly tuck your tailbone and draw your navel towards your spine (c). On the exhale, reach back and place your hands on your heels, or on the yoga blocks. Gently press upwards with your pelvis and take deep, controlled breaths. The neck can relax so let your head drop back, if that feels comfortable (d).
Pro Tip: Don’t worry if your body doesn’t want to assume a dramatic arc right off the bat. The important thing is to create space. Falsetti recommends using blocks to support your hands if you have trouble reaching your hands towards your heels, or keep your hands pressed together in front of your chest for a simpler lift.