Michael Hayes wanted to create a “home space” for yogis who looked like him.
If it feels like *everyone* you know is doing yoga now, there are some statistics to back that up: Between 2012 and 2016, Americans who reported practicing yoga regularly grew from 20.4 million to 36.7 million, according to a survey by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance. In the United States, yoga has grown from a somewhat niche activity for your more free-spirited friends to a popular workout for anyone to enjoy.
The appeal is obvious: Yoga has a range of benefits for both physical and mental health. It improves both strength and flexibility. Some types of yoga even improve cardio and endurance—and it’s way more fun than running on a treadmill or elliptical. The poses and vinyasas challenge both your mind and your muscles, and a complete yoga class can often have you feeling exhausted yet renewed.
But not everyone feels like they “belong” in yoga. One yoga studio in New York City aims to make the benefits of yoga more accessible and welcoming for everybody—and every body type. While social media tends to portray the average yogi as white, female, and thin, Buddha Body Yoga rolls out the mats for a different clientele.
“Buddha Body Yoga is for large individuals who are trying to find their way into yoga,” says Michael Hayes, LMT, founder of Buddha Body Yoga. “We take standard yoga poses and adjust, modify, and adapt them so that larger, overweight, or injured people are able to successfully practice.”
The Start of Buddha Body Yoga
Hayes noticed a need for a yoga studio for people who are overweight or injured while he was on the journey to learning yoga himself. He wanted to “define a home space” for himself and people of all sizes to practice yoga.
“I believe that yoga has never been one-size-fits-all,” says Hayes. “The cookie-cutter experience of yoga in the grand scheme of America is lacking in diversity.”
In general, studies have found that both adolescents and adults may avoid exercise in public due to heightened body consciousness; this might be elevated in yoga due to the classic image of the thin and ultra-flexible yogi.
Additionally, all bodies work, bend, and function a little bit differently. In any yoga studio, one yogi’s favorite pose might be another’s most painful. For people who are overweight or injured, certain poses might put excess strain on joints—which can be dangerous and might do more harm than good.
That’s not to say that it’s not possible. Quite the contrary: Hundreds of thousands of photos on Instagram under the tag #curvyyoga demonstrates men and women mastering advanced yoga poses, including headstands, half-splits, crow pose, and plow pose. Yoga is truly for everybody, and Buddha Body Yoga simply aims to make the practice more safe and welcoming for those who are traditionally excluded from it.
As for the name “Buddha Body”? According to Hayes, the size and shape of Buddha connotes acceptance and plentifulness. “My students have always been of size and I felt like to accept their size and accept my size—in a world that does not—the name made sense,” says Hayes.
What Makes Buddha Body Yoga Unique
A traditional yoga class might be challenging—or even unwelcoming—for larger or injured individuals. However, Hayes didn’t want this to stop people from experiencing the many health benefits of yoga.
“Yoga increases flexibility, creates a feeling of well-being, changes movement and thought patterns, [and] develops better proprioception,”says Hayes. (That is, it improves their body awareness.) “But it is, frankly, often beyond the ability of most physically large, overweight, or rotund people, or people with injuries. That’s where Buddha Body Yoga comes in.”
Adaptations are a normal part of yoga: In most yoga classes, yogis are encouraged to know their bodies and use modified poses when necessary to avoid injury. However, there might be some peer pressure at some studios, and some people may feel ashamed to use a modification if they notice nobody else in the class needs the adjustment.
At Buddha Body Yoga, adaptations are not just offered, but built into the class. Modifying poses helps make the class safer and more welcoming to overweight or injured yoga practitioners.
The adaptations include using a number of props, such as bolsters, pillows, blocks, belts, yoga ropes, and physioballs. Yoga props can help achieve certain poses while preventing strain on joints or muscles. Some props act like an extension of the body (such as using yoga blocks if you can’t reach all the way to the ground) or as a support (such as using pillows to support the lower back in bridge pose).
To make the experience at Buddha Body Yoga just right for its yogis, the teachers get a special training. “What I had to do was help them look at themselves, think out of the box, and see their limitations, which is usually the belly, and use those limitations as assets,” says Hayes.
Many of the teachers were once students at the studio. As they developed their own yoga practice, Hayes directed them to focus on self-observation, self-exploration, and breath. During poses, that meant paying attention to the pose and how they were reaching it. Learning this firsthand helped the teachers pass on that awareness to the next group of students.
According to Hayes, the response to Buddha Body Yoga has been “overwhelmingly curious.” Some new yogis come in who are interested and excited, while others are “afraid to step in the door.” However, those who take the leap to try a class tend to leave with a smile.
Hayes hopes the perception of yoga (and yogis) continues to evolve and become more diverse. “As time goes on, and … teachers open themselves up to working with the people you don’t see in the magazines, I hope that the way we look and play with yoga will change,” says Hayes.