If you’ve ever wondered how to make your yoga classes more inclusive to those with larger bodies, our guest Amber Karnes, founder of Body Positive Yoga, has an abundance of insight. She’s a ruckus maker, yoga asana teacher (E-RYT 200), social justice advocate, and a lifelong student of her body. Her commitment to inclusive, adaptive yoga practice empowers thousands of diverse practitioners around the globe.
Amber was hooked after her first yoga class. She noticed that the negative self-talk that overwhelmed her at times subsided after her first yoga class. She became curious about this effect and went back to repeat the “experiment”. Amber noticed she felt grounded and calm in her body for the first time. The physical aspect mattered to Amber but the internal regulation and tools yoga provided were especially powerful. She found the practice to be immensely helpful in her struggle with depression and anxiety, finding a peace of mind that kept her coming back.
Amber decided to take a yoga teacher training 7 years into her own practice to deepen her personal practice and learn “the rest of yoga” outside just the poses. She had no plans to teach but after immersing herself in the program she saw the need to provide space for women who felt their bodies were all wrong for yoga. Amber has been now been teaching for over 15 years.
Amber feels that it is important to recognize that there are systems of oppression, such as the patriarchy and racism, that try to take away a woman’s power. The pressure women feel to conform their bodies to a narrow societal standard distracts women so “we can’t do amazing things like change the world and make art or help people that really need a voice, that we can stand up and use our voice to help support and uplift them.”
Amber wants to emphasize that individuals need to feel that it’s NEVER their body that’s the problem. If a student struggles with a pose their body is not to blame. There is incredible power in offering modifications and props and being aware of the languaging around cues. She also offers that teachers are “there for our students and hold space for inquiry to allow the processing of emotion behind the desire to change the body.”
Amber offers workshops, retreats, courses (including Yoga for All Teacher Training with Dianne Bondy) through Body Positive Yoga. Amber is the creator of the Body Positive Clubhouse, an online community dedicated to building unshakable confidence and living out loud.
[3:45] Amber’s first yoga class
[8:15] How yoga teachers can be aware and respond if students express dissatisfaction with their body
Good Principles to Bring into the Classes:
[9:55] 1) The Body is Never the Problem– It’s the asana that’s the problem NOT the body, employ modifications or props
[11:05] 2) Languaging- Embodied or positive physical experience vs. striving and achieving, remove the hierarchy of language avoid saying “full expression of the pose”
[12:10] Misconceptions around props: that they’re a crutch or cheat, that if you use them you’re not as good as the other students. Teachers have the opportunity to remove this stigma and help students see props as positive or neutral.
[13:15] Progressive teaching- giving students the opportunity to stay in pose or progress, for example:
Start in Table Top
Feet behind, rest toes behind mat
Lift leg at hip
Offer the student the opportunity to stay at that level or progress, depending on their level of comfort.
[16:00] Shannon and her client’s experience with coming to the mat to check in. Amber calls it “neutral ground”, a place where she avoids body criticism or shaming with a focus on inquiry and emotional exploration.
[17:20] Body neutrality- it’s okay to feel neutral about your body without the pressure to love your body and aligns with practicing non-attachment
[20:25] Advice for teaching bigger bodies when you don’t live in a larger body and how specialized training is very helpful
[26:05] Marketing for classes for larger bodies or all bodies
[32:50] Yoga images in yoga marketing- including photos featuring a variety of bodies, ethnicities, abilities, etc. will attract a more diversity
[35:25] Modifications, props, and cuing: it shouldn’t be assumed that any pose it basic for anyone. Questions to ask yourself: What is the point of the pose? How can you make poses more accessible to your students? Can we change the orientation of the pose or change the relationship to gravity? Sometimes it’s something as small as adding blocks under the hands, using the wall or chair, etc.
A lot of students don’t have body awareness coming into yoga- you can help them move into over time
[41:20] Two steps to help students with larger bodies:
1) Widen– Feet two fists width or maybe wider (width of the mat) automatically puts students in a better position which helps them access their breath, avoid feeling compressed or pinched, bodies are more flexible than the body can often express
2) Move stuff out of the way– Take hands to low belly, fold forward and bend your knees, pull your hips back, tuck belly up and back- also great cue for someone that isn’t in a larger body (great cue for hinging hips)
[43:55] How to assist a larger student without putting them on the spot: speak matter-of-factly and make cues relevant to the entire class: no one wants to be put on the spot whether they’re injured or in a larger body, etc.
Make it clear that no one has to be in perfect shape to practice yoga.
[48:25] Tools for teachers to offer modifications:
- Set everyone up with the same props
- Take time to talk about how the props can be used
- Offer alternative spots (chair, wall, etc.) and focuses (shape or balance of the pose)
Empower your students so they can trust their instincts, experiment until they find a position that feels good, and ask your students how does their breath feels in this pose. Subtle things like language help your students feel good so they can access an embodied experience.
[55:10] Issues around consent: do some self-study: Why I am or am not offering assists or adjustments to my students? Is this necessary? Is it clarifying or nurturing? Cueing over adjusting. Help students make the adjustment for themselves and adjust your student only if they are in a position that may cause injury. If you do make sure to ask for consent and let them know what you are going to do.
[1:06:35] How to reach Amber Karnes
Amber’s Email: email@example.com
Amber’s website: Body Positive Yoga
Representation Matters: Inclusive and Diverse Stock Photos
Body Positive Yoga: Modifications
Amber’s article: Yoga Turned My Body into a Place I Could Call Home
Relevant TCYT podcast episodes:
003: Trauma Training for Every Yoga Teacher with Margaret Howard
015: Consent Cards and Hands-On Assists with Molly Kitchen
Gratitude to our Sponsor Schedulicity
“Offering modifications offers students agency over their own yoga practice and gives the locus of control back to the students. We want to guide our students into a place of inquiry where they can have an experience in their own body…both on the mat and into areas of their own lives.” ~ Amber Karnes
I am 1 class away from my RYT 200. I am older 53, and larger. I love the resources on your site and the positive body image impact. I would like to please use your quote concerning modifications with permission and referencing you of course. I am asking as I want to do my final (which is teaching a class) with the larger body clients in mind. There is an emphasis on the elderly, disabled but I have not seen as much information on the larger client. My aim is to encourage and allow for those who are like me to come to their mat and experience yoga not just as a pose but as a life-changing empowering moment. Please let me know if I may use your quote.
Congratulations soon on your 200-hour journey. Thanks for taking the time to comment and to ask if it is okay to use a quote. I will pass this along to Laura, our show notes writer and to Amber who shared so much information in the interview. My guess is that both of them are okay with you using any and all quotes from the interview / show notes page.
Thank you for making yoga accessible to all bodies!