Reaching out with yoga
Classes combine friendly attitudes and low-impact exercises for overweight people
By Jennifer Barrett
Special to The Tribune
Big and Beautiful is a special yoga class for overweight people taught two days a week at Centered City Yoga in Salt Lake City. Ann Gambrino says her stomach and legs have regained the strength she once had. With its pretzel poses and rubber-band bends, yoga didn't really seem like a natural pastime for full-figured KK Baker. After all, she doesn't have the svelte body often seen slinking into the yoga studio.
But a friend called and pressured her to try it. "He said, 'If I have to put a gun to your head, you're going to this class,' " recalled Baker.
Six months later, the Salt Lake City mother of two is a devotee. Her love of the exercise has helped her get reacquainted with her body, take better care of herself and start running again. But she never would have done a single pose if not for the Big and Beautiful class offered at Centered City Yoga in Salt Lake City.
Now, she said, "You really do feel like your body can do beautiful things."
It's a feeling more and more overweight people are experiencing thanks to supportive classes and friendly studios that reach out to them.
The Big and Beautiful class, or B&B, is the brainchild of two men, Jim Pehkonen and John Peake. One day they looked around and realized that everyone coming into the studio was already fit.
"The people who need to come in aren't here," said Peake, who also happened to be the friend who urged Baker to start yoga. "The folks who had some pounds most likely would never set foot into a studio because they were self-conscious."
That realization persuaded Pehkonen to create a class that would be safe and effective for overweight people. B&B students do gentle poses in a way that takes pressure off their joints, and they don't get up and down off the floor repeatedly during the 90-minute classes. Breathing, stretching and opening up the torso are the main focuses. Personal attention is key.
"We stress the importance of listening to your body, being aware of your limitations and not pushing beyond that," said Peake.
Julie Hymas weighed more than 300 pounds when she started doing a gentle restorative class at Yoga Jo's in Ogden. Today, she lost half the weight and is teaching at Centered City.
"It was difficult to start," she said. "I couldn't even walk up the stairs without being out of breath."
Within a few classes, she became more flexible and could do poses that at first seemed impossible. "Everyone starts somewhere."
That attitude is crucial for overweight people who are beginning to exercise, said Thunder Jalili, an assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Utah. He remembers working with a woman who weighed close to 350 pounds. "She really wanted to lose weight and everyone told her to exercise more, but she said, 'I can't. It hurts.' "
Obese people tend to have bad joints. "They can't just go out and start running," Jalili said. He recommends that overweight people see a doctor first, then be cautious as they start to exercise, whether it be yoga or walking. Begin with five minutes a day or with modified poses, he said.
More and more Utahns need to follow that advice. According to the state Health Department, 33.8 percent of Utah adults are overweight and 20.8 percent are obese. Overweight Utahns are at risk of developing cancer, diabetes and heart disease; obesity is the second-leading cause of preventable death in the United States. A controversial study in the New England Journal of Medicine last month even predicted that obesity would cut two to five years off the life expectancy of Americans during the next 50 years if the trend is not reversed.
The data are scary. But perhaps not as scary as walking into a yoga class filled with lean, limber bodies.
Carolyn Uhle was at a "high weight, low point" in her life when she went to Bikram Yoga in Salt Lake City two years ago. She didn't know what to expect and had picked the studio simply because it was on her way home from work.
"It was very intimidating going in the first time. . . . I thought they might think, 'Oh, what's this fat girl doing here?' "
But a friendly person at the front desk and the variety of people she saw soon
helped her feel welcome. "It didn't feel meat-markety," she said. "The people were so nice and down to earth. They weren't there to parade around."
After the first class as she turned her head to back out of a parking space, she noticed that a familiar neck pain was greatly relieved. Soon she was a regular, and she was making other changes in her life. Her diet, sleep and stress level all improved.
Today, she is 100 pounds lighter.
For people who want to lose weight, Uhle's approach is vital. Yoga alone probably won't take the pounds off, said Cobie Spevak, a public relations coordinator for the Utah Department of Health. A 60-minute yoga class that makes you break a sweat will burn about 230 calories.
"Yoga is great for stretching, flexibility, relaxation, improving muscle tone, etc., but in order to lose weight and keep it off, one would probably need to get at least 60 minutes of cardiovascular exercise per day," said Spevak.
But yoga can improve self-confidence and give people more desire to change eating and exercise habits. That makes all the difference. Just ask Uhle.
"When I started feeling better, I started eating better. I started sleeping better. It's all a big circle. . . . It's just totally changed my life," she said.
Uhle now is a great believer in yoga's power to help overweight people. "It doesn't matter how much you can do, it just matters that you're pushing yourself."