A while back I had two men in my class who were very obese. One had never done yoga before, so I asked him what his goals were, what had moved him to come to class for the first time. He said he was looking to learn breathing and meditation to help him with stress.
He struggled enormously with asana. I kept the poses very simple and offered more challenging alternates to the other students but even with the very simple poses he struggled and mostly opted out altogether. After class he said that the class had been harder than he had anticipated and he felt that it wasn’t good for him because he might injure himself.
My first reaction was to applaud him for his self-awareness. I am always in the camp that only the practitioner himself knows how far to take a pose and that listening to and respecting your body is the single most important thing to learn from yoga.
But that class and that man occupied my mind all that week and I now think differently about it. I am sure his body felt uncomfortable or even painful in these simple poses, his muscles and joints will have groaned and complained mightily to be put to work. But they were all poses with simple, safe alignment and I had my eye on him the whole time. It comes to the old point of differentiating between good pain and bad pain. The pain or sensation of muscles working in unaccustomed ways may be uncomfortable but it is not a sign of danger.
I also noticed throughout his practice that he would close his eyes during various poses, even during tree pose, which is actually a lot harder with eyes closed. It is very unusual for a first time yogi to close their eyes at all, even in beginning meditation. I think in hindsight that this man is struggling with depression. I do not know whether the depression brought on the obesity or vice versa, possibly it’s a bit of both.
I think that he had hoped that “yoga” might relieve the stress of depression about the state he is in, the obesity, the heaviness, the joint pain he must by now feel, the inability to move all that much, and whatever it is that has compelled him to overeat himself into this state in the first place. I suspect he had hoped that meditation and breathing would offer him a haven where it was ok to be severely obese and life would be beautiful anyway.
But here is the thing: Yoga does not aide and abet denial. All parts of yoga, the breathing, the meditation, the asana can heal and can make us feel better and even create a sense of bliss. But in order for that to happen we first have to see clearly where we are in that moment and work from that state. Yoga is not like alcohol or other drugs that pull the wool over our eyes and momentarily let us forget our reality.
Here’s a quote to better explain my point:
“If we hope to go anywhere or develop ourselves in any way, we can only step from where we are standing. If we don’t really know where we are standing…we may only go in circles.”
The man unfortunately never came back and I regret not speaking more candidly and more encouragingly with him. I think yoga could have been an invaluable tool for him to start opening his eyes to his own situation, to start connecting to his body and mind rather than shut his eyes and block it all out. To be honest with himself and to accept where he is today. In an ideal world I would have worked with this man in private classes, to create space in the mind and eventually the body through breathing, contemplation and gentle movement. To build awareness and acceptance and then the trust and courage to start change.