Fifteen years ago, Meera Patricia Kerr was meditating at the Yogaville temple in Buckingham, Va., when she heard something. “It was a voice saying, ‘big yoga,’” remembers Kerr, who liked the name instantly.
It was an apt way of describing the expansive approach of Integral Yoga — the philosophy espoused by Yogaville founder Swami Satchidananda. And, as she explains, “I’m not a skinny girl. I never was.”
That wasn’t a problem in the early 1970s, when her all-girl band decided to take yoga classes as a way to reach enlightenment. “When I started, I was young and curvy. Now I’m 65 and I’m old and lumpy. But because I was so flexible, I always felt comfortable,” she says. Those days were also long before the dominant images of yoga featured model-thin women in seemingly impossible poses.
Through her decades of teaching, Kerr has always attracted some women who don’t care what size they are, but she realizes that’s not the norm in yoga today. “So many people don’t come because of the stigma of being bigger,” she says, adding that for women her age, that’s particularly true. And it’s a shame because they’re the ones who stand to benefit the most from yoga. “If I hadn’t been doing yoga all of these years, this weight would be a pain,” she says.
Kerr committed herself to finding a way to make yoga more accessible to people like her. Putting the idea into practice took time, however. She started by examining her students. “Everyone carries weight differently. What works for one person won’t for another,” she says. She soon moved to Santa Monica, where she began teaching “Big Yoga” classes, which evolved into her first DVD in 2002. Since then, Kerr — who now lives in Michigan — has published a book and released a second DVD, designed for an older and more overweight audience.
It’s been important to Kerr to offer an alternative vision of what yoga is and whom it’s for. “That’s why I modeled all the pictures for the book,” says Kerr, who wanted to prove that even with extra pounds she could look “comfortable and easeful” in various poses.
When she teaches a “Big Yoga” class, Kerr always keeps beginners in mind because she often gets students who’ve never tried yoga before. She’s found it helps to start with a joint freeing series, developed by Mukunda Stiles, that promotes flexibility and reduces joint pain.
Kerr ends each practice with a 15-minute guided deep meditation, which she calls “the dessert of the class.” “It helps people to heal not just physically but emotionally,” she says. “It gets people coming back.”
And that can lead to some big changes in health — at any size.
Meera Patricia Kerr will visit the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts (1632 U St. NW; 202-483-8600, Smithcenter.org) next Monday at 6:30 p.m. to lead a workshop, “Yoga For Every Body.” The class is $15. For more information on Kerr, visit her website Bigyogaonline.com.
Meera Patricia Kerr has found modifications that make a practice doable no matter your size.
Child’s Pose: If separating your knees to create more space doesn’t work for you, try folding over a bolster. As for bolster size, “with a big belly, you need a big bolster,” Kerr says.
Bow: Blocks, straps and bolsters are typical yoga props, but for this pose, Kerr has found more people can be successful with a pair of flip-flops.
Sun Salutations: Kerr has developed a version of the sequence that uses a wall for assistance. When folding over, “leave your butt on the wall but move your feet a few inches away,” she says.