Meera Kerr, an Integral Yoga teacher for 30 years, is the creator of Big Yoga. She believes that you don’t have to be thin to enjoy the benefits of Yoga – her new book, Big Yoga: A Simple Guide for Bigger Bodies, and a second DVD, attest to that. She’s spent the last decade working on adaptations for those with larger bodies and for anyone needing adapted poses. In this interview, she talks about her Yoga journey and what inspired Big Yoga.
Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): How did you get the idea for Big Yoga?
Meera Kerr (MK): About fifteen years ago, I started putting on weight as I began going through menopause. So, I tried adapting the asanas for myself. I had gotten some ideas from a series of poses done by Ren Fields, which she had put in the Integral Yoga Teachers Association newsletter about adapting asanas using the wall. In 2002, I began Big Yoga and I would ask my students what was comfortable, what worked-and so I really learned from them how to further adapt the postures to larger bodies. Gradually, more people started seeking me out because they wanted to try Hatha Yoga but were afraid they couldn’t do it because they were overweight. After a year or two, I put the class on video. We got some good reviews, and so I began writing a book because I wanted to get it more out there, as I knew it would be useful to people.
IYM: How did you come up with the name and were you concerned that “Big” would be an offensive term?
MK: The name came to me in meditation when I was living in the ashram and my kids were in the Vidyalayam (Integral Yoga School). I was thinking about the words “Integral Yoga” and how to incorporate it with a Yoga geared to those who had bigger bodies. I was walking to the Light Of Truth Universal Shrine (LOTUS) for meditation and as I was settling down I heard a voice: “Big Yoga.” I knew it was Gurudev’s voice; It was so clear because of the double entendre: Big Yoga-it’s big, expansive, includes all the different Yoga practices and all the branches that make Integral Yoga so wonderful. At the
same time, it meant “big,” referring to the size of the body. I thought it was perfect! When I put out the first Big Yoga DVD, we didn’t get a lot of distributors carrying it, because they felt that people didn’t want to admit that they were big, so they didn’t like the title. Now things have changed and people own their bigness. When I first began practicing Yoga as a plus-size woman, as far as I knew, there wasn’t anyone specializing in that. The USA population wasn’t as overweight, and it is only more recently that plus-size people are owning their bigness. There are people now offering Mega Yoga (Megan Garcia) and HeayyWeight Yoga (Abby Lentz), Dianne Bondy and so it’s definitely more on the radar. The plus-size clothing business has evolved. Years ago, you couldn’t find things even remotely attractive, but now you can find natural fabrics and beautiful clothes. In the last year, that’s really starting to pop.
IYM: Is there a prejudice when it comes to bigger and older bodies and Yoga?
MK: I’m 63-years-old, am overweight and I have to move more slowly in my asana practice. My body isn’t the weight it was when I was in my 20s, my ligaments aren’t as supple as it was in my 30s or even 50s. So, as I got older, I had to slow down. When my body got bigger, I realized I had to adapt my practice. We have to broaden our idea of what Hatha Yoga is and looks like. If you have a big belly you can’t do a traditional forward bend, but you can do a forward bend that will give you the same benefits-like lowering the heart rate, blood pressure and reducing cortical levels. Years ago, I injured my knee when a Great Dane ran into me sideways. Even then, I had to adapt my practice. I was coming up with new things and I realized it’s all asana. So, we can offer people choices. That is basically what Big Yoga is all about. As long as it’s steady and comfortable, it doesn’t matter how the pose is adapted. We know when it feels good, it’s good. It’s really up to our students to figure out what feels good; we are only there to assist them and make suggestions. Because we are Integral Yogis, ours is a more meditative practice than some of the more vigorous or externally focused styles. We are very inclusive and welcoming to people of all sizes and shapes. It’s our job to educate people about how anyone can try Hatha and hopefully we are doing that.
IYM: How do you respond to those who say being overweight isn’t healthy?
MK: You can be fit and fat. Just because you are overweight doesn’t automatically mean you are unhealthy–it’s a matter of gradations. You can be a little overweight. I was always five to twenty pounds overweight, but I was healthy–I swam, did Yoga, my cholesterol was low, I ate well although maybe I ate too much. Now, as I’ve gotten older, I seem to be getting bigger, which I don’t think is so good because for older people, if you are overweight, it’s hard on the joints.
IYM: What do you think Yoga has to offer overweight people?
MK: I think it starts with benefits to the endocrine system and the toning of the body that comes from the inside out. I had a friend who was really out of shape and she decided to get fit, so she began to jump on a trampoline and really injured herself because she had no muscle tone. When you do Hatha Yoga, you tone and strengthen from within. When you include pranayama, it brings vitality into the system. This combination really helps so that, when you do exercise, you are not going to hurt yourself. Hatha Yoga helps to balance the hormones and to counteract stress. This is key for someone overweight. It has been proven that insulin levels rise when you are under stress and the elevated insulin drives you to overeat. Hatha works on many levels-it puts you more in touch with your body and increases self-esteem. If you are really serious about Hatha Yoga, you de-velop an appreciation and love for your body, which helps increase self-esteem. The body is a miracle, and you start experiencing it as a temple and begin to want to treat it that way. If people go to a Yoga class for fitness reasons, if they stick with it, they will begin to experience something much deeper. I really trust that process. If Integral Yoga teachers stay true to what we know-what keeps it Integral, keeps it big-we will continue to share our wider view of Yoga
IYM: Can you give us an example of how larger-bodied people can do asanas?
MK: Gurudev always recommended that we practice the shoulder stand because of all its benefits, but people with heavy legs and larger rear ends are carrying a lot of weight and they will jerk their legs overhead to get into the shoulder stand, which can cause injury. In Big Yoga, I tell students to put their legs on the wall and ease into it. I may give a few repetitions of bringing the buttocks off the floor to give the body the message that the bottom is going up. Once you are in a really good position, you can work with the elbows to bring them closer together, try to lengthen the neck to make sure you’re not doing a neck stand. Once we know that the weight is on the shoulders and shoulder blades, then I’ll actually have students take one leg off the wall at a time. When they are sure their bodies are ready to continue, I’ll have them bring both legs off the wall.
IYM: Tell us about your book and your second DVD.
MK: When I began Big Yoga, I started with a DVD that was targeted to overweight people who were beginning a Yoga practice and who didn’t have other physical challenges. When I started writing the book-and producing the second DVD-I realized it could be used as an adaptive form of Yoga for anyone who was either larger-bodied, out of shape or facing health challenges or disabilities. The first DVD might be too challenging for people with injuries and disabilities so, in the new Metra Patricia Kerr DVD, I focused more on adaptations for people with different issues. These adaptations are based on what Mukunda Stiles calls the joint-freeing series, which I learned from Hope Mell, an Integral Yoga teacher who is one of his students. On the new DVD, we do a flexibility series that’s about 25 minutes of practice that tones all the muscles, which support each joint. While you are doing that, you’re doing some deep breathing and that helps release the toxins stored in the joints. So it’s a two-part process: You release toxins and you strengthen the muscles so that the joints and muscles work together rather than one or the other doing all the work. Next, we do the sun salutation utilizing a chair that’s for people who might not want to get up and down off the mat. Each of the three rounds is slightly different. After the two-part asana practice, we go right into the standard Integral Yoga deep relaxation, which I’ve been teaching for over 30 years. That is followed by some pranayama, and there’s a bonus track of me chanting OM Shanti. I wanted to share that with people since I am also a musician and chanting is something that helps keep me connected to the source.