Have you ever wanted to try Yoga, but didn’t want to go to a regular class because of your size? Your age? A disability? Well, you don’t have to be thin, young, or flexible to enjoy the benefits of Yoga! Over 25 years experience of teaching Integral Yoga, has given Meera Patricia Kerr a unique approach to teaching students with a variety of health challenges.
Her groundbreaking DVD, Big Yoga Hatha 1, helped plus-size Yoga students enjoy this life-affirming practice through the use of adapted poses designed for the larger body. Recently Meera added a book (Big Yoga: A Simple Guide for Bigger Bodies) and a new DVD (Big Yoga Flexibility) to her repetoire. Meera’s Yoga students are finding they can lower their blood pressure, improve glycemic function, feel more energized and happy with the simple and effective Yoga postures (asana) and gentle deep breathing (pranayama).
Yoga has been proven to reduce the health risks of obesity, as well as contribute to a healthy heart lifestyle especially important to a patient recovering from heart surgery. Her friend and colleague, Dr. Dean Ornish, founder of the Wellness Institute and author of Stress, Diet and Your Heart, and Eat More, Weigh Less, says “Meera’s adapted Yoga is a perfect compliment to any cardiac rehab program. Her soothing voice and peaceful presence enable the patient to experience the relaxation response, and begin to identify how to achieve this state on his own.”
When Patricia Kerr left the midwest in the mid 70’s, she wasn’t exactly seeking enlightenment. What she really had in mind was fame and fortune in the record business, so she put together an all-female band, Ira Gobu. While woodshedding in Connecticut, the girls discovered an Integral Yoga center and began coming for hatha classes, and Friday night kirtan. One day their teacher, Padma, informed them that her guru, Swami Satchidananda (Sri Gurudev) was coming to town, and they were invited to meet him in a small private satsang at his home.
It was a meeting that would change her life. Patricia asked Sri Gurudev to bless her little band, and he serenely told her to “give the people something uplifting” with the music. After that, a series of events transpired, like beads on a mala, (rosary) all strung together: She went to a ten day silent retreat to be initiated by Gurudev himself, where she met her future husband, who then got her a record deal at RCA, where she recorded her signature ballad, “Water My Soul”, which she often sang for Sri Gurudev and his devotees.
He gave her the name Meera, the celestial singer.
A corporate purge at RCA left “Water My Soul” languishing on the shelf, but Meera continued to write and record while her interest in Yoga was flourishing. She took the Integral Yoga teacher training in 1978 at the Satchidananada Ashram, began teaching at the IYI in New York City, and got married.
A week after her husband, Les Alexander, left for California to produce his first sitcom, “No Soap Radio”, Meera gave birth to son, Sam. They moved to the west coast, where Les began producing movies. Two years later, son Dave was born. Although Meera was a full time mom, she continued to teach Yoga privately in her home, and when the boys were a little older, moved with them to Satchidananda Ashram in Virginia. For the next three years, Sam and Dave attended Integral Yoga school (Vidyalayam or temple of learning) where they had close contact with Sri Gurudev, and were taught in the yogic tradition.
One of the outstanding aspects of the Ashram was the Light Of Truth Universal Shrine (LOTUS), an interfaith shrine designed by Swami Satchidananada as a spiritual home for people of all faiths. Meditating together every day at noon became Meera’s cherished ritual, and it was during one of those divine meditations that Big Yoga came to her.
Big, not just in terms of large, but expansive, inclusive, integrating all aspects of Yoga, including chanting, asana, pranayama, deep relaxation, Jnana, Raja, Bhakti and Karma Yoga, as she had been taught under the guidance of her Guru. It wasn’t until she came back to the West Coast that Meera actually started teaching Big Yoga. With Sam and Dave all grown up, Meera has devoted more time to teaching her unique class, which is an adapted version of Integral Yoga Beginners Hatha One. And now, the first of several videos has been released. Yoga can benefit everyone.
Read our interview below with Meera published in Integral Yoga Magazine several years ago and look for an update in our Summer 2010 issue.
Integral Yoga Magazine: What is Big Yoga?
Meera Kerr: It is the Integral Yoga Hatha I class adapted to the needs of larger people. As I got older I noticed my body was changing. I saw a need for an adaptation to serve those who want to do Yoga but can’t do what thinner people are doing.
IYM: Can you give us an idea of what this adaptation entails?
MK: s I started gaining weight I began experimenting. I want to credit Ren Fields for a wall adaptation of the salute to the sun. A chair is not stable enough—so a wall brings a certain element of comfort.
IYM: Do the adaptations have other advantages other than stability?
MK: Yes. Swami Sarvaanandaji, who teaches Extra Gentle Yoga Teacher Training, and I came up with a wall adaptation of the Bridge Pose. You stand with your back toward the wall. You lean back, bringing the crown of the head to the wall. That makes the shoulders drop and the weight shifts to behind the shoulders. This helps move the fat in the back area out of way and helps you to get your hands behind your back which gives a good stretch that people who are heavier might not otherwise get.
IYM: Some people might think “extra gentle” implies not much of a stretch or challenge.
MK: That is what I thought when I first took Sambasiva Neal’s (San Francisco IYI teacher) adapted class. When I took his class it was really fun and enjoyable. He has come into his own self-love and he exudes that self-acceptance to his students.
IYM: Can you say more about self-acceptance for the overweight Yoga student?
MK: I think this is a key issue. You should have a love of your body, be in your body, and tune into the body. Nobody sets out to be fat. Weight challenge can be a combination of hormones, stress, emotions, and lifestyle. But, I think the bottom line is that we can love the body we are in.
IYM: Where have you come to in your own journey about weight issues?
MK: I always struggled with my weight and once menopause kicked in I couldn’t seem to lose weight or keep it off. Dieting never worked for me. What Sri Gurudev taught about pratipaksha bhavana is that, rather than thinking bad thoughts about my body, I apply love. The whole process of Hatha Yoga is so positive and self-loving. Are we going to get any thinner by putting ourselves down or shaming ourselves? It’s all about being happy, healthy, accepting of who you are, and doing the best you can. Sri Gurudev taught us that mental weight causes more problems than physical weight.
IYM: Do you include pranayama and deep relaxation in your class?
MK: I feel it is very important to do the whole class that Sri Gurudev gave us, including pranayama. Pranayama is a subtle but powerful way to clear out toxins that are stored in fat cells. Sri Gurudev said that bhastrika pranayama is great for overweight people. For many people with weight issues there is a disconnect between body and mind. The healing in deep relaxation is not just on the physical level but also on the emotional level. You really tune into the body-mind connection in a deep way.
IYM: It seems like many of the adapted Yoga classes don’t include chanting.
MK: I am a music teacher and I find the group sharing of music is so uplifting. I always include “Om Shanthi” chanting at the end of my classes. Something shifts in the neurons in the brain when you are chanting out loud and vocalizing the holy vibrations. If everyone chanted every day, the world would be a happier place! These are the gifts we were given by Sri Gurudev. I feel so blessed to be carrying on a tradition that is so remarkable.