Have you ever wanted to try Yoga, but didn’t want to go to a regular class because of your size? Your age? A physical challenge? 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 program, Big Yoga, began with a DVD, Big Yoga Hatha 1, to help plus-size Yoga students enjoy this life-affirming practice through the use of adapted poses designed for the larger body. Meera followed the DVD with two books: Big Yoga: A Simple Guide for Bigger Bodies and Big Yoga for Less Stress, as well as a 2nd DVD, Big Yoga Flexibility. 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 Preventive Medicine Research Institute and author of Reversing Heart Disease 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 Satchidananda Ashram, began teaching at the Integral Yoga Institute 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 (Summer, 2010)
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: How did you get the idea for Big Yoga?
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 HeavyWeight Yoga (Abby Lentz), 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 my 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 larger-bodied 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 develop 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 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 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 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 second 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 source
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 larger-bodied 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.