"Soften your mouth."
I always smile when Sally says this. I know she’s talking to me. She has guided the class into Tree Pose.
I have been concentrating on using the muscles in the front of my thigh
to prevent my knee from locking, lifting my chest, making sure not to
arch my back. I haven’t noticed that my teeth have been buried in my
contorted lips. I don’t know if smiling is softer but it has to be
better than what I’ve been doing.
class is designed for women and men of size. In the Bay Area fat
community she is known for creating a space in which people can learn
to do yoga postures in a manner that suits their bodies. She says that
working specifically with large women and men is not something she ever
thought about doing as a teacher. "It just wasn’t in my consciousness.
The work came to me," she explains.
Sally’s students, a large woman, approached her and said, "Would you be
interested in teaching a yoga class specifically for large women?"
Sally got very excited and responded, "Yes!"
organized the first class entirely through email. There was an
enthusiastic response. That was over three years ago, and there are now
four classes a week. Two of them are just for women and two of them are
for women and men.
Ari-Asha Castalia is one of
Sally’s students. She says she was suspicious before attending her
first class. She was sure she wouldn’t be able to do the poses and she
imagined a teacher who would judge her. She says, "I just knew the
teacher would have a yoga standard none of us with fat bodies could
meet, demonstrating the poses perfectly."
experience of Sally countered that fear. "I liked the stretching, the
peacefulness and the way she kept saying, ‘This is a fine place to
stay. If you want a further challenge you can...,’ meaning I was OK
where I was. What I was doing was recognized as already challenging."
class, Sally guides the group into a yoga posture, prompting the breath
and the reach of limbs. She may go to an individual class member and
adjust the arc of an arm or touch the tension in a shoulder. She
notices the tendency to lock a knee and reminds the person to breathe.
people sometimes feel unseen. Sally’s attention to detail and
personable manner create an atmosphere of dignity. She will often
comment on how beautiful the class looks.
Cantor began taking a class with Sally to work with her injured knee
after months of doing traditional physical therapy. As a Rosen Method
practitioner, Miriam appreciates the language Sally uses to talk about
the body. "Finding people I really trust to help me move in my fat body
is so very rare. Sally’s class has been the only thing that has
successfully helped me feel there is hope for my injured knee, after
two and a half years, which feels absolutely miraculous," says Miriam.
Wann is a fat activist. She has written a book Fat!So? (Ten Speed
Press) and she was instrumental in getting the Human Rights Commission
of the City and County of San Francisco to add height and weight to the
list of attributes protected from discrimination. She takes yoga
classes with Sally.
Marilyn says, "I’m always
eager to enjoy physical activity in a fat-positive, body-loving
setting. After the very first session, I found myself feeling
sure-footed, planted on the ground. It’s a delicious sensation that I
continue to enjoy during the week after my Saturday yoga class. Even
after my first try at yoga, it seemed so much easier simply to stand. I
had far fewer twinges of lower back pain or soreness. My legs felt
bouncy, also at ease and not as likely to lock at the knee."
are living in a maelstrom of fat phobia. Fat has been declared an
epidemic and the list of illnesses associated with weight is long. Many
of those health issues are mediated by yoga. Yoga practice has been
credited with helping people to have healthy blood pressure, cardio
vascular efficiency and the ability to maintain healthy levels of
cholesterol and blood sugar. Flexibility improves. Mobility increases.
And maybe more importantly, yoga can foster a connection between the
spirit, mind and body. For fat people, who may have been in a life-long
struggle with their bodies, yoga can be a way to reconnect.
isn’t my first experience with yoga. In the early seventies I watched
Lilias Folan on PBS and followed along with her daily repetitions of
salutation to the sun. I was fat then and much too afraid to attend a
class. Alone in my apartment, I was safe from judgmental eyes. For many
fat people, attending a class in which they are the only person of size
can be a challenge. There may be a tendency to try and do poses that
you really aren’t able to do, or to do nothing when the pose seems too
challenging. I may have been safe from those experiences but I had no
one to guide or encourage me.
Sally teaches yoga
in a manner that allows for possibility and yet acknowledges the
significance of every attempt. She will adapt a pose, find a way to use
chairs, pillows and yoga straps; even the wall becomes a support for a
person trying to find balance. She does not focus on an idea of the
right way to do the pose. Instead she focuses on how the pose feels to
Sally says, "I love working with
my students. As a teacher I have the opportunity to witness the
profound impact that practicing yoga has on their lives. Those of us in
average size bodies can only imagine what it is like to live in a large
size body in a culture that hates and ridicules fat. It must take
tremendous courage just to walk out your front door every day. In my
yoga classes I see courageous women committed to being who they are in
the face of cruel discrimination. I see them receive the blessings of
yoga to support their healing and empowerment. I am inspired by their
courage and have deep appreciation for their journeys. It is truly my
privilege to work with them."
My favorite pose is
Warrior II Pose (Virabhadrasana II). I like the fluid movement we go
through to arrive in the pose. We begin in Mountain Pose (Tadasana),
standing with awareness. We raise our arms and turn, moving one knee
forward and being mindful not to move past the foot. Feel the back leg
strengthening in the pose. We extend our arms our palms down. Focus
your intentions. We turn our palms up. Feel yourself open to
possibility. I feel strong, present and ready.
I look around the room at my fellow yoga practitioners, all of them
people of size and I see how strong and balanced we all look. Open the
pages of a book or magazine on
yoga and you see sinewy bodies
in seemingly perfect balance. If you walk into one of the yoga for
large men and women classes taught by Sally Pugh, you see bodies of
substance in postures of grace.
Doing class with
Sally gives us courage. Ari-Asha says, "I can’t imagine my life without
yoga. My practice has changed me in profoundly deep ways that I find
hard to articulate but know are true. I have added a third weekly class
that is a ‘mainstream’ class with men and women of all sizes. Now I
know that being able to bend forward at one’s hips is not something
that thin people inherently know and are able to do by virtue of their
thinness. I have had the experience of wanting to do a specific pose
for a long time, and incrementally moving toward it, without
exasperation, without negative self-talk, believing that I could, until
one day I was able to do it! I am regularly inhabiting my own skin
now—and finding it ‘a fine place to stay.’"
continue my practice between classes, home alone. But I hear Sally’s
voice as I move. And once a week I join my community of fellow fat
yogis and yoginis and the teacher who sees our bodies and knows our
individual tendencies. It’s nice to have someone remind me to soften my
Tish Parmeley is a writer living in San Francisco. She has written a memoir: Avoirdupois: A Life of Weight due out in 2005.
This article was first published in the magazine Yoga 4 EveryBody.
Learn more about Sally's yoga & bodywork services.