THE BLOG
11/25/2013 04:48 pm ET | Updated Jan 24, 2014

Yoga: How We Serve the Larger Woman

This is an interview with Vilma Zaleskaite, who slipped into a yoga career by accident. In the late 1990's, her American husband was introducing yoga to Lithuania, Latvia, and Belorussia. Vilma grew up in Lithuania and served as an assistant and interpreter for him. Soon she began teaching on her own, both in Vilnius, Lithuania, and in Portland, Oregon. Around that same time, she started volunteer-teaching in a women's prison through a local foundation, Living Yoga, and also offering yoga classes for seniors. In 2005 she and her husband acquired a small yoga studio. Vilma took note that plus-size people didn't make it to regular classes and decided to introduce a class designed specifically for this population. This was the beginning of what was to develop into the Yoga for the Larger Woman Program.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

Teaching underserved yoga populations, such as seniors and larger women, came about in large part indirectly from my father. In early 2000, while I was visiting my family in Lithuania, he asked me if I would teach a yoga class for "worn-out folks like me and your mom." We cleared out their living room, invited a few neighbors, and I taught a class. Energized by their enthusiasm afterwards, on my return to this country I initiated "mat yoga" and "chair yoga" classes for seniors at two retirement centers. Those classes convinced me that yoga and its benefits can be made accessible and enjoyable to any type of body.

Is there a standout moment from your work with larger women?

I've recently completed two significant projects with the Yoga for the Larger Woman Program. The first, called "Living in My Body" (LiMB), was a year-long study on the effects of larger women beginning and sustaining a daily yoga practice. Under my instruction and guidance, four volunteers started with a commitment to practice five minutes a day for the first month, and to then incrementally increase this commitment month by month so that by the 12th month they would be practicing one hour every day. Meanwhile, they continued with their regular class participation, blogged about this experience during the year, and regularly had private consultations with me. At year's end, they used a questionnaire to self-evaluate changes they had experienced. The changes were significant, and the stories that emerged through their blogs were inspiring. Study related information is available on the LW website.

2013-11-24-JanetbyJoniKabana.jpgWith the second project I wanted to create something visual that could inspire more women of size to practice yoga. So I got 14 of my regulars to step up, and, with award-wining photographer Joni Kabana, we set out to create a groundbreaking Yoga for the Larger Woman 2013 Calendar. The resulting white on black photographs were stunning. Rodney Yee and Angela Farmer, two significant yoga voices, offered their raves to be included. Responses we've received about the calendar tell me that it has inspired women near and far to be drawn to the practice of yoga.

Photo: "After 50 years of dragging this body around, yoga has enabled me to live in it." -- Janet, model for September 2013

What did you know about the larger women you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population, and how have those assumptions changed?

I came to this country from a culture where being overweight was not a cultural issue: There simply was not a significant overweight population. In 1997, when I first landed on American soil, making my way through the Chicago airport, the thought hit me, "Where am I? Is this airport just for the overweight people?" I think that my lack of assumptions about overweight people helped me to create the Yoga for the Larger Women Program as it is today.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for these differences?

My teaching style is not that much different. I aim to guide students into developing a greater awareness of the body. I teach how to listen to the body, how to be present in the body as it moves and as it is still. Although some portion of most of my Larger Woman classes will involve (suitably modified) familiar yoga poses, "doing poses" is not the focus of my teaching. As my teacher Angela Farmer once put it, with yoga we aim "to dive further inside our amazing bodies and clear out some remaining dusty corners, as well as befriend the small and fearful parts of ourselves still lurking in our shadows." This internal focus makes my classes suitable for students who are quite diverse in age, ability, or shape. Yoga for the Larger Woman classes are distinguished more as providing a psychological safety zone for those who self-select as "larger bodied."

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

Curiously enough, the greatest challenge has not come from the teaching itself. Through whatever combination of luck and skill, most women who come to the classes rather quickly find the setting welcoming and the classes rewarding. The challenge comes from the difficulty of imbuing them with the courage of their own conviction. Even once women know full well from their own experience how much difference our yoga can make, many continue to have a hard time simply showing up for class. I have not found any silver bullet with which to address this. Personal attention, an honest chat, group interaction may all be useful. Still, the encouragement I try to provide comes from the hard-won recognition that it is not something "missing" in the classes that is holding them back.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population you work with?

My one word of advice would be, don't get discouraged. If students tell you that they really enjoyed the class, they probably did, even if one or another "excuse" all too often gets in the way of regular attendance.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?

I think the future of "service yoga" is bright. More and more outlying populations are being served. More and more schools, hospitals, work places, retirement centers are offering yoga. When I start teaching classes for larger women, few of us were working with this population.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

Shut up, shut up, and listen is my definition of yoga. And it hasn't changed throughout the years. I believe that my practice and my work have helped me to be a more sensitive person. But perhaps I'm not the best one to gauge this.

What other organizations do you admire?

Organizations and individuals like TED talks and Marina Abramović, who challenge and awaken the ways we think about ourselves and our planet.

Editor: Alice Trembour
Image: Joni Kabana

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Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved populations? E-mail Executive Director Rob Schware if you're interested in being interviewed for this series. Thanks for all that you do in the name of service!