Teacher Profile : Lanita Varshell.
By Julie Deife
In this age of specialization, it would only stand to reason that someone has carved out a niche for teaching “plus size yoga.” Lanita Varshell, does just that, but not because it might be a good marketing ploy at a time when the American public is trying to figure out what to do about a growing health risk labeled obesity, rather because she is a plus size herself and knows from experience that yoga can change your life.
After 30 years of diet YoYo and viewing her body as the enemy, Anita declared, “I am never going to diet again. I am going to focus on getting healthy.” Varshell maintains she was never taught basic health habits growing up in an extreme Christian religion, even though her family had plenty of home grown food.
Exercise amounted to door-to-door calls five nights a week ministering in the 105 degree heat of Phoenix. Before going out on rounds, they’d have dinner about 5 P.M.; afterward, they’d all meet up around 10 P.M. at a restaurant and either have another full dinner or maybe just dessert. Eating was a way to do the work and socialize. Lanita was about 20 pounds overweight at age 8 and she was put on a Weight Watchers diet at age 12 that didn’t work because the diet was wrong for her and her self-esteem had already been compromised.
All “plus size” people have a “story.” They’re not just slovenly people who’ve consciously chosen to weigh in at 300 pounds. Knowing this “story,” Lanita says, is key to helping students use yoga to deal with their weight. Many students who have come to learn A Gentle Way Yoga had been turned down by other yoga teachers “until they lost weight.” Sometimes they had been accepted to classes but then were treated as if they had the same capabilities as the thin, lithe bodies so prevalent in yoga class. There were no modifications to the postures for overweight people. It became a class in discouragement.
Lanita first attended a A Gentle Way Yoga class almost 10 years ago, taught by Naomi Offner, who founded Gentle Yoga. Offner had been bugging her for several months with weekly phone calls, and one day Lanita said ‘okay’, just to prove to Offner and herself that she couldn’t do it. Sport was the last thing Lanita wanted to do, and she had the perception that yoga was competitive and a little sport-like. In her background, sports were not encouraged, so she’d never participated, but Lanita had already given up the religion for her feminist principles.
“I had never wanted to be in my body,” Lanita says. For someone her height, someone who couldn’t get below 240 pounds, anything related to movement was humiliating. “Plus size people,” she says, “live above the shoulders. It isn’t a pleasant experience to actually feel the body they’re living in.”
With eyes closed to direct attention inward, attempting postures by sitting or lying on the floor, Lanita experienced the body-mind-spirit connection for the first time in her life. She cried, as do many in her classes today, as realization came to her that she is a whole person, and that old wounds, habits or tapes can be released, changed and erased.
The practice of yoga and unity spoke to her in terms of professional destiny, too. Immediately following a single class, Lanita and Offner agreed that Lanita would become Offner’s first plus size teacher of Gentle Yoga. Today Lanita’s little studio is a haven for people who don’t strive to do the perfect posture, rather focus on health and wholeness as the goal. And, according to Lanita, if weight loss is the goal, they usually shed
the first 20 pounds quickly “because they’re starting to relax and when they’re relaxed they’re making healthier decisions in life.”
According to Lanita more than 60% of the population is either health challenged or overweight, so the typical yoga class at A Gentle Way Yoga is filled with people one might not find in the average yoga class: two women over 70; a fit looking gentleman, also a senior, whose physical therapist at Kaiser told him to take yoga; slightly to moderately overweight women not wearing the latest fashion in yoga clothing.
Lanita begins her classes by asking each student to state what needs their body has today. The class, she says, will be based on what she hears from them. Upper back, lower back, feet, stress,
3rd vertebra, shoulders, neck are some of the answers offered
in response to her invitation. Students elaborate: “because of the gardening today,” or “because I sat at my desk for 8 hours.” Then with everyone on their backs, knees comfortable over a bolster, eyes close as Lanita begins instruction. Magically, every issue a student brings up,is addressed by the and of the class.
The overarching aim is to let go and experience oneness with Self. Affirmations are sprinkled in, students are asked to wriggle their precious toes and to thank this beautiful body. Many postures are wind relieving (in a lying down position, drawing one or both knees up close to the stomach), a challenge for overweight people, but key poses for healing. Some of Lanita’s students only do chair yoga because of their lack of flexibility. All embrace the journey inward toward self-healing.
Still, it is not easy to keep the overweight population coming back to class, comments Lanita. She was actually warned about this phenomenon when she first started teaching. Another teacher told her that the plus size don’t take care of themselves, they won’t keep coming back, not to even bother with them.
To some extent Lanita agrees but frames it differently. “The first thing that people of our mentality will always drop is taking care of ourselves. We’ll take care of everyone else, but not our-
selves.” Her solu- tion is a safe environment and the example of constant diligence.
Binge eating for Lanita has finally gone completely out the window, but there are nights when she’ll cry herself to sleep. Still, she’s not angry, preferring to see the beauty in life as it is. “Would I like to leave this planet in a body that has been healed from all this?” she asks. “Yes. But if that never happens, look at all the people I’ve been able to help despite my health and weight challenges.”
Lanita looks forward to the day when she can start a nonprofit in order to get grants to help change the food kids are served at school, provide yoga for seniors and the health challenged who can’t afford to attend classes and reach out to women on welfare. In her experience, there is no end to what the power of yoga can accomplish, just stay with it.
Lanita Varshell can be reached at www.agentleway.com or by phone at (619) 698-1170. She offers a teacher
training registered with the Yoga Alliance at 200 hours, which recently included people from six different states.
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