If you look in the mirror and think, "I'm too heavy to do yoga," the founder of HeartFelt Yoga, Abby Lentz, has a reply: "Actually, you're beautiful. Now, give it a try!" Lentz is the pioneer of HeavyWeight Yoga®, and believes it's time to "change the image of yoga."
Lentz is a Kripalu Yoga instructor, as well as a Relax and Renew® instructor. Her HeartFelt Yoga studio is based in Austin, Texas. We talked with her about her philosophy, her approach, and her upcoming triathlon.
HeartFelt Yoga: Abby Lentz Interview
Please give us a brief overview of your yoga journey.
I started doing yoga more than 30 years ago, when I was 24, after my first child was born. I was young and trim and loved it right away. With that youthful body I could connect to what the poses were all about. I continue today to go to that inner body for guidance to the benefits of a pose, not just how it looks on the outside.
There weren't any videotapes to follow back then. I used several books for a while, but soon found Lilias Folan on PBS. Since then, I've been fortunate enough to attend many of her workshops.
My daily yoga practice expanded and contracted with the changes and demands in my life. Luckily, yoga was so much a part of my life it continued to support whatever I was doing off the mat. That's still true today. There's so much more to yoga than the physical doing on the mat.
When you decided to become a yoga instructor, why did you choose Kripalu?
When I started training for the Dublin City Marathon for the Arthritis Foundation, they arranged for a walking coach, Nina Beucler. Nina also taught Kripalu yoga. As our friendship grew, she helped me reclaim my yoga practice. Kripalu is the yoga of compassion, which fits me well as a student and as a teacher.
What was the experience like for you?
Going to my teacher training was a dream come true, but it was extremely hard physically and difficult to be away from my family and work. While I wasn't the oldest person in my class, I was the heaviest. When paired with other students for the first time they would often end up commenting how surprised they were about how strong I was.
One of my fellow Kripalu students, Tom Pilarzyk, wrote a wonderful book, Yoga Beyond Fitness. He writes about me in his chapter "Zero Gravity" and describes me as "portly." Fortunately my body reality is somewhere between Tom's "portly" and Fitness Magazine's "yoga buff," which makes me giggle.
At the end the Kripalu certification process, there were T-shirts that had "Yoga Teacher" on the front to wear after graduation. None of them came in my size, not even the plainer, larger-sized shirts designed for the men. So afterward, I created logos and had hats made that any size could wear. It wasn't the same, but it got me moving towards putting another piece of HeavyWeight Yoga together.
The Philosophy of HeavyWeight Yoga
You state that a person doesn't have to achieve a certain fitness level first to enjoy yoga now, but this acceptance is hard for many people. How do you help them move forward?
I consider yoga the foundation for all other physical activities, so it's the place to start. The fact that you can do yoga in a chair or on top of a bed makes it possible for anyone to do some yoga. Yoga can be simply moving with deliberation, with thoughtfulness and breath - you don't have to stand on your head to do yoga.
In 2008, I hosted a "Change the Image of Yoga" photo party. Fifteen of my students had their pictures taken with a professional photographer. They did their favorite yoga pose and had a headshot taken. It was great fun to watch them go through the process. Then my husband, Ron Seybold, who is a writer, interviewed them about their journey to yoga. Their stories and images at my web site are a real inspiration. My hope is that people will recognize a piece of themselves and realize they can practice yoga.
Please share a story involving a student's transformative experience.
The biggest individual transformation I've seen is from a student in her early 30s who had just gone through a terrible divorce. She jump-started her practice by going to one of my weekend retreats, and began coming to class two-to-three times a week. Being in a class environment that was so accepting gave her the confidence to go to the gym. Soon she became a guide for the other larger women in her Nia class. When they offered weekend teacher training she got certified and now is a Nia instructor.
It all starts with self-awareness, which often happens in a student's very first class. After class they'll stop to chat and tell their story, before either of us knows it their tears just spill out. Then the questions start: "How did I get here? How did I let this happen to me? What have I been doing?"
We all take different paths to being overweight or obese. The sadness and shame can be profound. When the tears end, I assure them that what is past is past and this is a new beginning. Not a start at losing weight, but to become awake to enjoy and feel life more fully. Sometimes we're so focused on our size we forget that we are so much more. Yoga is a time to discover who you really are.
What I hope is that people come to self-love through awareness, acceptance and affection - what I call my Three As. Weight loss can be a part of what you decide to do, or perhaps you just learn to stop the war against your body - to love yourself as you are. Just making a mindful decision to be okay with being the healthiest you that you can be at whatever size you are today. That's the HeavyWeight Yoga path.
Moving the Best You Can
You seem to have a lot of older women in your HeartFelt Yoga studio classes. What do you find inspiring about them?
My students are amazing. They've survived all kinds of cancer, surgeries, physical ailments, disappointments and losses. Some come and I can see them working through physical pain, yet, they come and give their best to each class.
My oldest student, Marie, is 83 and a multiple cancer survivor. She came to class needing a chair to get herself on and off the floor, but she loved it and bought equipment, even to the point of investing in a unitard.
In less than a year, she was able to get to the floor with ease, and not long after that she came to standing with Downward Facing Dog. It was such a thrill for everyone. I had to stop the class for the cheers and clapping, which is now the tradition in class when people with flexibility issues come up to standing the first time.
Leading with the Heart
Your instructional DVD, HeartFelt Yoga, has approximately two hours of instruction. Please tell us about your sequences.
I found that lack of time is the biggest reason most people put off their practice, so I created independent sections to the DVD that lets you combine your practice in different ways based on the amount of time you have that day.
It begins with the Efficient Warm Up Series, which prepares you for the more active sequences. Then there are two different sequences that you can do separately, creating two different classes, or do both together if you have more time. Ending with Savasana, relaxation, there are delicate tones timed so you can shorten your relaxation when necessary.
There's a fun section to show how to use household items for props. This way people can start right away with things they have on hand without additional equipment.
My favorite sequence shows people how to do yoga if they can't come to the floor. The bedroom we used was so tiny that the shots are not very flattering to me at all. But, it's during this part that I talk to directly to people who are bed-bound. With that message even the crew cried, so I just had to let go of my body ego in order to keep it all on the DVD.
In addition to being a yoga instructor, you're also a triathlete. How do you train?
My favorite combination is yoga, weight-bearing exercise and some kind of aerobic activity - my favorite is bike riding. I do a little yoga first thing before a mini-breakfast, get to the gym to lift or cycle, and do a more complete yoga practice later in the day.
When I give corporate presentations, I often ask if there's a marathoner in the group. Usually a trim, young man will come forward and talk about his experience and his time .I completed the Dublin marathon in 8 hours, 51 minutes. Together, we'll look like Mutt and Jeff up there, but then I point out that if you're anywhere between where he is and where I am, you can be a marathoner if that's your desire. I believe everyone has an inner athlete inside them just waiting to come out. We just have to say "Yes" to that wishful voice by starting with reasonable steps we can do.
Giving yourself enough time to train and then being consistent is the key to training for anything. I'm not sure who said it first, but I do believe that success favors the prepared. It's my dream that HeavyWeight Yoga prepares others to find awareness, acceptance and affection - the three As already inside each of us, helping us to be our very best self.
More about Abby Lentz
~Tracey L. Kelley