At four feet 11 inches, and 73 kilograms, Dolly Singh stands out from the crowd of star yogis on Instagram who have come to be known for their slim waists, muscular arms, and trademark Lululemon yoga pants.
Despite her size, no asana is out of bounds, and her strength, flexibility, and stamina inspire admiration among those who follow her handle, @yogaforallmumbai. Over the last few weeks, she’s received attention from around the world for her body-positive approach that proves that yoga isn’t just for skinny people.
Singh’s fitness journey began after she sprained her ankle in 2012. Weighing 93kg at the time, she was told by her doctor to lose some weight, and so began a period of experimentation with everything from Zumba and Pilates to running. Unfortunately, nothing could keep her interested long enough.
Then, around three years ago, she enrolled for a group yoga class, and within the first few sessions, she was impressing her fellow students with her flexibility.
However, her progress soon hit a wall because she could not find any teachers who understood bigger bodies.
“God has given enough of me out there. There are certain poses in which I am choking,” she said, pointing, for instance, to the Halasana (plough pose), where you’re required to bring your legs over your head to touch the floor. “I could do it but I couldn’t stay there long enough and the teacher would say ‘Dolly, aur nahi karne ka zaroorat hai (you don’t have to do more),” she added.
Yoga for everyone
The problem was that most of the teachers in the field were cast in the same mould—they didn’t face the problems that plus-sized and large-chested Singh did. “I think there are different kinds of bodies, then why should all teachers look the same?” she asked.
That’s when Singh found her Holy Grail: Free online classes.
“I was at this stage where I could take my body to the next level, and online classes were fab, like having your own personal training,” Singh said. On YouTube, she could choose from a variety of trainers and intensity levels for her workouts. Although most of the online trainers also have a slender frame, Singh could still look to plus-size yoga practitioners like Jessamyn Stanley for modifications.
“Over time, I know how to do Halasana (plough pose) in a way where the legs don’t need to press on the chest. I know how much to roll body or suck my belly in,” she said.
Some of the YouTube channels Singh trained with are Yoga with Kassandra, BretLarkinYoga, Kino Yoga, and Heart Alchemy Yoga with Michelle Goldstein. Discovering these YouTube instructors was part-intent and part-trial, Singh explained. She decided upon the form of yoga—Vinyasa yoga—and tried out a series of teachers, deciphering their idiosyncrasies. “Generally, a male instructor has a very physical routine and requires more strength,” she explained. “A female instructor’s class is more about fluidity and flexibility.”
To track her progress, Singh started posting pictures and videos of her yoga poses on Instagram. But contrary to what most people think, she didn’t plan on launching a body-positivity movement. “I’m very selfish, I’m doing (Instagram) for myself,” she said.
Initially, her friends and followers used to be taken aback by her posts but now they just see a girl doing yoga, says Singh. Women have been unanimously supportive, flooding her with messages of encouragement. Some people who have themselves gained weight look up to her for confidence. There are a few detractors, though. ”Indian men have been really, really unkind saying ‘You look like an elephant’. Some of them are more creative,” Singh said. “But it doesn’t matter. If I get into (fights with) trolls, and reply or think about it, who’s going to do yoga?”
By documenting her progress, Singh has started to rally for acceptance of diverse body types. To push the uncommon visual of a heavy-weight yogini into the public purview, she started “bombarding” people with her images, hoping it will give people like her visibility and others “will start kind of accepting different bodies.”
She gives the example of black models and black hair becoming more accepted as they are given more limelight. “I post 100 images of myself saying this is beautiful, and people are buying it. Tomorrow, if I have three brands on me, I’ll be certified something gorgeous,” she said.
But just like jumping into the deep end of a pool is not a smart idea until you know how to swim, teaching yourself yoga using online resources isn’t the best starting point for absolute beginners, Singh says.
Singh recommends joining a yoga class for a few months at least to explore the strengths and constraints of one’s body before migrating to online classes with different paces and intensities. A class will also lay the basic foundations on how to avoid injuries. Even when self-learning, it’s helpful to have someone around to assist you by holding your legs or supporting your back for the tougher asanas, she said.
Taking up yoga may be appealing but sticking to it can be hard when training solo. To motivate herself to do yoga daily, Singh started off by doing the same thing at the same time for 21 days—the time frame it apparently takes to develop a habit. “If you pick it up in 21 days, you have it in you to keep going,” she said.
And while Singh acknowledges that her technique or knowledge of yoga may not be technically correct without a teacher to guide her, she’s certain that regular practice on her own has done her good.
“A teacher might tell me everything you’ve learnt is totally wrong…and I will relearn everything. What he or she can’t take away is my strength, endurance, flexibility,” she said.