Yoga teacher Ruth Cohen says she’s “fat, fit and happy.” Taranaki Community News caught up with her to hear why yoga is a movement for everybody and every body type.
Hi Ruth! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?
My name is Ruth Cohen, and I live here in New Plymouth now. I moved to Aotearoa from Canada in 2006, and I came to Canada from Israel in 1981.
I teach yoga, I teach about fermented foods, I am a mother of two lovely children and partner to David, and I am working on a zero waste household, which takes up quite a lot of time! And I am fat, fit and happy.
At the moment I am teaching pregnancy yoga and curvy yoga. There are many other hats I wear in the community as a volunteer and general community organiser, but these are the ones that have popped out right now.
I trained as a yoga teacher back in 2001 in Kerala, India at the Sivananda ashram. My original training was in classical hatha yoga and I am very grateful to my early teachers and the years I spent teaching and continuing my education as a teacher at the Sivananda Vedanta Centre in Toronto. I also have a BSC in Human Biology from the University of Toronto.
Can you tell us more about curvy yoga?
I call the classes curvy yoga because I am curvy, but by no means does it mean someone has to be a certain shape or size to attend the class.
To me it is yoga made accessible to all shapes and sizes. We slow down the movements, use props and work from were the student’s body is, with a focus on body positive movement and using the participant’s own intuition to explore how far to go in an asana (posture). It is about having authority over your own body and learning to listen to its needs with love and compassion.
Where did the idea for these classes come from?
A few years ago I was only teaching only for pregnancy and the occasional hatha yoga class at what was then the Sivananda Centre in Westown. My yoga practice was returning to being a more frequent and regular part of my life again after having my second child. I discovered my body had changed so much that of course my yoga practice also changed and I was no longer able to practice the way I used to. Not only was my body different, but so were my needs.
A friend who had attended a few community yoga classes I had taught asked if I was going to teach “regular” yoga any time soon. I found this question sent me into a whirl of self doubt and body shaming, and it took me a little while to come up for air and realise that self talk was actually not mine. I had fallen for the worst trick the mainstream media and culture we live in plays on us. I had thought that I couldn’t possibly teach normal yoga since I wasn’t normal, I was big, juicy, fat.
It didn’t take long to turn this on its head and realise that is exactly the reason why I need to be out there teaching yoga in the first place – because yoga is for everybody, especially in these days of stress, in this fast moving, over-stimulating world we live in.
So…I trained with Anna Guest-Jelley of Curvy Yoga back in 2014. She has an online course for yoga teachers, and the training includes variations of asana for different body sizes and abilities, as well as awareness of language and nonverbal communication that is more inclusive and open, making yoga more accessible.
I also trained with my old friend from Canada, Tiina Veer, who has a studio in Toronto called Yoga for Round Bodies and trains yoga teachers to be better equipped to teach students with varying needs. She used to come to my classes when I lived in Toronto and we worked together to find variations that worked for her body shape, so it was lovely to do a training with her 10 years later!
Why is there a need for curvy yoga?
Students of varying needs and shapes may feel too intimidated to give yoga a try because of the cookie cutter yoga and yoga “bodies” that are presented in mainstream media.
Those who try yoga often don’t come back because they found it awkward or hard, or inaccessible, simply because they weren’t offered variations that worked for them. This takes time and attention on the teachers part, and it’s why my class sizes are small.
Yoga is for everybody and every body – you just need a breathing human body and the willingness to slow down and pay attention to it.
You also run pregnancy yoga classes. What is pregnancy yoga and what are its benefits?
I do teach pregnancy yoga, I started teaching it with my first pregnancy in 2007 and besides a couple of breaks after each child, I have been teaching it since.
I absolutely love teaching this class, it is such a special time and such an opportunity to connect with your body. Pregnancy yoga is just what it sounds like – we move through postures that are modified for the pregnant body, with a focus on building strength, using the breath to connect to our inner strength, learning to read the body’s needs and so much more!
We work on postures that encourage the baby’s position to be optimal for birthing, as well as learning breathing and relaxation techniques that are useful for labour and birthing.
Stress relief in pregnancy is very important, so we spend a lot of time in “active” relaxation or autosuggestion. The common bodily complaints in pregnancy are addressed as well, such as back pain, nerve pain, softened ligaments, heartburn, swollen ankles, and fatigue.
It is also a very social class, and many mothers find it is a great way to meet others in the community and create friendships after baby arrives. I try to keep the atmosphere positive and fun. All of these things can help have a more normal labour and birth.
How did you first discover yoga?
I first discovered yoga in my twenties, when I was living in Toronto, working at a health food shop and riding my bicycle as my only means of transport. I felt like I needed something to stretch and strengthen my body.
I went to many of the yoga studios to find out about what they did and eventually picked the Sivananda Centre. After a few weeks of practice I discovered that the pain in my right thigh that I got used to feeling whenever I walked for more than 20 minutes had disappeared. Then all the other benefits (the mind body connection and meditation) cascaded and I was hooked!
After four years of regular practice I went to India to train as a teacher. It just felt natural, and a normal part of my life. The first few years I taught as a volunteer teacher, and I considered it a service – part of my karma yoga.
Do you have a favourite yoga memory?
I have to say, the first yoga memory that popped into my head was the first time I got up into the headstand!
I had been working towards it for a couple of years, and was at my friend’s flat, who had been practicing longer than me. She gave me a few pointers, and described how it felt for her when going up. So I tried it and boom, no warm up, no prep, up I went, I felt invincible!
Now that I think about it, this may be where the seed was sown to teach – her sharing with me her experience of the posture is what helped me go into it.
I love it still, and if I don’t get upside down almost every day it feels like something is missing. It’s a bit addictive!
What inspires you?
Sooooo many things inspire me! In terms of yoga, what inspires me is seeing beginners discover yoga, seeing the self confidence, assurance in their own skin, the awe of their own bodies, and seeing that develop, grow, strengthen and deepen over the years.
Also the way my children actually use breathing to calm themselves sometimes. It’s an invaluable lifelong skill.
Ruth runs various yoga classes through her business Thrive Yoga. You can find out the dates and times by visiting her Facebook page. You can also email her on email@example.com