It’s a sleepy Sunday morning in Somerville, but while much of the city is just crawling out of bed, the Center for Arts at the Armory is bustling with activity. Dancers run through their steps in the main performance hall, young families order breakfast at the cafe counter and musicians in the building’s practice spaces soundtrack the whole thing with a tapestry of sound that spills out into the lobby. In a studio downstairs, a dozen women are preparing for yoga class— milling around, chatting about their weeks, introducing themselves to instructor Rachel Estapa as they wait for the session to begin.
“It’s a little bit of a stretch to get here,” one Brookline-based attendee tells Estapa (pun presumably unintended) as she unfurls her mat. But while her two-hour MBTA journey from across town may give her the edge in “longest commute,” it only helps her crack the top three in “furthest distance travelled.” Another member of the class says she came to the city from New Hampshire, and activist and educator Lisa DuBreuil spent her morning making the trip to Somerville from Salem.
These women have gone the distance—braved the Sunday MBTA schedule, crossed state lines—because this isn’t your average yoga class. This is More to Love Yoga, the first course of its kind in the area specifically developed with plus-sized bodies in mind.
“So many people have talked to me about feeling traumatized and shamed in yoga class,” explains DuBreuil, a clinical social worker, therapist and advocate who specializes in treating eating disorders. She says she spent months looking for an instructor who understood the needs of plus-sized yoga practitioners, and she went through three other classes before finding this one. “What Rachel’s doing is really badly needed in Boston.”
Estapa’s class is a new entry to the region’s yoga scene. “I, personally, always wanted to explore yoga,” Estapa explains. “But right away, I didn’t find anyone that looked like me in classes. There was sort of this level of, ‘Okay, I know I’m the only one, so I’m going to sort of do what I can do and learn online how to modify things.’” Already a life coach who focuses on body positivity, she spent last summer studying with the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, and the first More to Love Yoga session (which quickly sold out) was held in August. Over the following months, Estapa has welcomed a growing core of regular attendees who come to as many of the Sunday morning sessions as they can.
“I realized how much it supported my own body acceptance,” she says, “and how few resources, especially here in the Boston area, there were for women that wanted to try yoga but felt intimidated to go to a regular studio.”
The atmosphere at More to Love Yoga is much like that of any other class: tranquil, quiet—maybe a little more lighthearted than your standard session. (“This pose has no name, and that’s okay,” Estapa says at one point, to laughter from her class.) For the most part, the only noticeable distinction is how often Estapa asks her students to check in with their bodies—to take a silent inventory of what feels good, where they’re sore, how their bones and muscles are working together after each sequence of poses.
It isn’t until the session is nearly over that she says something not often heard between warrior poses and downward dogs. “What do you do with the belly during a forward fold? Am I a mover or a roller?” she asks, adjusting her own stomach during a series of floor stretches. “It is not annoying. It is a part of you, and like anything else, it needs to be treated with kindness.”
This attention to the unique needs of all body types is what has helped Estapa develop such a passionate core of followers. “If you can’t do anything, she’s great at modifying it for you,” says Jennifer Williams, a More to Love Yoga evangelist who says the class has aided in her recovery from a recent hand surgery and broken foot.
“I know I can sit down if I need to sit down. I know if I can’t do a pose, it’s okay,” adds DuBreuil. “This is a safe teacher who’s going to be okay with you no matter what you can do.” Thanks to More to Love’s welcoming atmosphere, DuBreuil and other attendees have formed their own small community. They now have a tradition of heading to neighboring 7ate9 Bakery after class for coffee, tea and sweets.
And that’s the crux of what Estapa is trying to do with her brand of yoga. She wants to make it clear that this isn’t a competition or “a race to getting your leg behind your head.” It isn’t about weight, either, or even health (though that certainly is an added bonus). Instead, she says that these sessions are about learning to love and appreciate what you have in the present—your body, your life, your friends—and through that, gaining confidence and accepting yourself.
“It makes you feel good!” she says simply. “That’s what I believe yoga should do. Not just for your body, but for your mind and emotions. You should leave yoga feeling better than when you arrived.”