Rachel Estapa spent her teenage years at odds with her body. She was active and played sports, but her body resisted her dieting and attempts to lose weight. She felt society’s insistence that a healthy person was a slim one.
Her life took a turn in 2008 when the Great Recession hit and she lost her first job out of college. She began to think about her passions and what she wanted to do next. She tried yoga, but struggled to find a class that felt welcoming.
“Very quickly I learned that as a larger body, wow, this is intimidating, and I kind of had to learn my own way to make things comfortable, make poses work,” she says.
She dreamed of a class that was not just welcoming to larger bodies but designed for them. Her interest in business kicked in—“I never want to be at the discretion of someone else’s ability to have an employee,” she explains—and she decided to become a certified yoga instructor.
After a month-long intensive at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in the Berkshires, where she practiced yoga for about 12 hours a day, she was ready to bring her idea to life. More to Love was born in 2013, offering yoga classes that preach body acceptance.
Estapa’s understanding of “wellness” has evolved since she began yoga, and she tries to share her view of it with the “More to Lovelies” who frequent her classes.
“I define wellness as an ongoing conversation with all parts of yourself, knowing that that always will change. I don’t take a static view of wellness at all,” she says. “I really define wellness as not needing to be perfect, just adjusting to feeling like you can carry forward.”
She integrates this acceptance of imperfection and need for individualization into her classes. She encourages people to adjust the moves for what works best for them, and talks about how challenging balance can be. Rather than following a script, she improvises and addresses the realities that her students face in the movements.
“I can infuse aspects of body positivity lessons in there,” she explains. “I talk about bellies, I talk about boobs, I talk about butts. I use myself as the template for a lot of these things.”
Yoga is a good medium to work through body positivity because it involves feeling at ease in your body, Estapa says. The practice, which has deep roots, has been distorted in a push to make money, she argues—and since mainstream sexiness sells, the modern conception of yoga excludes people who don’t fit a mold.
“It’s the same thing that diet industry is modeled off of: ‘You suck now; here’s how you can not suck’ … When you look at yoga as it is today, you definitely don’t picture someone who looks like me. There’s this aesthetic, this sort of perfect body. That is not what yoga genuinely is about. Yoga can be as real as you need it to be for your body,” she says.
Janelle Leroux, a 39-year-old Somerville resident who has been taking Estapa’s classes for years, couldn’t find a yoga class she liked until she tried More to Love.
“I never feel out of place,” she says. “I never feel like my body’s doing the wrong thing or that my body can’t do what it should be doing, because in Rachel’s class whatever your body’s doing is what it should be doing.”
More to Love Yoga is open to all regardless of body type or gender. Community is an important aspect of the classes, which run at The Center for Arts at the Armory. People flock from out of state to be welcomed by Estapa. About 2,000 people have cycled through the small classes, which regularly fill up.
“The class itself, it’s looking at being inclusive and not just for different body types but inclusive in the sense of we’re all close and want to get to know each other,” Leroux says. “That kind of community is nice in the city, finding a place where you can connect a little bit more instead of just walking in the door, doing your class, and racing out.”
Taking Wellness to the Next Level
Estapa’s visions for More To Love stretch beyond yoga classes. In late 2017 she launched WELL by MTL, an online course designed to help people develop wellness plans that actually work for them.
Like everything related to More To Love, the four-week course separates weight from wellness—there are “no numbers at all,” Estapa says.
Individualized wellness plans could involve moving some each day or taking time for yourself. Estapa’s wellness plan centers around energy management, trying to resist her impulse to throw herself fully into a project and then leave herself spent.
WELL by MTL helps people tackle what is important to them rather than unrealistically trying to change everything at once.
“A lot of times when people say ‘wellness’ you think, ‘I guess I should go to the gym five days a week, I should clear out my cupboards and drink nothing but green smoothies,’” Estapa says. “There’s this perception that your whole lifestyle is wrong and has to change, and that causes super anxiety for people and it’s not sustainable. But the person gets blamed for it, not the system.”
Several participants developed the plan in conjunction with a nutritionist or therapist, according to Estapa, using the course as another wellness tool.
The second iteration of the course will run in February. Estapa found that in the first round people were hesitant to share their thoughts and plans, and so she hopes to instill more of the community feel from her yoga classes into the online program.
Estapa will be leading More to Love’s first retreat at the beginning of June, taking a group of 20 or so to Kripalu. The retreat will look different from the intensive training Estapa completed there—in addition to yoga there will be nature walks, lectures, and a strong social aspect. About 70 people have already expressed interest, according to Estapa.
“It’s going to be the best of what More to Love offers—yoga, body positivity, feeling liberated and free in your body in an environment that completely supports what you are there to do, to feel like you can love yourself in the company of people who appreciate that,” she says.
More to Love recently won $25,000 from Mastercard and Bank of America’s Grow Your Biz Contest. Estapa plans to use the funding to making More to Love more accessible, from getting the word out into various communities to making it easier to register online.
In addition to the prize money, Estapa won one-on-one consultations with the business experts behind the competition. She looks forward to bouncing ideas off of them as she tries to decide what direction to take More to Love in.
The high interest in the first retreat has made her wonder whether she should focus on doing more trips, or whether she should grow the class component by opening her own studio. She likes the idea of a home base but also wants to get out into various communities, and is considering training other teachers to lead classes in her style so that More to Love can reach a wider audience. One day she even wants to write a book. “I’ve got big ideas,” she says, adding that she hopes the competition judges can help her sort through them and decide what’s best for More to Love.
“I just always come back to thinking, you have to do what matters to you, and More to Love is so tied into my own identity as a person and a larger person, as a woman,” Estapa says. “I have definitely had many moments of vulnerability throughout this whole process, because it’s me, this is my life. To have that validated by anyone, and by Mastercard and Bank of America, it’s like ‘Wow, this is real.’”
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