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Yoga study in Sellwood draws international attention

by: Courtesy of Vilma Zaleskaite, Shown is a participant in Vilma Zaleskaite’s Yoga for the Larger Woman classes at the “Yoga Project” in Sellwood.

On a Saturday morning, fourteen women gather in an airy upstairs room behind Grand Central Bakery on S.E. 13th Avenue in Sellwood for a 'Yoga for the Larger Woman' class.

Lying on mats, bolstered by pillows and blocks, they not only stretch, breathe, bend and meditate, but they are guided by Sellwood resident and instructor Vilma Zaleskaite to be aware of their bodies in a whole new way.

Fantasizing about matching some ideal image, such as thinness - promoted by the media, in our society - can be difficult and even damaging for some women. Years of self-criticism and disappointment can lead to deep unhappiness and physical disorders.

Celebrating its eighth anniversary in Sellwood this April, the Yoga Project is the only studio in the region offering classes and workshops specifically for larger women. Since 2005, its approach has been to explore ways to encourage women to accept their bodies, no matter size or condition. In many cases this has led to an acceptance of self in a deeper way, resulting in surprising discoveries and changes.

By taking the focus off the strictly physical, yoga can help women with weight issues - as well as people with various kinds of eating disorders - to make significant changes in themselves and their lives. Zaleskaite remarks that becoming an ally or friend of your body, rather than its critic or adversary, is key.

The Spring 2012 issue of 'Yoga International Magazine' describes a year-long study at the Yoga Project which instructor Vilma Zaleskaite conducted involving four of her larger women students. The study is called 'Living in My Body' (LiMB).

All of the women in that LiMB study -- Helen, Janet, Regina, and Linda - had been in Larger Woman classes for at least three years. Aged between 47 and 60 years, each of the participants had significant weight or body image issues.

In addition to attending class once a week, each woman committed to practice yoga at home for at least five minutes every day for the first month…with the goal of adding five minutes each month, to reach an hour of daily practice during the twelfth month.

Each participant agreed to blog several times a week on the studio's website, reporting and commenting on experiences in her practice of yoga.

The women's stories - their conditions and experiences, before and after the study - are instructive and inspiring:

• Helen, who had been plagued by chronic fatigue, depression, and insomnia, for twenty years, reported a decrease in these symptoms over the time of the study. She writes in her last blog: 'It was the blogging project that made yoga a daily habit for me.' In addition, she credits daily, mindful yoga for helping her to come through very recent cancer surgery and radiation with only minimal side effects.

•Janet brought with her to the LiMB Project fifty years of failure trying to lose weight. She says she didn't want to make losing weight a goal of yoga and was initially resistant to even five to ten minutes of practice a day. 'The resistance triggered all sorts of mind games and delays, but gradually some of the frenzy died down.' A year later she was doing an hour of yoga at home and blogging every day. Her severe gastrointestinal problems have improved, as has her attitude toward life.

•Regina, who as a child was vulnerable and helpless and endured multiple experiences of abuse, lived for decades with a victim mentality, and felt unworthy and deserving of deplorable treatment. Now she says, 'Graduating from the 'Living in My Body Project', and journeying deeply into kindness and self-compassion', has helped her to gain a new perspective on her body and her life.

• Linda says 'I spent a lifetime of caring for others, at the risk of not caring for me.' She was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes at the beginning of the LiMB Project. By altering her diet she is managing without medication, and is much more mobile. Walking around the block used to be a challenge for her, but flexibility gained through daily yoga gives enables her to walk greater distances. In her last blog she says, 'My most successful tool was making a daily goal; blogging was the vehicle I used to accomplish it… My body craves the movement and freedom that yoga has facilitated… Thank you Vilma, for your contagious enthusiasm and encouragement.'

Out of this year-long study and compilation of blogs have emerged insights and a methodology that are now attracting worldwide attention as a model for transforming one's inner and outer self through daily mindful yoga.

And, as a result of the success of the study, instructor Zaleskaite has developed a ten-week program intended to guide all women - and particularly larger women - into developing their own home practice, as a meaningful start to a greater sense of well being.

The Yoga for the Larger Woman classes - the Sellwood studio currently offers four of these classes at different times during the week, as well as regular yoga classes of various levels - draw women from all over the Portland Metropolitan area. The Yoga Project studio is located at 1229 S.E. Nehalem Street.

For more information go online to: www.theyogaproject.org - or call 503/235-1155.