As she guided her yoga students through different postures and meditation exercises, Rachel Estapa took a moment before introducing child’s pose.
“Free the belly,” she said to the class, half comically, half seriously. “Let’s give our bellies some love. And by the way, relax your butt cheeks, I know they’re tense right now.”
That frankness and honesty reflects how Estapa approaches fitness and what led her to create More to Love Yoga, a Somerville studio that emphasizes body acceptance.
More to Love Yoga encourages would-be yogis of all shapes, sizes, and fitness levels. By employing body-positive philosophies and taking the focus off competition, Estapa hopes to combat what she sees as Boston’s one-size-fits-all fitness mentality and, instead, create a space that feels welcoming to all.
“It’s an approach that meets people where they are actually at,” she said. “It’s not about getting the perfect pose, it’s about building from the ground up.”
When Estapa tried yoga for the first time, she learned a hard truth, she says: Many yoga studios don’t follow a curriculum that’s plus-size friendly.
“I thought I was bringing everyone down and my teacher didn’t know how different bodies worked with different poses,” she recalled.
She remembers feeling uncomfortable when she needed foam blocks (used to help people balance or provide extra support) and none of the people around her did. In 2013 she started a More to Love Blog, and two years later she found a studio space to hold in-person classes.
In her classes, Estapa, 33, teaches with blocks herself, adapting staples like the cobra pose or warrior pose to have extra support, so that no one feels singled out if they are “getting a little wobbly.”
Estapa says her studio attracts a mostly female customer base, women who are generally between the ages of 35 and 70, “because women predominantly feel like body image and wellness is a really complicated mix.” She calls her students “more to lovelies.”
Johanna Bischof, 27, found Estapa’s class by way of Germany.
While in Dresden, Bischof looked at More to Love’s virtual programs, and when she moved here and discovered that Estapa’s classes were nearby she stopped by for a class.
About 18 months later, Bischof says that having a teacher who looks like her has made all the difference.
“Rachel knows to tell us to adjust our bellies, and that is just something that a super thin yoga teacher wouldn’t think about,” Bischof said after a recent class. “Because for them, it’s not a problem.”
Bethany Baker, 35, of Cambridge, said that she found the class after she felt like there was too much of a “spotlight” on her at gyms filled with active and fit people.
Baker Googled “plus-size yoga” and “body-positive yoga” in the area. She was disheartened by the lack of plus-size studios that popped up on the Google search, until she found More to Love.
“Rachel is legit the only person who shows up,” Baker said after she finished up a More to Love session. “The only one.”
For now, Estapa’s classes are capped at 15 people, a limit she wants to keep because bigger classes feel too staged, too much like a performance to her.
Now Estapa, who lives a little more than a mile away from her studio, is working to raise the profile of her More to Love studio.
That has been helped along by the $25,000 she won in early December through MasterCard’s “Grow Your Biz” contest. She hopes to use the money to make her company more sustainable in a competitive market for new up-and-coming yoga studios.
“I want to grow smartly,” she said. “Getting bigger doesn’t necessarily mean being stronger.”
More to Love competes with a variety of yoga studios in Boston and beyond, where lithe and agile classgoers, many sporting Lululemon togs, are not uncommon.
It’s not easy to change the status quo, Estapa has learned. When you enter Estapa’s studio, a small downstairs room in the Center for Arts at the Armory in Somerville, yogis are greeted by a poster of a muscular woman in a sports bra and leggings. It reads: “Let it move you.”
While not every yoga studio holds body-positive yoga classes, many do cater to participants who might not feel at ease in a more competitive fitness environment.
Tatyana Souza, the owner of Coolidge Corner Yoga in Brookline, says she began offering Gentle Yoga for people who wanted a more mellow class experience. It caters to yogis of all shapes, sizes, ages, and fitness levels.
“It’s less vigorous and intense and allows introduction of movement,” Souza said. “Without being labeled as catering to plus sizes, it caters to community by being inclusive.”
Souza added that she would like to see greater diversity in the yoga community, including yoga instructors.
“Yoga bodies don’t look like mine, they’re usually perfectly slender,” Estapa said. “But that’s not necessarily how they have to be.”