Yoga as a Little Person: Ryan Gambrell's Story

Laura McMullen

Have you ever tried yoga? It's not just for the thin, fit and athletically-built. Just about anyone who can breathe can practice yoga to some extent and reap its many benefits. We'll prove it. In this series, U.S. News talks with people who are changing the face of yoga.

Ryan Gambrell works in marketing in San Diego, where he also surfs, bikes, golfs and participates in triathlons. The 29-year-old tacked yoga onto his long list of activities after he injured his back a few years ago and wanted a gentle return to athletics. At 4 feet 2 inches tall, Gambrell struggled to do various poses at first, but he stuck with it. "I started getting the hang of it and challenging myself," he says. "As my flexibility got better, even poses that seemed impossible became more possible over time." Below, Gambrell shares his yoga story with U.S. News. His responses have been edited.

Why do you practice yoga?

The core muscles that yoga builds are pretty essential for my active lifestyle, and I also find that it helps me with my spinal stenosis. That's a common condition with little people, and it basically applies pressure to our legs and causes numbness and pain. It's something I've lived with my whole life, and I've found that through an active lifestyle, I can manage it without having to resort to surgery, which is always a huge plus for me. The pain and numbness directly correlates with my posture, so the more active and engaged my core is, the fewer problems I usually have with my back and my legs.

How has yoga improved your flexibility?

In one class, we'd always end in crow's pose. For me, that was the yoga position--like the black belt of yoga. I would always try to follow along as the teacher gave instructions, but I knew there was no way that my knees were ever going to rest on the back of my elbows because of the way I'm shaped. But I would always just kind of sit there with my hands on the ground and shift the weight between my palms. And then one day, after going for maybe two or three weeks, all of a sudden we were doing the pose, and I looked down, and my feet were off the ground. I was like, "Woah!" and then wound up face-planting. So I got up, shook it off and tried again. After that, I was pretty hooked. I was only planning on doing yoga for a little bit until my back got better, but now, it's one of my regular activities.

That's awesome! Is crow your favorite pose?

I don't know if I have a favorite, but yeah, it'd probably be crow's pose. Upward dog tends to loosen me up, and I feel all my muscles working in warrior II. And of course, these are modified versions.

Has someone been teaching you these modifications, or are you figuring it out on your own?

I think the trick is just getting to know what your body can do. I've been hopping around yoga classes; I don't really have one that I go to regularly. I've definitely found some people who have shown interest in trying to figure it out, but I realize they can't spend the whole class with me. So I kind of take what I can from that class and apply it the next time I go.

What's been your biggest challenge with yoga?

Honestly, my biggest challenge is getting to class on time. I guess certain poses that require a lot of bending in the legs and knees are challenging. Anything that simulates sitting cross-legged is very difficult for me because I can't do that. But, I just do them as much as I can and kind of work on them as it goes. One thing I was never able to do before yoga is stretch my leg behind my back--like how a soccer player would lift his knee up and pull his foot from behind to stretch the quads. Before yoga, I could never do that. Then all of a sudden, I got more flexible, and one day I tried it and was like, "Oh!"

It sounds like you've really advanced with yoga. What advice do you have for beginner yogis?

My advice, especially for little people, is to just show up, and bring a positive attitude and open mind. I think it's easy to get frustrated and say, "Yoga isn't meant for little people." Some people might talk themselves out of it before they even get to class and say, "Oh, that's not something I can do." But as I've explained, after a few times, you get more and more flexible, and things start to click. And based on personal experience, even if you did half the poses, you'd feel better than when you had showed up. Also, if you start doing something, especially in a class environment like yoga, it gives you something to talk about. And then you get to build friendships and camaraderie, which are the keys to the longevity of an active lifestyle. So, keep showing up and embrace it. I also feel like yoga is a good entry level into athletics, especially for little people.