By Hannah Stevens @Hannahshewans
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Videographer / director: Francisco Hidalgo
Producer: Hannah Stevens, Nick Johnson
Editor: Marcus Cooper
When Maria Odugba first found yoga in 2014, she never thought that it would give her a platform to help others accept their bodies and also forge a healthier path.
With a strong following on Instagram and her blog, the 23-year-old is on a mission to show the world that your weight should never stop you from exploring fitness.
She said: “When I first thought about doing yoga, my first thought on how people were was that everyone was skinny.
“I was worried that I wasn’t going to fit in with the stereotype of a yoga person. And then I slowly started to realise, and do my research, that there are a lot of other people out there that aren’t skinny who do yoga and are very good at it.
“I never thought in a million years that my body would be doing what it’s capable of doing.”
The Florida-based yogi has been on a weight loss journey for most of her life after being diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome at 13 and, more recently, hyperthyroidism - both of which have a side effect of weight gain.
Between high school and her second year of undergrad at college, Maria gained between 100 and 150 pounds.
Maria said: “I’ve been overweight my whole life, ever since I was a kid and my dad owned a pizza restaurant.
“I didn’t actually have an oven in my house until I was probably 15, so everything I ate came from a restaurant.”
Now the seasoned yoga pro is a natural at performing the splits and has gone from 410lbs to 290lbs (20st 7lbs).
She added: “Having those issues I want to prove that I can do this even though everything is against me.
“When I started, I weighed about 410 pounds. I didn’t at first expect to yoga to help me lose weight, but I try to tell people that yoga is the hardest thing that I do. It’s the biggest work out for me.
“Yoga has taught me that you don’t have to be one size to succeed in something to do something. It’s definitely built a lot of self-confidence in myself. I do think it’s a big part of my weight loss.
“I kind of sprouted out of my little cocoon and I became able to walk around with my chest held high, because for a long time I just wanted to not be seen, I wanted to wear bigger clothes and hide. So overall it has made me happy.”
Even though she frequently deals with negative comments about her weight online, Maria is determined not to give in to society’s expectation of healthy equalling skinny.
Instead the yogi is focusing on using her online following to help others who are struggling with their weight and fitness.
She said: “I do believe that everybody should be healthy, that doesn’t mean you have to be skinny. I just want to be happy and healthy for me so I can live longer and spend time with my family.
“There are teenage girls out there, teenage boys too, that come to me and they’re like oh my god, ‘I’m overweight can you help me, I get bullied can you help me?’
“And these are people, who ten years ago I was them and I had nobody to hep me. So being able to help those people has been my proudest moment.
“I just wish more people knew that it is possible, plus size people can get out there and make their lives healthier.”
Maria is just starting out as a yoga instructor but she is already inspiring her students to love and accept themselves, whatever their size.
Yoga student Laura Theodule: “We both have PCOS and I didn’t really know a lot of people who had PCOS, then she told me her story and it motivated me and she was an inspiration from them.
“And then we became friends and she’d been training me and teaching me how to eat better and all of that.
“I learned from Maria that I can do anything, it doesn’t matter if I’m plus size or skinny, I can go beyond what I can imagine. I just have to try and have that leap of faith.”
Three years on from her first yoga class, Maria is looking forward, focusing on changing people’s perceptions of fitness and plus-size women.
She added: “Yoga is the best thing that has ever happened to me. It’s not just a hobby, it’s allowed me to open new doors that I never thought were possible for me.”