If you haven’t heard of Anna Guest-Jelley, founder of Curvy Yoga, then you are missing out. She’s a wonderful teacher and now author of Permission To Curve: Inspiring Poses For Curvy Yogis & Their Teachers. Check out my chat with this inspiring woman below!
Golda: Tell me a little about your journey with Curvy Yoga.
Anna: I’m so glad you used that word because it has definitely been a journey! I first started Curvy Yoga (not even with that name yet) for my own practice. I’d been practicing yoga for several years and thought that I would finally “get” it once I lost x amount of weight.
Over time (and as I began my journey toward intuitive eating after close to two decades of chronic dieting), I realized that – hey – maybe, just maybe, the problem wasn’t my body. Maybe the problem was that my teachers had no idea how to help me.
The latter turned out to be true. Very few teachers learn how to assist or suggest modifications for bigger bodied people. As this became clearer to me and I kept learning more, I decided to become a yoga teacher to share the practice with other bigger bodied people.
Yoga can be such a transformative practice – helping you to integrate mind, body and spirit – and it has been kept from fat people for far too long. My goal with Curvy Yoga is to open the door to the yoga room a bit wider.
Golda: What’s the number 1 thing that keeps bigger folks from trying yoga?
Anna: Fear. This shows up in lots of different ways, but I think it’s at the root – and, unfortunately, that fear is too often well-founded. Over the course of doing this for a few years and hearing from hundreds (at least!) of people, I can say the fear usually shows up in one of two ways: (1) Fear of being shamed in some way and (2) Fear of being physically unsafe.
Shame research, from folks like Brene Brown, shows us that it can be a really paralyzing feeling. Once we get in that shame mode, it can be difficult to pull ourselves out, especially quickly. This is why sometimes fat folks go to yoga, have a great experience for most of the class, and then a (usually well-meaning, but not always) yoga teacher says something that makes them feel like they’re unusual in some way, and the whole experience goes down the tubes. This kind of thing is really what inspired me to start teaching teachers how to make their classes accessible for people of all shapes and sizes. It’s not rocket science, but it does take some intentional thinking about languaging as well as how to incorporate many different pose options into a class and do so in a way that no one feels like they’re not doing it “right.”
In terms of fearing being physically safe, the same is also true. When bigger folks are interested in trying a yoga class, they want to know that they will be able to participate in a way that works for them, not be told to hang out in Child’s Pose for 30 minutes (which is often the default pose teachers give when a student can’t do what is being taught). In Curvy Yoga classes, I never want that to happen. I do my best in my own teaching, and now teaching other teachers, to come up with creative options for every single person so that everyone can fully participate in a way that takes their unique needs into account.
Golda: How do you figure out how to modify yoga poses for different bodies?
Anna: For my teaching, I’ve done it through experimentation with my own body, research and trial and error in teaching. I’ve been fortunate to work with students of many different shapes and sizes, so I’ve been able to develop some tools for my teaching toolbox on what might work.
Ultimately, though, yoga is a dialogue between the student and the pose. A teacher can help facilitate that conversation in a safe way, offering ideas, but the student has to determine what works best for him or her. This is actually what I love about yoga; at its root, it’s a very internal process that can (and will over time) bring you into a closer relationship with your body.
When I’m teaching, I use words like “play,” “curious,” “experiment,” “creative,” “find what feels good,” and “comfortable” over and over. For anyone who is practicing at home, I definitely encourage the same approach. Yoga is just like our life: it changes over time. So something you weren’t able to do yesterday might surprise you today by showing up, and the inverse is true – just because you did something last week doesn’t mean you’ll be able to today. This isn’t because you’re a “bad person” (as we’re so often inclined to think) but because things change – we sat differently at our desk chair, we took a long trip, we’re processing a heartbreak, we just had a really amazing breakthrough in our work, etc. Change isn’t always the result of something “bad;” sometimes it’s just change.
Golda: What’s your favorite pose?
Anna: This is a tough one! I really love any kind of hip stretch, like Pigeon. In my book, I have several different options for this pose. It can be problematic for folks with knee issues if done in the traditional way, but it’s definitely beneficial, so I’ve got five different versions in the book – everything from standing to laying down. That’s the awesome thing about yoga: there is almost always a way to find the intention of the pose in a way that works for you. And that’s really how I teach: if I know that a pose is inaccessible, I think of a way to find the benefits of the pose in a way that’s accessible.
The yoga poses themselves are not some magic key that will only work if done “perfectly.” The power of yoga is in the process and in getting in touch with your body. So do the pose in a way that works for you – pushing beyond your limit is not only unsafe, it’s unproductive. When you go too far, all the muscles around that area you’re stretching grip up, essentially making the stretch pointless. As soon as you come back to neutral, your body will be so relieved that it will recoil and you’ll end up as tight as before – if not tighter. On the other hand, if you move slowly, only going further when you feel your body give you space, you will not only be safer in the pose, your body will absorb and retain the benefit for longer.
Golda: You say in your book that your journey with yoga opened you up to trusting yourself and your body? Do you see that happen with clients too?
Anna: Oh, definitely! It’s such a lovely process to bear witness to. One of the great things about yoga is that the effects on the mat really trickle off the mat and into your life, too. As I work with my students, they not only experience great physical benefits, like increased flexibility, reduced pain (if they’d been having it) and more strength, they also experience great internal benefits. For example, yoga has supported my students through serious illness, loss, moves, job and relationship changes and so much more.
At first glance, these things may not seem to have much to do with trusting yourself and your body. But what I see is that as students’ confidence on the yoga mat grows, they become clearer about their priorities, boundaries and needs. This applies in a whole host of areas of their life and is especially relevant for people who have spent a lifetime not trusting their body, hating their body, wanting it to change.
In a class with a safe teacher who teaches accessibly, students can definitely come into more equanimity with their body in the moment. Often when people first try yoga, they want to be able to do everything perfectly the first time. Over time, though, that goal can shift more towards listening to the body and seeing where it leads. And as this goal grows during the physical yoga practice, its effects naturally transition off the mat. This is rarely a very obvious process from moment to moment. But what often happens is that sometime down the road, students will come to me and say “You know what? I haven’t weighed myself in three weeks, and I used to weigh myself every day.” Or “I’ve been obsessing about food less; I find myself just eating when I’m hungry and not judging it all the time.” Or “My kids and I had been fighting for months, and lately, I don’t know; this just seem smoother!” These are the moments that make me want to pump my fist in the air – they’re just SO inspiring and awesome!
Golda: Your book is gorgeous and so interactive. Was it hard to put together?
Anna: Thank you SO much! It was really my goal to make the book feel like a traveling mat companion, so I’m really glad to hear you found it interactive. The hardest part for me was thinking about how to support multiple learning styles and keep people engaged in the process of learning new poses. Since this book is available digitally, I was really able to make that happen. The book includes photos and written instruction for 60+ poses and it also includes 15 videos for the must-see poses and sequences. In addition, people have the option to purchase an add-on video library that has a video for every single pose. That was a lot of videos to shoot! But making the book (and yoga!) more accessible was totally worth it.
As for the design, I can only take credit for hiring a very talented and savvy designer. Kate Hall is amazing!
Click here to check out Anna’s book, Permission To Curve. You can also connect with me her Facebook and Twitter.