Every once in a while you hear about what someone else is doing and it's such a new, cool, and helpful idea that to not share it with the world would be criminal. That's how I felt when I learned more about what Anna Guest-Jelley has created with Curvy Yoga, where she writes and teaches about yoga and embodiment as the foundations of a life well-lived (and body well-loved). She is also the co-teacher of 30 Days of Curvy Yoga, a course on crafting a yoga practice for your unique body and needs. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter. Better yet, keep reading to learn more about the great work she's doing.
CPC: How is your approach to yoga different than what our readers may see on TV or in their neck of the woods?
Anna: When I look at current media representations of yoga, I see what you typically see in any fitness-related field: young, thin, flexible, primarily white women. On a rare occasion, you might also see a young, thin, flexible white man or even a young, thin, flexible person of color.
Because this image of yoga is quickly overtaking our collective consciousness of what yoga is, it easily gets reflected into the local studio, gym or wherever people are practicing yoga. In other words, when people see on TV or in magazines a certain type of person practicing yoga, then they expect to see that in their local studio. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.
At its root, though, yoga is truly for every body because yoga is not just about the poses. It’s also a broader philosophical system that has, at its core, a real grounding in both self-observation and self-acceptance. In fact, that’s how yoga originated – as a 1:1 practice between a teacher and a student, fitting the needs of the student. It’s that thread that I try to pick up in my teaching and writing, reminding people that people of all shapes, sizes and abilities can practice with ease (or, oftentimes, introducing them to that concept for the first time).
In addition, the poses are pretty easily modified to fit people’s unique needs; the problem is that not enough teachers and students have that information. And that’s one of my major goals with Curvy Yoga: sharing not only the message but also the concrete tools to make yoga more accessible.
CPC: What exactly is “body positivity”?
Anna: I use this phrase to encompass a body positive approach to both yoga and your life. To me, yoga and life are entertwined, so they both have to inform each other.
While I support the idea of loving your body, and I do talk about that quite a bit, I also know that many people aren’t ready to go there – especially not at first. I know that when I was ready to get off the dieting cycle, I couldn't even imagine in my wildest dreams that I could love my body. So I took a step-by-step approach (not to be confused with that ‘90s TV show).
When I finished my 65th diet and decided I wasn’t going to do another one, I had no clue where to begin. I’d heard of the concept of loving your body, but that felt completely off limits for me. I couldn’t even imagine tolerating my body, much less loving it. And that’s really where yoga came in. It allowed me to wade into the shallow end – beginning with becoming aware of my breath, and then maybe a shoulder here and a hip there. As that skill developed, it began to show up in other areas of my life, too – such as trusting myself to eat what my body needed and move in ways that felt good for me.
Because for me, body positivity is really about showing up for your body. Adapting yoga poses to fit your body rather than feeling terrible that you can’t do a certain pose. Finding ways to be present in your life.
CPC: What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
Anna: The most rewarding aspect is definitely transformation – both at the personal and systemic level. What I have seen in the past couple years of doing this work is that, not only are individuals seeing drastic positive shifts in their life, but so is the broader yoga community. As time goes on, I see more and more people becoming empowered to practice yoga – maybe first on their own at home, then going to class and then (and I’ve seen this more recently) daring to dream that they can teach.
The other side of this transformation is seeing how it manifests in people’s lives off the mat. Many people think of yoga as just getting onto your mat and doing some poses, and that is certainly the entry point for most of us. But once you start cultivating the ability to really feel your left foot in Warrior 2, or use a block in Standing Forward Bend, those self-observation and -acceptance skills don’t stay on your mat. They begin to merge into your life, which is when I start getting even more excited.
CPC: Can you share a story about someone who has been changed because of what you’re doing?
Anna: I’m currently working with a private student who wanted to work with me because she didn’t feel comfortable going to classes. She told me in her intro email that she hated yoga but that she wasn’t feeling good in her body and felt that she “should” give it a try.
When we first worked together, her movements were very stilted, and I could tell that she felt awkward and frustrated. I had no expectations about how long she would continue.
But she did. We’ve now been working together on a weekly basis for about four months, and it’s like she’s a totally different person from when we started. Her posture is better. She has more confidence. She is constantly amazed and delighted by what her body can do. She even has a different, more positive energy; it’s a very different experience to be around her now as compared to before.
I’d love to take credit for her changes, but the fantastic thing about yoga is that it comes from within. I provided her a safe space to explore yoga, her body and her relationship to herself; from there, she took off. For me, that is a very beautiful thing to witness.
CPC: You also have a passion for social justice issues. How does that evidence itself in your work?
Anna: I see my work with Curvy Yoga as inextricable from social justice. I believe it’s a very radical act to become grounded in one’s own body. In my own experience, and what I’ve witnessed with my students, the more I can be really present in my body and life, the more I am able to advocate better for both myself and others.
The other way this connection shows up for me is the fact that I designed Curvy Yoga around accessibility—physically and financially. It’s unacceptable to me that people who would like to benefit from yoga feel unable to due to either misconceptions about who yoga is for (which are easy to understand, given the media climate I mentioned above) or because yoga is too expensive. The more you practice yoga, the more benefits you receive, so I always want to make sure that people have access. This is why I teach at community centers, where classes are very affordable (mine are $3/class) and also where there is already a comfortable and welcoming environment. Yoga studios are wonderful because they have yoga props and create that “yoga vibe,” but they can definitely be intimidating to new folks. This is also why I share free practices on my website (which people can find by visiting my Resources page).
CPC: How can our readers be a part of what you’re doing?
Anna: If you’re in the Nashville, TN area, you can check out my schedule and come to a class. I’m teaching a free class at East Park Community Center on Sat, Jan. 7 at 9:30am, so that might be a great time to check it out. You can register by clicking here.
If folks aren’t in the Nashville area, or even if they are, my blog is another great source of information. I write about many of the issues mentioned above – including self-acceptance and yoga both on and off the mat. In addition, people who want to stay in the loop are welcome to join my mailing list. I’m always up for chatting with interested people, so feel free to also drop me a line!