The Relationship Between Yoga and Body Acceptance
A Conversation With Anna-Guest Jelley, Founder of Curvy Yoga
Anna Guest-Jelley is the founder of Curvy Yoga, an online yoga studio and teacher training center that helps people of all sizes find true acceptance and freedom, both on and off the mat. Anna is the author of Curvy Yoga: Love Yourself & Your Body a Little More Each Day and the co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery & Loving Your Body.
Susannah Emerson: You have said that you struggled with body image and had what you call an "adversarial" relationship with your body. (And by the way, I think that thinking of yourself as your own adversary is such a great way of framing that particular struggle that so many of us are familiar with. There's no equivocation there, so it's hard not to acknowledge the self-harm involved in the patterns of thinking and being. Thank you!) What was that struggle for you?
Anna Guest-Jelley: Oh, had, and still has some days, so many facets! It showed up in how I talked about my body -- both to myself and to others. It also showed up in what I subjected my body to -- 65 different diets, myriad diet pills, so many doctors and tests. Fundamentally, though, it all came down to thinking my body was “wrong” and that if I didn’t devote as much effort as I could to making it “right” then nothing else I was or did really mattered that much.
I'm fairly new to yoga as a healing practice. I actually got into it through my eating disorder one summer 6 or so years ago when I started adding Bikram classes to the 4 hours a day I was already exercising. A little over a year ago, I started going to Iyengar classes on occasion which was a totally different experience, and then on a whim I signed up for a yoga retreat with our friend Dr. Melody Moore, realized how much yoga could help me, and then promptly signed up for another retreat with Melody. What was your first experience with yoga like?
It was kind of hilarious! This was in the late 90s and I didn’t know anyone who practiced yoga and there were no classes around me. I had chronic migraines at the time, though, and someone told me that yoga might be helpful. So I very surreptitiously got a yoga VHS tape (yep!) and rolled out my mat in my dorm room when I was sure my roommate would be gone for quite a while and I could lock my door. Though there was much of the practice that didn’t exactly work for my body, there was just something about the mind/body connection facilitated through the practice that hooked me!
When did your yoga practice lead you towards Curvy Yoga? And when did your studio and website turn into your new book?
Over the years, my yoga practice had been building a foundation of bodily connection for me -- I just didn’t know it for quite a while. Nearly a decade into my practice I got so frustrated with dieting that I decided to learn more about body acceptance. The two dovetailed for me when I realized that body acceptance was asking me to notice what was going on in my body and that yoga had been teaching me how to do that all along. One day in class I had this thought: “What if my body isn’t the problem here?” For so long I’d thought that I’d truly “get” yoga once I lost x pounds or “got in shape” or whatever my focus was at the time. It was in that moment, though, that I realized that it might just be that my teachers didn’t know how to teach a body like mine -- that’s the spark that eventually became Curvy Yoga. My new book has a similar trajectory. I’d been looking for a book like it in those early years of my practice and never found it, so as Curvy Yoga evolved, it made sense overtime to create a book that not only offered curvy pose options but also talked about how yoga and body acceptance come together, both on and off the yoga mat.
What distinguishes a Curvy Yoga class from another yoga class?
Curvy Yoga is all about making yoga comfortable and available for people of all shapes and sizes. Students usually comment on a couple things that make the class different from others that don’t have this focus: (1) The inclusion of information for more than just muscles and bones and (2) How the class is sequenced from the most supported version of the pose to the least supported. Of course we all know that our bodies are more than just muscles and bones, but sometimes you wouldn’t know that to be in a yoga class. By including cues like “If your belly feels compressed here, try this,” our teachers invite the students’ whole bodies into the class. In a world that usually tells us to ignore, get rid of, camouflage, or otherwise hide these parts of our bodies, it’s hard to overstate how powerful it is to have permission to both acknowledge that your whole body exists and invite it into the practice. And by starting with the most supported version of the pose, rather than the opposite as is often done, students are able to start on a more even playing field. This also gives each person the opportunity to see where they are that day and the grace to know that each person will be doing something at least slightly different from everyone else in the class and that’s not only okay, but encouraged. In fact, in our classes, we like to tell the truth that this isn’t just encouraged -- it’s actually the only reality that exists, that all bodies are different -- society just likes to make us think that isn’t true, or that it shouldn’t be true.
What went into choosing the name Curvy Yoga? As a writer and a size activist/fat activist/body positivity activist (pick your term!), I pay pretty close attention to the usage of the term "plus size," & the reactions it elicits. I've noticed that you don't use the term on your website. Is that intentional?
It took me a while to settle on the name Curvy Yoga! I wanted a name that would be clear enough to most people what I meant while also being welcoming. As a teacher, I have a real heart for people who are just starting to dip their toe into yoga, body acceptance, or both; I think that’s because I was on that precipice myself for so long. I find that even people who are skeptical of body acceptance or aren’t sure if it’s for them are generally willing to try something with the word curvy in it. Of course, not everyone loves it -- it reads as gendered, and some people think the word fat is better because it’s important to reclaim that word from its negative connotations. I couldn’t agree with that more and feel comfortable describing my own body as fat for that reason, but I know that many people aren’t there yet, so I find that curvy works for the reasons I mentioned. Also, there’s truly no word that works for everyone! I think the same is true for plus size; I find that relates more to clothing and that less people use it when identifying their own body.
Your yoga practice and your life experience have led you to a public and a political sphere. Do you consider your activism and leadership intentional? Incidental? Have there been any unexpected privileges or difficulties that come with the position you're in?
From the beginning of Curvy Yoga, it has always been my intention to have a conversation about the way curvy bodies are perceived in our society and to dispel the myths and stereotypes. I did this not only because it’s important to me but also because those myths are so incredibly pervasive that we can’t talk about something like making yoga accessible for curvy bodies without addressing why there’s a need for that in the first place.
You've said that in yoga, "you get to choose what's helpful for you" i.e., whether that's child's pose or hanging out in the splits. And what's been helpful for me is that in yoga, you're invited to do both child's pose and the splits, and be with both sensations and both ways of being, if & when you feel like it. As a somewhat split personality myself (I have some very soft & very hard edges in me), the opportunity to stretch and rest and strengthen on the same mat, in the same room, doing the same activity is like the ultimate form of permission for me. For me, it's like: here's this thing, yoga, that's designed to take care of all parts of my brain & all parts of my body, no matter where I am physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, etc. What about yoga is helpful for you?
Part of what I hear you speaking to here is how yoga helps you get to know yourself, and that’s definitely one of the top benefits I’ve received from the practice. Because how I show up on the yoga mat -- sometimes resistant to change, or full of self-doubt, or with my inner critic piping up -- is also how I respond to similar things off the mat. And the same is true for where I show up on the mat with gentleness, kindness or compassion. Yoga really offers me a way to observe my thoughts and reactions and learn how to channel those things more skillfully when needed.
I'm going to quote you again because you're a wise one. You've also said that "yoga isn’t part of a “fix yourself” paradigm but rather a “know yourself” paradigm." and then that "When you get to know someone over time, you often soften and come to love them for their uniqueness. The same thing has unfolded for me through yoga in relation to my body." That's what the last three months of my life have been, this conversation or check-in with my body that I get to pick up every day, or most days. Though, sometimes I get trapped in the thinking that my body & mind have to feel somewhere near 100% when I wake up in order to get myself onto the mat in the first place. Can I appeal to you for some advice on how to adjust my expectations? Have you worked through that? How do you get yourself to class or to your mat when you're feeling a little sick or a lot down?
Oh my goodness, yes -- I totally relate to that! Here’s the biggest thing that helps me: when I find myself in that place, I often observe a lot of “shoulds” in my own thinking. “I should be doing more, practicing longer, practicing more intensely, etc.” What opens up my thinking and helps me meet myself where I am that day is to flip that question and instead ask what I “could” do. Because when I think about what I could do, there’s always something -- even one deep breath.
Relatedly, the other thing that helps me is taking the long-term view of my practice. I’ve been practicing for close to 20 years, and I plan to practice for the rest of my life. When I think about that, it becomes immediately obvious that what that means isn’t that I’ll be doing the splits when I’m 80 (though who knows, haha!), but rather that my practice will inevitably ebb and flow. Because when you think about years or even decades of practice, of course there are going to be times where you’re physically more or less able to do poses, or when you have more or less time, or when you have more or less energy. So on any given day, what I could do varies -- sometimes it’s an hour-long class, other times it’s a few sun salutations in the morning, other times it’s half an before bed, other times it’s a deep breath. It’s all yoga.
And lastly, what do you recommend as a starting point for someone toying with the idea of practicing yoga or realizing that they want to mend their relationship with their body?
Trying something new is always a vulnerable process, and that’s especially true with something like yoga where it’s often represented as the domain of the thin, fit, flexible and able-bodied. Of course, the vast majority of us are not thin, fit, flexible and able-bodied! Most of us are dealing with past injuries, tightness in our bodies, etc. What I’d love for people to know, though, is that there’s absolutely a way for you to do yoga -- don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Sometimes it might take a bit to find the right teacher or approach for you, but the great thing about how many teachers there are these days is that you can find someone who can support you in a way that is helpful and empowering for you. I find treating trying yoga classes as an experiment to be a helpful framework. Because within that context, you know that some classes you try might be a good fit for you, whereas others will not. I think the same is true of body acceptance; it’s absolutely a practice, and that’s why I think it dovetails so beautifully with yoga.