The Relationship Between Yoga and Body Acceptance

A Conversation With Anna-Guest Jelley, Founder of Curvy Yoga

Susannah Emerson

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. 

 

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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.

The Very Best Facts About The Body

Bodies are the very best, and these are the very best facts about them.

 Art by Erin McGonagle

Art by Erin McGonagle

Really?


A human head remains conscious for 15 seconds after decapitation.

Every 7 years, all of the cells in your body are replaced, making you an entirely new person.

An embryo develops an anus before it develops a mouth.

Humans glow in the dark (a very little bit).

Your heart can continue to beat when removed from your body.

Humans lose 94 bones in the process of becoming an adult.

Your stomach relines itself every three days so you don't digest your own stomach lining.

Nerve impulses sent from the brain move at 274 km/h.

We have around .2mg of gold circulating in our blood.

Stomach acid can dissolve metal.

Children grow faster during the spring.

What is That?


Your internal organs do actually shift when you feel your stomach jump into your throat on a roller coaster. 

Back dimples are just where the pelvis meets the sacrum.

Atmospheric pressure often drops right before bad weather sets in. This shift may be what causes body tissue to expand, which can lead to swelling and pain.

Kissing normalizes the acidity in your mouth/oral cavities.

Hiccups are the sound effect of sudden breaths unexpectedly hitting the epiglottis (back of your throat) due to spasms in the diaphragm.

Levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) decrease when humans are submerged in water.

Your ability to taste decreases alongside the dryness of your tongue.

When you blush, your stomach turns red.

 Art by Erin McGonagle

Art by Erin McGonagle

Different 


Women blink twice as much as men.

Men hiccup twice as much as women. 

Women commonly dream of frogs, worms & potted plants during their first trimester of pregnancy (likely because of hormone fluctuations).

Everyone has a unique tongue print (as well as finger print).

People with blue eyes are more sensitive to pain than others.

Blondes have more individuals hairs than people with any other hair color.

A female egg is the only cell in the body that's visible to the naked eye.

Onion tears, sad tears & happy tears all have different compositions.

Newborn babies can breathe & swallow at the same time. They lose this capacity at around 7 months old.

 Art by Erin McGonagle

Art by Erin McGonagle

 Art by Erin McGonagle

Art by Erin McGonagle

But More or Less The Same


Humans share 50% of their DNA with bananas.

Our brains' neurons resemble the structure of the universe.

50% of your hand's strength is in your pinky finger.

Hearing becomes less sharp after overeating.

We lose 80% of our body heat through our heads.

The cornea of the eye is the only part of the body without blood supply (it gets its oxygen directly).

The egg that turned into you was formed inside your mother when she was an embryo.

A full, adult bladder is about the size of a softball.

The strongest muscle in the body is the tongue.

The surface area of the lungs is approximately equivalent to that of a tennis court.

Teeth are the only body part that does not heal itself.

The strongest bone in the body is the jaw.

Identical twins smell the same.

Every atom in your body is billions of years old. We are stardust, literally.

 


All images by Erin McGonagle.

All facts triple checked, so we're pretty sure they are indeed facts. 

 

A Pretty Big Deal In Dance

An Interview with Akira Armstrong of Pretty Big Movement

 

Susannah Emerson

I keep coming up with butterfly metaphors when trying to find a way to talk about Akira. I want to express amazement at the fact that people and the bodies they live in are incredible! Jean Dominique-Bauby was paralyzed, locked inside his body & wrote The Diving Bell and The Butterfly by blinking his left eye. Harriet Tubman escaped slavery herself, led over 300 slaves to freedom and underwent brain surgery without anesthesia. Children raise themselves without parents. Broken bones heal. Heroin addicts get clean. Persecuted people love & forgive anyway. People change. This is not mock wonder; everything I just mentioned is incredible, and Akira, just like all of us, has a story that belongs in this list. 

 

Akira Armstrong is a dancer from the Bronx. In December 2016, her dance company Pretty Big shot into the public imagination ten years after its formation. In uncharacteristic candor, she told me that she thinks she & Pretty Big got famous because of one lucky business deal. She took a chance on a marketing firm that wanted to make a viral video (& one very viral video they did make.)

 

Akira, herself was surprised that the stunt took off, but not because the video wasn’t compelling & certainly not because the dancing was lacking. Her surprise was born out of something like realism. As a high school student, she was accepted into the Professional Performing Arts School in New York, and no doubt, watched some classmates meet wild success & some get stuck searching for a day job. She’d thought she’d “made it” before only to see the momentum stall. In 2015, Pretty Big performed on Season 10 of America’s Got Talent in front of 6 million viewers, and I can find only a few mentions of that appearance in the annals of the internet. Not everyone cares about America’s Got Talent, but most everyone does care about Beyoncé. Even so, Akira danced in two (!) Beyoncé videos (Get Me Bodied  and Greenlight), and still couldn’t find representation through a talent agency.

 

That’s not to say that she doesn’t know that what she’s got going - as a person & a dancer - is extraordinary. She & I both share the opinion that one key factor in the video’s success was its voiceover portion, in which Akira talks about her path as full-figured dancer. She makes herself accessible to us, and knowing her backstory, it’s a pleasure to root her on.

 

Thinking wishfully, I see a lot of overlap between Pretty Big & The Keep Collection, between Akira & me, and between our respective dreams. We both adopt an attitude of: what? Why would I have to compromise? Why I can’t I be my whole self? Who says this body can’t dance hip hop? Who says that consumers don’t like clothes served with a side of stories? Who says that earnestness & art can’t replace advertisements?

 

Pretty Big is composed of 8 semi-professional female dancers. All of these women have day jobs. Some are teachers, some are bartenders; what’s consistent is their dedication to Pretty Big. They meet three times a week, 3 hours a go, no exceptions. It’s run like a company, and as Akira says, it’s “not an afternoon activity.” (Casual dancers don’t end up on Harry Connick Junior’s new daytime talk show.) The other uniting factor is that each dancer in Pretty Big has a body that is “too big” by many dance standards. 

 

Though I’m thrilled that it’s getting attention, some portion of the interest in Pretty Big is due to the pervasive conception that there’s something radical about big women dancing. Most of the headlines about the group mention something about destroying dance stereotypes. It matters that these stereotypes be challenged, especially to big women who want to dance, and it’s crucial that big bodies are normalized in the media. For that to happen, the women of Pretty Big need to keep dancing; I need to write about them, and I need to be clear about why I’m paying attention. This brings me back to my longwinded intro. To me, the “butterfly-factor” is not that big women can dance or have found success in doing so; rather, it’s the dancing itself, and it’s Akira’s fortitude. Not the fact that Akira has shown resilience, but her resilience itself. 

 

In each of these articles promoting a version of body-positivity, there’s a misinformed person (or 10) in the comments section chastising Akira for “promoting obesity” and unhealthy lifestyles. Every single one of these comments shocks me. They’re almost always mean and trollish, but even when they’re not, it still comes as a surprise to me that somebody would assume the dancers in Pretty Big are unhealthy. There is some fundamental misunderstanding of the human body at work. First, dancers are fit! For some reason, the athleticism of dancers is consistently underestimated. And second, health looks different on different people. And then of course there are all the kinds of health (mental health, digestive health, lung capacity, blood pressure, T cell count) that cannot be seen. I want us all to be on the same page, so again: A) dancing is hard and B) health is multivariable & often invisible.

 

I’m most surprised when this criticism comes from other women who presumably have been subjected to related vicious commentary. Akira is also taken aback by the lack of empathy where there seemingly should be some, and in our interview she mentioned one example on her mind. Just before we’d spoken, Loni Love and Frenchie Davis (former American Idol contestant and singer of the Seasons of Love solo in the Broadway production of RENT that I attended on my 13th birthday) expressed frustration with Akira and Pretty Big on the talk show The REAL. When Frenchie was asked on air about her opinions on Pretty Big, she said that she finds the hype “a tinge condescending… big girls can dance; that ain’t nothing new.” Loni then jumped in to agree that “we always make a big deal out of stuff.”

 

Akira told called their comments “disappointing,” and told me that her reaction was more of the “here we go again”-type. What she wasn’t expecting was not to have the support of other big, black women in the entertainment industry. Though she did have the support of Tamera Mowry and Jeannie Mai, two other hosts of the REAL, she’d assumed that the women who looked the most like her would be complimentary. Upon studying the footage, I found myself cringing at how much was lost in translation. The first time I watched the clip, I was shaking my head & repeating, like an idiot: “But it’s both! But it’s both!” Much to my frustration, there’s not quite enough room in the segment for both disappointment over reductive media coverage and appreciation for the abilities and passions of a group of big dancers being recognized. Frenchie was frustrated the press coverage of Pretty Big, and the fact that talented, big dancers should be lauded as a revelation without precedent. I agree, but if I were Akira, I would be frustrated that my dance company - which was founded not as a gimmick, but as a way to inspire & give opportunities to dancers like me (Akira) - and its aims were being used to incite a conversation about the nature of the news cycle and sensationalization. 

 

When I ask about how such comments affects her, Akira calmly & succinctly says, “if i'm not ready to hear the negative, I'm not ready to be in this industry.” This self-assurance is why, to me, Akira is literally awe-inspiring. Akira grew up listening to a chorus of, “Akira needs to slim down.” The family members who showed her love in coming to each dance recital, were the same ones who she heard telling her mother “put her on a diet; she doesn't need to be eating that.” Unsurprisingly, she internalized these messages, & they stirred up a good amount of insecurity.

 

She points to her ex-boyfriend as pushing her to a place of self-acceptance. At 19, Akira was dating a “super fit, workout buff” who used to tell her to fix her stomach and work out more. Once while watching Tyra Banks on an episode of America’s Next Top Model, he told her “you need to look like that.” Akira’s response was, “if you want someone like her, then you need to go get her.” She was fed up, and that was it, both for the boyfriend and for the idea that her body was something that she needed to change. And with that, she made her first steps to founding Pretty Big; developing choreography for bodies that we don’t often get to appreciate in motion; putting shapes to music on stage. As a (fledgling) dancer and very experienced observer of dance videos on YouTube myself, it’s a pure privilege to watch different bodies tell different stories. Again, this is not mock wonder. Creative expression is just so cool, full stop.