Building a Movement on the Mat: Anna Guest-Jelley and CurvyYoga
If there’s one thing we believe at CGH, it’s that you have the power to change things for the better – your health, your community, and maybe the world. Ever wanted to shake things up and bring a brilliant solution to light? Check out my interview with Anna Guest-Jelley, founder and CEO of CurvyYoga, for some inspiration for turning your fabulous idea into a mega movement.
CurvyYoga is a company that makes yoga accessible for students of every shape, size, and ability. (You know we love a brand that celebrates you just as you are). CurvyYoga offers classes, workshops, retreats, and a virtual yoga studio for aspiring yoga students, as well as certifications for instructors looking to support them. When I sat down to chat with Anna, I wanted to gain insight into the development of CurvyYoga and its journey thus far.
When did you first see a need for CurvyYoga?
When I began practicing yoga in the late 90’s, I never saw any other “curvy-bodied people.” At the same time, my teachers never gave any options to feel better or be more comfortable. So I just assumed, because I was doing tons of diets at the time, that once I finally lost X amount of weight, then that’s when I would just get it.
Then, after I saw that dieting wasn’t working, I began to connect more and I started to trust my own body. I realized that the real problem wasn’t me; it was that my teachers didn’t know how to teach me because that’s not what they learned.
I was already an English teacher at various colleges and universities so I knew that loved teaching and I loved yoga. I thought I would put it together and began casually teaching friends, started a blog, and suddenly lots of people where interested.
And it grew from there?
I really credit CurvyYoga to the community who really just pushed me. By building a vibrant and engaged community and listening to them, I’ve been able to develop [the idea] into a business. So everything I’m offering now and will offer in the future has come out of those conversations.
What’s the journey been like?
When we picture someone who does yoga, the media tells us to imagine a thin, young, flexible, affluent white woman. So if you don’t fit that super-narrow niche, you think that it’s not for you. That’s just not true! So the CurvyYoga journey began with finding a way to get the message out there.
And now, it’s about finding a way to connect with more people who want to learn about the practice and share the message: Yes, there is a way for you to practice yoga, no matter what your shape or size, and irrespective of your mobility issues.
Has there been any resistance to your movement in the yoga community?
The resistance has come from people who believe that all yoga should be for all people. Therefore, they say, we don’t need a specialized thing. At its base, sure, I agree. I wish all yoga teachers knew how to welcome and teach women of all bodies. But in reality, that’s not the case.
So that’s why CurvyYoga exists. And at this point, why wouldn’t we, as yoga teachers and community, reach out to as many people of all different shapes and sizes as we can? Teachers have more students to work with, and students have more places to go. It’s a win/win.
A lot of would-be students are also resistant to trying yoga. They think, “It’s not for me.” How do you get those women in the door in the first place?
Sometimes, new yoga students want to go directly to a class. Sometimes, they want to start practicing in a more private setting. Sometimes, they want a combination of both.
I have a lot of resources and tips on Curvy Yoga, so people can immediately start listening to the podcasts, reading the content, and watching the videos. Some people just need to get their feet wet and see that they can do it at home. Building your own knowledge base around the terms, movements, and modifications can be helpful and empowering, especially if an instructor doesn’t know how to help you.
What kinds of classes should the audience be looking for?
I provide tips on the site on finding a CurvyYoga-friendly class, some questions to ask, types of classes to look for, and more. There’s a lot of variation in how yoga classes are described, so sometimes it’s hard to tell just from the name of the class if it’s something you’d want to try.
I always recommend talking to teachers ahead of time. Good teachers are always willing to talk to students ahead of time and if a teacher isn’t willing to do that, it’s probably isn’t worth trying out their class anyway.
Tell me a bit about your e-book, Permission to Curve: Inspiring Poses for Curvy Yogis and Their Teachers.
Our community told me that they wanted a way to learn and refer back to the practice of yoga.
The book really offers empowerment – giving people the tools that they need to practice on their own at home, or go to a class and not feel they have to cross their fingers and hope they get a teacher who supports them. It also includes photographs showing poses, and people can purchase an add-on video library that shows all of the poses in action.
Give us a glimpse into your teaching style. What do you share with instructors?
The main message I want to give yoga teachers is that it’s not that difficult to meet the need of students of all shapes and sizes.
Here’s some of what I share with them:
1) It starts when you walk into the room. It’s as basic as greeting all of the students and finding out where they are and what they need.
2) I suggest when possible, to have the short end of the mat facing the wall instead of in rows, so that no one has to leave their row to get to the wall. The wall is a great support prop for yoga; people can use it to get down on the ground, which can be a struggle for some. This configuration makes people feel like they have more access to the support that they need.
3) Often times, an instructor will teach a class in what’s called “the full expression” without any props. For instance, they’ll say, “Bring your hand down to the ground,” and if you can’t do that, you have to put a block under your hand. Instead, I prefer to start everyone on the block on the highest height and say, “Let’s just all start here, and if you are able to maintain this sense of freedom and feel stable, then play with dialing the block down—one notch, then two notches. Or getting rid of it.” So everyone starts on the same playing field. It’s a lot less stressful than thinking, Everyone else has their hand on the ground except for me! It’s a practice that takes no extra time, and it helps people avoid feeling uncomfortable and potentially doing something unsafe.
What’s next for CurvyYoga?
I’m excited to meet with people more and more in person, and find new ways to support each other.
This summer we are doing “CurveCamp” in Nashville, TN. Six speakers (and me) provide information and workshops on body acceptance for women of all shapes and sizes.
In October, we are releasing a book titled “Yoga and Body Image.” This project has been years in the making, and I’m excited to get it into people’s hands. It includes 25 essays written by people of all shapes, sizes and abilities, sharing their experience about how yoga has been able to help them.
Want to learn more about CurvyYoga? Find a CurvyYoga instructor in your town here. Learn more with Quick Start Guides for students and teachers here. Sign up for Curvy Monthly, Anna’s virtual studio, here. Spend your summer with CurveCamp here.