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Meet the Woman Who Started Curvy Yoga Before You Saw It on Instagram

Anna Guest-Jelley’s body-inclusive method of yoga is shifting the way people of all sizes teach and practice. Here, she opens up about her journey and the insights she’s learned along the way.

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When Anna Guest-Jelley, the founder of Curvy Yoga, went to college, she had just come off the tail end of a year of chronic migraines. During her last year of high school she suffered from migraines every single day. After trying what seemed to her like, “every single drug on the market,” she finally landed on one that slightly lessened the intensity of her experience. Still, the frequent migraines and general discomfort made her feel completely out of control when it came to her body. “I felt like the state of my health was at the whims of whatever medicine was available, which made me feel completely disempowered,” she says.

In the late 90s, as a freshman in college, she began to do research into alternative forms of healing. She began to learn about biofeedback, which led her towards meditation. Eventually Guest-Jelley began practicing yoga, and years later she is an internationally renowned instructor, who leads teacher trainings annually. Guest-Jelley teaches a form of yoga called Curvy Yoga, her own invention, which is an inclusive form of yoga that offers smart cuing and sensitive assists that are body-positive and comfortable for bigger-bodied yogis. We spent some time with Guest-Jelley to hear more about her inspiration, her struggles, and her hopes for the future.

What first drew you to yoga?

I actually started my yoga classes via meditation. I started with guided visualization and meditation kind of blended together and I would visualize my pain; I’d visualize pain as this tight, red, angry ball. I would visualize it slowly dissolving and letting go, and that would release some physical symptoms as well as emotional and mental tension, which would help my migraines just loosen up a little bit.

That was my first peek at the idea that I had some agency in my own body and that I could affect the way I felt. Through my meditation I started to, very slowly, get a glimpse of my own thoughts and began to get a sense of my own thought patterns. As I started reading more about meditation, I of course stumbled upon yoga. And so, with no access to yoga classes, I went out and bought a VHS tape of Rodney Yee. I got a yoga mat and rolled it out in the small space in between my dorm room bed and my roommate’s when she was out in class.


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Up until that point, exercise had always felt like a form of punishment to me. I had been a chronic dieter throughout my whole childhood, and only ever exercised as a form of discipline to burn calories. And so I tried the practice without even really expecting to enjoy it. I could only do part of it—and of course my body looks nothing like Rodney’s—but there was just something about it that drew me in. Now I know it was the body-breath connection, but at the time I didn’t have the words. All I knew is that I felt something and I wanted to keep trying. So my practice really grew from there, from that point of investigating embodiment and its effects on my life.IMG_9852

Did you immediately know you wanted to teach, or was there some other evolution in your practice that brought you to that point?

I didn’t become a yoga teacher for 10 more years. For the first couple years I just kept on with the VHS tapes, and then towards the end of my time in college there was a class that popped up at the local community center. I was the youngest person there by probably at least four decades. Everyone else was much older and I think that really encouraged me to keep going because even though I was the biggest person in the room, body shape-wise, because everyone was older, there were just a lot of different needs and people were doing all kinds of different things. In retrospect, I think that if I would have gone into a class, like the kinds that are more ubiquitous today, that are more like hot and fast and all that, I probably would have been turned off, I don’t know that I would have even continued.

Eventually, I left and went to graduate school. I found some more “official” yoga studios, with more “experienced” teachers. I was kind of left on my own. I felt like the teachers were thinking, “Let this big girl figure it out.” So they never talked about how I could make the poses more acceptable for my body or anything like that. And because that never came up I just internalized that as my problem. If anyone else was experiencing this they would say it, so it’s clearly me and once I lose X-amount of weight, whatever that day I thought my weight-loss should be, then I’ll finally get it.

Right around the time I was considering teacher training, I tallied up the number of diets I’d been on. I came up with 65. It was such a turning point for me. I’d done enough research through my own life to know that 65 diets were not what I needed. For so long I kept feeling, “I haven’t found the right thing, I haven’t found the right thing, I haven’t found the right thing.” And I hadn’t, but what I didn’t realize was that I needed to be in a totally different paradigm.

How did this shift contribute to your journey to becoming a yoga teacher?

Well, when I went to teacher training (a regular 200-hour training) I did not tell any of my fellow students that I was interested in doing something for bigger-bodied people because it just seemed like the craziest idea ever. I had never seen anything like it. I suspected I couldn’t be the only person on the face of the earth looking for a more inclusive option. But at the time, it really felt like I might be. That was in 2008. Which is not that long ago but feels like a lifetime ago in terms of how connected the yoga community has become online since that time.IMG_9843

I did the training. Learned enough about alignment and how to use props in a sort of limited way. Between that, my own practice, and then my own research, I started to be able to put together what I thought worked for curvy bodies. I started to teach what I knew, just really casually to friends. I wish that I had a story where I have a grand vision for Curvy Yoga and what it would become. I didn’t have that at all. I had a full time job and I enjoyed it, so I figured I’d just teach once a week. The same was true of my blog, which I started a year or so after I started teaching. I just enjoyed writing. I thought, this would be fun: a distraction from my everyday life and my regular job. It turned out that so many people were looking for that information. Just as I had been. Everything started to grow from there.

That’s amazing! Can you tell me a bit about what, technically, is different about teaching curvy-bodied practitioners than teaching non-curvy-bodied practitioners?

One of the main things I observed as a student and really wanted to bring in as a teacher is that most yoga instruction, I was receiving and I think this is still pretty true, focused almost exclusively on muscles and bones. How do you get your skeleton into alignment? How do you activate your muscles? Of course, all of that is so important. We have to have that in yoga classes. What was not brought in was the flesh. How do we make space for the rest of our body? Of course, we are not only muscle and bone.

One of the things that has really surprised me, at first but doesn’t surprise me much now, is from day one I’ve had students of all shapes and sizes in my class. The first week or two I was like, ” Did these skinny people get lost? I don’t understand what is happening. Why are they here?”

What I found is that people have been looking for a body affirming practice that really brings them into their whole body for a long time. Many different people benefit from cues like, “If your belly feels compressed in a forward bend, here are two different ways that you can move it and feel more comfortable.”


Related: 34 Stunning Photos That Dispel the “Yoga Body” Myth


One of the ways I talk to teachers about this is bringing that information in, in a neutral way. Same as you would bring information in to protect your knee or back, I think it can be tempting as a teacher to bring moving the skin in a self-deprecating way, or with a giggle like, “This is kind of weird for us to talk about.” I think when we can neutrally present our information that is relevant to people’s bodies, then they can pick and choose.

For people with softness on their thighs, for example, when they stand with their feet together, their thighs are really smooshed together and their knees actually roll in. Not only is that uncomfortable, it’s actually unstable and unsafe for them. If they can set their feet just a little bit wider and have spaciousness, that is actually equivalent to the base of their body. The width of their own body. Then from there all the standing poses become more accessible. You can say something like, “If your thighs feel compressed then step your feet a little wider.” People know what to do.

Another big part of the teaching is moving from the most supported version of the pose to the least supported. Very often the opposite is done, or something close to the opposite is done. Think of Triangle Pose. Maybe, the teacher will teach that with hands to the shin or hands to the floor. Then say something like, “If this doesn’t work then put a block under your hand.” That’s better then saying nothing, but what I see time and again is that when a version of the pose has been shown first then people assume that is the best or the ideal version. Sometimes, that’s explicitly said, “This is the full expression of the pose. This is what we are all working towards.” People will just end up in a slump, misaligned, uncomfortable whatever position. They are like, “Yay, my hand is here on the floor.”

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What I prefer to do is express the most supported version first, with a block under the hand on the highest height. From there I give more cues, so the practitioner feels most supported, most free, most aligned.

Have you ever received any pushback or any obstacles from the broader yoga community that have felt particularly egregious?

Yes, I have. I would say in general the response has been pretty positive. The two primary pushbacks are, first, people who don’t have a nuanced view of health and weight. They have a sense that something like Curvy Yoga is encouraging people to be overweight and that therefore encourages them to be unhealthy. I’m definitely of the view that weight is not the arbiter of health. A focus on: What are you eating? How do you feel? How are you using your body? Is ultimately what is most important. We all know thin people who are unhealthy. We know bigger-body people who are unhealthy. Vice versa. That philosophy is called health at every size. It’s supported by a number of great doctors and researchers who are out there looking at how weight is not the only thing that is most important.

The other pushback I get is from people saying, “Shouldn’t all classes be inviting and we don’t need classes called Curvy Yoga. Classes like Curvy Yoga silo people and tell them they cannot practice in other places.”

My view has always been that groups that are marginalized the way curvy people have been marginalized within the yoga community, and continue to be in a number of ways, can come together in solidarity if they so choose. But this doesn’t mean they can only practice in Curvy Yoga classes. The sense of community, connection, and giving that Curvy classes create, is not about segregating people. It’s about creating safe spaces where people feel comfortable.


Related: Change Your Mind, Change Your Body?


I think that my ultimate goal would be for yoga teachers to learn about teaching curvy bodies and to accept them into whatever class. I still think that there would be a place for Curvy Yoga classes. Sometimes, people just want to be together in a space that’s clearly demarcated as welcoming and accepting. The same as there are classes for seniors, prenatal, there are a million different specialized classes. No one’s saying seniors can only practice in these places. The same is true of Curvy Yoga.

The social media climate has changed quite a bit since 2008. How has your experience on social media changed? Did you create the Curvy Yoga hashtag?

When I started my blog, Facebook wasn’t really that big of a thing. I was personally on there but not that much. Curvy Yoga didn’t have a page for several years. It was more about blog, blog comments, and that sort of thing when I started. It’s hard to say where a hashtag originates; I had been in Curvy Yoga before hashtags were a thing. What’s so interesting and beautiful about social media is people can take it on as their own badge. There are so many different iterations of people doing things like Curvy Yoga these days. Some of which is not in my purview of teaching. There are some great people out there like Jessamyn Stanley, who are really showing how curvy bodies can do all kinds of different poses that people may have never suspected.

More doors are open to curvy bodies in yoga than ever before. For me, social media has really been a positive way to grow in the community. I’ve gotten negative feedback online in social media, but that happens to everyone when you’re online. I’ve been pretty fortunate not to get a ton of it. I very quickly learned not to read the comments. If I have a blog post somewhere, within the Curvy Yoga orbit, it’s pretty positive. Outside, the Curvy Yoga orbit, sometimes it’s not. I learned over time that I wouldn’t read that. Setting some boundaries has been helpful.

What’s a primary hope for the students who walk through your door?

That they feel! I think so many people are disconnected from their bodies for a lot of different reasons. Some of that may be due to getting a message their whole life that their body wasn’t good enough. That they needed to change it. I feel this is true for a lot of people. Particularly, for curvy people. The message they have been receiving from family, friends, doctors, the media, has made their relationship to their body, one that makes them feel they need to constantly change it. If we’re not trying to forcibly change our body, we’re told we’re lazy, bad, worthless, and every other terrible connotation that goes along with being fat. For them to be able to come into my class and feel what’s going on with their body, rather than just trying to force their body to do or be something that it isn’t, to me is what it’s all about.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone who is new to the practice and either nervous about starting because of physical limitation or emotional limitation, what would you say to encourage or advise?

I would encourage them to approach yoga as an experiment. Be curious about the body. I think what can happen is people go to a yoga class, it is not the right fit for them, that makes them feel that yoga is not the right fit for them. I totally understand why that happens. That is scary and intimidating when you go to a class, it’s too fast, they don’t give you props, or everyone knows what they are doing and you don’t. It takes time to find the right teacher, the right style, or to figure out what works for your body. I think when people can go into it with that attitude of, “It’s going to take a little time. I’m just going to be curious. If a class isn’t for me, it’s not about me. It’s just not the right class.” I think that can help people really find what does work for them and start get more into it. I want to absolutely want to affirm that yoga is for everybody. Sometimes, it takes a minute to find the right fit.

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