Anna Guest-Jelley, E-RYT 200, RYT 500, is the founder of Curvy Yoga -- a training and inspiration portal for curvy yogis and their teachers. As a writer, teacher and lifelong champion for empowerment and body acceptance, Anna encourages people of every size, age and ability to grab life by the curves. And never let go. Explore Curvy Yoga programs, classes and certification courses online at CurvyYoga.com.
This is Part One of my online chat with the superb Anna Guest-Jelley. You may find Part Two here.
Anna and I Skyped for a while and then switched to Facebook chat. Anna's delight in conversation is charming. Part Two will appear in August.
Ivan Nahem: I want to ask some questions about your background, but let’s first just jump right in to the theme of this issue, which is how not to teach yoga. What does that phrase conjure up for you? How should yoga not be taught?
Anna Guest-Jelley: What actually comes up for me around that phrase is that it shouldn't be taught with lots of nots. While I certainly find teaching instruction that is needed for safety to be paramount, in general I find much yoga teaching to be too dogmatic for many students. What I mean by that is that when there are very strict ideas about what to do or not do, it can be hard for students who don't fit into that to feel like yoga is for them. I see this all the time with curvy students who are told, explicitly and implicitly, that they can't do yoga because they're "too big." That's the teacher giving the student a huge NOT (your body is not right for this practice), and I don't think that's okay. I think yoga can be far more adaptable and welcoming than that, when we're willing as teachers to come at it from a lens of helping anyone find what works for them.
IN: It amazes me that there are those kinds of narrow views of what's possible with yoga. I think anyone who seeks it out can be accommodated. But it's not always a welcoming situation, is it?
AG-J: There are plenty of great teachers who are welcoming, but you're right that it's not always the case. I literally hear from people every week who have either not felt welcomed in classes because the teacher did nothing to help them adapt the practice, or the teacher directly tells them they can't do it because their body isn't "right." I know we don't want to think that kind of thing happens in yoga, but I know that it is because those are the students who then go looking for another option and eventually find Curvy Yoga.
Part of this is an issue of teacher training. I hear from teachers all the time who had zero training on how to support curvy people. I always find this so ironic because it seems like every time I turn on the TV, there's some news report about how over half of Americans are "overweight." So there's a gap in the yoga community if the majority of people in this country (just to take it as an example) live in bigger bodies, yet they're far from the majority in yoga studios.
IN: I could have missed it but I don't believe such issues were mentioned during my trainings. It seemed like a working assumption that nearly all the time we were learning how to teach the hard bodies. My teaching experience has been very different; since I welcome most people into the studio I teach with my basic classes, I see all kinds of bodies and I've cobbled together solutions.
AG-J: Exactly! I think many teachers have had that experience. So when someone who isn't a thin bendy shows up (which is, honestly, most of us), it can be a really awkward moment for everyone (at best), and a painful one -- physically and/or emotionally (at worst). Because then it means that the teacher has to improvise, and if they don't live in a bigger body themselves, that can get weird for the student if the teacher also hasn’t had training to help them.
I have a great example. A woman who eventually became my student came to do private sessions with me after her first experience in a group yoga class where she lives. She'd been reading the Curvy Yoga site, so she felt empowered to make modifications to work for her body, even though her teacher wasn't offering any. Everything was going along swimmingly.
But then the teacher had everyone come over to see the modifications she was making, saying how great they were. I think the teacher was incredibly well-intentioned, but she made this student feel like the oddball fat girl who no one had ever seen before. (The teacher didn't do this for anyone else in the class.)
Then the teacher offered her to try Vrksasana (Tree Pose) at the wall, which this woman was game for. As she did it, the teacher came over and told her she "shouldn't be embarrassed." The student wasn't feeling that way until the teacher raised it, and then she wondered if she should be.
I like this example because it's not one of the blatantly terrible ones, which of course no yoga teacher wants to believe they would do. But it's an example of what happens when you haven't thought through what truly makes people feel included and what doesn't.
IN: The situations can be very subtle, and it is a good example because the intentions weren't mean, just naive. Drawing attention to someone or assuming they feel a certain way -- dangerous ground.
AG-J: Exactly. And that's why I think discussion about this is so important among yoga teachers. Of course, I have a special interest in curvy students, but I believe this approach benefits the many, many different students who don't fit that hard-body/fast-paced yoga mode. It's shifting from an approach of "this is how we get students into x, y or z pose, and they have to keep working until they get there," to "here's where this student is today, and here's how I'm going to support them." I think many yoga teachers want to believe, and probably do believe, that yoga is for every body. But if that philosophy/intention isn't backed up with the concrete skills to make it happen for students in real time, it doesn't mean much.
I hear this quite a bit from studios who aren't sure they want/need a Curvy Yoga class because they believe all their classes are welcoming. Yet there's no one over a size 6 featured on their website, and only rarely do they show up in their classes. All of these things may not seem like a big deal on the surface, but they communicate a message loud and clear to a bigger-bodied person who is trying to make the brave decision to try a yoga class, despite many things telling them that they don't look like/move like a "yogi." And, of course, this shows up in asana instruction, when options aren't offered, no one is told that if they move their belly they can be way more comfortable, blocks are only offered if "you can't do it," etc.
IN: Exactly. Now there are probably many possible missteps a teacher can make in this regard, and we don't want to compile them all here, but how can someone educate themselves, if there's no formal training in, say, basic teacher training. I can say that giving your videos a watch online has been quite educational for me.
AG-J: Oh, great! I'm glad to hear you had that experience with the video. So yes, I offer lots of free resources on my site that people are welcome to check out. I also offer Curvy Yoga Certification for people who really want to learn more and/or offer Curvy Yoga in their town.
In addition to that kind of learning, I think all teachers can take the time to think through their classes and how different people might experience them, asking themselves questions like: What would it be like to do this sequence if someone can't get up and down off the floor easily? What is it like to do ten sun salutations in a row for someone whose knee is going to hit their belly every time they step forward from Down Dog? The biggest question is this: What lets students know that my class is welcoming? Not what turns them off (because most websites, class descriptions, aren't blatant turn-offs), but what lets them know, without a doubt, that this is a safe and welcoming space for them?
IN: So there are ways a teacher can answer that question, and ways a studio can answer it, right?
AG-J: Yes -- because that will differ depending on where a teacher teaches, and what their ability to influence the studio/location is. If the teacher has little sway over the culture of the studio, they can do it through their class description (if they have control over that), as well as how they teach their class. Many of the things I recommend are easy and quick to do. For example, starting students in the most supported version of the pose. So instead of bringing students into Trikonasana with their hand on the floor, and then offering a block if they can't do it, I like to do the opposite. I have everyone start with a block, and then I offer "if/then" suggestions for dialing the block down or removing it. "If you can maintain the same feeling of freedom across your chest and stability in your legs, then play with dialing the block down a notch."
Another strategy I use is to ask my students to practice with the short end of their mat to the wall. It gives people support for coming up/down off the ground, it allows me to start everyone at the wall for some poses and then work them off it, it makes sure no one has to be the awkward one out to go to the wall (which no one wants to do!), and it allows people to see and hear more easily. Now, that's not possible in every room, but it's an example of something that doesn't take extra time, doesn't cost money, and the teacher can take advantage of regardless of where they teach (as long as there is some wall space in the class).
IN: Yes! I do a lot of teaching at the wall, and you're so right, it's usually an instructive and readily available prop.
AG-J: Yes! That's the thing I most want teachers to know: teaching accessibly isn't a burden. It doesn't have to take more time or "slow down" your "regular" students. It can be a way for a diverse group of students to practice together comfortably. Because, really, every class is all levels, no matter what you call it. So it's not an unneeded skill.
IN: The ability to speak to many levels at once is a constant challenge. It's one of the hardest, but, to be a bit cliché, most rewarding skills one can develop. And I agree, there is no one level class -- unless maybe a private!
AG-J: Yep! Totally with you on that, cliché or not. Another quick and easy tip I have is to ask students to step their feet a comfortable distance apart in Tadasana [Mountain Pose]. Feet together, and even hip width apart, can be too narrow for bigger-bodied students. And when people don't have a stable base of support, everything is more difficult and at greater risk for injury. So with a simple tweak of language, teachers can ensure that everyone is where they need to be, which makes all the standing postures, including Sun Salutations, far more accessible.
IN: These are all great practical tips, Anna.
To be continued....
This is Part One of my online chat with the superb Anna Guest-Jelley. You may find Part Two here.