Yoga is generally considered one of the healthiest things you can do for your body, and research is beginning to affirm what many believe to be true. In fact, regular yoga practice has been scientifically linked to reduced heart rate, lower blood pressure, and anxiety and depression relief. It’s also been proven helpful for things like low-back pain.
We wanted to better understand how people of all sizes and health backgrounds can start practicing yoga so we reached out to Anna Guest-Jelley the founder of Curvy Yoga, an educational and inspirational yoga studio that offers classes, workshops, teacher trainings, and support for people of every shape and size. Here’s what she had to say:
Q: Why did you first start practicing yoga?
I first started practicing yoga because I had chronic migraines. As often happens when you have a chronic illness, people very kindly tell you a million things to try in order to get better. It can be overwhelming! But I was desperate, and though I didn’t expect to like yoga or for it to help, I gave it a try. Having visited the mariannewells.com, a yoga retreat sounded like a bit of a gamble. Much to my total surprise, I really enjoyed it. I found something so powerful about the mind/body/breath connection in the practice, which isn’t something I’d experienced in my years of walking miles to nowhere on the treadmill or being the only middle schooler in my mom’s aerobics class in the 80s. Prior to yoga, I’d only moved my body as a form of discipline/punishment in order to lose weight, so I’d never found any enjoyment in movement, but yoga brought something new to movement for me that kept me curious about what else I might find.
Q: Has yoga had an impact on the chronic migraines you suffer from?
I had three different years in my life when I had a migraine every single day; in between, I had migraines several times/week. They were such a long-time feature of my life that I truly never thought they’d change or go away. When I started practicing yoga, I thought that the migraine/yoga connection would be a simple one, like if I just relaxed once in one class then – poof! – they’d be gone. Probably not too surprisingly, that didn’t happen. And at a different point in my life, that might have made me give up on it for good. But as I mentioned, there was something about yoga that made me want to try it more, and what I found over time is that yoga helped me get to know my own body in a way I never had before. How that helped my migraines is that up until yoga, I could never do anything about the migraine until I was in the thick of it. It just felt like the migraine came on me and all I could do was try to hold on. But once I started to know my body better, I began to notice subtler and subtler cues of when a migraine was approaching. And with that information, I was able to intervene sooner, sometimes subverting the migraine altogether or at minimum making the duration/intensity less, which has been life-changing.
Q: Can anyone practice yoga? Is there anyone who should avoid yoga?
Yoga is something that can be adapted for any body and every body. Of course when you’re starting any new form of movement you should consult a doctor about what’s best for your body. But once you have that information, it can be applied to make the practice work for you. The key is staying open to the process and finding information and/or a teacher who can help you make it work for you. Sometimes that takes some trial and error, but it is definitely possible!
Q: What is body positive yoga?
I’m loving the phrase body affirming yoga these days. What that means to me is a type of yoga that helps you connect with, learn about, and learn from your own body with kindness and curiosity. It’s not about being positive all the time (which people can sometimes think about body positivity), because we don’t always feel that way, but about learning to be with your body in a state of neutrality. That might not sound like a big deal, but it’s actually so transformative for anyone (like me!) who has lived their life in what can sometimes feel like a constant state of self-judgment or who is trying to will their way to positivity and it doesn’t feel like it’s working. To me, being body affirming is about learning about your needs in this moment and discovering how to meet them. It’s about cultivating an ongoing relationship with your body.
What is body positive yoga and how can it help people with chronic health conditions? Founder of @CurvyYoga explains…Click to tweet
Q: What do you think is the biggest misconception about yoga?
There are many representations of yoga that make it seem as though the only people who can practice are those who fit a very specific body type and ability that is not reflective of the vast majority of people. That’s not all that yoga is, though! Yoga is a way to know yourself and it can be practiced by anyone; the poses are a tool for listening within.
Q: Do you have any advice for people who have a health condition or bigger body and are unsure of how or where to start?
I definitely recommend talking with the teacher of the class you want to take and discussing any questions and/or concerns you have. I have some suggestions for finding a curvy friendly teacher right here, and this same framework will be helpful if the questions you have are about a health condition. The main thing to know is that sometimes it takes time to find the right fit for you. So if you go to a class and it’s not right for you, I encourage you to think about it exactly that way – that the particular class wasn’t a good fit, not that yoga is altogether not right for you. This isn’t to say all people will love yoga; of course that isn’t true. But it is to say that I think trying a few different options can be useful.
Q: How can yoga teachers create a more inclusive, welcoming practice?
Many yoga classes start people with what is sometimes known as the “full expression” of the pose, which is taught as what we’re all working toward. Then if someone can’t do that version of the pose, the teacher might offer the student a yoga prop to make the pose work better for the student. Offering that prop is definitely better than not! But many of us react to the idea of being told we can’t do something with less than grace, and it makes us force ourselves into positions that aren’t right for our body because we don’t want to feel like the odd one out. So one great way yoga teachers can create a more welcoming environment is to flip that paradigm on its head and start everyone with support then offer information on how people can use less support and how to know if/when that’s relevant for their body.
Q: In your opinion, what’s the biggest health benefit one gets from a regular yoga practice?
On a physiological level, the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system is huge because so few of us give ourselves time to truly rest during our everyday lives. So those benefits look like stress reduction, calming a racing mind, and other deeply important changes like those. And, of course, bringing in or maintaining mobility, flexibility and strength in the body is a great benefit, too. I think the biggest benefit, though, is what I mentioned earlier – better knowledge and understanding of your body. Because with that, you gain insight into what your unique body actually needs today, even on days when that feels impossible. I know that when I’m in the midst of a migraine I’m not too likely to pop into a yoga pose, but when I can remember to take a deep breath, it can make a difference. Yoga isn’t about creating another set of unreasonable expectations in your life but about meeting yourself exactly where you are today, knowing that will likely be different from yesterday and tomorrow.
Q: How has yoga impacted your life?
The absolute last thing I was expecting from yoga was body acceptance. I didn’t come to it for that at all. But it’s exactly what I found over time, and it has changed every aspect of my life. For so long, I thought what I needed was a new body, a pain-free, thinner body. But what I found instead is that by meeting this body where it is, not treating it as something outside me that inconveniences me and I want to be different, my relationship with my body became less adversarial and we started to learn how to be on the same side. What I didn’t realize at the beginning of this journey is that body acceptance is always unfolding, and that’s the good news. It’s an ongoing conversation that helps you better know your body and yourself and live life on your own terms, not 10 pounds from now, or when you never experience pain again, but right now because this is when life is being lived.