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Chicago Yogi Angelica Lewis Champions Yoga for All Bodies

Lewis founded Curvy Chick Yoga to make the practice accessible to marginalized communities.

Photos: Jindu Elueze

Nearly every yoga instructor will tell you that if you need a break during class, child’s pose is there for you. With your knees bent, hands and forehead on the floor, you can bring down your heart rate and relax.

For years, that wasn’t true for Angelica Lewis. Tight hips and a curvier frame made the seemingly simple posture an uncomfortable, breath-restricting struggle.

Now, she’s discovered “how to put child’s pose in my body,” she says. She enters it slowly and stops worrying whether her rear end sinks as low as everyone else’s. It’s become her favorite pose, she says — one she truly can come back to anytime she needs to rebalance.

As the founder of Curvy Chick Yoga, Lewis, 31, has made it her mission to remove such barriers — physical and otherwise — from the practice.

Yoga pulled her out of a dark place, she says, and she wants everyone to have access to its healing power. “I had never been introduced to yoga; no one I knew practiced it,” she says. “It changed everything for me and my mental stability, allowing me to find peace.”

Lewis didn’t grow up athletic or flexible — she was always the kid avoiding activity for fear of injury, she says. During her teenage and college years, she also began dealing with anxiety and depression.

As a grownup, in 2013, she’d hit a low point. She was working an emotionally challenging job as a social worker. Her long-term relationship fell apart. She started taking daily walks to clear her mind; she knew she needed to make a change.

Thoughts of suicide weighed heavily upon her. But the CorePower yoga studio she regularly passed presented another possibility. “Day after day I just kind of was like, what if?” she says.

Finally, one day around May, she went inside. One of the first things she noticed was that few people there looked like her. But she went back, and before too long, the combination of breathing and movement offered a new sense of stillness.

Yoga — along with therapy — shifted her perspective. She got a new boyfriend, and a new job, as a librarian. But in the back of her head, she had an idea about bringing the recovery she’d found to a wider audience, including fuller-figured people and people of color.

It took a few more years — until late 2017 — for Curvy Chick Yoga to become a reality. Demand was there from the start — the day after she completed her teacher training, Lewis had a corporate workshop booked. She primarily focused on private practice, traveling to the homes of clients who were often older, feared they were too large or inflexible for yoga, or had had a prior bad experience with a class.

Albany Park’s Toni Gutierrez felt curious about yoga, but her inner self-critic shut her down before she stepped into a studio. Lewis’s social media presence spoke to her — and the idea of one-on-one classes felt less intimidating. So when Lewis posted last December that she had a few slots for private students, Gutierrez booked one.

Right away, she appreciated Lewis’s supportive guidance, “that reassuring voice of, ‘you’re not totally wrong, you’re on the right track,’ ” Gutierrez says. She became more comfortable and confident in her downward dog, and felt less pain and fatigue.

Her approximately weekly sessions with Lewis have also calmed a swirling mind, something else Gutierrez had been seeking. “It coincides with me feeling like everything else in my life is being managed better, more healthily,” she says. “Yoga has been a huge part of that.”

Besides her private clients, Lewis teaches four group classes a week, at the Kroc Center in West Pullman; CHGO Yoga Co-op in Canaryville; and at the Red Cross in West Englewood. She’s selective about where she’ll instruct — she has to feel the spaces are welcoming, in communities with limited access to yoga.

Annie Culverson, who’s 69, has attended the Kroc Center classes for about a year. Lewis’s gentle but challenging approach has left her feeling stronger physically, reduced her knee pain, and also helped her ease deeper into child’s pose as well, by placing a hand lightly in the small of her back. “You realize, ‘Oh, I can go a little bit further down,’ ” Culverson says.

And tying her movements to breath, as Lewis emphasizes, has had an impact throughout her life. “The breath is so empowering and so strengthening,” she says. “I’ve come to realize just how important it is to everything.”

Those deep breaths are one of the reasons yoga is so beneficial for people with depression and anxiety, Lewis says. She holds regular events — including a yearly retreat called “Day of Om” — that put a focus on mental health, something she feels is particularly important in communities of color.

She further combines these passions by teaching what she calls Peace Yoga to children, an endeavor she hopes to expand further in the next few years. Mood disorders are creeping into younger age groups, fueled by testing and other social factors, she says. By helping kids breathe and move, often while speaking positive affirmations together, she offers them a safe space to share and release their struggles.

She posts her story and similar encouraging messages on social media, too, alongside gorgeous photos and videos of yoga in the snow or on the lakefront. “I use my platform to always bring light to it — to remind people that nothing’s wrong with you,” she says. “This isn’t a taboo, this isn’t your fault, this is just who you are and maybe this is your journey. That’s why I’m so grateful, having an online presence where I can have a voice.”

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