Amber Karnes remembers going to her first yoga class in her early 20s. “I was on some big weight loss project,” she says. “And the trainer at my gym said I should do yoga on my rest days because ‘Yoga doesn’t really count as exercise, but you still burn calories.’ I was pretty sure fat people didn’t go to yoga studios, but I’ve never been shy about taking up space in fitness environments, so I went, and sure enough, I was the only fat person in the room, but I rolled out my mat anyway and joined the class.”
She recalls leaving the class, getting on the interstate to go home, and ten minutes into her drive, noticing that her familiar mental soundtrack had started back up. “Maybe you’ve experienced this soundtrack too,” she suggests, “that voice in the back of your mind that second-guesses everything you do, tells you you aren’t good enough, reminds you of that stupid thing you said or did, and constantly judges and casts shame onto your body.
“But I realized that if the judgment reel had started back up, that meant it had stopped. For a few minutes, my mind had quieted itself and I had spent those minutes not thinking about or judging my body or myself. This was new! I was eager to repeat this experiment, so I went back to class. After a few more classes, I was hooked.”
Yoga has been a consistent and powerful part of Amber’s life ever since. The physical practice helped her get to know her body, and the regulation tools and mental benefits of yoga made her better able to manage her anxiety and quiet her mind. (You can read more about her yoga journey here.)
Community has also played a big role in Amber’s yoga story. She says, “The past fifteen plus years have been a path away from diet culture and self-loathing and toward self-acceptance and body positivity—a journey of making peace with my body and helping others to do the same.
“The work of many activists, writers, and thinkers in the fat acceptance and Health At Every Size community, both online and off, have been a huge part of my education, and the practice of yoga has been central to that journey. Yoga helped me see my body as an ally, as my partner in crime. To accept myself as an imperfect, flawed human, and come out on top to live a life without shame or apology.”
For Amber, the most powerful experiences of body peace and rebuilding happen in community with other like-hearted people who are going through the same things. She explains, “It’s hard to swim upstream all the time in a dominant culture that literally profits off your isolation and self-hate. Community is in our DNA. So share your story. Talk to others who are swimming upstream with you. Lean on one another. Find your people. Help each other be unstoppable.”
As the founder of Body Positive Yoga, Amber trains yoga teachers and movement educators to create accessible, equitable spaces where people feel they belong. She's the co-creator of the Yoga For All Teacher Training, an Accessible Yoga trainer, and a sought-after expert on the topics of accessibility, authentic marketing, culture-shifting, and community-building.
We interviewed Amber, asking her the questions we ask all of our featured teachers, so that you can get to know her better and learn what to expect from her classes on YI.
What style, tradition, and/or lineage are you a part of (if any)?
My yoga is a practice of liberation and belonging. It's community-based, adaptive, and accessible.
There are so many folks I have to thank for teaching me, but I'll mention just a few here. My 200-hour teacher training was an alignment-based hatha style of yoga with Anna Pittman, a Phoenix Rising yoga therapist. Her training heavily emphasized the other seven limbs of yoga [not just asana] for personal growth and transformation.
My 300-hour TT program was with Jules Mitchell, who specializes in biomechanics. We geeked out over tissue adaptation, pain science, developmental movement patterns, and movement research. Many of my teachers have incorporated the work of Donna Farhi and Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen—their ideas have influenced how I understand the body. Gil Hedley's integral anatomy dissection labs have given me a whole new understanding of what it means to live in this weird meat suit we all have. They have also brought home familiar concepts like "Nothing is separate, we are all connected" from the yoga teachings.
My own teaching centers around adaptive asana, social justice, and empowering students to personalize their practice regardless of their shape, size, age, or ability. Jivana Heyman, the founder of Accessible Yoga, is a teacher and mentor of mine and has been super influential on my work! I also want to thank all of the amazing fat activists, body image warriors, and social justice advocates who have taught me so much along the way and whose legacy informs the work I do.
What can I expect from your classes?
Low-pressure, judgment-free yoga (flavored by intersectional feminist principles) from a big yogi with a big heart.
You can expect plenty of options for taking whatever variation of a pose (or breathing practice or meditation…) honors the body you bring to the mat today. Bodies change from day to day (and throughout the seasons of our lives), and having the tools to personalize our practice is so important for our well-being.
What’s on your mind these days yoga-wise?
Here's a brief list: the effects of capitalism (and patriarchy and white supremacy) on our lives and in the context of yoga spaces, what it means to create welcoming spaces for all students, using yoga to make peace with our bodies, destigmatizing mental illness in wellness spaces, what wellness looks like and means for folks with marginalized identities, and how to use yoga as a form of social justice... I could go on!
What do you like to do outside of yoga?
I just work all the time, haha! I am in the third year of Body Positive Yoga, my business and full-time gig, and I really do enjoy geeking out over building it! But when I'm not traveling to lead a training or creating content on my laptop, I love being outside. I hike and camp with my husband Jimmy and our Boston terrier, Garnet, as much as possible. I love jumping into bodies of water when it's warm enough. In the winter, you can find me knitting or reading. And I cook, every day. I'm handy in the kitchen!
Any other thoughts you'd like to share with our readers?
Despite what dominant culture would have you believe, the body you have today is worth getting on the yoga mat. You are enough. You have inherent value. And you belong here.
Learn more about Amber and try one of her Body Positive yoga classes on YI!
Photography: Andrea Killam