I discovered Valerie S., an installation artist who uses the moniker "Big Gal Yoga," on Instagram and Tumblr during one of my mindless meanderings through hashtags. As someone who has practiced yoga for years and regularly attends a class for "curvy" women, I was immediately drawn in by her almost-daily pictures and videos of herself doing various poses, sometimes wearing just a bikini.
I'm not alone in my appreciation for her work. Just a year and a half after joining Instagram, Valerie S.—who declines to share her last name for privacy reasons—has gained more than 35,000 followers on the platform. Given the bravery it takes to share your body and yoga practice with the world, I'd assumed I'd find a boisterous person behind the account.
Instead, Valerie, a product of what she calls "the Bay Area bubble," is a self-identified introvert and somewhat shy about sharing her accomplishments. I spoke to her on the phone about how she became Instagram-famous and what motivates her practice.
How did you get into yoga?
I’ve been practicing yoga for about four years, on and off. My friend had taken a class at our university, San Jose State, and it reminded me that I wanted to try it. So I took a class two times a week and I kind of fell right into it. Of course it was hard because any physical activity was hard, but I was really excited to get into it.
What do you like about yoga?
The main thing that I like about yoga is the calmness. Hectic things can overwhelm me so having a yoga practice helps calm my mind more than anything.
Where do you practice?
Mostly [I practice] by myself. I started off in a class, and then taking classes at studios. Since my schedule is kind of hectic, I practice by myself. And I have a space at a dance studio at a community center.
Where do you learn how to do the poses?
[From] having to find things out myself and having to modify things. There was very little [instruction] for people who were bigger. I’ve never really been that discouraged because my first teacher was pretty positive about it—you didn't have to get the pose right, you just had to know how to move your body around. I’ve learned that I can do [any] pose, I just have to modify it in a certain way. Anybody can benefit from a prop or modifications.
What made you decide to start posting online?
[One of] my friends a couple of years ago asked me to be her maid of honor, and I tried to lose a little bit of weight to fit into the dress better by doing more yoga. I started my Tumblr when I was doing that. Through Tumblr I had more and more people wanting to see me practicing yoga. Eventually, about a year and half ago, after I hit 10,000 followers on Tumblr, a lot of people were asking me to join Instagram.
Is there still a relationship between your yoga practice and weight loss?
I don’t usually seek yoga as my weight-loss activity. For my yoga practice I’m really chill about it, taking my time to get into poses. I’m not setting [weight-loss] as a goal, but I know that I do want to lose a little more weight for practical reasons. I do a lot of outdoor activities, [and I’d like to not] always be exhausted after I hike. I try to exercise and do things that make me happy. Biking and swimming are things that I enjoy a lot. [I try to] let things progress as they do and not force it.
What does your family think of your online following?
A handful of my family [members] follow me. My mom knows what I do. She supports it but it’s really getting hard for her to understand Instagram [laughs]. I think I’m mostly just quiet about it. I just don’t like to talk about it a lot, but I’m glad that people who I’m close with support me in what I do.
Why don’t you want to talk about it?
I may seem like a big personality through my Instagram, but I’m really a very quiet person. I get very self-conscious [if] people [are] staring at me. I don’t technically like to be looked at or bring attention to myself when I’m around people. I’m a very introverted person. If I talk about [my yoga practice] it sounds like I’m bragging—I just don’t know if everyone wants to hear about it.
It’s interesting to have 35,000 followers on IG where you mostly post pictures of yourself doing yoga poses and say that you don’t like to be looked at.
It’s a weird thing about me. I’m fine with people seeing me online because it’s the way I present myself. It’s just how I already see myself. But when I’m by myself I feel more introverted.
What has been your experience with race in the yoga community?
I’m Mexican and Filipino. I’ve gotten very positive responses from people of color, especially from the black yogis. I see a handful of Mexican and Asian yogis, but it’s still very rare [in the U.S.]. I think I just fall under a lot of categories: I’m a woman, I’m big, I have multiple ethnicities. I fall under many categories that people can relate to. People see yoga as the thin, blond, white girl. I’m happy to be someone who is not of the main kind of people and show that people like me can do yoga as well.
How did you come to feeling so comfortable with your body?
My family is pretty positive—my mom never told me that I needed to lose weight or anything. I only had maybe one person back in elementary school who picked on me about my weight. I had that privilege of not experiencing the stereotypical “She’s the fat kid” kind of thing. So if anybody now told me anything, I really wouldn’t give a crap.
I notice you often post pictures in swimsuits.
When I was finally getting a lot more comfortable with my own body, buying that fatkini showed off a lot of me. I really love doing poses in my bikini and also in lingerie that I have. I’ve never been into lingerie before, [but] I like that it’s really cute and I want to be able to show it off. I’m just getting into the acceptance of my body and being able to show it. I like showing it in a lot skimpier outfits.
Are people ever surprised by your level of skill?
They are just kind of wowed that I can do inversions. It’s nice to be able to show somebody who has the same body type as myself that they can do it themselves with their own yoga practice. It’s not this unachievable thing. People often think that they have to be skinny to do yoga, but you can do yoga at any size.
Do you ever feel shy or critical of the way you look when posting pictures?
It’s a benefit of posting to see myself be happy with my body and how it looks. I was the shyest when I posted a nude photo of myself. Up until I was 26, I hadn’t been in a relationship with anyone else; no one had seen my body. [Then] I was with my ex, and he enjoyed my body. That helped me get over the fact that people wouldn’t like it. [Now] I look at [photos] and say, "Oh that’s chubby and I love that." A couple of posts I've made were [of] bloopers. I like to bring it out so that other people aren’t idealizing me. It should be OK to look like a weirdo getting into a pose. I don’t have to look like a beautiful swan getting into a pose.