William Kelley is America’s Favorite Yoga Instructor. This summer, hundreds of votes poured in to highlight the amazing work of the instructors in our lives; William Kelley stood out as someone making a tremendous impact with exceptional classes, deep empathy, and creative ideas.
We sat down with him to learn a little bit more about his work, approach, and the importance of Burnalong in his practice.
Q: William Kelley, we are sitting here today with you, America’s Favorite Yoga Trainer. I am so thrilled to have you here with us. Congratulations, once again. Can you tell me what it means to receive that honor?
It’s a pleasure to be here. And it was a shock. Honestly, I was very surprised and very grateful. I think we all want to do something that’s meaningful. And there aren’t a lot of ways in the world that we get to measure that. I’m doing something that I love to do and it’s hopefully making a difference.
Q: I want to just read off a couple of the comments that some folks left. They talk about “William is an inspiration. His classes are for everyone.” People have said, “I met many people in the fitness and wellness community. William is the most kind, most genuine and giving even when he’s trying to kill me in jet boxing.” What is it like to build a connection with your client?
It’s very important. I mean, we’re human beings. We have this innate need to connect with each other. One beautiful thing about yoga is that although there are some types of yoga that require you to fit a certain position or put your foot up over your head or something like that, the type of yoga that I do really meets people where they’re at personally. One goal is to try to get to know people personally. Then you can help them fit yoga into their lives instead of the other way around.
Q: Can you tell me the first time you remember thinking about your wellness? Did that start as a kid? Was that something that came from your family? When was that initial interest?
It wasn’t as a kid. I wish I could say that it was. I grew up in a family that was more into music and school work. We didn’t focus on physical wellness, hardly at all. I was a sick kid in some ways. I was allergic to a lot of stuff. And then when I was 19, I was a freshman in college, I dislocated my knee; this turned out to be a genetic thing that happened.
I had doctors and physical therapists for about a year telling me that they didn’t know if I was going to be able to walk again. They suggested was that I should try some strength training to try to rebuild my muscle strength. The decision to then do that should be a no-brainer, right? Someone tells you that you can either never walk again or try weights. You would probably try the weight. But for me, I was so nervous and shy about going to a gym.
I really had to think about that a lot and finally decided to do it with the persuasion of a friend. I thought “I can do this.”
That was really the first time I found a community of like-minded people who are all there for the same purpose, and everybody is supportive of each other. I had this fear that I’d get there and people would feel like, “You’re the nerd. Get out of here or whatever.”
That didn’t happen. I started immersing myself in that world. And before long, I ended up being a manager for this health club. One of the things that we offered was yoga. I always joked that I came into yoga sort of through the back way because what kept happening is our yoga instructors would call out sick, and there would be nobody to fill in. When that happens a couple of times, your members start getting really upset at you.
So, I started learning yoga so that I could fill in for people who were not able to do it. In my head, I thought, “Yoga is wimpy!” I kind of thought only old people did yoga as an alternative to fitness. But when I got into it, I was shocked to realize that that’s not what it is at all. Not at all. If you build strength, you build flexibility, you build confidence, balance, all the things that we need.
Simultaneously, I was working in the mental health field, and I was really seeing the connection between the mind and the body. Now, that’s a buzzword and psychology and wellness today. But back then, nobody was really talking about that. My initial training was more on using yoga as a treatment for mental health rather than fitness.
Q: Why do you think there is now this focus on mind and body connection?
Honestly, when I did my first workout, I felt so good afterward. I mean, yeah, you’re sore, but you also feel good about yourself. For me, my sleep improved. After that first workout, I knew this needed to be a part of my life.
The fitness industry keeps changing its area of focus. It was all about in person. Then, it was all about weights. I’ve been in this field for over 25 years, and I’ve seen fads come and go. But, the focus on “self” is always there.
The internet gave people new options. You didn’t just have to go to a gym or have a gym set up at your home. You could connect with people through time and space.
Q: How do you choose the length of your classes?
I do some shorter classes, as well, but mostly I stick to the same structure that I’ve always done. Maybe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
For yoga, it is possible to pick and choose pieces of the practice to get short-term benefits. Absolutely But for me, doing a 70-minute yoga class lets you get the full strength cardio, flexibility, balance, coordination, and mindfulness. It’s an investment in your time, obviously in your energy. But you get everything in one shot.
Q: Who are your role models when it comes to wellness? When it comes to yoga? Have they impacted your perspective, your passion?
A lot of people will point to internationally-known or nationally-known people who really motivate them. For me, it’s more the local people who have really impacted me. They are the people who I studied under, people that I trained with, people that I still know.
I also learn from my students every time I teach a class because everybody is different.
Q: What was that transition to being mainly at home like for you 18-months ago? How did you handle it?
I was already focused on trying to connect with people through time and space. At one point, I owned a fitness center, and I kept realizing that because I live in a really rural area, we don’t have a lot of people here. We have four fitness centers and that’s it. I started to look into why people weren’t committing. I found that it was often time, especially for classes. People would say things like, “Well, that doesn’t fit with my schedule.”
We used to say things like, “I couldn’t work out from home.” Or, “I need to go somewhere.” For others, it was because of cost. So, I started to create videos on an existing platform like Zoom.
I created an on-demand video library in 2014. So, I was already thinking about that. But the platforms we were using were horrible. They weren’t up to what we have today.
I spent probably four or five months looking for a new platform. And I am so grateful that I found Burnalong because it brings people together in a way that I always had envisioned but never could sustain.
The other cool thing can I also say is that yoga was never meant to be something in a classroom that you go somewhere and do. It was meant to be something that was integrated into our daily lives. I think it’s awesome that people can be in the space where they live or work and do a yoga class. It’s instantly integrated into where they are.
The ancient Indians didn’t have classrooms. They didn’t use yoga mats, for example, they didn’t have music, they didn’t have mirrors, and all that.
Q: A lot of people in March 2020 panicked and rushed to adapt. What do you think was helpful for you going into it? What advantage do you think you had over some other trainers who had just scramble?
I’m a really introverted person. So, it’s not bad for me not to be in front of a classroom. In that respect, personality-wise, this works much better for me. I’m a homebody so that was fine. It also cut out my commute.
There’s a little learning curve, obviously, because every platform is a little different. But I think in general, I was used to trying to interact with a screen.
But how do you invite people into that? You develop a language that’s more inclusive. Asking questions like, “How’s everybody feeling out there? How did that exercise make you feel? What did you think of that posture?” You’re asking questions but you’re not getting answers back. So that’s a little weird for most people.
I always end my classes on Burnalong saying, “Please follow me as an instructor, but let me know that you’re here. That way, I know who’s here and it lets me know what their goals are. When the feedback comes in, it’s really awesome to see that people are using that opportunity to connect.
Q: What’s your philosophy, William, when it comes to impacting your clients, helping them achieve their goals?
This goes back to my counseling training that everybody has their own inner wisdom. They have their own path. It’s not my job to tell somebody else what their path is. My goal is to help people connect to their own paths. There’s a great expression that basically says, “If I come here to help you and fix you, it’s not going to be as meaningful as if we join together and find that healing together.”
Q: I want to talk about your success on Burnalong. Obviously, you have a huge library of classes but more than that, people are engaging with them in really meaningful ways. You’ve been on other platforms, so you’ve seen what there is to offer. Why do you choose Burnalong as the one?
I’ve already mentioned that I lived in a very rural area, and I wanted my local people to be able to easily integrate into something. This is a place where the wind blows wrong, and people lose their internet for four hours. So, I needed to make sure that the platform itself was not going to crash.
Burnalong had awesome success rates and the structure of the platform was really solid. It was also very affordable for my local folks to just jump right on which they did. But I also feel having the corporate connection, being able to reach people where they’re at around the world is huge.
Customer service there has been outstanding. Any questions I’ve had or any questions that the clients or students have had answered very quickly and honestly. The quality of the classes is really good. I’m not just an instructor, I take classes on Burnalong. I love the other instructors, and I want to support them, and I hope that someday we’ll be able to interact more, as well.
Q: You’re creating this virtual programming. Who’s it for? Who are you thinking about when you’re making these yoga classes?
At first, it was about people like me who maybe were too shy or didn’t have the experience with fitness and wellness. And then it just expanded.
For every client that I worked with, whether it was in personal training, or mental health work, I could see people grow and their confidence build. I could watch them get stronger.
So now, I think about everybody. I think about some stereotypical people that would come to yoga, but I also might get the football team that wants to develop their skills, or the elderly who might want to try yoga but have always been a little nervous to do it safely.
I’m excited about everybody because I think everybody can benefit.
Q: What’s next for you? Where do you see the next six months, a year, two years looking like for you?
I really want to solidify this. Being on Burnalong, I’m committed, obviously, to continuing this. So, I want to keep doing that. I also want to keep developing new classes and trying new formats.
That’s the other awesome thing about Burnalong. If I went to my local fitness center and said I want to teach a class called Yoga Aerobics, they would look at me like I had four heads.
But if you put something creative like that on Burnalong, somebody, somewhere finds it and benefits from it. People have been asking a lot about more mental health workshops. I just recorded one yesterday on how to turn negative thoughts into positive thoughts. I want to do more stuff like that to integrate physical and mental.
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