Jessamyn Stanley Is Destroying Convention And Showing Yoga Is Truly For Every Body
Jessamyn Stanley has it figured out, which is to say she understands the important part in life is being dedicated to figuring it out.
Her smile. Her passion. Her eloquence. The yoga teacher, writer and body positive advocate is very much on a voyage of self-discovery.
“Me and my body are just, we're on a journey together,” Stanley said.
The over 430,000 followers she has on Instagram will tell you that the 32-year-old is honest and bold, never mincing words or holding back from presenting herself to a world that is used to shaming people of a certain size.
That shame, by the way, is not relegated to others passing judgment. The shame starts with the person looking in the mirror. Even someone as effervescent as Stanley goes dark from time to time.
“One of the first things that I learned as a human being was how to hate on myself and not just for my size, but for my dry skin, for my hair,” Stanley said. “Literally everything that you could hate about yourself.”
It’s astonishing to hear, especially as you pore over her social media channels, podcast “Dear Jessamyn” and read her words in publications such as Cosmopolitan and Self as well as her book "Every Body Yoga."
Stanley is more than a yoga teacher at The Underbelly, promoting body positivity and showing that the practice is for all shapes, sizes and colors. She is a guru of beauty and truth, and that starts with honesty.
But it was the insight of others that got Stanley to come around to the notion that her body wasn’t something to be hated or feared but instead celebrated.
It was a hard process. In the early days of starting her yoga practice, Stanley would photograph herself to promote her growing brand.
“And when I would look at myself in the process of taking the photos, I would be so negative toward myself. And it was wild because it was in complete contrast to how I felt in the moment that the photo was being taken,” she said.
Author Sonya Renee Taylor and the notion of body liberation was particularly powerful to Stanley, “It's really just trying to own your body and not feel as though anyone else has control over you.”
And so that’s what Stanley has done, carved out a beautiful section of the world where mainstream ideals don’t hinder the enjoyment of yoga or one’s own body.
She hated yoga at first though. It’s like that sometimes. You meet someone at a party. It’s the wrong time, the wrong conversation, the wrong setting.
She wasn’t ready to fall in love.
Her initial foray into yoga came in high school, an experience she loathed. But then another opportunity came in grad school.
“I was going through a period that, like I really think is pretty normal for anyone in their early twenties,” Stanley said. “It was basically that when the rubber meets the road, who I am and what I think is going on within me does not match up with how my professional life in my personal life is shaping up. So, I found myself just sliding into a place of depression.”
What Stanley found the second time was an outlet. But more importantly, the practice centered herself and gave her a spiritual spark she continues to pursue.
“And it became this very addictive experience, being able to surpass something that I had previously determined about myself,” the Durham, N.C. native said. “And it's funny, I definitely didn't come to yoga as a way for me to gain flexibility or strengthen or get into exercise or anything like that. It was very much from a medicinal, I need physical activity in order to survive…But when it comes down to it, I just think of yoga as my medicine.”
The world is a chaotic maelstrom of information. Social media, news, politics, a global pandemic: it’s enough to annihilate the last vestiges of zen you might have.
“I think that we underestimate the power and the healing that comes from listening to ourselves and looking within ourselves,” Stanley said.
Once you believe in yourself, submit to the confidence as a reality, then you can allow yourself to move on in a positive direction. Again, it starts from a place of honesty.
“I don't have to be my own worst enemy,” Stanley said. “If I want to experience aggression from others, I can go out into the world. I don't have to give that to myself at home.”
There are difficulties as with any journey. But you move on, aiming to walk from one misstep with the confidence that the next hurdle will be a stepping stone rather than a barrier.
“I think that every day is different,” she said. “Every day is a brand-new day. Every day is an opportunity. But one thing that has been really helpful for me is just actually interrogating and then accepting the things that I'm saying about myself.”
Stanley likens it to a situation she often finds herself in, one I can relate to with remarkable clarity.
She’s at a Whole Foods, weighing her options at the hot bar when the mood strikes to take a scoop of the mac and cheese. But there’s something that prevents her from doing so as gleefully as one should when scooping mac and cheese: the eyes.
The eyes of the other patrons, gawking at a bigger person daring to choose carbs and cheese for lunch over the many other healthier choices.
But the thing about the eyes is that they don’t exist. Or, if they do, they are far less powerful than your own guilt and self-resentment, which can really kill an otherwise delicious meal.
“But if you think you shouldn't get it because of the stranger's gaze at your plate maybe it's time to try to understand why are you projecting your feelings onto a stranger,” Stanley explained. “Maybe they're not even looking at your plate. Maybe they want macaroni and cheese. That's why they're looking at your plate. I get into this whole thing of like, actually having the hard conversation with myself. So, this is all winding way of saying that as much as I do my best to love my body, I learned to hate my body from the moment that I got here. And I think that I'm in a permanent state of recovery.“
We’ve all had those tough inner-conversations. We’ve all felt that we shouldn’t enjoy the unhealthy choice because of what others might think or how it might make us feel.
While Stanley will tell you that life is far from easy, speaking to her makes momentum and drive seem like an attainable enterprise.
Yoga For Everyone
The idea of yoga can seem fairly daunting. Sure, hop into a class with a bunch of strangers and play a personal game of Twister for an hour. And make sure to wear your tightest clothing.
But Stanley is trying to destroy that thinking, about yoga or anything else in which you might find a passion.
“A lot of the way that yoga is perceived is about postures and just physical practice,” she said. “But yoga is really about finding balance in every part of life.”
At the heart of Stanley’s work is this nagging preoccupation this world has with body size and conformity.
“I think it is just a very one-dimensional version of health that is shown to the mainstream,” she said. “And I understand why people are prejudiced. But I think that, like, if you're over a certain amount of pounds or size or whatever, then that means that you are unhealthy.”
She lived in the women’s rugby house in college. The notion those women aren’t fit is laughable. Weightlifters, linemen and even, as she noted in her childhood, plus-size surfers: athletes come in all manner of size.
The important thing is to pull back the curtain and highlight that fact. Celebrating diversity is the easiest way to get all people to the gym, or mat or into the ocean.
Stanley reminds that “varied body size is not a negative. And I think it really just has a lot to do with what people are allowed to see.”
Exposure to diversity cuts down on personal shame, uplifts and enlivens.
“But then when I realized that people were reaching out to me and being like, I didn't know this, that (bigger) people could do yoga, I was like, oh, shit,” Stanley recalled. “So really fat people just need more representation. More people out here showing like, oh, actually, there's all kinds of things that you can do with your body and it doesn't matter how much weight is on it.”
But first, drop the notion that you have to change your body to begin to love yourself. Fitness is a very broad term that isn’t relegated to people with one body type.
“I think that if you allow diverse representation and if you make sure that people to see themselves, then you want to take care of your body,” she said. “And I think that taking care of your body doesn't mean that you're trying to lose weight. It literally just means you're trying to take care of it.”
It’s so important during these remarkable times. Perhaps consider a home practice. Because yoga is the ideal vehicle of peace to bring into your living room.
“I would say that honestly, building a home, yoga practice, regardless of what's going on in your life, is something that can add an unparalleled level of chill,” Stanley said.
Whether it be from her yoga classes or simply having a chat with her, Stanley is a beacon of positivity and reassurance.
With one advertisement after another, we are shown what to look like or how to feel. We stare at friends’ Instagram posts not realizing they are as edited as our own.
The world is set up to make you doubt. But the trick is to give doubt the middle finger.
“And I think that more than anything, though, even beyond what I what I offer, I just think that knowing that you are okay today. Exactly as you are,” Stanley said. “Everything about you is where it needs to be. Every scar is there on purpose. Every fat was there on purpose. Every injury happened for a reason. Everything is exactly as it needs to be. And you are perfect today.”