Jessamyn Stanley has been an inspiration to curvy yoga practitioners and yoginis of color since she launched her Instagram account years ago to connect with others who love yoga. She’s the perfect antidote to all those snobby, seemingly perfect, LuluLemon-clad yoga-doers. You know the type.
These days, she’s a teacher, traveling the country to lead classes in person and offering online lessons through @codyapp. Stanley also just announced that she will be releasing her first yoga book, Every Body Yoga: Let Go of Fear, Get On The Mat, and Love Your Body, next spring. You can pre-order it here.
I recently talked with Stanley about the benefits of yoga — and representation. Here’s what she had to say:
WYV: How did you first get into yoga?
JS: In grad school, I was going through the ending of a long term relationship. It was a scary and dramatic ending. I had fallen out of touch with my graduate program, and I was slipping into a really dark depression. One of my classmates encouraged me to do yoga. I had tried it once in high school and hated it, but [my friend] eventually wore me down.
So I went, and I loved it. Everything that was difficult before — the breathing, the poses, the heat — I loved it. I realized that in my day to day life, I wasn’t challenging myself. I was basically sleepwalking through life, and yoga helped wake me up from that.
But I couldn’t afford to keep practicing at a yoga studio. I found a way to do it as work study, which required practicing four or five times a week. Eventually, it gave me the confidence to leave grad school and move to Durham, North Carolina. But when I got here, I didn’t have the work study, and I stopped practicing.
Then a lot of sad things happened — my mom died unexpectedly, my grandmother died, and I found myself back in a place of depression. So I thought, ‘What helped me before?’ I started doing yoga at home. It was like taking any kind of medicine; I was just looking for anything to help me not hate myself and not hate everything around me.
I started reading online and I learned so much about yoga — the asanas, the history. This was around the time Instagram was getting popular, and students were taking pictures of themselves and talking. It was like having a studio, but online. Over time, I noticed the people responding to me were saying, “Wow, I didn’t know a fat girl could do yoga.” And I thought, “That’s a problem.” People genuinely believe that an active fat person can’t exist.
In the beginning [of my yoga practice], it was me showing up, not knowing what kind of experience I’d have. But I had to do it every day, because it’s literally saving my life. And it’s not something you do on your mat one or two hours a day — it’s something you do every minute of your life.
WYV: How long did it take for you to find a diverse, body positive yoga environment?
JS: The fact of the matter is, most spaces aren’t body positive. Usually I was the only fat person there, the teacher was talking down to me, and the students were also giving me that feeling. And, overwhelmingly, that’s what I still encounter, literally all over this country and in other countries.
That being said, there are a number of spaces I’ve encountered that are body positive. In New York, Atlanta, the Bay Area, Portland. But that’s about it. To be frank, I’m only referring to Western yoga. I think there’s also a tendency to believe that a body positive class has to have lots of modifications. But body positivity expands beyond the needs of one particular group. I feel like there are body positive classes that aren’t body positive, to my mind. And there could be more, for sure. I don’t think anyone could argue with that.
WYV: Have you had to make any adjustments to poses for your body? Like, for some poses I have to move my belly out of the way.
JS: The big issue, overall, is we’re trying to avoid the elephant in the room, which is you’re fat or you’re missing a leg or whatever. People want to pretend that’s not the issue. I feel like it’s better to say, “OK, I’m fat. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to make these shapes.”
It’s not a big deal. Even if it’s a pose you’ve never done, you know you have to get your belly out of the way or your ass or your breasts or whatever. I spent a long time trying to pretend my body isn’t the way it is. I have really broad shoulders, and when I do downward facing dog — that was one of the poses that … I didn’t understand why people are doing this. I couldn’t hold it. Over time, I realized I was trying to mimic smaller bodied people. If you look at broad shouldered people, their hands need to be farther apart. I have another teacher friend who is a ballerina. She’s very small, very flexible. But she has broad shoulders, and she holds her hands far apart [too].
Being able to practice in any size body is a conversation you need to have whenever you’re practicing.
WYV: I’ve talked to some plus-size women who say they’ve never thought they would be able to do yoga, and I’m sure you’ve heard the same. What do you tell people who say that?
JS: That’s not the case. The reason you think that is because the only image we’re ever given for what women should look like is slender, white, young. If you’re not in that category, they’re not going to put you on TV.
For me, it has helped that the media has never reflected what I look like, so it’s like, you can’t go by what they’re saying. It’s the patriarchy: if they don’t wanna fuck you, they’re not going to put you up there.
I know that I can do whatever I want to do — it’s not just yoga. The tendency to say, “I can’t do something,” it’s not just athletics. They probably also say. “I can’t do blank because of blank.”
But when you try [athletics] and it’s fun and awesome and you can do it, it suggests you can do those other things too. You can’t be the prey of people who want to oppress.
WYV: Now that you’re offering classes and inspiration to other plus-size folks, what kinds of responses have you gotten from people who are taking those classes or seeing your images on instagram etc?
JS: It’s always like, just, “Thank you for treating me like a human being.” I create the environment that I would have wanted back in the day. I want a teacher who will let me in the room, who will let me modify [poses] the way I want to, if I’m doing a pose my own way and it’s not wrong. So many teachers want to show all their knowledge, but that’s not the other person wanting to enjoy the practice.
That’s what the practice actually is. And people who don’t get that, they’re not teaching yoga. They’re just teaching asana.
Practice isn’t easy. They hear it’ll calm you, it makes you energetic, etc. It’s not easy. It’s hard as fuck at points. Sometimes you cry. But you need to cry. You need to have that experience. And when I can say, “I’ve been there, I hear you. And I will give you an assist during your child’s pose so you can enjoy it more,” it will always result in a positive experience for everyone.
A big realization for curvy people is that we’re taught if you do anything athletic, you need to be good at it. When I was a kid, I was always the slowest. Tried to break my ankle so many times so I wouldn’t have to participate. I was told, “You shouldn’t do this; you’re not good at this.”
And when you’re bigger bodied, you’re taught you need to be doing it for weight loss. And that you need to have your whole body covered up. But when I get hot, I wonder: why can’t I just do what everyone else is doing?
WYV: What’s your favorite yoga pose and why?
JS: For a long time, it was camel because it was so impossible — it felt completely out of my reach. It grew to be a major part of my practice. It was dolphin, which is low key one of the most difficult pose and involves so much full body integration. It felt like it took everything out of me, but that was the beauty of it — it took me to a place I couldn’t get to otherwise.
And then it was the wide-legged straddle. It seems like a very easy pose, but it’s a massive hip opener. And hips hold all our fight and flight. If you don’t empty out your hips, you’ll have low back pain obviously, but you’re also holding all that emotion. I would do it for long periods of time, and I was just weeping on the inside.
Now? I don’t know if there’s a specific one that’s my favorite. My meditation — at this stage of my life, the things I see when I look within myself are more profound than any shape my body has ever made. I’ve had things come up in and after meditation. It’s weird; I was very scared to meditate. I didn’t say i was scared. I said it was boring, or I was weirded out. We are not taught to honor internal thought. But the inward journey is so profound, because so much of our unhappiness comes from the boxes we live in: emotional boxes, spiritual boxes. I haven’t gotten over the boxes, but it’s helped me acknowledge those boxes. That’s probably the biggest part of my practice right now.
This interview has been edited and condensed.