photo via Jessamyn Stanley
Yoga is complicated. Not just because, you know, I personally can’t touch my toes, but because yoga is so many things in our society.
For some people, it’s straight-up exercise. For others, it’s tied to spirituality and meditation. Many people find yoga to be healthy and empowering—it’s exercise you can do with just your body, no special equipment required. But yoga culture is also wrapped up in consumerism and materialism. The 2016 Yoga in America Study, undertaken by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, found that Americans spend $16.8 billion on yoga products and classes a year. That’s a far cry from a spirit of minimalism. And this is all closely related to gender, race, and body image—according to that study, 72 percent of people who do yoga are women. The Yoga in America study didn’t ask about race—that’s quite the oversight—but for many people, the image of yoga is a skinny white woman Instagramming herself doing tree pose on a beach while wearing a pseudo-Native American headband and expensive Lululemon leggings—hashtag #blessed.
To navigate this tricky world, there’s no one I’d rather turn to than Jessamyn Stanley, a fat-positive, queer, Black avid yoga practitioner who has gained a huge following on Tumblr and Instagram for posting photos of her home yoga practice.
“It’s basically like people are worshipping handstands or worshipping arm balances, trying to do these things because it’ll somehow make you a better person,” says Stanley. “But that’s not what yoga actually is.”
Stanley recently announced that she’ll be publishing a book collecting her ideas: Every Body Yoga is due out in spring 2017. Ever since she started writing and posting photos of her practice, Stanley has been challenging mainstream yoga culture in the United States to be more inclusive and building a clear image of what it means to be body positive.
For Stanley, yoga isn’t so much about going to a class and doing certain poses. It’s about feeling a connection between your body and who you are. “If I’m having difficulty with balance on my mat, I can’t root into the ground, I can’t find a way to be stable, that is totally evident off the mat, too. That’s trying to balance in life,” says Stanley.
The core of her work is focusing on herself. Stanley’s photos are a form of self-expression. That’s what she says she’s always working on: checking her motivations so she isn’t comparing herself to other people. “It’s hard to see just yourself and not the other people whose bodies are different than yours. Learning to do that, to focus just on whether you feel healthy and good, runs counter to so much of our society.”
“It’s something we’re not even taught to do at all in the West,” she says. “From the jump-off, you come out of the womb and you’re already idolizing the babies in Gerber ads. That turns into idolizing the people who are on magazines or television shows. You spend your entire life doing that, so when it comes to things you want in your yoga practice, that’s naturally going to float in as well.”
There are not a lot of places in our society where we don’t compare ourselves to others. Where we’re encouraged to ask, “Why am I doing this? Am I just trying to be like someone else?”
Body positivity is about saying, “I’m okay. This is good. I am good.” That might sound simple, but it’s actually pretty radical. Our economic system is built around pushing people to acquire constantly and to try and move up because they’re not happy with who they are, what they have, or what their bodies look like. Saying “I feel good” runs contrary to capitalism.
“You’re immediately taught that you need to be compared against someone else. You’re never enough; you always need to be compared,” says Stanley.
When doing yoga, Stanley says she tries to think of her body like an instrument. She plays her instrument, and other people play their instruments. As a teacher, she does not strive to have everyone feel like they need to play their instruments in exactly the same way and sound perfectly in unison. Instead, everyone’s instrument is different, and everyone can play in harmony. Even if you spend the entire class in child’s pose, that’s good if it feels good to you. While yoga has become a lot more popular in the last decade, many classes are hotbeds of anxiety and judgement, says Stanley.
“I always just wanted to be in a class where it was totally fine to come in wearing whatever I had instead of dressed in the Lululemon clothes that not only can I not afford but that don’t fit my body,” says Stanley.
Now that she’s become a teacher, author, and role model for others, Stanley feels a responsibility to get people to rethink some of the more problematic parts of yoga—like cultural appropriation. As Stanley explains, she doesn’t tell people to do one thing and not do another. There’s not a list of cut-and-dry guidelines that people can follow to make sure they’re always practicing yoga without laying claim to a culture, spirituality, or heritage that’s not theirs. Instead, she tries to get people to examine their own behaviors and think about it again and again.
“Take a beat and think about it. Most people do not take a beat at all,” says Stanley. “For me, that is embedded in my practice. I think it has a lot to do with being a Black, queer female. There’s always someone trying to take some shit from me that doesn’t belong to them. If you’ve experienced just how disrespectful that is, then you think, Oh, then maybe I should check x, y, and z about my behavior.”
This is not an easy conversation to have a lot of the time. And it’s an ongoing practice.
“Most people don’t want to accept the blame or feel like they’ve done anything wrong. If more people just took a moment to think, Hm, is this okay?, the world would be different,” she says. “Nine times out of 10, you’re probably going to think, I shouldn’t have done that.”
For Stanley, doing yoga isn’t about achieving some perfect physique either. In fact, it’s the opposite: It helps her realize that there is no such thing as perfect and that no matter how good life is, there are still low times and hard times.
“There’s still dark days,” says Stanley. “I don’t think that I started practicing yoga and things are magically awesome. Yoga helps you understand that things aren’t always magically awesome and they don’t need to be—that’s just part of living.”
This interview was part of our podcast on Body Positive Exercise. Listen to the whole show here.