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Breaking Yoga Stereotypes With Jessamyn Stanley

Jessamyn Stanley is a yoga teacher who “breaks all stereotypes” of a yogi. As she writes in the intro of her new book, Every Body Yoga, “All yoga bodies deserve to be represented in print, not just those that are slender, female, and white. I wrote this book for every fat person, every old person, and every exceptionally short person. ... I wrote it for every person who is self-conscious about their body.”

Nerdette’s Greta Johnsen and Tricia Bobeda, who is (or was!) a bit of a yoga skeptic, sat down with Stanley to hear her story and why she believes that yoga is much more than just a way to burn calories or an excuse to buy leggings. 

Greta Johnsen: Can you tell us about your first yoga class? What was that like? 

Jessamyn Stanley: My aunt was really into Bikram yoga when I was in high school. She was like, “Oh my god, try Bikram yoga. You’re gonna love it.” And I’m 16. I’m fat. I’ve got nothing better to do, so why not go to this yoga class? I went and I hated it.

Everything about it was awful. This particular style of yoga is done in a room that’s 104 degrees. It’s 26 poses done twice over 90 minutes. It’s intense. It’s like walking into a hot, damp washcloth and having that trapped across your face. 

Initially, I was like, “I’m dying!” I’m sweating from my eyebrows, sweating from my elbow creases, sweating in ways I didn’t know humans could sweat. And I think I’m being way too generous to say that I made it a third of the way into the class before I was like, “I’m done with this.”

It was seven years before I tried yoga again. And even when I did, I was super skeptical. This was not for me.

'Every Body Yoga' author Jessamyn Stanley likens yoga to finding an instrument within herself. 'I’m digging it out, and I’ve spent years trying to clean it off, and I’ve finally gotten to a place of learning to play it.' (Photo by Christine Hewitt/Courtesy of Jessamyn Stanley)

I was in graduate school and I was really depressed. I struggled with depression and anxiety my whole life, and it was another downward spiral. It was just a very sad time. One of my classmates was like, “Oh my god, you’ll love yoga! It’ll change your life.” And I was like, “I’m not doing that. I’ve tried it before, and it’s not for me.”

But I went, and I was the only black person and the only fat person. I was trying to hide myself in the furthest corner of the room. Everything about it was exactly the same as when I was 16. It was still hard as f*** and hot as f***, and it was so dreadful.

And then I got to a place of thinking, “Yeah, but you could just try.” That idea of just trying -- I was not doing that in my day-to-day life. And it was wild to start doing it with these postures that really did not seem like humans could do. And it gave me perspective, because if I could try in this context with something I was so unfamiliar with ... and over time, it did become easier. And I thought, “Where else in my life am I not doing this?”

To me, that has always been the magic of the practice: pushing me so far out of my comfort zone to a place where I’m pissed and I’m mad! I’m mad at myself. I’m mad at the practice. I’m just so lit up. And then pushing beyond that -- it’s insane. It’s addictive. 

Stanley said she wanted to show people with different body types that they can appreciate yoga. 'It’s really important to chronicle the stories of the people who you wouldn't typically expect to see.' (Photo by Christine Hewitt/Courtesy of Jessamyn Stanley)

Johnsen: Who do you envision your book being for?

Stanley: Within the yoga world, there are very few depictions of anyone other than a cisgender, heterosexual, white, slender woman, and she always has a certain amount of money. She has the time to practice in yoga studios and go on yoga retreats and drink coconut water and talk about kombucha in detail. But all of that is just a product of marketing. That’s not yoga.

It was important to me to show more body types and to show just how easy it is to start implementing this practice in your life.

When you think about a yoga teacher, you always see this -- I’ve described it as an angel and a unicorn had a baby and it wore stretch pants -- and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, namaste. I’m so perfect, and maybe if you practice a hundred sun salutations you'll feel perfect just like me.” And that's not really how it is. I’ve never met a yoga teacher or practitioner who didn't get into it because they have anxiety or depression or some injury. Something happened to you to make you need this medicine.

It was really important to me to tell the story about why I started practicing yoga because that story is not told at all in our society. It’s really important to chronicle the stories of the people who you wouldn't typically expect to see -- and that means a millennial who listens to hip-hop, who uses profanity, who has had an alcohol problem -- and being really frank about that.

Stanley said she tried yoga for the first time at 16 and hated it. (Photo by Christine Hewitt/Courtesy of Jessamyn Stanley)

Tricia Bobeda: I wonder about the transition you had between practicing and deciding it was time to teach. It can be so hard to take that first step. How did you do it?

Stanley: I had absolutely no interest in becoming a yoga teacher. I had been practicing for quite some time, and by this point I had a fair amount of press notoriety. And I had a lot of people reach out to me, asking if I’d come teach in Switzerland and Nigeria and all over the place, and I was recommending other yoga teachers, other classes, because I didn't understand why I needed to be a teacher. There are literally thousands of yoga teachers. So why do I need to do this? 

Eventually I realized that the reason I needed to be a teacher, the reason that everyone should be a teacher, is that we all have a unique set of experiences and a unique set of damages that we’re trying to work on. And as we honor that damage and allow it to just float up and learn to resolve it, we can reflect that experience to other people. And they can then have that journey within themselves.

I liken it to finding an instrument within myself. It’s like I found this instrument inside myself, and it's covered in goop and crap. And I’m like, “There’s an instrument in me!” I’m digging it out, and I’ve spent years trying to clean it off, and I’ve finally gotten to a place of learning to play it. 

And I feel like other people see me playing my instrument, learning to play my instrument and they’re like, “Where did you get that instrument from?” And I’m like “B****, I found this inside of me! You can find an instrument inside of you!” And they’re like “Word?” And I’m like “Yes!” 

And then they go inside of themselves and find their instrument and they’re digging it out and cleaning it off. And then we start playing together, and we’re not playing the same song. No one has to play the same song as me. But you learn to play your song. 

And that to me is the reason to teach, because if I can help somebody their instrument, then that’s what I’m gonna show up for it. 

'Within the yoga world, there are very few depictions of anyone other than a cisgender, heterosexual, white, slender woman, and she always has a certain amount of money,' Stanley said. 'But all of that is just a product of marketing. That’s not yoga.' (Photo by Christine Hewitt/Courtesy of Jessamyn Stanley)

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation.

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