Jessamyn Stanley shatters stereotypes in the yoga world one pose at a time

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 25: Jessamyn Stanley attends the TDI Awards during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Spring Studios on April 25, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

Jessamyn Stanley spent more than half of her life trying to become a stereotype. As a child growing up in North Carolina, she wanted to be like the bubbly cheerleaders or polished pageant girls she saw in her favorite pre-teen movies.

But it wasn’t until Stanley — a black, self-proclaimed “fat femme,” plagued by years of self-doubt — stripped down and hit the yoga mat that she found widespread acceptance and managed to break every stereotype anyone has ever had about who can and who should practice yoga.

The 29-year-old yoga instructor has become an international sensation whose Instagram posts of herself in various poses have resonated with anyone who has ever felt too marginalized or too intimidated to study yoga.

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Her new book “Every Body Yoga,” (Workman,  $17), details her rise from social pariah to social media superstar and more importantly, to a yogi on a journey to stay true to herself and maybe inspire a few others along the way.

“I think (people) are responding to a genuine, honest and authentic human being. I think a lot of people see themselves in me,” said Stanley who is visiting Georgia on May 23 at Avid Bookshop in Athens. Stanley, who has been touring the country promoting her book, holds Atlanta’s yoga community in high regard.

“Atlanta is the most diverse yoga community that I have ever personally witnessed. It was very ethnically diverse and size diverse,” said Stanley. “The core problem with the modern yoga world is that it is not built to be accepting.”

Even worse, said Stanley, is that some people in the yoga community don’t understand how the environment they have created may be perceived as unwelcoming to people of different sizes, races, genders, etc. Modern yoga, she said, has become bogged down with commercialism, narcissism and a general reluctance to delve into the deeper question of cultural appropriation.

What Stanley offers in the way of inspiration is her own story —  a combination memoir, instructional guide — designed to get those who may want to get started with yoga off their butts and onto their mats. 

When she first began posting images of herself on Instagram, her goal was simply to get better. It was a way to view her body and make proper adjustments, she said. Then the questions and comments began flowing in.

“I had so many people reaching out to me saying, ‘Wow, I can’t believe fat people can practice yoga,” she said. They would want to know her story, and she felt she would have to tell them everything. The best way to do it, she said, was to write a book where she could answer those questions once and for all.

By Christine Hewitt

But writing a memoir meant taking a trip to some dark emotional places.

“It was very difficult for me to write the memoir aspects of it but I felt like it was important because I don’t see a lot of honest representations of yoga practice. It is never about the darkness and intricacies that really make a person practice yoga,” she said.

So she went there — to the death of a relative that left her and her family feeling unhinged, to all those moments she felt unattractive and starved of attention, to the feelings of self-disgust that threatened to engulf her as a young adult. For each journey, she assigns a yoga sequence rooted in those emotions.

In 2012, Stanley was forced to make a transition. The Bikram yoga practice she had established was cut short by a move to Durham and a lack of funds. There were few studios in the area that offered free classes, and Stanley didn’t have $15 to spare a few times a week.

Related: Free outdoor yoga in Atlanta

Though she was afraid, Stanley began practicing yoga at home, and was surprised to find that alone, she had the confidence to push herself beyond her comfort zone. It was her first step in becoming her own teacher — the goal drilled into yoga practitioners — and an important step on her journey to self-acceptance.

While she has touched many people — online and in real life — Stanley makes it very clear that the mission she is on, is her own.

She has a few issues with the modern yoga world, but the ones that really bother her is that the people who really need yoga the most — the marginalized — are the ones who get it the least.

Stanley hopes to translate her desire to make yoga more accessible into a series of pay as you can or flexible payment classes in underserved areas around the country and she is working on a podcast that will offer a space to talk about all the things that don’t get talked about in the modern yoga world.

“I have no interest in changing the modern yoga world. Yoga has existed around the world for thousands of years,” Stanley said. “I am just gonna live my yoga practice and if (people) are inspired to live their yoga practice by listening to me, that is dope.”

Event Preview:

Books signing and talk with Jessamyn Stanley

6:30 p.m., Tuesday, May 23

Avid Bookshop, 493 Prince Ave, Athens

Reader Comments 0


Good for her and comfortable with the skin you're in.