Jessamyn Stanley has a down-to-earth, practical and body-positive approach to yoga that makes the practice accessible to folks who’ve felt alienated by yoga classes.
We’ve all been there: you walk into a new yoga class and you feel like you’re an alien among all those perfectly toned, willowy, limber yoginis. You’re sure that they’re staring at you for being different. Maybe you’re rounder, browner, clumsier or sweatier — all you know is, you’re not like them.
Yoga’s supposed to help you feel strong and calm in your body, but yoga classes can make you feel just the opposite. Sure, there are plenty of good ones, but others are more like walking into your high-school PE class. Jessamyn Stanley — the tall, curvy, African American Instagram star-turned-yoga teacher — knows all about it.
“I remember feeling as though everyone’s eyes were on me. And by ‘everyone’ I mean every single living and breathing human, from the person casually walking out of the studio to the bored studio receptionist to the person who chose to roll out her mat as far away from me as possible,” Stanley recalls of a Bikram yoga class she took in 2011. “Every single gaze felt like a judgment. ‘What are YOU doing here?’ the gazes said. ‘Your fat ass does not deserve to be here.’”
That story is in the first pages of Stanley’s first book on yoga, Every Body Yoga: Let Go Of Fear, Get On The Mat, Love Your Body, out April 4. Every Body Yoga is not your average yoga book. It’s part memoir, part DIY guide — and seriously inspirational. Before I picked it up, I hadn’t done yoga in months. By the time I was partway through, I couldn’t resist rolling out my mat for some poses. And I’m betting her no-nonsense approach will have a similar effect on others. Here are 4 reasons why.
1. She’s real.
Stanley doesn’t talk about how crow pose will make you feel ethereal or how holding plank for 5 minutes will give you perfect abs. Instead, she talks about her terrible early experiences with yoga, the many times she’s fallen down while trying to hold a pose, and the importance of trying and playing until yoga feels good.
She also offers tips on how big-breasted folks can do inverted poses without whacking themselves in the chin, and flat-out tells readers that farting in yoga class is inevitable. “Try not to be embarrassed, because it’s not a big deal. … But if someone tries to make you feel bad, then that person is obviously a giant douche monkey asshole who thinks their shit don’t stink,” she says.
2. She’s all for doing yoga at home
Often, yoga newcomers are encouraged to take classes so they can learn proper alignment from an experienced teacher. But Stanley says most of that stuff works itself out while you’re practicing and playing — as long as you listen to your body. She recommends that anyone with body discomfort, shame or hate try yoga at home — and take pictures. Not only so they can study their alignment later, but also so they can see how awesome they look.
“The more I practiced yoga in the comfort of my home, the easier it became to stop caring about the body parts I’d been taught to hate,” she writes. “I became impressed by the strength I was exhibiting in my poses … And there’s something pretty magical about seeing a frozen moment in time wherein strength is unavoidable and can’t be acknowledged as anything else.”
3. Her yoga sequences are aimed at marginalized folks
In real, touching and often hilarious vignettes, Stanley tells stories from her life in Every Body Yoga. There’s the time she tried to be a beauty queen, the time she joined Weight Watchers, the time she had to face up to her alcoholism and the time she was about to view a coveted apartment when she got the call that her favorite aunt had died.
She talks about growing up poor, black and plus-sized in the South in language that’s both specific and relatable to anyone who’s been through the existential wringer. In talking about her experiences, Stanley shows how yoga has helped her work through some of her toughest feelings. Each vignette is followed by a yoga sequence designed to help readers find strength, balance and new perspectives or release fear.
4. She makes yoga’s woo-woo side feel practical
Stanley describes how, after she began photographing her home practice and sharing her pics on Instagram, she became drawn to other facets of yoga. In a chapter titled “What the Fuck is the Eight-Limbed Path?” she talks about those eight limbs, one of which is asana (poses). The other seven include “restraints” like nonviolence and not lying, “disciplines” like contentment and self-analysis, breath work, meditation and “total absorption” — “a complete union with the ever-present (and religion-free) divinity of all creations.” No pressure.
For many who come to yoga for fitness, these more spiritual aspects might seem way, way too out there. At the end of the book, Stanley describes an experience in a yoga teacher training in which she found herself apologizing for existing — something marginalized folks find themselves doing way too often — and then wound up sobbing for hours.
“It was one of the saddest and darkest self-realizations I’ve ever made. It hit me to my core. But would I have ever reached that point if I hadn’t practiced yoga?” she asks. “Now that I’ve actually acknowledged the problem, I can work toward eliminating it from my being. This is the eight-limbed path in action.”
Stanley’s down-to-earth, big-hearted, practical guide to yoga makes the practice accessible to folks who have felt shut out of traditional classes. And, if you’d like even more Jessamyn, she’s on a book tour this spring, including a stop in the San Francisco Bay Area with Wear Your Voice columnist Virgie Tovar. Check the schedule to see if there’s a stop near you.