Jessamyn Stanley on Moving Beyond Body Positivity

Jessamyn Stanley is so over white-centric, consumer-driven yoga. Armed with a powerful social platform, and a whole lot of attitude, this yoga teacher and New Age thought leader has declared to the world that anybody can practice yoga. And she’s not afraid to show us how it’s done.

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Jessamyn Stanley would like y’all to stop calling her a yogi—please and thank you. The 31-year-old yoga teacher from North Carolina, who once shamelessly peed her pants in Savasana rather than leave the room while teaching a hot-yoga class in London, has been struggling with mild celebrity since people started recognizing her in Whole Foods and the airport and the DMV and sometimes just walking down the street.

Jessamyn Stanley
Christopher Dougherty

“Aren’t you that yoga teacher from the tampon commercial?” they began asking after she starred in a U by Kotex Fitness ad for menstrual pads. “Hey, aren’t you that yogi from Instagram?” It can sometimes feel relentless. And while it’s true that Stanley’s Instagram account (with 400,000 followers and rising) is populated by pictures of her, often in her underwear, practicing difficult yoga poses, she says the fame and other forms of ego candy that fuel social media are greatly at odds with the yogic lifestyle she’s trying to live. So will everyone just chill and let her live it?

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Like it or not, Stanley has attracted a massive amount of attention in what feels like a few short years. Since 2015, she’s been recognized by countless media outlets such as Forbes, Bon Appétit, and USA Today—and last year she became the go-to yoga spokesperson for the New York Times. Her podcast, Jessamyn Explains It All, is recording its second season, and she’s about to launch a Web series, in which she’ll tackle taboo, politicized issues such as the legalization of marijuana and the shortcomings of monogamy. (Her first guest will be yoga teacher and fellow body-positivity advocate Dana Falsetti.)

Jessamyn Stanley prayer hands
Christopher Dougherty

Stanley believes people are paying attention because they aren’t used to seeing a fat black woman tackle tough asana, the American yoga space being—in her words—“deeply rooted in white supremacy.” She’s uncensored in her critiques of modern yoga in the West and of forms of oppression and body shaming she calls “patriarchal white-centric beauty standards.” She calls herself fat constantly—in her Instagram posts (“It’s weird to be the fat kid that thin kids want to know/befriend,” she wrote in August); in her 2017 book, Every Body Yoga; and in conversation—as a means of taking back ownership of a term generally reserved for shaming those it describes. To that end, she’s a one-woman visibility crusader, dismantling expectations about what a yoga body looks like and encouraging more people who don’t generally see themselves reflected in the yoga space to come along.

See also 5 Ways You Can Use Your Yoga Practice to Improve Your Body Image

Stanley started her Instagram account not to become the poster child for fat yoga, but to solicit feedback on a home practice she’d started in 2012. Like so many yoga practitioners, she says she never truly felt comfortable in a public yoga class, squeezing herself into the farthest back corner of the room wishing to be invisible—the very opposite of what she stands for today. But back then, she was insecure and a little lost, having dropped out of grad school at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, so she began a yoga practice from the safety of her own living room. She utilized Yoga Journal’s pose index and online classes from Kathryn Budig and Amy Ippoliti, documenting her progress online. “But the response I was getting from people wasn’t a lot of feedback about my practice, it was more people being like, ‘Oh, my god. I didn’t know fat people could do yoga,’” she says. “And I was like, ‘Why do you think that fat people can’t do yoga? Fat people do all kinds of stuff all the time.’” That’s when she realized her unique opportunity to broadcast a real yoga practice, “scars and all,” she says.

Jessamyn Stanley working at desk
Christopher Dougherty

By the time she attended a 200-hour yoga teacher training (YTT) in Asheville, North Carolina, in March 2015, she had amassed a sizable online following and interest from the press. In January of that year, People ran a story about the “self-proclaimed fat femme” who, with 29,000 followers, had become a “yoga star on Instagram.” In the piece, she discussed her plan to crowdsource the money she needed to attend YTT later. “There’s obviously a need for this,” she said at the time. “People are thirsty for someone who looks like them—or at least who doesn’t look like everybody else—to show them what to do.”

But as we sit across from each other eating churros and sipping on lattes one October morning in Durham, where she lives with her partner and three cats, she tells me she never aspired to become a yoga teacher at all. “So many people were asking me to do it,” she recalls. “But I didn’t understand why I needed to be the one to teach.” Instead, she’d thoughtfully respond to her fans by researching and suggesting Jessamyn-approved teachers in their areas. It wasn’t until her father, who had disapproved of her foray into yoga “from the jump-off” offered to help fund her training that she began to take teaching seriously. “My parents do not have $3,000 laying around,” Stanley says. “For him to be so emphatic, I realized there were bigger forces at play.”

Jessamyn Stanley, downward dog
Christopher Dougherty

Stanley says her life could be neatly divided into pre- and post-YTT. “During YTT I had a number of experiences that cracked open my soul,” she says. “I was able to see so many things I’d been hiding from myself, and I understood that the way to teach people would be to genuinely live this practice and to shed light, as much as I can, on the spaces that are ugly and dark and complicated, and reflect that to the people. For me, that’s what teaching should be. Rather than being a career choice, it’s a mission. A call to action. Something to drive purpose in life. When I left training I was like, ‘OK, now it’s time to reach the people who have asked me to reach them.”

See also How One Yoga Teacher Reclaimed Her Healthy Body Image in the Face of Shaming

And she does. Stanley spends nearly every weekend on the road teaching classes in regions where she’s been beckoned by students who are hungry for her brand of off-the-cuff honesty and brazen practice style. “She definitely has a take-no-prisoners approach that I deeply admire about her,” says yogalebrity in her own right Kathryn Budig. “I think we’re entering a phase where people want fewer platitudes and more honesty, and she delivers any message that she wants to give with no frills, completely unadulterated.”

Jessamyn Stanley on bench
Christopher Dougherty

Stanley’s ultimate goal is to make more body-diverse classes accessible to anyone who wants them—and to those who don’t yet realize that we all need them if we are ever to truly embrace what yoga is all about. Her new yoga app, The Under Belly, will launch early this year, helping to make her classes available to anyone with a smartphone or computer. Stanley realizes that this alone requires a certain amount of privilege, but she says she’s doing the best she can. She’s got bills to pay, too.

On our last day together, I ask her about some of the tattoos that adorn her arms like sheet music. One of them is the state motto of North Carolina, Esse quam videri, Latin for To be, rather than to seem. “She’s not about what things look like or being a yoga poseur,” says Sage Rountree, co-owner of Carolina Yoga Company, where Stanley once had a teaching residency. “She focuses more on being real than trying to project the image of being real.”

Jessamyn Stanley, fallen triangle pose
Christopher Dougherty

And that’s exactly why Stanley would like everyone to stop calling her a yogi. True yogis, she says, live in a state of perpetual detachment—from material possessions, from worry, from judgment. “It would be outrageous and outlandish to say I’ve found a way of dealing with, and releasing, attachment like that,” she says. But hey, she’s working on it. 

See also Is Social Media Wrecking Your Body Image?

About the Author
Lindsay Tucker is a senior editor at Yoga Journal.

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