Yoga Journal: What’s been going on since the app launched on April 4th?Jessamyn Stanley: It’s been a wild two weeks! I can’t believe it. We have more subscribers right now than I expected us to have in the first six months to a year. I think its greatest asset is that it’s something created by the person who needs it. I very much understand the experience of wanting to practice in studios but not feeling comfortable.
YJ: Is that why you decided to launch a home-practice app for your classes?
JS: I’d been thinking about doing my own classes online for a long time. I wasn't able to get the ball moving on it until February/May of 2018, and it’s taken about a year to build all the digital infrastructure and branding. When I first decided to go for it, I was for sure like, “OK, it’ll be ready in two months.” But I quickly realized no, this is basically like starting a new business, so it’s going to take a minute. It was definitely a haul. I decided it would be best to do an app and a web portal because those are the methods everyone uses to take online classes now—but I didn't realize that makes me a tech entrepreneur, that puts me in a whole other universe reading Wired and going to tech mixers.
YJ: You previously taught classes on Cody App, which became Alo Moves. How is this different?
JS: The thing that I’ve really noticed about a lot of yoga teachers who teach online is that they do not feel empowered to create their own software or streaming spaces because there are a few big companies corralling yoga teachers like horses in a stable. They trot their horses out to do whatever. It impacts the ideology because it’s not about spreading the practice of yoga, it’s about getting the $39.99 or whatever it costs. If you’re a minority in a situation like me—all these white-owned companies are like, “Shit! Diversity is a buzzword! We need some people who’re black!” They were courting me really hard because there was no one else who looked remotely like me, and all they cared about was if I was going to wear the clothing and record on schedule and how much money would it take to make it happen? They didn’t care about my teaching. So I’m good to make my own [online] studio. I hope this empowers other teachers who don’t feel empowered to do their own studio. The brick-and-mortar yoga studio isn't the best option to reach people all over the world, and very niche teachers would benefit from this kind of empowerment. Go your own way, not just for yourself, but for everyone who follows.
YJ: What do you think is the major thing missing from traditional yoga spaces?
JS: A teacher who talks about their body not as though they hate it; someone who is cool with themselves and their body’s functions; a teacher who uses profanity and farts and understands what it’s like to be pissed off. I don’t know how to say things diplomatically, but a yoga site that's not run by white men who don’t teach yoga or even care about it.
YJ: We could all use a little less white men running the show.
JS: For real! In the past two weeks, I’ve been overwhelmed by people telling me how I’ve profoundly impacted their lives—and the depth of their comments—it’s like the most intense of my teaching career. More than when my book came out. There are so many different apps and classes and websites for people to choose from, and people are like, “I just wanted to see a fat person doing this who isn't pretending they're not fat.”
YJ: What’s the greatest thing about practicing yoga at home?
JS: I think that it’s really important to have a connection to your own practice that's not inhibited by the opinions of other people. Sometimes, when we only practice in group settings, we lose that connection to ourselves and get into a cycle of needing other people. The studio culture intentionally exacerbates that. Doing yoga in a home setting, you’re able to be more comfortable and free and open with yourself than you are in a studio. I experience this to this day. I act differently in a studio. I’m so distracted by the other people in the room and not wanting to impede someone else's experience—yet yoga is the last place you should be thinking about that.
YJ: What about the idea that we need a teacher in the room to ensure proper alignment and safe practice?
JS: I don’t underestimate the value of having a teacher in the room paying attention, someone who can give physical- and spiritual-alignment tips, but sometimes we overstate the importance of having a teacher physically there. I’ve had teachers who have profoundly impacted me—Amy Ippoliti, Elena Brower, Jason Crandell—not from physically sharing space with them, but from the way they explain clearly and make space. Studios give the impression you’ve got to do it here and move in time with everyone in the room. It’s basically a dance troupe, so come prepared.
When I started my home practice, I thought, Is it safe for me to do this at home? How will I know I’m doing it right? That was a big catalyst for me to post on Instagram, to solicit feedback and track my progress. One of the new features on the Underbelly app is that you’ll be able to post on the app and on social to see the shifts in your body and make adjustments. You can be your own teacher, look at yourself, take photos and videos to compare to books, etc. There are endless resources online.
YJ: So what’s next? How do you continue to reach more and more people who so clearly crave your message?
JS: Well, the app will evolve with all kinds of new features coming like new classes and merch. But I’m most stoked about the Underbelly Experience Tour. It’s going to take the experience of going to one of my classes to a whole new level. Think of it like a yoga retreat in a day, and we’re taking it to different cities around the world. In each city there will be a practice with me, bookended by time to do group collective practices and different types of wellness activities: a juice bar, someone doing body work, acupuncture, kick it with friends. It will be a conversation with me and everyone who comes. A chance to come together as a community and talk about how our practices are affecting the world around us. People can journal on the app and then we can take those conversations were having in our yoga community and bring them together in one place.
YJ: When will it kick off? How many cities are you looking to hit?
JS: That’s TBD. We’ll start in New York and LA and go from there.
YJ: What do you say to the headlines claiming that with the Underbelly, you’re democratizing fitness?
JS: That is the most click-batey shit I have ever heard! Somebody was like, “Bitch, let’s make somebody click on this.” No shade on the game, but I wouldn't categorize it that way. It kind of does, though, honestly. If I opened a physical studio, you'd only be able to come if you lived here or traveled here. Apps, websites, and social media are making an egalitarian space where everyone’s free to say what they want. If you can build it, anyone in the world can find it. That's powerful for building a message. What yoga can offer is so minimized by what the media is willing to show because of the gentrification of yoga. Lots of people shade yoga because they think it’s for white women. We need to be clear that it’s for everyone. So in that respect, it is democratising, but at the same time, that is some click-batey shit I would not have said.