“Every Body Yoga," An Interview With Jessamyn Stanley
By Dana L. Lee
“Whose world is this? The world is yours.”
Maybe you’ve seen Jessamyn Stanley on Instagram bearing these bold words on the tender side of her bicep like a promise from the mighty Ganesha himself. Everything about Jessamyn shatters our limiting paradigms of what yoga is, who it’s designed for, and who “should” be teaching it. Her generous mind, body, and loving spirit invite us all to know that yoga is truly meant for everyone. As a popular yoga teacher with a large Instagram following, her message is finding welcome traction in our sometimes spiritually deaf and overly image-obsessed world. Jessamyn believes that yoga is more than asana (yogic postures), and much more than just a “workout." Yoga is a path to healing, a chance to experience and grow through the “gray” areas that challenge and invite balance and self-awareness. She opens her heart with spice and candor in a new book called, “Every Body Yoga." Her story weaves through the pain of growing up an LGBTQ black girl struggling with body acceptance, family illness, substance abuse, and self-doubt. Readers will feel touched and liberated by her honest story punctuated by the roots of yoga philosophy and several DIY yoga programs laid out for people of all abilities. She is in the middle of a North American book tour, but you can meet her in person at Keplar’s Books in Menlo Park on May 10th at 7:30PM for a book signing and chat. I was grateful to share time with Jessamyn during the middle of her whirlwind book tour.
What is it like to teach yoga as a curvier teacher in a weight-obsessed world?
It's a lot like just living as a curvier woman in a weight-obsessed world. Most people don't think larger bodied people deserve to take up that much space. I really don’t feel much different from anyone else and I don’t spend much time thinking about it. There's so much discrimination for fat-bodied teachers. You would never see a fat-bodied teacher in a commercial gym. It really says a lot about where we are as a society, how we tend to view yoga as just a fitness program rather than for what it can be in our lives. Yoga is not fitness; it's a spiritual life path. I feel that that the old way of understanding is another tired path through a patriarchal world view.
In your book, you talk about the pain of bullying endured throughout school. I think a lot of us can relate to what that feels like, on either side of the story. What advice do you have for children who are enduring bullying right now?
My biggest advice for anyone being bullied is to deeply know that bullying is a response to insecurity. Bullies have been taught that the way to feel better is to make others feel bad. That's something I wish I had known as a young person, yet I 'm grateful for those life experiences. I used to be a self-mutilator, something I didn't talk about in my book. Such experiences have made me stronger as a person today. I sometimes see people who have never been treated poorly, and they are overly sensitive. Social media carries bullying into a constant dehumanizing stream, and it’s even worse for today’s youth. I often find negative people going after me 24/7 on the internet, but the person who makes fun of me on the internet is the epitome of a coward and is suffering from limiting self-image issues themselves. Our lives are too brief to spend it being a hateful person. I can only offer someone who bullies my compassion. I'm over here chilling, I don't have time to read negative comments. Put your time and energy into positive things. Yoga practice helps me to realize that that's a direction where we need to send more love and awareness. I still have times when I struggle with it. When I’m tired after a crazy day, sometimes I have trouble seeing the gray area where right and wrong blend into acceptance. It happens to everybody. Each day, each moment is an opportunity to act differently. If I berate myself, it impedes my opportunity to move forward.
You are so honest and open about your life in your book. How has yoga helped you deal with alcohol addiction? What messages do you have for people struggling with addictions?
I still struggle with my shadows, and yoga is a part of understanding it. For a while, I used yoga to "scratch that itch" in a healthy way for about a year. I might still have a glass of wine, but I try to always be carefully conscious of keeping a good perspective. My yoga practice gives me a way to sit in a place of understanding where deep questions can be asked that I would never have normally even allowed myself permission to ponder. Yoga is a practice that brings me to a better place than where I was the day before. At this stage for me, it is about finding balance. I don't know anyone who has an addiction that doesn't have a legitimate reason for it. Empathy without overly attaching is important. A lot of people are getting their addictions under control these days. There is a lot more honesty around it. More help and awareness is needed, but the stigma is being dissolved in favor of open conversation.
What can yoga teachers do to make their yoga classes more appealing to people of all sizes?
My classes are filled with people of all sizes, gender identities, colors, ages, etc. A lot of people think my classes must be very attuned to fat-bodied people, but to me, that's not necessarily what everyone needs. Often in our commercialized western culture yoga feels like an aggressive environment, like everyone is competing with everyone else. Across the country, it’s not that uncommon to find oneself in an emotionally unsafe and body-negative environment. It's in the language, the way we describe the poses, the way we talk to students about the how they are practicing the poses. It’s important to set up the yoga experience so that everybody feels that their experience is valid. Simple things like giving alignments in a non-intimidating way make a huge difference. Usually, people want to go to yoga class to feel better. Is yoga going to kick your ass? Yes, sometimes. But, a good teacher should really understand how important it is for a student to know and feel like they've done a good job. Make your space supportive and body-positive for all body types and energies. We live in a society where it's totally normal to feel bad about yourself, and yoga should help you feel better about yourself all the way around.
How do you want to be remembered?
I don't really think about being remembered. I don't think about it. I don't care if I'm remembered. I think that we will all inevitably be forgotten. But, I guess I would want someone to think about me: "She was a great person." I want to radiate love and good energy to other people while still being authentically me.
So, that other tattoo that you have on your opposite arm, what does it say?
"What I’m looking for is not out there, it’s in me.” It’s by Helen Keller, and it reminds me to always look inside myself for answers.
Whose world is this? The world is yours. Yes, it seems as if those tattooed words are made real through her beautiful love of yoga for every body. Jessamyn, the world is yours and you are bringing the light of yoga to everybody. As another sister who has carried the weight of the world on my heavy bones and found the joy of yoga to brighten my heart, please know that this world is made yours by the love you shared with others, and may it ever lift your heart in grateful joy.
Find all things Jessamyn by visiting her website: jessamynstanley.com. Her book tour is full steam ahead through the U.S. and Canada until the end of May. Enjoy her beautiful Instagram account and You Tube Videos. CLICK HERE to purchase her book, “Every Body Yoga."