Jessamyn Stanley on being fat, black and a yoga instructor

Jessamyn Stanley, yoga teacher and author of “Every Body Yoga.” (Photo by Christine Hewitt.)

“Yoga is for skinny white girls,” said video host Dylan Marron to his guest Jessamyn Stanley, in the opening frame of an episode of “Shutting Down Bullshit.”

In response, Jessamyn Stanley, a thick black woman wearing a red sports bra and electric purple leggings, lifted herself into a headstand like a full-bodied middle finger.

Stanley then proceeded to shut down a series of bullshit statements, including “fat women should cover up their bodies when they are working out” and “fat is an offensive word.”

I watched that Facebook video an embarrassing number of times, adding to its 1.8 million views. That video was the first time I had come across Jessamyn Stanley — a self-proclaimed fat, black yoga teacher and body positive activist. She spreads her message that yoga is for everybody through her frequent photos of her practice online.

After seeing that first Facebook video, anytime her pictures or videos came up on my feed, I stopped whatever I was doing and became hypnotized.

Depending on the day, my reactions to her pictures ran the gamut from “Get it girl!” to cringing and dissolving into a puddle of tears. I would cry because my discomfort with her clothing choice had nothing to do with her, but everything to do with the ways I have been taught to be ashamed of my body.

Many scantily clad women appear on TV every day, but none of them have bodies that look like Jessamyn Stanley’s. Even before I switched to private lessons, the only time I ever saw a large black body doing yoga is if I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. And I for damn sure wasn’t doing a headstand or the splits or any of the advanced poses I watched Stanley do.

I thought I had come to terms with the fact that there were certain poses I might never physically be able to do — but then I saw Stanley’s videos and I felt something within me shift.

It wasn’t a subtle shift. I felt like my mind exploded and all this internalized fat shaming I didn’t even realize I had inside me started oozing out like a popped blister.

But what got Stanley to come to yoga was not a desire to change anything about her body. Instead, she found a different type of challenge.

“I didn’t come to it thinking, ‘Oh I’m going to get more flexible’ or ‘One day I’ll be working on this headstand or handstand,’” Stanley told me in a phone interview.

In fact, she called her first experience with yoga “the worst experience of my life.”

Her aunt had invited her to a Bikram Yoga class. Stanley felt awkward being the only teenager, new to the practice and insecure about her body size. The yoga room temperature of 105 degrees added to the discomfort.

“About a third of the way into the class, I became convinced that my death by heat exhaustion was imminent,” Stanley wrote in her new book “Every Body Yoga.” After the experience in what she called “Satan’s yoga sauna,” she avoided yoga for years.

When Stanley found herself going through a bout of depression a graduate school classmate encouraged her to give it a second try.

“I had come to a place where I felt like I was kind of sleepwalking through my life,” said Stanley. “And yoga helped me to realize because it was so hard and because I felt like some of the postures seemed completely insurmountable and they gave me a real genuine challenge and something to strive for and I realized in my day to day life that I wasn’t really doing that.”

“Every Body Yoga” is part memoir, part yoga for beginners, complete with color photos of sequences to try at home. Her mission is to get everyone off the couch and onto the mat. She wants yoga to be accessible to those who need it most.

“It gave me a lot of confidence,” said Stanley. In fact it helped her to gain clarity about graduate school — that she was miserable and needed to leave. She dropped out and moved to Durham, North Carolina, where she still lives.

“So I would just practice at home the 8 to 10 postures from the Bikram Yoga sequence that I felt comfortable with. And in this time it just became this medicine that I would give myself and I was always just a few breaths away from remembering who I was.”

Stanley began taking pictures of her practice to track her alignment and as evidence of her progress.

“I would be thinking wow, yoga is incredible, this is amazing. I’m so strong and powerful and then I would look at the photos and I would immediately start talking shit about myself.”

But the photo record forced her to confront her inner critic.

“Photos really do create a constant and you look back and you can’t not remember that moment. You can’t call it something that it wasn’t,” she said. “If you felt great and you felt strong and powerful, you are strong and powerful. It doesn’t matter if what it looks like is different than what you thought it should look like.”

For Stanley this was the beginning of a positive transformation.

“I feel like that kind of confrontation has really been the hallmark of me having a better relationship with myself. “

For me yoga has been a double-edged sword. Like Stanley, I came to my practice during a low time in my life — coincidentally also while in graduate school. I was finishing up my graduate studies in Hamilton, New York, a town where I was one of ten people over 21 and under 50. It was lonely and I was bored.

When a friend invited me to yoga I went just to fill the time. It was hard and I was surround by tiny white women who could twist their bodies into pretzels and stand on their heads. But after an hour of deep breathing, sweat and struggle, I felt a looseness in my limbs and a renewed mental clarity.

It felt powerful to be in my body in that way, but I was also confronted with my own inner critic, the voice inside me like the childhood bully that had never disappeared. It was telling me everything I was doing wrong, and worse, all the ways in which my body itself was inadequate.

Stanley’s pictures became a way to have a different conversation with her body. What is beauty? What is strength? What have we been told and what do we actually believe is true and why? There is an honesty and a vulnerability to her photos. She is redefining her relationship to her body pose by pose.

That’s what hypnotized me in her videos. I didn’t know there could be a different conversation. Stanley made me confront the reality that the limitations I placed on my body may not actually be true.

“So I don’t know that it’s necessarily related to the yoga itself, but the act of photographing my body and looking back at those photos and being able to distinguish the point where self-hate originates, that has been monumental for me in terms of having a better relationship with my body,” Stanley said.

When Stanley began posting photos of her yoga progress on Instagram, they went viral. Friends and strangers who saw them encouraged her to become a teacher. It launched her into another journey.

“The analogy I always use is that I found a musical instrument within myself and that musical instrument was covered in goop and blood and guts and shit and I like pulled it out and I start cleaning it off and then I start learning to play my instrument,” Stanley said. “ And that my whole yoga practice is me just learning how to play this instrument and become more comfortable with it.”

Stanley has inspired a diverse range of people to reach within themselves to find their own instruments, to value them for what they are and to learn to play them.

This journey has not been without its challenges, Stanley said, from feeling exoticized to being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of strangers searching for connection.

“And its this weird line of being very much in control of what pieces other people have of you or what they think they have access to and then being like a moment away from losing yourself,” she said. “And I feel like that is such a huge part of my personal practice at this point.”

During our hour-long interview Stanley talked about everything from her coming out story to her views on cultural appropriation, her cannabis activism, her unexpected journey into teaching and her complex relationship with social media. She also talked about her frustrations with the yoga community.

“It’s all about which mat, which pants, which retreat, which coconut water, which…all these different questions about stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with the actual practice which is about breathing and looking within yourself,” Stanley said. “And that conversation is much deeper. It’s also more complicated and less easy to monetize and therefore less popular.”

If you want to hear more, you can go straight to the source. Jessamyn Stanley will speak at the Seattle Public Library on Friday, April 21 at 7 p.m.

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