A prominent yogi on fat yoga, Instagram, and changing stereotypes

Jessamyn Yoga
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A prominent yogi on fat yoga, Instagram, and changing stereotypes
I never feel more in tune with my true self than when I'm at the shore. Maybe I was a mermaid in a past life. I don't know, but sand is nature's yoga mat and this is heaven on earth. Swimsuit- @Forever21 Sunnies- @hm
I can't believe I'm typing this but I'M GOING TO BE ON @GOODMORNINGAMERICA tomorrow morning- my triangle yoga mama @sagetree was at my impromptu shoot this afternoon to catch some behind the scenes shots, and I am so excited to see the final cut. THIS IS PROBABLY GOING TO SEEM RANDOM AS FUCK (not to mention the fact that it's sort of a downer) BUT during the #gma interview, I tried to mention my aunt's untimely death, an unexpected event which turned my home practice into a #yoga sized grief receptacle. When I began practicing at home, I would frequently sob my way through flows because I was so beset by grief and self-pity. Ironically, this grief became the fuel for my yoga practice, and helped me strengthen in ways I never could've expected. However, I couldn't really discuss the topic without choking up and we eventually changed the subject. I'm mentioning this now because I don't know if there's a way for me to overstate the importance of my Aunt Tiriah and my Grandmother Marvella on my practice. These are two women who shaped everything I am, and whose sudden deaths truly rocked my existence. Obviously, the impact of their lives continues to reverberate in a million ways, but I can't thank them enough. Without them, there is so much I wouldn't even try to understand about the universe and my role in it. I will love them forever, and their legacy shines on through my practice. ANYWAY, I'll be on @goodmorningamerica tomorrow around 8am discussing my journey and the importance of diversity in #yoga- if you're interested in seeing a fat belly in color on national tv, check it out! BY THE WAY, if you're coming to one of my PWYC (Pay What You Can) classes tomorrow, be advised that they are BOTH (10:30am & 6:30pm) going down at Hillsborough Yoga Company (1812 Beckett's Ridge Dr)- the 6:30pm class will be a quick and dirty 30-45 min. flow so we're out of the way in time for the other awesome studio classes! Leggings- @lineagewear #mermaidpose #EkaPadaRajaKapotasana #singlepigeonpose
Since today is Teacher Appreciation Day, @yogafoster wondered if there was a teacher who has particularly inspired me. I don't know if she knows it, but Sharon Oxford (my high school political science and economics teacher) made a huge impact on my development. An OG feminist Southern Belle, a woman who wears a million hats but always has her makeup applied properly- she sowed the seeds of my personal feminist mission and always encouraged me to be the best I can be. She also gave me the most valuable financial advice I've ever received- "Never get a credit card if you don't know where you'll find cash for the bill." To find out more about @YogaFoster's awesome mission to bring free yoga training and resources to school teachers, check out their instagram! Top- @paramitadesigns Undies- @hipsandcurves
I spent my morning teaching and practicing #yoga with a beautiful group of my #Durham friends (and friends of friends)- we just set up shop in a park and turned nature into a yoga studio. It was awesome and inspiring and all the other things you would expect, but it also reminded me that I am so blessed to live in a town where it is (relatively) safe to set up a body positive yoga space. My friends and I don't have to hide our bodies. This is not the case for everyone in my global #yogafamily, & I feel grateful that my greatest concern isn't the safety of my students. I plan to continue teaching a weekly outdoor PWYC yoga class in Durham- if you're local and interested in coming, follow my facebook page for details (link is in my instagram header). I am so excited to live in a community that is hungry for diversity in yoga and that's so fucking ready to cultivate a community to match its residents desires. ALSO, I am extremely honored to be featured on this week's 'Feministing Five'- I've been a big fan of Feministing for years, and I'm always happy to see the body positive yoga movement recognized as a critical component of the 21st century feminist's worldview. BLAH BLAH RHETORIC BLAH BLAH BLAH. Anyway, if you want to read the article written by the awesome @suzbob, click the link in my instagram header! (btw, mad love to @clashist for recognizing that I obviously need a Wayne's World bathing suit in my wardrobe.) #Effyourbeautystandards #honoryourcurves
I know we all "know" yoga is about more than asana practice, but it wasn't until I spent an entire #savasana (#corpsepose) in a complete emotional meltdown that I actually realized the real gifts of my practice. And when I say emotional meltdown, I mean MELTDOWN- I'm talking sobbing, sniffling, snot rolling down my face, the works. I don't know if it's the intensive nature of teacher training, but all of the emotions I've been stockpiling over the past 27 years are finally coming to the surface. It's ironic because while I'm SO not the crying or hugging type, this week has been characterized by more crazy intense hugging and crying than ever in my entire life. And for once, I'm trying to be open to tears and hugs, without belittling them with my trademark knee jerk cynicism. Thank god, right? I mean, how are we supposed to live with all of these emotions bottled up inside? Furthermore, how am I supposed to be an emotionally supportive #yoga teacher if I can't even deal with the darkness and light inside myself? I know this topic is probably a little dark for the typically 'bright and happy' world of instagram yoga, but I'm glad. It's completely unrealistic for yoga practitioners to hold themselves to ridiculous standards of happiness and beauty. No one's life is really like that, and I think pretending otherwise is inauthentic. In my opinion, it belittles the true reasons we all continue to practice. I can only speak for myself, but the daily pursuit of balance is just that- a DAILY pursuit. Life never stops ebbing and flowing- we just find better ways to deal with our knee jerk reactions. Photo by my incredible little brother, Gabriel- I was blessed to spend the afternoon inverting with him and it was just the emotional medicine I needed. Bodysuit by @chubbycartwheels #invertyoself #invertyocurves #inversion #headstand #split #hanumanasana
Yesterday I received a comment from one of you that made such an impression on me that I couldn't help but respond in a more public forum. One of my deepest regrets is that I receive too many questions/comments to respond to them all individually, but anything suggesting that my integrity or authenticity is not up to snuff gives me pause. This person (name withheld bc I'm not trying to start an internet feud) said that my product promotion has become so off-putting that they were no longer interested in following me on twitter. While I have to respect everyone's decisions, I was deeply frustrated by the idea that anyone would think I would promote a product that I didn't truly believe would be transformative in the personal #yoga practice of my followers. For instance, I openly support indie plus size athletic wear companies because 1. Most designers are completely clueless about the actual needs and desires of curvy athletes; 2. The designers who aren't clueless have to rely on grassroots support by bloggers because the marketplace is saturated with clueless large scale designers; 3. Because of this widespread confusion, many curvy athletes (especially female identified athletes) struggle with accepting their bodies in form fitting and revealing clothing. I think it's kind of my duty to be outspoken in support of companies who actually want to build a body positive athletic community- I actually wrote an article for @elephantjournal about the need for change in the athletic wear community- click the link in my IG header to check it out. Similarly, I only mention props and tools that have made a substantial difference in my home practice and which provide a solution to gripes I've come across within our community. For instance, those who have difficulty inverting will appreciate the @healthmarkinc yogacise, and those who resent regular yoga straps will probably find the @mamakuka yogi sphere kit to be a breath of fresh air. If you are not down with this kind of promotion: No hard feelings, but go if you must. Namaste. ✌💋 Leggings- @lineagewear #effyourbeautystandards #honoryourcurves

If the thirst trap is a photo meant to "elicit compliments, high praise, or words of obsessive lust" then yoga enthusiasts have their own version, with their own set of unofficial rules. The image usually features a gravity-defying pose, either clouds or a sunset, and bright-patterned leggings. And it's often a skinny white girl posting the photo.

Maybe that's why people find Jessamyn Stanley's feed so refreshing. Stanley, 27, is a self-described fat femme who documents her yoga progression on her Instagram account, where she has more than 40,000 followers. She originally tried Bikram yoga in late 2011, and began a daily practice two summers ago (her account garnered attention earlier this year). She's since advanced to tricky forearm balances and challenging poses like king dancer, and she often photographs herself in swimsuits or her underwear. She spoke to the Cut about preconceived notions about beauty in the yoga world, "fat yoga" studios, and becoming a teacher herself.

Tell me about your practice. What's been your experience in studios?
I just got a Groupon pass to our local Bikram studio when I was in graduate school and I loved it. I was always one of the bigger people in the classroom, but I think that Bikram is great because the size discrimination is very minimal. The teachers stick to a script and there's less immediate communication with the instructor than there is in other styles of yoga.

Whenever I would go to other kinds of classes besides Bikram I always felt like I was spending $15 or $20 for a class to have teachers who think that I'm a beginner. When I moved I couldn't afford to practice in studios anymore. As soon as I started practicing at home, this whole other world opened up for me, because when you're in the classroom it's really less about the instructors and more about the other students.

What do you mean by that?
I get emails from people all the time and they say, "I'm worried that people are going to be staring at me," and I'm always like, "They ARE going to be staring at you." That's just the reality of it. We live in a society where we are trained to think that being overweight is wrong so people are going to stare at you. They're going to have ideas about you. The only thing that you can control is your reaction to that.

I think that the best way to really get comfortable in practice is to just start practicing at home. And to build that happiness that will be with you regardless of what studio you go to.

What do teachers get wrong in your opinion?
Some teachers think if you see someone who looks like they might be having difficulty, then you need to put all of your attention on them. This is your moment as a teacher to show them what they're missing and help them out. Really, what you're doing is making them uncomfortable. They just want to go in, do their practice, and leave.

I finished teacher training and I'm actively teaching now. That's the ironic thing, because now I see the perspective of the teacher wanting to help someone. I think the role of the teacher is to be there and to give guidance, but only guidance that you [the student] initiate. I think the development that is really important happens on your own. It's a very fluid relationship that should be happening between teachers and students. It shouldn't be: "I know best and you should be just like me."

I'm teaching about three classes a week right now, then later this summer I'm going to teach every weekend in different parts of the country with my friend Dana Falsetti. She's also curvaceous. There are a lot of things you learn as a larger-bodied person practicing yoga that are valuable tools to other people — what to do with your stomach, what to do with your breasts.

Did you always want to teach?
It kills me when people are like, "You need to come here, I don't have anyone to teach me yoga." The fact that there are so many people who feel that way is the reason to get out there. For the longest time, I thought I didn't want to be a teacher because there's so many teachers. But I know so many people who are very slender — I guess more "typical yoga bodies" — and those are usually the main people who are soliciting me because they just want to feel normal.

Is it intimidating to see the "typical yoga body" at the front of the class?
I think it's intimidating. It creates more of an aspirational experience as opposed to an inspirational one. It doesn't actually elicit what yoga should give people. The whole point of this practice is to burn away the parts of our lives that are built up over the years that don't matter, and to burn that away to who you truly are.

You said that as a student, people would stare at you. Are you getting looks as a teacher?
Yes and no. Most of the people who come to my classes are familiar with me to some degree. So they're not new to the idea of being taught by a larger-bodied person.

But I just taught a free-yoga-in-the-park class in a town that's almost an hour away from Durham [where Stanley is based], it's kind of the boonies. It was maybe ten to 12 women and they were all white. Western yoga is so white. You don't even recognize that you're expecting to see someone who's white until you see someone who's not.

And on top of that, you've got someone who's larger-bodied. I can see it in their eyes, they're thinking, Oh fuck, this woman's not gonna know ... By the end, they're sweating and they're in a different place about it. I encourage that. Come to this class with whatever preconceived notions you have, because the whole point is to get rid of them. You're going to be so surprised when you can get much more out of life than those stereotypes give you.

What kinds of comments do you get on Instagram?
I do get some negative comments, much less this year than last year, and I think the reason that there's been a decline in that is because I don't acknowledge it. It's not a good use of time to focus on a lot of negative shit.

But also I went through so much emotional turmoil in middle school that I just don't know what someone could say to me at this point. What creative idea — "oh my God I'm fat!? I had no idea, thank you so much for telling me."

In some of your photos you're doing poses in your underwear.
If you go to hot-yoga classes, most people don't really wear a lot of clothes. So much of this is based on being able to see and feel your own body that it's counterintuitive to wear a lot of clothes, in my opinion. And I like to move around as freely as possible. So I always go for garments that are tight-fitting or just fewer garments because I think it's distracting.

Part of this is that you've said you don't care what you look like on Instagram — it's all about self-improvement.
Absolutely. The best part about my blog and my Instagram feed, for me, is I can go back and literally see my progress. "Oh my muscles are better here, this is what I need to be doing differently." That's the point. It's hard to really hone a home practice without having some kind of documentation.

What did you think about the apparent trend of "fat" yoga studios? Do you think having separate studios is a good thing or a bad thing?
I have so many mixed feelings about this. I think putting the words "curve" or "fat" before yoga says a lot. I'm friends with Michael Hayes, who owns Buddha Body Yoga in New York. I've expressed this to Michael: I think it is so much more important for us to focus on equality.

With yoga, there shouldn't be a reason we need to separate. However, we do live in a size-focused society. If you're a larger-bodied person, I completely understand how beautifully comforting it must be to go into a studio and have people who are not going to look at you weird. And at Michael's studio he has mats that are so much bigger than the average; he has blocks that are bigger, he has the Iyengar wall, where you can do gravity-based work with ropes and you can invert like a 500-pound person on the wall. The problem is that if you go into a regular studio, you don't have options like that and a larger-bodied person is probably not going to feel comfortable.

Most classes that are geared toward larger-bodied people are gentle. I'm not saying that everyone doesn't need gentle yoga, but I just think that there's so much opportunity in everyone's bodies. I think there's a very short-sighted view of that in traditional studio culture.

Again, I have mixed feelings about studios where you have to be a larger-bodied person to even go there because it adds to the community of people thinking that you're either one way or the other, as opposed to thinking that we're all the same way. Until that kind of discrimination stops I don't see any way to get beyond this point.

That makes sense, and you sound like a motivated person who was happy to practice at home, but maybe some people really want the class environment to start.
That's something that I've encountered more and more: "Where should I go, what should I do?" And as soon as I say I used to practice at home they're like, "Yeahhhhhh but, you know." Obviously, I'm not trying to convince people to stay away from class — I'm not saying that — but I think we need to make classrooms more accessible.

You should be able to walk into any studio. I think it's really important for yoga instructors of all disciplines to become familiar with how to work with a larger-bodied person and then it won't be as necessary to have studio spaces that are safe spaces.

Right, they should know what people might need to modify.
And why would they know that? If you're a powerful yoga teacher who has only worked with people who look just like you and you're really athletic and maybe you're also a personal trainer, what the hell are you going to do when you get a 300-pound person in your class? You don't know what to do.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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