Jessamyn Stanley loves and practices yoga. A thing that for a long time was unimaginable for the American yoga teacher. The reason: she is fat, queer and black. Attributes that are rarely found in the classic yoga scene. A conversation about a new perspective on lifestyle sport – and life.
Despite the superficial image of the industry, you have decided to work as a yoga teacher and are also known for your work on social media – you also like to show yourself completely naked. What does all this mean to you?
Jessamyn Stanley: I define yoga as unity, as union. It’s about harmonizing the different parts of ourselves. There are so many different parts of us that seem to be in constant conflict with each other. In yoga, through movement, breathwork, and meditation, we can learn to unify these things. So for me, yoga is not just about practicing poses on a mat, it is much more than that. Yoga happens in every single moment of life. For me everything is yoga.
That sounds very absolute.
It is. My most powerful moments of yoga practice don’t happen on a yoga mat either, and often have nothing to do with practicing poses. And my main yoga teachers are not the ones who claim to be. My strongest yoga teachers are my love partners, my friends and my family.
Yoga for skinny white women?
Where does this deep passion for yoga come from?
I went through a really tough time in my early twenties. I was very depressed at the time. A friend then started Bikram yoga and asked if I would like to come to a class with her. I wasn’t thrilled, though, and said to her, “I don’t do that. It’s only for skinny, white women.”
How did you come up with that?
During high school, my aunt talked me into taking a yoga class, and that was the reality. I just hated it and decided to put a big hook behind the yoga story. But my girlfriend managed to get me to give the whole thing another chance. Today I can say: fortunately.
What happened on the second try?
Actually, both yoga courses were about the same yoga style. They were both Bikram yoga courses – and they usually always go the same way: You practice the same 26 postures twice for 90 minutes, the room has a little more than 100 degrees. That’s why I like to call it the McDonald’s of yoga. But what was different the second time around was me. I didn’t realize how much I needed the warmth and this new challenge. In addition to the fact that the exercises were extremely difficult at first, I noticed something else: I was one of the few fat people on the course and one of the only black people. So there weren’t many who looked like me. And I felt like everyone was looking at me like I don’t know what I’m doing. That was an alienating feeling.
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A new perspective on yoga
Why did you still stay on the ball?
In Bikram yoga, you look at yourself in mirrors during the exercises. You have to know that it was my biggest nightmare back then to consciously look at my body. In the yoga class, however, I had no other choice. And of course I was afraid of embarrassing myself. But at that moment I realized that if I really want to live my life, I have to take it into my own hands. It became clear to me that I not only convinced myself that I couldn’t do yoga, but also often stood in my own way. So this time I consciously said: I’ll do it anyway.
To put it in general terms: What does yoga bring?
Yoga can help us understand that changes in life are always coming and how to deal with them. Instead of getting angry that things aren’t going the way you want them to, you learn acceptance. Maybe one day you can even make friends with them and let them inspire you to break new ground. Yoga also helps us to understand ourselves better.
And what are the practical limits?
I would argue that there are no limits to a yoga practice. Of course it depends on how you live it. If you understand yoga the way I do – as a holistic way of looking at life and an opportunity to appreciate yourself – then yoga enriches your life.
Breathing is yoga, yoga is life
For many people, yoga is either humbuk or a lifestyle sport. What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding?
I think it has something to do with looks. I write it in my book and emphasize it whenever possible: yoga is literally for everyone. Anyone can – and should – practice it. Strictly speaking, we all do it as infants, we just often forget to do it. Conscious breathing and awareness of the environment is also a form of yoga. Then, as we grow, we learn what positions our bodies feel comfortable in, take deep breaths when something is stressing us, and so on. That too is yoga. It is as individual as we humans are.
So everyone has their own yoga practice?
Exactly. I say this so clearly because when it comes to yoga, we still mostly think of thin and athletic people. Often they are white – and predominantly female. These are all stereotypes that make many people feel left out. It’s actually that simple: If you can breathe, you can also practice yoga.
In your book, you have explained in much more detail what exactly yoga can look like for everyone. What message do you want to send to the world?
What I am offering my readers is a new perspective – and perhaps the courage and freedom to be yourself, wild and free and contradictory and complicated and messy. Every life is precious and no one should have to apologize for the way he or she looks.
I’m Caroline, a journalist and author for 24 Hours Worlds. I specialize in health-related news and stories, bringing real-world impact to readers across the globe. With my experience in journalism and writing in both print and online formats, I strive to provide reliable information that resonates with audiences from all walks of life.