Unapologetically Jessamyn Stanley: A Q&A with Yoga’s Game Changer
You know those U by Kotex commercials with a beautiful, confident woman practicing yoga like a boss? Well, that woman has a name and you should remember it. Meet Jessamyn Stanley.
Jessamyn stanley is an internationally-recognized yoga teacher, body positivity advocate, and writer. She talks about her life as an African-American woman based in rural North Carolina who identifies as LGBTQ. More than that? She’s raw, she’s honest, and she’s not afraid to question the norm. Or her own thoughts and beliefs for that matter.
When she was first starting out in yoga, her own vinyasa practice provided her a way to move past her personal mental and emotional barriers, and she soon learned it was a platform to question the status quo: Why is the entire yoga industry represented by thin, white women? Why can’t everyone tap into this ancient practice without shame or feeling self-conscious? What is the cultural stigma around seeing a full-bodied woman of color as a leader in the yoga world? Why keep women who don’t fit the stereotype from experiencing such immense physical, psychological, and emotional benefits?
With these questions, came hundreds of thousands of women who were ready for answers — followers that need and appreciated Jessamyn’s bold voice and were inspired to have a space to share their own frustrations, opinions, and achievements when it comes to everything from yoga to body positivity to sexuality.
Her book, Every Body Yoga: Let Go of Fear, Get On the Mat, Love Your Body gives readers a detailed account of her personal journey coupled with her refreshingly honest point of view on her story. She also recently launched a podcast on Stitcher called “Jessamyn Explains It All” for people wanting to hear even more. Jessamyn knows that there is realness and authenticity in the struggle and that the struggle is often where people can connect.
The Void: What is it about yoga, in particular, that speaks to you?
Jessamyn stanley: Initially, when I first started practicing yoga, I found it extremely difficult to just sit with the sensation of looking inward. I noticed that many people have had the exact same experience too and that’s because in our day-to-day lives, we don’t spend time sitting in discomfort or with discomfort. We’re very used to controlling everything as opposed to just accepting things as they are.
“there is always light, there is always darkness”
And that is exactly what yoga is about – it’s about accepting things as they are. It’s not really about finding the good—it’s about seeing that there is good and there is bad and that’s just how life is. There is always light, there is always darkness, and the practice of yoga lends itself to that kind of mentality. I think that the entirety of yoga is really focused around that.
The Void: I think that’s the thing that was so surprising to us. That’s not what you expect out of something like yoga that is supposed to bring you peace and calmness.
Jessamyn: I think that the idea that yoga is a peaceful, calm and a meditative bliss is created by Hallmark. We understand it in the way that media has suggested it, but we don’t really have a concept of what it actually means to get to a place of calm. I mean, it makes sense to me at this stage in my life and at this stage in my practice and I know it takes a lot to feel calm, but it’s funny because that is the opposite of what people tend to think. The ways people describe the practice of yoga are with gentle words, but that doesn’t have anything to do with sensation, that just has to do with definitions that were created by the media.
“Yoga is really, really hard. it’s not even just physically hard, it’s mentally hard, it’s emotionally hard.”
I think it’s pretty crucial whenever you really start to dig into yoga practice to let those preconceived ideas go, because it will be startling initially. Yoga is really, really hard. it’s not even just physically hard, it’s mentally hard, it’s emotionally hard. And on top of that, speaking specifically as a larger-bodied person, you’re taught to think that there are so many things that you’re not supposed to do or are not capable of doing and when that’s the case, you have to push past that as well.
“Nothing good is easy and you need to get into the space of accepting that there is good in the difficulty.”
Nothing good is easy and you need to get into the space of accepting that there is good in difficulty. It’s a hard lesson, but it’s probably the most worthwhile lesson. So much of this life is difficult for no reason, senselessly difficult, and sometimes there’s no real explanation for it. it’s not going to magically get better or different, it’s just that’s how life is. I think experiencing that on the yoga mat is really just a metaphor for the rest of life.
The Void: In your book, you spoke about an instance where you you kept apologizing to a girl you were doing a partner practice with and said “I apologize for existing.” To us, that was the most powerful and poignant moment in your book. It really sums up the struggle that so many of us have. What was the significance of that moment in your practice and in your life?
Jessamyn: I have always been the kind of person that misdiagnoses my struggle and unhappiness. I will blame it on work, school, a partner, family -- I mean you name it, you could slide it in there. It’s hard to actually acknowledge these deeper emotions, and who even knows how long they’ve been resting there?
For me, the power of that experience was something I had never consciously thought about before. On any other day, I could have never imagined that coming out of my mouth, but at that moment, my body and my mind were actually open to what was real, and not just open to what I allow myself to see. I wasn’t just seeing the mask that I wear in day-to-day society, i was able to see myself out of the mask. We are all wearing masks. We are covering ourselves up and hiding because it’s scary to be our most authentic, genuine and honest self, and in that moment, I saw a sliver of my true self.
“I think the reason that I continue to come back to the practice
is in pursuit of that kind of honest connection with myself.“
I think the reason that I continue to come back to the practice of yoga is in pursuit of that kind of honest connection with myself. It’s about how experiences affect the way I take up space, the way that I connect with other beings and the energy I am putting out into the world. It really opens up dialogue that is very difficult to have on a regular basis. For me, it’s been nothing short of transformational.
The Void: Going through the practice of accepting yourself, you don’t really realize that it’s a process. it’s not just about practicing it one time, but the second and the third and the fourth time…
Jessamyn: And the fifth and the sixth and the seventh and the tenth and the fifteenth and the thirty sixth – it’s not just the first time.
I think you are hitting on something really crucial here – if you just do yoga once a month on Saturdays, there is not a deep consistency as a practice. There’s no basis for understanding the sensation and understanding that it does get better as time goes on.
I think my biggest piece of advice in practice would be consistency. Consistency is what leads you to have a deeper understanding, because it’s not just going to magically happen after the first few times. I really can’t tell you how long it took for me to get to a place of really being able to sit with sensation and look inward at myself. I have no idea when that happened for me, to be honest. But I do think that when you stop needing that to happen, that’s when it comes. A lot of times we get so distracted by needing something, that we can’t just let it happen.
“when we don’t allow space for compassion, there’s no way for anything to foster.
It’s like trying to grow plants in the middle of the desert.”
And not only consistency, but allowing yourself to be really compassionate is critical in yoga, because we’re so very hard on ourselves. When we don’t allow space for compassion there’s no room for anything to foster. It’s like trying to grow plants in the middle of the desert. There’s no basis for it.
The Void: Fear masks itself under a lot of different names: self-doubt, self-hatred, worry, embarrassment, judgment. Just because you overcome something one day doesn’t necessarily mean that the next day you’re not going to deal with those same struggles again. Do you think overcoming the internal roadblocks has been harder than the actual practice of yoga?
Jessamyn: The practice of yoga is a path to be able to do this kind of internal work. The poses are not really that important—it’s a great gateway into the practice, but it’s not really the point. That’s why I spend so much time talking about it in my book. The only reason to continuously practice, especially when we’re talking about years of work, is to work on yourself in a different way. And it is hard work.
“There’s no pose that is deeper than the actual work of really
living a yoga practice. There is no pose that’s equal to that.”
If you practice any yoga pose long enough, you can figure it out. When I see people bragging about their practice, that really just tells me where they are in the phase of understanding the yoga practice. There really is nothing to brag about because you’re never finished, you never get to a stopping point. You can work on some poses for a lifetime and the pose will be completely different at the end of the life than it is at the beginning. At some points, you may reach a place of understanding and have these beautiful moments where you can see so much of yourself, but there is always someplace else to go, there’s always more. There’s no pose that is deeper than the actual work of really living a yoga practice. There is no pose that’s equal to that.
The Void: Do you think overcoming fear has contributed to your success? And how have you seen the internal change manifest itself in the external for you?
Jessamyn: I don’t ever really think about the things that other people can see, that’s not going to be the entirety of my existence. It’s not really where my yoga practice shows up. The places that I really notice it are in the ways that I interact with other human beings, my patience level, and my level of compassion, especially in situations that are troubling.
“I don’t ever really think about the things that other people can see,
that’s not going to be the entirety of my existence.”
I have noticed that people are afraid of everything. Afraid to wear certain articles of clothing, afraid to say certain things, afraid to stand in certain places – and that fear translates into every single piece of your life. it’s interesting because people will ask me how I am brave enough to speak honestly about my emotions on social media and how I get over the fear of looking different from other people. I don’t really think it’s brave to show up in my life fearlessly and not explain myself, that’s not really bravery. if my fear is of my own existence, of what it means to show up and to be honest about who I am, then that’s not a fear worth having.
“I don’t really think it’s brave to show up in my life fearlessly and not explain myself, that’s not real bravery. if my fear is of my own existence, of what it means to show up and to be honest about who I am, that’s not a fear worth having.”
The only reason to feel fear is if I fear that this is going to be detrimental to my own life or compromise my own existence. I don’t want to make it sound like this mentality just kind of happens easily or that you don’t have to work at that kind of attention to yourself every single day. A lot of times people will think: “so, you must have magically figured out how to deal with all of this. what’s the magic key?” There is no magic key. Every moment you have to constantly remind yourself that the opinions of other people are irrelevant and that they are also afraid of everything. They are afraid of what you think. What they are projecting onto you is their fear for themselves. I think reminding myself of that every day is so critical. I think that’s what it is for me.
The Void: the void is about everyone’s personal journey to discover what’s missing in their lives and how to overcome their own limitations and move forward to be their best selves. If you could leave us one simple thought on what has helped you to be successful, what would it be?
Jessamyn: Let go of the need to please everyone, because you can’t please everyone. The only person you need to worry about pleasing is yourself.
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