Yogi Phenom

Jessamyn Stanley

By Phenomgirl  /  May 20, 2018

Man...It's hard enough being a woman!  Especially if you're an African American, there's absence of long silky hair cascading down the length of your back, you are gay, and you are fat!  You may be tempted to stay in your room, look at the walls, finger through the plethora of magazines showcasing stick thin models selling products slap on to their "perfect bodies" and hoping to be one of them and then finally!... you'll be a part of the "real world."  Well,  Jessamyn Stanley is on a mission to change that narrative, that not having the "ideal body" is okay.  Jessanmyn is a yoga teacher, book author, writer, social media influencer, and podcast host. In addition, brand ambassador of national campaigns which includes J.C. Penny, Weleda, Samsung, Motrin, Lane Bryant, and U By Kotex--just to name a few.  Also, she has achieved  immense popularity by being featured in numerous print/media outlets.

Photos Credit: Jessamyn Stanley

The Durham, North Carolina native has created a movement through her IG account where she unleashes her deep personal thoughts with Vinyasa yoga poses unto her 360k+ followers with messages that can't be ignored:  1. "Love yourself."   2. Ask “How do I feel?” rather than “How do I look?” and  3. "Anybody can do yoga."  Which was the exercise that spiritually and ultimately got her through a devastating heartbreak which led to depression and at the same time dealing with body image issues produced from vicious teasing and toxic fat-shaming in her adolescent years.  Flash forward to the present, Jessamyn participates in various speaking engagements and teaches yoga workshops internationally and at home in the US, stressing the importance of self empowerment and body acceptance. With her feet planted firmly on the yoga mat that gave her strength and will-power, she stretches and embraces her audience; some of whom may have travelled that same lonely road of being singled out for having normal body types which society deems "not beautiful."  A continuing work in progress, Jessamyn has come to terms and embraced her body size and accomplishments--ready to catch the unrelenting curve balls the future throws her way.  We spoke via phone.

Your first experience with yoga was when your aunt took you to a Bikram yoga class. .  It was 90 minutes in a hot room at 105 degrees.  You hated it at first.  Would you recommend someone who has never done yoga to start out with Bikram yoga? 

I would recommend Bikram Yoga.  Bikram is a specific pattern of postures. They always go in a very specific rhythm that has been tested by many different body types over a long period of time. I have heard that even though it's a hot environment, it's a safer environment – especially if you're a brand new student. There's going to be a teacher there who is very well versed in alignment, someone who really knows what your body is capable of handling in a new environment.  I would say Bikram would be a wonderful introduction experience to yoga.  In addition, regardless of what type of yoga, as long as you understand that you don't necessarily have to be the best or do the most. If you're able to release expectations of what you think you should be able to do, I think that most environments are going to be good for a beginner, because regardless of what you think, you're not going to know what you're doing. You're going to walk in there and be like, oh my gosh! I don't know what's going on. It seems like everyone rehearsed before class. Now they're all here, and they practiced, and I haven't practiced. I don't know what I'm doing. That feeling is going to happen regardless of where you are.   The best thing you can do is just walk in with an open mind and an open spirit, and then you'll be ready for whatever comes next. Also be open to learn from the various options of teachers and do not  pressure yourself to do everything exactly like what everyone else is doing.

Was your aunt athletic?  I read also that you had used your father's Pilates mat to do your yoga exercises. So was your family into fitness?

Yeah. My father actually was an amateur body builder when I was a child, and he still is extremely athletic. He always really wanted for me to be fairly athletic, but I was much more interested in choral performances, theater, and dance. I was less interested in sports, I have always enjoyed being active – but because I've always been [that body], I've always been very self conscious in athletic environments. So that definitely contributed to me not being that active before I was in college.  When I got to college, for a variety of different reasons I wanted to be more active. I started to try out different types of physical activities. That path eventually led me to yoga along the way, but they're not directly connected. During that time period, my father and I would do 5Ks together and go work out together. Even now if we're in the same city, we'll throw the baseball around.  My aunt is not necessarily that athletic but she's really into yoga. I wouldn't say she's an athletic person, but my father is extremely athletic.

That's interesting.  But at this time you were at least encouraged to try yoga?

Yeah, it was not something that I aspired to do though, at all. I was not interested in teaching yoga or doing what I'm doing now.

It just happened, and you went with it.

Exactly.

 

In graduate school you couldn't afford to go to yoga classes, which led to you to start yoga at home. How did you begin? How would you advise someone on how to self-teach themselves about yoga? 

I started practicing at home after I had already been practicing in studios. I do think that makes a little bit of a difference. I know of people who have never practiced in studios and just started at home.  I do want to clarify that I do think that because I had a little bit of confidence from practicing in studios, it made me feel comfortable enough to practice at home. So I definitely recommend for anyone who feels any apprehension about just starting at home –find a random class. Don't obsess over finding one. I get asked a lot about exactly which class should I go to? Which studio? I'm like, dude, I don't know, because there are so many honestly terrible yoga experiences waiting for you. I can't tell you which to choose.

They just have try it and find out for themselves?

Yes, try them out.  If you feel you just want to throw yourself into it, I always recommend online classes, even though you don't have an instructor in the room with you, just follow along, it gives you the freedom to not have to think about every single pose you do.  Let's say that you get my book, "Everybody Yoga," and this is your method to start practicing yoga from the book. If that's easy then I think you should totally do that if it works for you. For me, that method wouldn't work  because I would be thinking about it too much. I constantly would be looking down at the book to see what the next pose is.  Then before you know it, you're obsessively thinking about the process as opposed to actually enjoying the experience. If you take online classes, then it's exactly like going to the studio, except you don't have to be worried about the other people in the room. You don't have to be thinking, is that person over there staring at me? Am I moving at the same pace as everyone else? You will have the flexibility to stop, watch and make modifications. It's a much safer and more comforting environment.  There are tons of online yoga resources. I have classes on a website called CodyApp. They won't be available for very much longer, because I'm going to have classes hosted on my own website that people will be able to subscribe to. But I personally subscribe to classes on a website called Yoga Glo, which is awesome--it offers different styles of yoga, various lengths of classes at different levels taught by world class teachers.  Try it out--get a membership to an online studio – even just looking at YouTube videos, which are free, or using Instagram tutorials as a basis.  Any kind of online tutorial is a good way to jump-start a home practice. You definitely don't need to have tons of props, like an expensive yoga mat or the best workout clothes. None of that is important. That's just marketing.  I recommend getting a yoga mat, because I think it will help with traction and support and give you some cushion between you and the ground, but if you don't have a yoga mat, it's not a big deal. You can just do it on the ground or do it on a towel, if you want.  If you don't have a yoga block that's cool. A box of tissues is a yoga block waiting to happen. Books are yoga blocks in disguise. I used to use a dog leash as a yoga strap. There are so many different things that you can do. If you just want to start doing it today, you absolutely can. There's no need for any of the expensive trappings.

Was social media a saving grace for you, a way to express yourself when you started posting your pictures?

You know, it was to a certain degree. When I started posting, I just started doing it because I wanted to feel like I was part of a bigger community. When Instagram first came out, there weren't that many people on it in general, but there were also not that many yoga people. It was mostly just very serious yoga practitioners, people who were trying to make a community with one another.   I began practicing at home, it was kind of alienating – a little bit lonely. So I was trying to find ways to tap into a bigger community. But I did realize pretty quickly that the response I was getting from people was not really a community or people trying to connect with me because of my practice. It was mostly people being like, wow, I didn't know that fat people could do yoga, which was so confusing to me because there are tons of fat people who practice yoga. Fat people do all kinds of stuff. So I was very confused about that.  I realized there was an opportunity to create more visibility around fat-bodied people practicing yoga and living active lives with a focus upon wellness. That as a guiding force has definitely motivated my online presence, but if I didn't have that as a motivation, I don't think I would post on social media. I don't really think it benefits my yoga practice. I don't think it really benefits me as a person, honestly. But I think that it clearly can have an important social impact.

Could it be that indeed there were fat people who happen to be black, do practice yoga but that wasn't being projected through all levels of media?

Oh, I'm 100 percent clear about it. I just think that it really points at an important issue.  There's a bigger question there. Why is there so little visibility? I'm not even the first fat black person on the internet practicing yoga. I think the fact that people are so surprised by that – the fact that it could literally be a headline in a magazine or newspaper, like "Fat Black Person Does Yoga," says a lot about our society and who we are in the world.  I think a lot of times we become so okay with this whitewashing, normalized mainstream that we don't even question it. We're okay with the shock and awe. The more that I talk to people about this, the more I realize that I'm less interested in the shock factor and more thinking about the larger repercussions of it.

This is an unfair comparison.  Is it somewhat similar to the media attention Tiger Woods had gotten in the beginning playing golf and being so good at it--as golf is considered to be a non-black sport. But, there could have been blacks already playing golf, but the public or viewing audience wasn't aware?

Exactly.

Were you teased as a child because you were overweight?

Yes.  I would say it was a touch beyond teasing.   The teasing was brutal when I was in middle school, to the point where I wanted to go to a different high school than the high school I was supposed to go to. My family could not afford for me to do that at all. I was the first person on my father's side to go to college, so it was not in the cards for me to go to a different high school. But my family was very supportive of it.  I applied for a scholarship program that's called A Better Chance. They help underprivileged middle-school students go to private and boarding high] schools. So because of that program, I got a scholarship to go to Salem Academy, which is my high-school alma mater.  I wasn't just bullied for being fat. I was bullied for a variety of reasons.  It definitely had a huge impact on who I am as a person. When I look back on it, I'm very grateful for the experience of being bullied, because it was a great preparation for where I am now.

The first time I saw you was your appearance in the U by Kotex commercial. How did that come about?

I don't quite recall exactly how that happened, but it mainly came to pass because of other sponsors and social media work that I've done. U by Kotex reached out because they were doing a campaign about changing the conversation that we have around menstrual cycles. Specifically with yoga, there's this huge misconception that you can't go to yoga classes when you're on your period. You're going to be bending and stretching. What if your tampon string hangs out? What if you bleed through your leggings? It's all of these. It brings up a lot of societal norms that are not ever discussed.  I have a lot of feelings about menstrual health and about the conversation around that, and it just felt like a really natural fit. It's been an excellent campaign to work on. For me, not necessarily because of the commercials, I'm very introverted. So it's strange to have complete strangers come up to me and know who I am because of that. I do think the reach of the campaign was very excellent, and I'm glad it stirred up a conversation not just about menstrual health but about fat bodies.

You're representing being black, being gay, being a big girl, and doing yoga. How are you handling all this responsibility, whether you want it or not?

I think that it has a lot to do with how you view responsibility. I think that regardless of whether or not anyone was looking at me on a national stage, I am representing my family. I am the descendants of people who worked very, very hard for me to be able to do the things that I do. I think that if I was working at the grocery store or if I was teaching ten yoga classes a week here in Durham, I would still be representing them. For me, the most important thing to really represent that truth is to constantly be living that truth and not be in this place of I need to inspire people. What can I do to show people what it means to be black, queer, and practicing yoga? I'm just going to live my life and try to be black and free in Trump's America, and then I'll let the cards fall where they may after that.  My responsibility ultimately is to live my truth loud enough so that it can be part of a larger revolution. I think that in order to do that, I can't be caught up in the trappings of what it means to be something else for somebody else, because if I do that I'm never going to succeed because I'm never going to be what another person needs me to be.

You stated that you're not doing yoga for exercise and health benefits; instead you are addicted to exceeding your personal expectation. You want to explain that? 

My perspective on that has shifted some, only because I think that when other people talk about yoga, it is always 100-percent focused on fitness. Everything about it is about flexibility and strength. The mental and emotional benefits are sometimes portrayed as not that important.  People almost want to downplay that aspect of yoga. 

The truth is that there's no reason to show up on a yoga mat if not to have a very deep connection with your most true and authentic self. That connection has absolutely nothing to do with being stretchy or being able to be stronger or anything like that, because true strength and flexibility don't show up in the physical body.  Strength and flexibility show up in the mental and spiritual body.  For me, the whole practice has really shifted from being about, well, what pose can I do and how fast can I go – and what is going to make my body the strongest? It's really shifted to, how can I look beyond the boundaries that I've created  for myself, not just in a physical sense but in every single piece of my life? That's why I initially said that quote.  The reason I'm in conflict on that quote is that even when you talk about exceeding expectations, the whole concept of an expectation is a problem. Understanding that there's more to myself than what I had predetermined – that's really what it's about more than anything.

You're a yoga teacher.  What should someone who's going out for the first time look for in a yoga teacher? 

I think that it's probably not a great idea to really be looking for a specific teacher, because you're just going to end up being disappointed that the person was not exactly who you thought they should be. The most important thing about any kind of yoga experience is, if it's going to be led by another person, that person is actually having an authentic conversation with themselves within their own practice, and they're not trying to pretend to be what the student thinks a yoga teacher should be – which is honestly what a lot of people are doing.  People have this idea of what a zen person, or a spiritual person, or a flexible yoga teacher should be.  They have these archetypes in their head, so they're trying to walk as close as they can to that path, completely ignoring the actual work of the yoga practice themselves.  The teachers who have had the biggest impact on me – it wasn't because of the way that they looked or the style of yoga that they taught, or because of the studio. It was because of who they are as a person and because of the authenticity and strength of their own practices. It had nothing to do with the time that you spend in front of other people.  You can't know all of this before you've actually have taken a class, but if you were going to look for a teacher, it would be best just to try.  Don't even think about it.  Just walk into a studio, take the class, and take it at face value as exactly the experience that you'll have there.  Try to walk in with as few expectations as possible.

You and Jes Baker, the author of "Landwhale," had a session discussing body image and diets.  Do you think diets are bullshit?  Have you been on any diets in your lifetime?

I have. [Laughs] Well, I just want to clarify that the perspective that diets are bullshit is a Jes Baker-specific perspective on this. I do think I have a lot of conflict with the diet culture in general because the diet culture implies that you are not enough of a person as you are right now, and the diet culture is very much focused around consumerism as opposed to actual health and wellness benefits. Diet cultures doesn't really have anything to do with people being healthy. It has to do with selling things. It's been proven over time not to actually help the majority of consumers, yet we still end up praying to the church of diet cultures. That's where my personal conflict with it comes from.  The only diet I've really been affiliated with is Weight Watchers. I don't have anything negative to say about Weight Watchers or any negative feelings about it. I think that it is not for me, but I can understand why it is for other people.  I do think there are some benefits – not necessarily from a weight-loss perspective, but I think the support group meetings that Weight Watchers have are very important, because they offer an opportunity for us to talk about our emotions and the things that happened in our day. That is more directly related to wellness than anything else. A lot of diets are just about don't eat this, don't eat that, exercise this amount, and exercise that amount, and then you will be perfect at the end. There's no actual effort to reconcile the emotional work that needs to be done.

In society right now, describe your experience being a fat girl?  By the way, do you mind me calling you fat?

No. That's why I call myself fat.

Okay, because I'm having a hard time saying "that word."

Yeah, that's why I say it, because I think there are a lot of people who are afraid of the word "fat". It's become another form of profanity. People think it means that you're ugly, or that you're not good enough. Being fat just means that you're large. It doesn't mean anything bad.  For me, owning it for myself has been very critical for my overall health and well being. Now, my experience being a fat girl in America? You are discriminated against at every turn, every opportunity. It's totally normalized to be fat-shamed. People are unabashed with their fat-phobia. There's never going to be a person who thinks that you deserve to feel emotional if someone is fat-phobic towards you. Everyone believes that fat people deserve the pain that they receive from the world. That's just what it is. If I wear anything that's revealing or if I stand in a way that provokes people, then it clearly makes people uncomfortable and/or unhappy, and they feel 100-percent validated in letting me know that I provoked that emotion from them.  I mean, I have come to a place of really loving and respecting my body, or at least actively trying to do that. So the way that I approach that experience has definitely changed. I don't get emotionally caught up in the fact that people stare at me or say mean things to me, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't happen.

"The imperfections you may see in the mirror are not the true reflections of the person you are."

The first thing someone may get attacked on social media is how they "look."  Why do you think society have become so obsessed with looks?

I think it's because people are fundamentally unhappy and don't understand that their happiness is supposed to come from within them, so they look to the media to produce happiness. When we look at the media, they only promote certain body types and only talk about certain lifestyles, so people think that in order to be happy, they have to go with the mainstream media's idea of what happy looks like. But what the mainstream idea is showing us is something that is literally being orchestrated behind the scenes. Like, it's not reality.  People, when they see reality – when you see someone who just looks normal – they assume oh, that's not beautiful because that's not on TV. It's not in magazines. It's not in the media. So I know that's not what beautiful is. I think that a lot of times my behavior is offensive to people because it flies in the face of what they told themselves what is beautiful. So when they see me doing something that they think they can't do, they're like, well how the hell can this bitch do that. when I can't do it? That's terrible. When I see that, it really – more than offends me, it makes me feel sad because it really shows just how fundamentally unhappy our society is.

Do men get criticized as much as women?

It's definitely gender neutral. It's an issue that affects everyone. I think it's a misconception that it's just women.

In some industries when a woman starts showing age, she gets replaced while men are called distinguished when they age and holds his job until retirement.

But even when you see men, you never see men who are not a very standard figure. It's always someone who has an athletic build with strong shoulders – someone who looks like they can just pick up a house.  It's like a Superman, superhero mentality. There are so many men who do not look like that at all, who don't characterize as a superhero.  So they suffer as well.

But we don't see much of that.

Yeah, because there's not a normalization to be talking about those emotions with men, I think that's why we don't talk about it as much, but it's just as present as it is with women.

The mind is a powerful thing.  How does your mind connect to your body?

The mind, the body, and the spirit are all inextricably linked all the time. If your mind is thinking something, it shows up in your physical body and vice versa. Well, a lot of people believe the spirit doesn't experience anything and that the mind and body are two separate things that you can get control over separately.  But there's no controlling the mind without controlling the mind, and there's no controlling the body without controlling the mind. I would say they're very deeply intertwined.

Other exercises besides yoga? 

Yes. I like to hike. I also like to lift weights. I like to swim. I love to dance. I do a lot of different physical activities.

How do you relax? Do you mediate? 

Yeah. I wouldn't say every day.  Meditation is more of a thing that I have to do in order to be around people. It's like the medicine that I have to take. But when I just want to relax, I like to just sit quietly. I like to read. I like just to be out in nature and just connect to the grass and to the earth.

Do you watch what you eat, or do you just go for it?

I think that there's probably a really fine line between all of these things, but I do pay attention to what I eat – but I don't obsess over it.

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What's your guilty pleasure?

Macaroni and cheese.  Definitely macaroni and cheese.

 

Do you enjoy all the traveling you're doing?

I like to travel a lot. I do think that because I'm a homebody, I kind of enjoy being at home more, but I cannot understate how grateful I am for the opportunity to travel around the world, because it has been an eye-opening experience in terms of really seeing the state of the world right now.

 

What is your future vision for Jessamyn LLC? 

Well, in the immediate future there are a lot of what I would consider to be short-term professional goals, like the subscription video service that will come out early next year. All of my classes will be available on my website and via an app. I have a second book that's coming out next year. My Stitcher Premium podcast will continue. There's a lot of different things that are on the horizon professionally.

In terms of long-term goals, my only goal is just to maintain my yoga practice and keep pushing through life to be compassionate and loving towards myself and to reflect that experience into the world. I don't have aspirations beyond that, because I think that whatever is meant to happen will happen. It's presumptuous of me to base my future happiness on something I couldn't begin to understand. 

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