Every question you might have about beginning yoga, Jessamyn Stanley has probably heard.
“‘Is this a religion? Do you have to be thin? What if I fart in class?’ ” says the Durham, North Carolina-based yoga instructor.
But beyond the general how-to, Stanley — a body-positive advocate and Instagram sensation — is also often asked how she personally started practicing.
“When people ask me, ‘How did you start practicing yoga?,’ they’re not asking about which mat [I used],” Stanley says. “They’re asking, ‘How did you, a fat black woman, come to a place of feeling like this is an area where you want to devote your life?’”
Those questions led to “Every Body Yoga” (out April 4, $16.95), part memoir, part yoga guide.
amNewYork spoke with the author, who is at the Strand this month for a conversation on body positivity, about the book.
What was your experience when you started practicing yoga?
When I first started practicing in yoga studios, I never felt like I was one of the crowd. I was always the largest person, frequently the only person of color. I felt extremely self-conscious. I feel like that experience is universal. It’s not just people who are larger-bodied. It knows no gender. That feeling never really goes away — that’s what I keep at the forefront of my mind [as a teacher].
Do you think this feeling is specific to yoga?
I don’t think it’s really specific with yoga. I would say that I see body negativity all the time in the yoga world. It’s one of the major devices of what I call the yoga industrial complex — the leggings and retreats and coconut water. And that has nothing to do with yoga. Yoga speaks to much bigger principles. I think regardless of what kind of activity you are doing, it’s having to come to a place where you’re only concerned about how you feel.
What is your practice like?
To me, yoga is something that is in every moment of your life. You may get yourself into a pose, but the real lesson of the pose is being focused, being balanced, finding strength in yourself. It’s also being gentle, contemplative. Those are themes that are relevant in the rest of our lives.
What is your approach as a teacher?
I think if you create an environment where people have space to just have the experience that they are having with the poses, where they don’t feel like they’re being judged or in a competition, that’s when you allow the space for people to accept these larger concepts. In my classes, I’m trying to create a space where it’s totally fine to be yourself.
What are your thoughts on the current conversation around body positivity, and where do you think it needs to go?
Right now body positivity is super trendy. Every company, if they wanted to say they were body positive, they’d just grab a size 8 multiracial girl — ‘Look, we’re body positive, isn’t that great?’ What’s the message here? What’s the conversation? Is it only with clothing? I think there needs to be a kind of, everybody step back, let’s take a look at this, is this actually something that is furthering a larger agenda, or is this just same s***, different day? Can we just get back down to the truth? We don’t have to call it anything, it’s just an understanding that all human beings can exist as they are. That to me is the message of body positivity. We don’t have to have a hashtag for that.
What are you looking forward to about the Strand event?
A lot of my events are just talks — it’s just me. Everyone on the panel at the Strand is someone I have admired for a really long time. When you talk about body positivity with people who are not in the community, it can be a very surface-level conversation. Lindy West, Kelly Augustine, Amanda Richards — they are all people who have been in this community. It’s an honor to share space with them.