Christine Hewitt

A Yoga Sensation on Fitness, Fatness, and Trump

Jessamyn Stanley thinks some people are practicing yoga for the wrong reasons.

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Apr 5 2017, 10:45pm

Christine Hewitt

For Jessamyn Stanley, Instagram was a yoga diary of sorts. It was where the self-described fat femme posted pictures of herself to document her progress, often in swimsuits or her underwear. As her account exploded (she now has 285,000 followers), she became a yoga instructor teaching classes in her home of Durham, North Carolina, and at workshops in more than 20 states. She speaks candidly about being a larger-bodied black woman in a community that seems to idolize thinness and is pretty damn white. Stanley's first book, Every Body Yoga, was released yesterday, so we talked with her about the allure of handstands, fitness culture, and why Donald Trump could use some yoga.

About two years ago you told me that Western yoga is very white. You've now taught all over the country—do you still agree with that statement?
Yes. This has kind of been my thing from the beginning. I feel as though the yoga community is way more diverse than it looks, but overall, it's overwhelmingly white. It's different in different cities. Atlanta is a great example. Atlanta had, I think, the most diverse community overall aside from the Oakland area in the Bay. Even when I have classes that I think are very diverse, they're still predominantly white.

But you think there's more diversity in classes than you see in the media.
In the media, the way they make it seem is that it's a Stepford Wives type thing. It's like, everybody is wearing the same leggings, same top—different colors maybe—same ponytail. Even if it's a different skin tone, it's the same general body type, even if it's different genders. It look very homogenous. But if you actually go to a studio, there's all kinds of people.

Seattle is a great example of that, I think. Seattle is insanely diverse. But the yoga community there—even when you're in classes that are pretty diverse—it's still very white. I feel like that has a lot to do with the cost of practicing in studios. Let's say you do have the $15, $20, $25 to spend, but you feel like 'why am I gonna spend that money to spend time around people who I think are not gonna be anything like me?' I see classes that are more diverse, more representative of communities and they're almost invariably a pay-what-you-can structure, or donation-based. Maybe they're not in really nice studios, they're in somebody's basement or church.

The cost of classes seems like an argument for writing a book for sure, but there are all kinds of yoga apps and YouTube videos out there. Why write this book even though those things exist?
The whole motivation for writing the book is that I have so many people—I literally might be getting an email right now from someone saying, 'Jessamyn, I've always wanted to practice yoga and I saw a picture of you and I just thought, can you tell me exactly how you did it and how I can do it?' and I'm thinking, 'why the fuck are you asking me this?' Especially when I'd get this question in the beginning, I'd literally just be staring at the tweet, or the comment, like 'Why didn't you just type that into Google?'

That's how I gained all of my knowledge. Literally just that: Taking all different kinds of classes, reading lots of different books, reading lots of materials online, looking at photos…you know, do some research. But then whenever I would type in, 'how do I start practicing yoga?' or 'beginner yoga' or 'how do you start doing this?' It is so confusing. There's just all this random information. You're like 'am I supposed to be working up toward clearing my chakras? What the fuck are chakras? Is it leggings? Are we worshipping handstands?' It was like, somebody just needs to give this information in a way where the most novice person could walk away from it saying 'I can start a yoga practice today.'

About those emails, you mention in the book that you also get comments like 'damn if she can do it, I bet I can too!' You're self-deprecating, saying that a picture of a fat girl doing yoga means yoga can't be that hard. But what does it feel like to have people underestimate you to your face?
This is very real. This is not just, 'wow, it must be cool to have people give you comments.' Uh, that's one way to look at it. Another way is that it's very disheartening to have someone say, 'Oh wow, that must be easier than I thought it was, because you're doing it.' Any time that I have that dialogue with myself, that is a part of my yoga—to help me understand aspects of myself. Because the question [to myself] then becomes, 'why do you have a reaction to that?' Is it because you are insecure in your own practice, like you need to have somebody say 'oh that must be difficult because you're doing it.'

People who've done yoga can look at a picture of somebody doing a pose they haven't been able to do thus far, and they're gonna be impressed, regardless of what that person looks like.
Mmhmm. It's just this really fucked up thing though about the need to impress. I've talked to other teachers about it, and I think it's a pretty universally felt thing. At this stage, because of social media and because everyone is obsessed with visual feats, it turns into this kind of circus side-show thing. I think you get teachers who are aspiring to practice certain types of asana [poses] so that they can impress people, to get them to come to their classes. And that is the wrong path to walk.

Actually, in the last two years in particular, I've taken a major step back from showing a lot of my asana practice on social media. I think everything looks the same to someone who's not thinking about it all the time…but I'll take hours of video footage, and tons of photos that just are not on social because I think that, in the long run, this is not the way yoga practice needs to be showcased. It doesn't give the full picture of the practice, and it makes people obsessed with certain kinds of asana and that's not the point. Now, if I post a photo, it's because I have something to say. It's less of like, just showing the more 'wow' moments of my practice.

Christine Hewitt

So you might not be posting pictures of yourself doing handstands?
A great example pose would be Supta Natarajasana, it's a reclined dancer pose. It's a very deep backbend, and I've been working on it for years. There are pictures further back of me showing my progress of it. But I have more photos that I've taken over the last year in particular, that are not on social, because I've started asking myself, 'why? What is the purpose here? Why are you doing this?'

Sometimes I might post a handstand because there's something that came up for me during the practice, or something that came up during my life that I want to say. But it's not like, 'oh I was working on my handstands today, so I gotta make sure that I document this. My progress is not real if I don't post this picture.' There are a lot of people who feel that way, who feel like the social [media] experience of it validates the practice.

I call it 'worshipping handstands'—no shade on handstands, because I am literally obsessed with handstands…girl, I get it—but people who are like 'my worth is fully tied up in whether or not I can practice these arm balances.' When I see that, I just think 'that's not yoga.' That's it's own thing. That's fitness culture, it's fine, whatever. 

How would you define fitness culture? It sounds like it's doing any sort of exercise for the sake of the physical benefits and also for the social media bragging?
Perfect. That's basically it. The social media bragging rights is like 2017 addition to that. But overall, I feel like fitness culture is exercise for the sake of appearance, whatever that appearance may be. If you are concerned about the way that your lifestyle looks to other people, or the way that your body looks…I mean, I really enjoy certain aspects of fitness culture—I like the camaraderie that comes from being at the gym with people—so this isn't me saying 'it's all bad!' I just think yoga and fitness are completely separate from one another, and they need to be considered as more separate.

Tell me more about separating yoga from fitness.
The way that we practice it in the west is very highly influenced by European calisthenics, and as a result it's totally possible to work on asana in a very aerobic fashion. You're really just in it for the fitness benefits and you get people who are like, 'This is awesome! Look at my progress!' It's not just people who are working on their practices. But the thing about actually taking the lessons that you learn from the asana...you don't even have to make a very specific commitment to applying those steps to your day-to-day life, all you have to do is really consider the actions, and you will see the connections to other things that happen in your life.

Like finding stillness and becoming less reactionary and being able to not lash out at people.
I'm obsessed with the current politics in America. There's no better television, there's no better media right now. There's so many times that I've thought 'can someone just get Donald Trump in a deprivation tank?' I honestly think he's gonna need it for at least a month, but maybe he can hit it for like a day, and then just get some chakra work. We are just opening these spaces in your body, because that dude, he needs to just take a break and see clearly. There are so many people who are filled with so much hate, so much sadness, so much confusion…specifically with him, I'm thinking 'god, he's self-conscious.' If he could just be given the tools to look within himself, so much would be better.

Oh, interesting that you suggested those things first, and not 'get him in a yoga class.'
We all have so many preconceived notions about things, and I get it. If someone was like, 'Donald Trump, you should go to a yoga class, it will change your life,' even if it was the perfect style of yoga for him, let's just pretend we could know what's gonna be perfect for him, he's gonna walk into it with whatever his assumptions are about the experience. Just as a realist, I feel like he would not really be down with it initially. But I feel like if you kind of make a positive Stockholm Syndrome situation, which is really what I'm describing with the Patty Hearst thing, where you put them in a tank and you're like, 'no, you're fine, you're fine! Just be in this tank!' and they come out and they're like, 'what am I doing? I don't know who I am.' That's when you give him the yoga.

You're a big proponent of using props, like blocks and straps, which can be hard for some people's egos. 
I began with Bikram yoga which doesn't use props at all—I just wasn't familiar with them, and I didn't understand the purpose. I remember I took this one class on YogaGlo by Amy Ippoliti and she specifically said, 'you need two blocks, a strap, a blanket, and a sock to put behind your toes.' I was like, 'I don't need all these props,' and then as soon as class got started I was like 'oh shit, I need these props.'

And it totally changed the game because I realized that props are not a crutch. It's not a sign of weakness to need a strap to reach back for your foot, it's because your foot is just not there yet—the strap is just an extension of your body.

Having had that experience and understanding what it means having to let your ego go, it makes me want to convey that feeling to new people. The people who really need to hear it, honestly, are not brand-new practitioners. They are way more likely to get props, because they're like 'I don't know what the fuck I'm doing.' But the person who's been practicing for a while is like 'I don't need props, I'm having a real yoga experience where we don't do that.' I totally understand wanting the extra push, wanting to say 'I'm not gonna have a block, I'm gonna reach deep and I'm gonna dig within myself.' I get that, and that is a beautiful journey and you should have that. But you should also have the space to have a different experience as well.

Christine Hewitt

Your book shows a range of bodies and people of color. How did you choose the models? 
What I wanted to shy away from was making it a curvy yoga book. Anna Guest-Jelley just published a book this year called Curvy Yoga. It is dope, it is awesome, get that book if you're looking for yoga for curvy bodies. But if you're looking for yoga for every body, that's what Every Body Yoga is. If you just saw me and my body, that's not every body yoga, that's Jessamyn yoga.

When I first conceived of the book, I assumed that I would be self-publishing, and I'm thinking it's going to be me taking all these individual pictures. But as soon as I realized we could get models, I wanted to show some version of diversity: a variety of body types and a variety of skin colors and at least some step in showing some variety in gender expression.

For people who identify with a masculine form, they have very limited physical bodies shown—it's always either Ryan Reynolds or Idris Elba and that's it. I was like, 'there needs to be a dude in here who just looks like an average dude.' And we need Latinas in here and we need some real, thick curly hair, and we need a curvy body that is not me, and can we please get somebody with tattoos? But still, there's no Asian people, there's no one in a wheelchair, there's no one with leg braces, no people with glasses, no old people…I felt like 'damn, if we could've had ten models,' that would've been my perfect number.

Body diversity seems important to you and it's something you've been talking about on your campus tour. College towns are probably relatively progressive, but being at the University of Minnesota is not like bigger cities in terms of body positivity. What's it like talking about this in places like New York and San Francisco and also smaller towns?
Los Angeles, San Francisco, I would even throw Seattle, Chicago, New York into this group—they're very different from the rest of the country. But because there's so much news and media in general that comes out of these areas, it becomes the general narrative for everything, particularly when it comes to anything radical. And when it comes to body positivity, fat positivity, the centers are really in the Bay Area and in New York. Those two areas are completely different from the rest of the country: The availability of options, and the freedom to wear certain types of things, the opportunities to be different things…it just does not exist in smaller places. So when I was in Minneapolis, it felt like being in Durham, just colder. Just normal, average people who are not talking about intersectionality on a day-to-day basis with their coworkers, you're just trying to get by.

There's still amazing activism that happens in these communities, but I think it's not taken seriously. It's not seen as like, the national narrative, but, really, that's more the national narrative than these bigger cities. Especially when it comes to colleges…colleges are definitely my favorite kind of place to tour, but also one of the most important places. I dealt with so much [of this] in the book...a huge part of my life [that] was very confusing for me emotionally in terms of my body happened when I was in college.

There's just so many people who are affected by this and it's not just larger-bodied people, there's so many cisgender, heterosexual men who show up to these events. I remember being at Duke recently, where this dude asked a question and at first I was shocked he was even in the room, I was like, 'wait what, you've been here this whole time?' And then he was talking about how he was a figure skater when he was a kid, and he has all these body issues…and I was like, 'wow, I literally would never have guessed that about you, but the fact that you're willing to talk about it, that means there's a whole bunch of other people that have this issue, too.' Going into college campuses is almost like the mothership in a lot of ways for emotional problems that people have so it's cool to do it for that reason but also out of the big city is important because we're more of the narrative than what is expected.

This reminds me of Trump again, obviously.
Exactly, it is a recurring theme if I've ever heard one.

If a lot of media comes out of places like New York and we're saying 'yay body positivity, look at these awesome people!' but there might be angry people commenting on these stories from other places, and it's an important reminder that the way people think in these progressive hubs is not necessarily representative.
One of my main things as a fat-pos person, a body-pos person, to show my body and to let wind hit skin in front of other people—that is a major act of activism. To have people interact with my body that's on display to any degree, it's huge. When you're in a larger city, there is an impact to be sure, but there's a lot more freedom to just kind of do whatever there. In New York, it's not going to be that startling to see someone who is larger-bodied and wearing a tank top or short shorts. But in North Carolina, that's a fucking revolution walking down the street.

I think there's too much self-congratulation that happens in big areas and a lot of the really big work happens in smaller places. Because if you are a woman who has always been taught that she's supposed to wear sleeves and that she can't have her stomach showing, to see a fat girl in a crop top with booty shorts on is gonna be a life-changing experience. I feel like those kinds of communities where that can really happen need to be celebrated a little bit more.

But I  wonder if there are certain places where people might get hateful comments and they'll never do it again…
And I think that's the risk we take. Because there will be hateful comments. People are confused by what they do not understand, and that's just one of the many things that happens to all human beings. You just have to accept it and move on, I don't think there's a shortcut. But you can't have that understanding without doing it.

Right, kind of like not understanding people who don't share your political views. If you don't talk to those people you don't know where they're coming from.
Exactly. People who are Trump supporters...in hearing their thoughts, it's always like there's this great fear of something that maybe they've never even seen before. Once you know somebody who is different or who fits into that category, then all of a sudden you're not afraid of it anymore. Really it's just an issue of we all just need to be exposed to things and initially there will be pushback, but that's just what it is.

It reminds me of the Muslim ban. It seems like some people are afraid of terrorist attacks from these Muslim-majority countries, but do they even know a Muslim person in real life and what their values are?
Yeah, like could you even place that country on a map? Do you have any concept of that at all? No, you don't. You just know what's on television, what's on the news.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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