Chatting with Jessamyn Stanley about Body Positivity, Yoga and Capitalism

Picture of Jessamyn Stanley doing the splits on a yoga mat

Book cover of Every Body YogaBody positivity advocate and yoga teacher Jessamyn Stanley believes that yoga is for everyone. Her new book, Every Body Yoga: Let Go of Fear, Get on the Mat, Love Your Body, is a mix of memoir and a guide to inclusive yoga.

Stanley first made it into the public eye as one of the first plus-sized yoga practitioners on Instagram (follow her @mynameisjessamyn), so that’s where we started the conversation.

Jera: How important was the Instagram community in establishing and maintaining your home practice?

Jessamyn: I think it was less about the community itself and more about the practice of taking the photos and posting them. I’ve always had a very conflicted relationship with my body, and I never felt comfortable really looking at it in photographs. I first started taking the photos back when Instagram first came out. There weren’t that many people on there, but there were some yoga people, and they were all very serious practitioners and teachers. You’d post looking for alignment tips and guidance, and also just to feel like you were part of a larger community. Since I was practicing yoga at home, I did want to feel like I was part of a larger community, but that didn’t come first.

The majority of the response that I received was from non-yoga people saying, “I didn’t know fat people could do yoga.” And the yoga people—I don’t know how to talk about this without talking about it —I don’t really feel like I was accepted into the Instagram yoga community. I don’t want to project too much, but I think there’s a tendency to make a hierarchy within the yoga community, particularly within the social media yoga community, and so, I don’t know that the community itself played a role in my practice deepening.

But the act of posting the photos and having that accountability to myself and watching my progress over time is a game changer. So, Instagram — yes. The Instagram community? I don’t know about that.

So the Instagram community was no more diverse than any other yoga studio at the time?

The yoga community, I think, is actually extremely diverse. But at the time, when I first started posting on Instagram, that was not apparent at all, because it was still very much reflecting the studios, which tend to be very representative of whatever community they’re in. Because yoga is frequently something associated with affluence, and (this is the fucked-up part about yoga in the West) it has become something that’s done by people who have enough money and time to practice, and as a result, the studios reflect that community.

The act of posting the photos and having that accountability to myself and watching my progress over time is a game changer.

What was it about the images?

When you take a photo of something, you’re reflecting back on a moment in time. The reason that the photos were so transformational for me is because I would be taking them and, while I’m in the pose, I’d be thinking, “Yoga is amazing; I feel so strong and powerful, and everything is great!” Then I’d look back at the photo, and I’d start talking shit about myself: My belly is so big, my neck is so fat, blah blah blah. It took me a while to acknowledge the gap between those two ideas. Then to start to think: Well, if I was really happy before in the pose, why am I all of a sudden becoming my own worst enemy in this situation?

Do you still photograph your practice?

I take more videos than I do photographs, but I don’t post them on social media nearly as much. Part of the reason is because I think that yoga has become overblown in the wrong way in the social media spectrum. It has to do with that moment—the headstand on the beach and the sun-dappled skin—and you see the photo of the pose and think that’s what yoga is. That’s not yoga. That’s an exercise position when matched with breath becomes “yogic.”

It’s the responsibility of practitioners who have other people looking at them to really be upfront with themselves about the reason that they post. There are many reasons to post, and almost all of them are rooted in narcissism and ego, and that’s exactly what you’re trying to walk away from in a yoga practice. It’s an important practice for me as a person, and also as a teacher, to see that line and to try and stay on the right side of it.

In your book, you talk about companies that commercially package body positivity. Do these limited ideas of what it means to be body-positive do more harm than the body-negative concepts we also get?

I don’t think that a message that is inherently positive is going to be equal to a message that’s inherently negative. I don’t care what companies do because all they do is follow trends that help them sell stuff. They’re not in the business of advocating or being activists. I think what’s more important is a clarifying of the message from individuals. When it gets to a larger scale, it’s always going to be diluted.

Body positivity grew out of fat positivity and fat acceptance, and those ideas are so radically different than body positivity. There’s a big feeling with body-pos and fat-pos activists that there shouldn’t be so much confusion about what body positivity is, and it’s supposed to be radical, but I think that just means that the body positivity accepted on a larger scale is not radical.

We’re living in a world where cis heterosexual white guys just noticed that they have all the power. I don’t understand why we’re trying to change the establishment. It’s very confusing to me because they’re not going to get it. So, don’t try. Just do what you can within your own space with people you can immediately affect and don’t worry so much about what is happening on the larger scale because they’re eventually going to echo whatever we do. I think it’s more important on a smaller scale than a larger scale.

I don’t understand why we’re trying to change the establishment. It’s very confusing to me because they’re not going to get it. So, don’t try.

There seem to be components of the body positive movement that fit within the establishment and parts that are radically trying to separate themselves from it — do you believe that?

The whole concept of body positivity is anti-establishment. It’s basically saying you are OK today as you are. That’s it. Every single person is OK today. And if you think you’re OK today, then you’re going to be less likely to want to buy some things to make you change. That’s why they want body negativity—because you’ll buy things to make you change.

People want to boycott companies, but who cares what they are doing? They don’t respect human bodies. They don’t care about your feelings or that you’ve been discriminated against. They don’t care that they don’t carry clothes in your size and losing millions of dollars as a result. I feel like it’s wasted energy to try to change them.

And yet we’re still activists because we feel positive change is possible.

In terms of spreading the idea of “yoga is for everybody.” There are so many people doing this exact same work, yoga in a body positive space. And we do not all agree. But, personally, I’m not trying to stand on a platform to say this is what body positive yoga is. I just practice yoga and understand that we all have the same struggles and are trying to make it through life. We’re all equal, and it doesn’t matter what our bodies look like. And I don’t care if you disagree with it, because it’s how I feel.

Coincidentally a bunch of other people seem to agree, and so I wrote a book with my thoughts on the topic. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s not the same as saying, “I’m going to change the world with body positive yoga!” I’m not thinking like that. Even in terms of yoga, I’m not saying anything revolutionary.

It’s less a call for action, and more of an invitation.

Exactly.

Do you see any ways in which the American yoga culture is attempting to be more inclusive?

I feel like I’m constantly hearing back from teachers that they’re body positive, and they want that to be represented in their classes. I think the problem is that the modern yoga world is enmeshed in the modern fitness world, which is enmeshed in capitalism. And as long as that’s the case, we’re going to walk around in a circle with the same questions.

I think that everybody is trying to understand their yoga and walk their path and sometimes we get too hung up on how many people are buying something or engaging with something, and that’s just not the point.

Do you still feel the need to change things about your body? Does the desire itself look or feel different?

If you have had an addiction in your life, you never get past that addiction. You can move on, you can try to live your life differently, but it is always going to be a practice on top of your addiction. I’ve had many addictions in my life, and one of my primary ones is needing the attention of other people and needing to be accepted by others, and self-hate and body-shaming myself. Those are things I learned how to do at a very young age, and I’ve continued to do throughout my life, and as much as I feel as though I am moving beyond them and that every step is a great step, it is definitely something I am actively thinking about and am conscious of. Constantly mentally slapping myself on the wrist and playing tapes in my head so that I will ignore what other people are saying or thinking. And it’s very much a practice for me. I’m in recovery, just like anyone else.

In your book, you say, “Ultimately, yoga has made me realize that happiness doesn’t come when we become better people. The practice is a reminder that we deserve to be happy today, in this exact moment, because we are already absolutely perfect.” Has your idea of what perfection means changed because you’ve embraced this idea of a practice? 

Definitely. There’s no mythical perfection at the end of the rainbow. I think that prior to practicing, I did not understand perfection as being exactly as you are. That concept was completely impossible before practicing yoga. So yeah, it has completely changed the way I think about that.

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Jera Brown writes about being a kinky polyamorous Christian on her blog scarletchurch.com and a sex and relationship advice column, Just the Tip, for Rebellious Magazine. Follow her @thejerabrown.