Why Yoga Is For Every Body Type With Body Positive Yoga Teacher Jessamyn Stanley
Plus her advice for getting the most out of your first classes.
Yoga might be fast becoming one of the most popular forms of exercise for both body and mind, but entering the studio for the first time can be intimidating.
It shouldn't have to be though and one person spreading that message is Jessamyn Stanley, who teaches yoga in the most body positive of ways and has become Instagram famous in the process - thanks mainly to her incredible feed of photos documenting her own journey.
So whether you're a total newbie or are already a yogi in the making, check out what Jessamyn had to tell us about learning to love your body and what it can do, and her thoughts on busting the stereotypes surrounding yoga when she stopped off in London to teach a few classes at Hot Yoga Society.
Hi Jessamyn, first up could you tell us a little about your practice; how you got into yoga and what it means to you?
Like seemingly most people, I began practicing yoga during a very difficult point in my life. I was 24, and completely consumed in the elementary dramatics of being that age. I was studying in a graduate program that didn’t quite fit with my ever evolving goals, as well as coping with the end of a long-term relationship.
In fall 2011, one of my classmates encouraged me to purchase a groupon unlimited pass to our local Bikram yoga studio. I had actually tried Bikram once before, when I was in my teens - my experience was so overwhelmingly negative that I almost didn’t heed my friend’s advice.
However, I found a great comfort in the Bikram yoga practice when I gave it a second chance; the combination of heat, repetitive sequencing, and long holds was a complete release from the stress of my daily life. I began to look forward to class in a way that I didn’t really look forward to anything else. It made me feel powerful and self-assured at a time when I couldn’t summon those emotions on my own.
Through classes on yogaglo.com, I became familiar with vinyasa flow yoga, and my personal practice typically follows this style of sequencing. However, I also incorporate elements of other yoga styles into my practice as a way to work towards a type of physical yoga practice which really exists as a kind of touchstone for the members of my generation who need a spiritual space to call home.
What is it that inspires you to take your practice out on tour to share with people all over the world? Who particularly are you trying to reach?
I began teaching yoga in response to the overwhelming number of people from across the globe who literally asked me to teach them yoga. And this isn’t a responsibility I took on willingly: I avoided becoming a teacher for a very long time, and constantly encouraged my teachers to study with other established teachers.
But it became very clear that they were specifically asking for my perspective. Ultimately, my goal is to simply reach all of the people who asked me to teach them - this is an open ended quest which has already taken me all over America, and which will inevitably take me to every corner of the rest of the world.
What’s your relationship with your body like and has yoga changed that?
Thanks to the lethal cocktail of parental endorsed body obsession, endless taunting by grade school bullies and self-deprecation and mutilation, I started my twenties with a horrifying self-image. I didn’t even realise how bad things were until I’d been practicing yoga for a number of years and saw the change over time. Yoga helped me realise that all of my body hang-ups were based fears that other people have about their OWN bodies, and it has completely transformed the way I see myself.
However, this isn’t the case for all yoga practitioners and many people come to yoga with body image issues which are merely compounded by the media’s perception of 'yoga'. They begin to associate their bodily happiness with how closely they are able to imitate the 'yoga body' which is forced down our throats by Western media outlets. Basically, I would say that my experience of changing my self-image with yoga is, for better or worse, the exception and not the rule.
Like you mention, the image of 'yoga' that’s presented to us particularly through the media doesn’t seem to accurately represent the diversity of the human form. Do you think there are some common and incorrect assumptions a lot of people who’ve never done yoga might have?
Thanks to the commercialisation of yoga, most people are essentially clueless about yoga. Even many people who practice asana regularly are clueless because they completely confuse it with a physical exercise program which is inaccurate. People are constantly saying that there’s spiritual v. non-spiritual yoga and that’s not the case, as all yoga should be a spiritual practice. Anything less is a glorified exercise program.
I think that’s the biggest and most profoundly irritating misconception for me: that yoga has been re-cast as an indulgent exercise trend for wealthy people instead of a life practice which should be adopted by ALL people.
For people who are totally new to yoga, do you have any advice on things to think about in their first classes, in terms of both advice on what to focus on physically but also mentally?
First of all, your body is normal and perfect. Stop thinking that it should or could look any different or better than it does right now. Second, instead of placing emphasis on losing weight or “getting healthy”, just focus on feeling good. This should be your only goal when practicing yoga: getting to a place where you feel good.
As curvy people, we are taught from a young age that there is something inherently wrong with our bodies and this is a mentality we need to change. Our curves give us strength and power; don’t diminish that power by believing in society endorsed negativity. Let your mental focus completely shift inside, ignore the people around you and get on your mat, both mentally and physically.
What do you say to people who might be intimidated by the thought people might be looking at them in class?
You need to stop thinking about what other people think of you. If you’re obsessed with what other people think, you are wasting your life away. People will stare at you because they fear what they can’t understand. They deserve your compassion, not your self-image. Stop sacrificing yourself for absolutely no reason. So people stare at you? LET THEM. F*** other people. Stop worrying about what other people think.
How about people worried about not being flexible enough to do certain poses? Because really yoga isn’t about image at all or necessarily doing a pose ‘perfectly’, is it?
Everyone has a natural human flexibility which is sacrificed because of the kind of movements which are essential in our society. Yoga helps you regain this flexibility - it doesn’t require that you enter the room with flexibility. Many people are completely confused about this because so many yoga teachers are former dancers or gymnasts. That’s just because they had an easy entry point to the practice, but that kind of flexibility is not expected of any practitioners.
Yoga isn’t about doing things perfectly, it’s about breathing and a connection to your internal spirit. Stop obsessing over physical flexibility - you will never establish a long lasting yoga practice if you are caught up on perfect expressions of physical asana.
What sort of responses have you had from people since you started documenting your journey on Instagram? Are there any particular interactions that have happened as a result that have stood out to you?
I constantly receive responses to my social media presence. The responses that resonate the most for me are usually from people who have changed their minds about the fat bodied practitioner. People who say that they misjudged yoga as something only skinny white girls are allowed to do. That’s the actual change: that’s the true goal.
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