Body Love Inspiration: Jessamyn Stanley

I’ve been into podcasts recently - it’s like someone’s talking to you all the time! I’ve listened to episodes from “Stuff You Should know,” “Modern Love,” “Meditation Minis,” “Rolling Stone Music Now,” and “Unladylike.” I have been listening to these mainly to entertain myself and learn random (sometimes useless) information about different people, their experiences, etc. Today, I was perusing “Unladylike” and came across an episode called “How to Get a Yoga Body with Jessamyn Stanley”. I didn’t know who Jessamyn was, and I assumed she was an eight-packed tightly toned white woman, as Google images has proven the stereotypical yogi to be. Curiously, I selected this podcast in hopes of picking up some tips on how to achieve a similar yogi build. To my surprise, I emerged, after being mentally enveloped in this podcast, with a new view on life. This sounds dramatic and excessive, I realize, but the conversation featured in this episode (with the AMAZING Jessamyn) was truly eye-opening.

Who is yoga? Who can do yoga, and who is supposed to?  She is beautiful, isn’t she? You envy her toned tummy, her height and the way her legs effortlessly relax behind her head, don’t you? She is the image of yoga. Jessamyn Stanley had the same thoughts as all of us. The jealousy, the self criticism, and the hatred constantly poisoned her mind. If you are not familiar with Jessamyn, she is “body love”. Jessamyn is a woman, and she is a yoga lover - surprising? No. Jessamyn is a large-bodied black woman, who teaches yoga nationally - surprising? Maybe to some. Jessamyn’s story is one of self-awareness and realization, and to me, she is a newfound major inspiration.

As a 16 year old, Jessamyn tried a Bikram yoga class with her aunt. If you are unfamiliar with this practice it is a specific type of practice in a heated room, typically in front of a mirror with a particular set of poses and flows. Jessamyn left early, as the class was too difficult and she had given up on finding a hobby in yoga. Her mind assured her this was too difficult for her large body. It wasn’t until graduate school when she was given a coupon for yet another Bikram yoga class. She entered class with a preconceived opinion based on her prior experiences with yoga. The first experience wasn’t much different, and she debated leaving again but decided to stay - after all she had paid for the class. She tried, and she pushed through. On top of the physical difficulty, her mind was swarmed with negative thoughts. She was larger than everyone else in the class, one of the only black women, and doubted she could achieve any of these poses. She hated the practice and the teacher, but mostly she doubted herself. After a few classes, she began to let go of these self-criticising thoughts. She focused more on her breathing and taking risks in poses, which is what the practice is truly about. Releasing the negativity and taking risks reflected in the rest of her life. She left her MFA, moved away, worked at a restaurant, and practiced yoga in her home with the limited poses she felt comfortable doing from previous classes. Ultimately, she missed the feeling of being in a class and the yoga community. Because her pay was low, she could not afford many classes anymore, so she turned to Instagram.

Jessamyn created an instagram account for her practice and posted photos of herself in the poses she knew, or poses she had learned on her own. She did not do this to show off or brag, but in hopes of receiving feedback on how to improve. The first comments exclaimed, “I didn’t know fat people could do yoga!”... This was not the feedback Jessamyn was hoping for. Her mental response was “B*tch, get eyes”, fat people can do whatever they want." As she continued to post photos and videos, she received messages from followers who she’d never met, begging her to teach classes. With help from her parents, she paid for and enrolled in YTT (yoga teacher training) and quit her day job.

Breakthrough moment…

In a specific class during YTT, she was paired to do partner poses with a tiny woman who was thin and about five foot even. Jessamyn felt the need to be careful with the girl and was hesitant in giving her all of her weight. She apologized nearly every time she touched her partner, fearful of the burden her weight was causing this tiny woman. Eventually the woman told her to stop apologizing, that she had nothing to be sorry about and questioned why she kept apologizing. This is when Jessamyn explained, “I guess I was just apologizing for existing.” The woman cocked her brow. Jessamyn heard herself say those words out loud and was flooded with emotion, she had just apologized for her existence. She wondered how long she’d been thinking this horrendous thought, had it been her whole life? She cried through the rest of the practice, she cried during savasana, she cried on the way home, she cried because this was her moment of realization. All of this self-hate had built up in her mind and in her heart and finally, after hearing herself out loud, she had the chance to set it free.

Today Jessamyn is not only a famous yogi, but she is an author, blogger, youtuber, and a body positivity icon. The world is hers! Her message is to go out in the world and claim your space - step outside your comfort zone! In this lovely month of February, also known as Fat-Free Talk February, learn to love yourself for who you are, and use Jessamyn as an inspiration if it gets tough. Self-love is a process and an endless journey, one that should never be cut short or underrated. 

All photos courtesy of Instagram.