Self-Acceptance Is Activism: A Conversation with Jessamyn Stanley

August 24, 2015    BY Kathryn Ashworth

You already know who Jessamyn Stanley is—and if you don't, you will. She's a genuine (on all accounts—and humble, too) yoga-leb who's virtually everywhere. And virtual is the operative word, as her name is ubiquitous to social media platforms and within the yoga-blogosphere. Even Hollywood names have noticed Stanley (from Zooey Deschanel to Sofia Vergara), and distant-from-the-yoga-world magazines: PeopleThe New York Times, and Cosmo to boot. Clearly, this North Carolinian yogi has a far reach.

She's a genuine (on all accounts—and humble, too) yoga-leb who's virtually everywhere.

But according to Stanley, she didn't set out to inspire anyone. She is everlastingly, simply herself—there is no agenda. Well, okay, except one. That is, rebelling against all things exclusive (specifically, an Instagram selfie culture that promotes the yoga-elite, super-skinny, super "advanced," and super-human yogi). 

To the point, she's one of the many personalities driving the yoga and body image conversation, which prioritizes acceptance in every way: every body, every race, all abilities, and every level (whether beginner, intermediate, or advanced). And in a fantasy-driven culture where the thin-bodied yogis of social media bare (nearly) all, and larger bodied yogis are seemingly expected to wear "what they're told," she brings a valorous message to the fore: Practice in your underwear anyway.

Recently, Stanley and I had a chance to talk about her rapid rise to fame, how to make the body-image revolution more effective, yoga-selfies that make a difference, curve-friendly fashion, and more! 

Q: In the past year, you’ve become very very well-known within the yoga world, inspiring and encouraging fellow practitioners and aspiring yogis through your Instagram account, your writing, and interviews with publications like  People,  Cosmo, and  Good Housekeeping. What does this mean to you? What has your experience been like?
My experience has been overwhelming, to be completely honest with you. I am not the kind of person who is extroverted, and so much of how my practice deepened had to do with personal anguish and turmoil. I didn’t set out to inspire people, you know what I mean? So it’s overwhelming. But at the same time, the only way to inspire people is to truly be yourself. And that’s something I probably could not have learned without this experience. So in that respect, I have a lot of positive feelings about what’s happened—even though there’s a lot of narcissistic behavior in the yoga-selfie community, and it kills me sometimes to think that I am a part of it.

The only way to inspire people is to truly be yourself.

So many of my real-life yoga friends are weirded out by Instagram. They wonder, “How could yoga selfies really matter?” But at the same time, there are people who are so down on themselves, and they genuinely feel like they are not worthy, that their bodies are useless, that they don’t matter. They really believe that. So, if it just takes me in my underwear to change someone’s mind...especially when it comes to teen girls—I mean, I'm not specifically talking about them, but [teenagerhood] is a particularly challenging time, where you are dealing with so many external pressures—and there are a lot of people who are just hurting—and this kind of pain can lead to suicide, even self-mutilation. I got an email just the other day from a woman whose daughter is 16. Her daughter was really being bullied, and this woman was literally asking me: "How can I be of service to my daughter?" "What can I do?" "Would it help if she met you?" And I was like, “Fuck. This is the work that needs to be done. Yoga can help people.”

Q: The conflicting media messages that we receive every day are a big part of the yoga and body image conversation (i.e.,the media writes about body image and diversity, but often still uses the same stock images that perpetuate the myth of the “yoga body”). What are your thoughts on this? What can we do to facilitate change?
(Laughs) Where do I start? Basically, I have also thought that. Take Gaiam, for example: They have this whole “body positivity” thing—I mean, I can’t remember what they call it exactly, but you can fill in the blanks. They are trying to be more diverse. And you know, whatever, good for Gaiam, but all of their [advertising] imagery is still like, skinny, whitewashed pictures. It seems like their attempt at diversity is when they get one biracial girl in there: “See, you know, she’s got curly hair. We’re good.” Okay, but for real though, what are you doing to be different? But then I think, where would they be getting different images from? The whole body positivity movement up until recently has been pretty cloistered from the yoga community; they aren’t really two things that have been easily joined together. Most of the yoga community is not very body-pos at all. We are only just now getting into diversifying yoga. So, I think that the most important thing that we can all do as a yoga community is be more compassionate toward each other. To understand the fact that, like, people don’t get it, and they have to be alerted to that.

Q: How would you suggest that we do this? 
The most important kind of activism is to be yourself—to go to yoga classes wearing whatever you want. None of this self-conscious Lululemon “you have to be wearing this, that, or the other” stuff, and a lot of places in Durham, NC, where I live and teach, are overly focused on that. But you can only be marginalized so much. The vast majority of people are just normal people. We don’t all look like Tara Stiles, and there’s more community [to be found] in standing together—as uniquely ourselves. The most important thing we can do is be honest. Take photos of yourself in your underwear!

I used to get messages from people who were like: “Why are you practicing in your underwear?” and I’d say, “So would you ask that question if I were a smaller person? If I were smaller you would have never asked that question." It's like when a woman is aggressive and speaks with force, and then someone calls her a bitch, they might not have called her a bitch had she been a man. To me, it’s the exact same thing.

We have to create a rebellion if there’s going to be a revolution, and I think that we are on the cusp of a revolution. It’s happening now. And we can’t rely on the media, because the media is the last to get on board.

Q: When we internalize body-shaming, it seems like it might be difficult to begin a personal practice—we have to be alone with and face the bodies we have grown to dislike. I know this has certainly been something I’ve struggled with. Do you have advice for anyone who feels that way, and any tips for them when it comes to starting a home practice?
Photograph yourself. The first thing you can do is become comfortable with things that make you uncomfortable—but it’s hard, and it’s definitely something I have battled. Getting to a place where I was comfortable photographing my belly was a long, long process. And my belly is still here—and it still looks like it did when I began practicing—but I am far more comfortable with it now. I wouldn’t have gotten to this level of comfort had I not photographed myself.

Photograph yourself. The first thing you can do is become comfortable with things that make you uncomfortable—but it’s hard, and it’s definitely something I have battled.

When women hate parts of our bodies we cover them up. Even when we’re at home, we’re covering up. And when you feel like your body gets in the way, you start to resist it even more. But if you photograph yourself, and if you see the power of your body getting into a particular pose, then your belly will become awesome. In fact, your belly will be fucking incredible. Why? Because it got you to do something you could not have understood without it—it’s a part of who you are. Building that respect, and really believing in it, is important.

I also think it’s really important to give yourself props. So much of the Instagram community is focused on perfection, and that drives me crazy because so little of what we do looks like that. We aren’t capturing the work that went into each pose, and that work is the most important part.

Who even gives a fuck about the final picture? Your pose might not look that much different from one day to the next, but you’ve got to give yourself props for all the subtle work you do. And when you do good for yourself, you are doing good for the world at large so that you can be a useful part of society.

What I am saying, ultimately, is to just respect yourself.

Q: Can we talk fashion? In a 2014 Elephant Journal article you wrote: “Here’s the thing, designers—we want to wear what everyone else is wearing. That’s it. Literally: the same designs you’d produce for svelte figures, but with additional fabric.” To this I say, “hell yeah!” What brands do you endorse, and what can other yoga clothing companies do to be more inclusive?
I only want to support companies who are open to creating a dialogue about body diversity. I’m not interested in companies who are like, “Yeah, we make plus-size stuff!” and yet all their clothing is frumpy-as-fuck. I am not trying to do that. We need to have a world where stylish clothes are, across the board, for everyone. And the other thing is making sure that they are ethically produced—which can be pretty difficult to do while making sure they’re still within a good price range.

I only want to support companies who are open to creating a dialogue about body diversity.

If you can afford to spend $50 to $100 on a pair of leggings, and you're a plus-size person—or really, any person—I feel like lineagewear leggings are the best. They’re designed by a woman who used to design for Broadway shows, and she has a really clear understanding of how the body moves—the seam design, interior, and waistband are out of this world!

There are a lot of other brands that I like too: Fractal 9My Manifesta, and Malesh Activewear. And when I say that they are good for a curvy body, I’m really saying that they are good for any body. There are so many different kinds of contours on humans that are unpredictable. We need leggings that are good for different kinds of people.

But some of these companies are, for me, personally, kind of expensive. Forever 21 has—I am not joking—the best activewear line that I have seen for women. Granted, I don’t know where they came from, and I can’t speak to the quality of their clothing in terms of how it’s produced, but in terms of the actual durability, their fabric is great. I got two pairs of leggings and a top for, I think it was less than 30-ish dollars. And that’s something that’s a little more manageable for a college student, or anyone on a limited budget.

Q: Finally, your forearm stand is awesome. Can you offer some helpful alignment tips for novices? How can we work up to it?
Forearm stand is the love of my life. The first thing that I would say, and the one thing I have underestimated the most, is shoulder conditioning. I do shoulder openers against the wall every day. Most of the time people think, and especially when practicing headstand at the wall, “Okay, I just want to get my legs up there, over the hips.” But they’re not really thinking about what it takes to hold the pose. So much of it is just like learning how to stand up again. I don’t know about you, but it took me a hot-minute to learn how to walk on my feet, and even then [when we're learning to walk] there’s going to be a couple of years where standing up is not all that great. But this time, you’re learning as an adult, which makes the process much more difficult. Do you know how hard it is for adults to learn different languages? You are literally learning a whole new orientation. So, think about it in the same way that you think about standing: think about planting and rooting the body, and think about creating a foundation.

The only reason you should be kicking up or stepping into a pose is if the time has come.

I’d say that forearm stand and scorpion pose are the poses I get the most questions about, and I am like, “How’s your dolphin pose?” Kino Macgregor once said, “If the path is not clear then there’s no reason to keep walking.” The only reason you should be kicking up or stepping into a pose is if the time has come.

I think that much of the confusion surrounding this topic of moving into forearm stand or scorpion, perhaps before you’re ready, is really what's the problem with contemporary yoga. People think: "I just want to get there." But if you fall over backwards, damage your shoulders, dent your wall—and the best case scenario is that you simply dent your wall!—you could really, really hurt yourself.

#profiles Photography: Allie Mullin

Kathryn Ashworth
Kathryn is an associate editor at Yoga International. She found her way to yoga one starry night in Portugal at Monte Sahaja (the ashram of advaita master Mooji). Now she lives at the Himalayan Institute, where she continues her studies. She views yoga primarily as a healing practice that can re-awaken a sense of wonder, purpose, and (to quote one of her teachers, Rolf Sovik) "relentless optimism."

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