Fitness Fridays: Jessamyn Stanley Went From Being Body-Shamed In Yoga Classes To Being The Face Of The Practice

May is known as Women’s Health Month, as well as National Physical Fitness and Sports month. In order to celebrate all things health and wellness that have to do with women of color, today we’re launching Fitness Fridays for the month. This section of stories will be focused on Black women who are dedicated fitness enthusiasts and use social media to expand their reach. These women use their platforms and influence to help others embrace the importance of taking care of themselves both inside and out.

Jessamyn Stanley

We’re starting this series off with Jessamyn Stanley. The Instagram star, a yoga teacher and body positive advocate based out of and from North Carolina, has nearly 300,000 followers on Instagram who follow her “How do I feel?” rather than “How do I look” approach to yoga. Her carefree, safe-space-by-any-means take on the practice has garnered her national attention and support. We had the chance to speak with Stanley at the U by Kotex Locker Room Talk event to launch their new line of hygienic products for women who work out: U by Kotex Fitness (review coming soon!) She’s currently on tour promoting her new book, Every Body Yoga. Check out our conversation about her path to yoga, why it’s important to be a body positive queer advocate as a Black woman from and in the South, and what yoga means to her as someone who doesn’t fit the stereotypical yogi mold.

MadameNoire: What initially attracted you to yoga and how did you get started? 

Jessamyn Stanley: I was really apprehensive about it. I tried it for the first time when I was in high school. Hated it! Had one of the worst experiences. I talk about it in my book, so I won’t tell a lot of details about that. I was like, “I’m not doing this again. I tried it, it’s not for me.” Then when I was in graduate school I was going through a really tough time in general. A bunch of different things were happening. And one of my classmates was like, “Oh my God, try Bikram yoga! You’ll love it.” And I was like, “I’m not doing that. I tried it, it was not for me.” That’s my personality — “I know stuff is not for me.” So whenever people say “I tried yoga once and I hated it” or “I went and I couldn’t get into it,” I feel you. Because I also couldn’t get into it. But she wore me down. They had a Groupon pass so it was one of those, what-do-you-have-to-lose situations? And I loved it! Everything was exactly as it had been before. It was hot as all hell. The poses were impossible to me. But what I didn’t realize in my day-to-day life was that I wasn’t stretching myself outside of my boundaries. I was just like wake up, go to work, go to class. I had the same conversations over and over again, totally not engaged. I was in graduate school studying non-profit arts management. It’s very emotionally draining work. I would put it in the same category as social work where it’s like, you’re working 80-hour weeks to get very little financially out of it. Which isn’t the point, but also, you’re just getting beat down over and over again. The type of non-profit arts management that I was doing was extremely pretentious and elitist. Every day I would wake up like, “Why am I doing this? What is the point of this? It’s just a bunch of people with their heads up their a–es.” So anyway, I was really not engaged. I wasn’t stretching myself. I wasn’t trying. A lot of people are thrown off by yoga in the beginning because it is difficult. And I think that when you hear that something is going to be relaxing and calming, you think you it’s going to be easy. When it’s not you’re like, “What is happening?” It’s like that for a reason. At least in my experience, nothing in this life, nothing that’s good comes without it being difficult. For me, resolving that with the practice has helped me to understand that in life, there are always going to be difficult things. It’s not like, “Oh yeah, I tried some yoga and I never felt depressed!” No, it comes in waves. And so many worse things have happened since that very first thing that got me into it. So for me, it’s the medicine I take that maintains me. It’s not even necessarily about teaching it or sharing it with other people for me. It’s literally the practice I use to maintain myself on a day-to-day basis.

Coming from the South, a conservative state, specifically Durham, why was it so important for you to identify as a body positive queer femme and do so loudly and proudly? 

The interesting thing about Durham is that it is very much an extremely liberal dot in the midst of an extremely red state. Durham was the first place that I lived where I knew queer people. The Greensboro, Winston-Salem area where I’m from, it’s enough to find gay people. So queerness, to have it accepted, made Durham very different from the rest of the state. But also, I just feel like I want to say it: in Durham, it’s not really revolutionary to act the way that I do. Everyone is just living in their truth. It’s very open there, but not representative at all of the state itself. But to me, it’s imperative that people who can stay in red states, who can be out and proud and very loud about their existence, it’s really important to stay in those states. Because anyone can live in a bubble of comfort in New York or in L.A. or whatever, but there’s so much change that needs to happen in these states. Especially because North Carolina is my home state. I love it. I see that it is a really beautiful place. It’s problematic, but this whole f–kin’ place is problematic. So if you stay in it from the perspective of, being in this community is important and I can positively affect other people by staying here, then it’s kind of like a whole other mission. So for me, it’s important to not just be very ‘Oh, look at that!’ A lot of people think I live in New York or think I live in other places and I’m always like, “No, I live in Durham County. I’m from North Carolina.” I hate that people have such a short-sighted view of the state. But there are lots of kinds of people everywhere and visibility is so critical. I just want to help evolve the way people think of Southerners.

What is it that you had to do or that you were receiving, even from family, that helped you gain the sense of self-love that you have? A lot of people preach the importance of it without sharing the routes they took to actually feel it themselves. 

We don’t accept the parts of ourselves that really make us unique. For me, that has been the full, complete changing point. So like, my fatness for example. Really owning that and not saying, “I’m fat, I guess that means I’m stupid. I guess that means I’m ugly.” You know? So it’s like, yeah, “I’m fat. I’m large. What’s wrong with that?” What else can I do because of that? That’s actually why I’m really excited to partner with U by Kotex because this whole campaign is about owning things that you’ve been taught to dislike. For me, owning my fatness has given me so much strength. It’s not something I should have to feel ashamed of and that there’s actually power from. And if I can have that feeling there, that can be translated to other areas as well. So I feel like it’s really about owning the things that you’ve been taught to be ashamed of and then deriving power from them.

Jessamyn Stanley

And how do you think you came to this point of popularity? Especially in yoga, a practice considered something solely for White folks and hipsters? 

I feel like it’s just representative of so many other things in society, though. The reason my practice became so strong is because I could not afford to practice in studios. They’re so expensive! And I would practice at home. And that really became my safe space. I would go to classes, but I never had the connection I felt at home. And as a result, because I was not really a part of the studio system or establishment, I was doing my own thing. I think because I did not look for acceptance and continue to not look for acceptance, that is appealing to other people. I think they’re like, “If she doesn’t care then maybe I don’t have to care.” But it’s weird though to then become more popular because it’s like, “Y’all were hating 15 minutes ago.” [laughs] There was a reason I felt discriminated against and continue to. I absolutely, to this day, have been to classes where I don’t feel like it’s a safe space. I don’t feel comfortable. There are people body-shaming. The teacher is body shaming, just creating an unsafe space. Because I experienced that, it means I’m very sensitive to it as a teacher, which then means that my class experiences are kind of different from what people are expecting. I think that, you know, it’s really helpful to not buy into everything you’re being sold because then you can see the flaws in it. And I think that I don’t really point to anything different. Because that’s really been the thing that’s gotten me about all of this: There are so many POCs, so many fat POCs who practice yoga and were practicing before I was practicing and were even taking pictures and even putting them up on Instagram before me. So it’s a problem that people think, “Wow! Look at that one Black girl who’s out here! That one fat, Black girl!” We’re all already out here. And I think that for me, increasing that visibility is important, and to also encourage other people who feel like they lie on the outskirts to be like, “No!” Own whatever it is you think makes you different and then show up to this practice. Because all of the rules that we have about it are just based out of White, patriarchal standards of selling things. And now they’re tapping into it in a different way because they’re like, “Oh sh-t, we’ve been missing out on fat, Black girl money!” [laughs] They’re just going to follow whatever we’re doing. So if you just lean into what makes you different instead of trying to make that thing be the same as everyone else, that’s your sweet spot. That’s your power spot.

At this point, why do you still do yoga? I think fitness is thought of in a precontemplation, contemplation, active, and then maintenance standpoint, but not so much from the angle of how it enriches us. So what keeps you “in love with yoga”?

In my mind, the purpose behind fitness is to keep you at a peak point of health. And so often we associate fitness with looking a certain way, so when we talk about maintenance it’s so that you can maintain the way that your body looks. That’s such a short-sighted way of seeing life. Is everything about your existence boiled down to whether or not someone wants to have sex with you? What is that? It blows my mind that that’s how people look at this. Yeah, yoga has fitness elements, but the reality is that yoga is not fitness. It’s a spiritual life. And I know you say “spirituality” and everyone wants to have their opinion about it, maybe you’re religious, maybe you’re not — but there is a religious connection between all living beings. Yoga is one of the ways humans have, for centuries, come back to that reality. Because all of these boxes we live in, all of this fake sh-t, is not real. This is the way humans have tried to process that which can not be processed. So it’s really important for me. The reality of fitness is that there will always be a new trend. There will always be a million ways to get fit. If you want to lose weight, you need to work on nutrition, not worry so much about this stuff. All of these things are very much superficial though. They can be good for your overall health, but they’re very superficial. But to tap into that which is larger than us, is imperative. If you care about your soul, then you want to care about maintaining it. So I always think of my practice as brushing my teeth. The same way that I wouldn’t forget to brush my teeth, I wouldn’t want to forget to cleanse my soul and to take care of that. Because that’s what’s going to be here when all of these boxes are gone.