Jessamyn Stanley is breaking boundaries and creating a new wave, especially when it comes to getting women of color, specifically Black women, to grasp the concept of yoga and understanding that it's for every body (a play on words of her new book, Every Body Yoga, available on Amazon here) and not subject to just a specific race.
We were able to sit down and chat with Jessamyn on her journey to how she became the new, breathtaking, fearless icon she is today. We also discuss her personal issues with mental health, how she uses yoga to heal, and the issues with the Black community when it comes to acknowledging mental health. Read along to get some real insight from this very information interview with some key takeaways and things that you can start incorporating into your lifestyle today.
Ode to Self: How'd you get started as a yoga teacher and what made you want to become one?
Jessamyn Stanley: Okay so let's start with, I think that everyone is really comfortable with using the word "yogi". I'm not comfortable with that. I don't identify as a yogi--I think that I am very much a yoga practitioner, but I practice [regularly]. I try to walk the 8 line path, but I also like, very much in this world--I've not renounced my attachments to [yoga].
I've also never aspired to be a yoga teacher. I wasn't interested in yoga. I thought it was for thin white women; it was not something I was ever interested in doing. When I was in high school, my aunt was really into Bikram Yoga and she convinced me to go to a class with her once and I hated it so much! It was like, one of the worst experiences ever. And I said I'd never try yoga again.
It wasn't until I was in graduate school, I was going through a pretty dark time and I was dealing with [sic] and anxiety, but one of my classmates was like, "Oh my gosh, you should try Bikram Yoga! It's gonna be so great." Sippin' the sea of the yoga kool-aid. And I'm like, I've tried it, I know about it, I know I don't like it, why are you pushing this on me? But, she finally got me because I had a Groupon pass and I was like, "What's the worse that can happen?" So, I went and I loved it. I found myself overcoming. It wasn't like I walked into the room magically flexible or anything. I was the only fattest person in the room, the only person of color and it was a very alienating experience. I wasn't able to practice the postures to deeper variations or even able to get my mind around a quarter of the postures.
It's a very daunting experience to say, "Okay, I don't know what I'm doing, I don't know how to do this, and everyone in the room might look at me and see that I don't know what I'm doing, but I'm just gonna try. I'm gonna try and I'm not going to worry about what the outcome is." That's like, a pivot of mental thought.
Because we spend so much of our lives--I spend so much of my life--focused on what I am capable of doing. I set boundaries to myself; I don't go outside of those boundaries. And a lot of my unhappiness comes from these boundaries and understanding that I have the ability to just determine that I'm going to try to do something without worrying about what's going to happen in the future. It was really like a philosophical moment for me because it was not just something that happened in that yoga class or just from practicing physical yoga postures. That's something that can be applied to every moment in life.
So much of my practice is rooted in personal uphevel, and troubles, especially when my aunt passed away unexpectedly and the move to Durham after the decision to leave grad school because that was stressing me out. I started practicing 8 to 10 postures per day of the Bikram sequence and that has set me on the path that I'm on today. Something that has really helped me commit to the practice is being able to harvest compassion within myself for myself, and then reflecting that experience to other people.
OTS: You broke barriers, because many people, specifically women of color, think that yoga is a "white people" thing, when it's open to everyone. How are you redefining how women of color approach fitness? Better question is: what were some backlash that you faced and how did you overcome?
JS: I think that in general, people are fearful of what they don't understand. And the biggest response I've had from people were, "I didn't know that fat black people could do yoga." And I was just confused by that. I mean, there's so many fat, black people practicing, so many people of color--there's just some of everybody. The issue is there's a grievability problem. They don't show us doing other stuff. They don't show us practicing yoga and I think in general, people are just fighting against what they've always been told about human ability.
I think that the discrimination and the backlash that I've experienced is just on par with people seeing something that is different from what they expect to see. And honestly, as a fat black queer person, it's not unlike any discrimination that I've experienced in any other part of my life. I actually think that I had great preparation and I now work in an industry where everyone is on the "lovey" mode. And sometimes people see me as a sideshow. However, my thought is that that has nothing to do with me and I can't control the way other people experience this and everyone's going to have a judgement about me regardless of what I do.
Backlash is to be expected if you're willing to do anything that's worth doing.
OTS: Let's talk briefly about your book, Every Body Yoga. What inspired you to write it ? Who is it meant for?
JS: I wrote Every Body Yoga because since I started posting about my yoga practice on social media, I've had so many people reach out to me like, "Yeah, can you tell me how I should start practicing yoga?" I'm probably getting an e-mail right now, like literally because there's people always messaging me. And I'm like why are people emailing me about this?
When I was Googling yoga for beginners, introduction to it, etc., it's really confusing for somebody who doesn't know anything about the practice at all. Even if you do know about it, it's really easy to get confused. And there's a lot of people walking around who call themselves yogis and has poor little women doing all this shit and they don't even know about yoga. On top of that, I've had so many people ask me what book they should read and everything, so I just realized and thought "Someone needs to write all of this down for everyone" and have this book for everyone to read.
Most yoga teachers are former dancers or athletes to some degree who fell into yoga as a restorative practice. It's very different from a fat queer person of a who's had very severe ups and downs in life, and I realized that in order to tell that from that view, I had to go back to why I started practicing yoga, I had to talk about my family, talk my issues with substance abuse, talk about my issues with weight gain. And those ultimately, those are the reasons why people will continue to practice yoga. Because if you just do it for fitness, you won't always do it and you'll move on to something else because that's just a trend. And there's a million different ways to "get fit". But at the end of the day, there's so much internal work that we all have to do and this practice facilitates that and in order to really tell that story, I had to share my own story.
OTS: What are some takeaways that your would want people to get when reading it?
JS: My main hope is having people walking away from it saying, "Okay, I feel comfortable enough to walk into a yoga studio." That's probably the number one takeaway. Or the very least, they can roll out a mat in the living room and try it out. On top of that, I want for people to see themselves in this. Even if you haven't gone through what I've gone through, you can still see the truth of someone being honest and being very forthright about what happens when you live and love hard in this world. And most yoga people are not really comfortable with having that conversation. They would rather pretend to be this "yoga angel" type thing, like "Namaste, my life it so perfect. Like omigosh, I'm so amazing, and if you do everything I do, you can be just like me one day." And I'm not like that at all. I want for most people to read it and see themselves.
OTS: What are some of the challenges, in deeper detail, that you've dealt with in the face of mental health, especially when you were in college and how did you cope with that?
JS: I would say that my struggles with mental health have continued, even with practicing yoga. They're rooted in the fact that I've had a life that was very complicated with a lot of sadness that I've never dealt with. On top of that, I have a tendency to feel as though I need to bear the weight of the world and I have to be the strongest or the best.
Growing up in a household where showing emotion was not in touch--I lived in a family where if you're crying, you need to do that by yourself in a corner because no one had time for that at all. So for me, it was always me having a come-to-Jesus moment because I can't deal with my emotions and I think that a lot of people feel that way. They don't feel comfortable with even expressing unhappiness or dealing with sorrow or accepting that depression happens. There are waves in life and that there's insanely high highs and traumatic lows and that's just a part of life. For me, something about yoga is what it gives me the space to do is to understand that--to understand that there's gonna to be ups and there's gonna to be downs and all you can do is be in this moment, exactly as it is, and take it for what it is.
I think that being more open about that can encourage people to do the same. Think about how different the world would be if we raised a society to teach our children in schools to meditate and to learn themselves to be more open with their feelings. It would be a very different worlds and I think that it's important to be honest about your different struggles and what you go through.
I just don't know how we're all supposed to do the work that we want to do and be the people that we want to be if we're not taking care of our mental health.
OTS: Do you have a wellness routine or an end of day/week thing to decompress besides yoga or is your main go-to?
JS: I journal a lot; I journal, I meditate--I do both of those things in the morning and the evening. I'm very specific about taking care of myself, like regular massages, taking baths--taking time away from other people. I mean, I travel a lot, I do a lot of things, but one thing I try to do constantly is journal and meditate.
OTS: What does self care mean to you and why is it so important for women, and especially men, to take care of your mental health? I feel as though we're slowly forgetting about the men because they are the ones who are still having trouble opening up and deal with benign mental health issues.
JS: I just don't know how we're all supposed to do the work that we want to do and be the people that we want to be if we're not taking care of our mental health. Because, like, your mental health directs everything. People would be totally obsessed with their physical health and not think about their mental health at all. But, your mental health is just as important--they're equal to one another.
Right now, I feel like we're living in a world where people have to hide from one another and that they're hiding behind these masks. And these masks become our faces. And we forget that underneath the masks, there's a breathing, spiritual being who needs to be fed and you need to fuel and care for. If we're not even having the conversation about mental health, then none of the real--it just has repressive societal effects.
OTS: So, with that being said, if you were to meet your 12-year-old self as the adult that you are today, what are some words of encouragement you'd tell her?
JS: If I could go back, I wouldn't say anything because I feel like I had to go through everything that I've gone through in order to get to where I'm at right now. But, if I had to say something, I would just be like, "Don't sweat it. You're sweating everything way too much. Don't sweat it." Like, don't sweat the people that are making fun of you for being fat, ashy, and having nappy hair. Don't sweat school as much as you are. Don't sweat when people are telling you that you can't do stuff and you just want to try anyway, even though you might not be the best--you still want to try. Don't sweat these people, because people hate on you because they think that they are not good enough and they want for everyone to feel that way. If you know who you are and work on who you are, then that's gonna be all you need. So, just don't sweat these other people.
We had an amazing time speaking with Jessamyn, especially when it came to expressing self care and mental health. What are some takeaways from this interview that you've gathered? What are some challenges with mental health that you face and how are you coping? Or, are you finding it difficult to really express yourself freely and open up about your battles?