Jessamyn Stanley seems more surprised than anyone by her rise to yoga fame. When I mention mutual friends from her time at Durham restaurant Mateo, she responds with a laugh. "I feel like I'm still working at Mateo! To me, it's not in the rearview mirror at all," she says.
Still, it's been almost two years since she worked at the restaurant. Since then, she has become a full-time yoga teacher, nationally known body-positivity advocate, Instagram sensation, public speaker, and writer. Her new book, Every Body Yoga: Let Go of Fear, Get on the Mat, Love Your Body, is an introductory guide for even the most hesitant would-be practitioners. In it, Stanley, who has a reading at Quail Ridge in Raleigh on Thursday, shares how a fry-loving, exercise-averse aspiring cheerleader from Greensboro became a devoted yogini and champion of self-acceptance (who still loves fries).
The book simplifies yoga jargon, which can seem confusing or even culturally appropriative. Stanley uses charts, straightforward language, humorous footnotes, and personal anecdotes to show that, yes, anybody can do yoga—no excuses. Her book includes full-color photographs of diverse bodies: tattooed women with body hair! Women with brown skin! Women with visible fat rolls under their yoga clothes! It's a welcome, necessary perspective when, as Stanley says, "slender white women in expensive pants drinking expensive beverages with a tropical backdrop" dominate images of Western yoga.
Every Body Yoga is peppered with stories of Stanley's uncomfortable youth, followed by sequences of yoga asanas (postures) meant to salve a particular emotional wound. She recalls her obsession with the movie Bring It On, an homage to cheerleading. It inspired her to try out for her middle school's squad. Unable to complete the basic fitness requirements, she did not make the team, and the shame of being excluded pushed her into "a rapidly blooming bottomless pit of self-disgust," as she writes in the book.
More than fifteen years later, Stanley has emerged as more than a cheerleader: she is a true coach, as you'll discover if you can get into her class in YogaFest NC at N.C. State's McKimmon Center on Saturday morning. The drills she gives for self-hatred? Sun salutations, an intense series of fiery postures meant to enliven the body and make the practitioner feel invincible. For the times she went from Weight Watchers meetings in the afternoon to French fries and college-grade booze at night? One-legged balance postures.
Stanley also urges yogis to get honest about the sometimes-problematic nature of modern Western yoga. Given the difference between ancient yoga, practiced by what Stanley calls "cisgender ascetic men living on the outskirts of society," and today's yoga, she implores us to ask, "How can I take what I need without taking what belongs to someone else?"
"One of the reasons I think I'm so sensitive to it is because I personally experience it all the time," she explains. "As a black queer femme, there's always somebody trying to take something or embody something that doesn't belong to them."
But the yoga itself is not appropriative; that she is clear about: "You look within yourself to find the true light of the universe. That's just true." This relates to something else Stanley is famed for: body positivity. There are thousands of photographs of her, often in skintight shorts and a bra, on the Internet, so people want to talk to her about it and her use of the word "fat."
"OK, everybody needs to stop being hung up on words," she says, in her coach voice—direct, caring, a tad exasperated that our culture is still having this conversation. "The word 'fat' is not something anyone should be ashamed of. You have to be able to exist outside of descriptors. I am a fat femme who does so much more and is so much more than those two ideas. Own how you are. People who find that offensive are dealing with the same shame and hate in themselves."
Stanley hesitates to draw a direct line from her yoga practice to her body-positivity, since she was already immersed in online discourse about the latter before she got into the former. "Yoga is bigger than body image," she says. "It gave me a better understanding of my body's overall capabilities, but the thing that really clicked for me was when I started taking photos of my practice."
Before she became a certified instructor, Stanley began a home yoga practice after her beloved aunt's death in 2012. She couldn't afford a studio class, and without a teacher to help her alignment, she started taking photos on her phone. She would feel powerful and joyful in the moment of the pose, but when she would look at the photos, the self-critic would take over.
"I'd immediately start talking shit about myself, and eventually, I questioned why I was being my own enemy," she says. "I don't think I would have had that conversation if it hadn't been for the photographs."
Before "selfie" made its way into the OED, Stanley started posting her photos to Instagram with hashtags such as #bodyconfidence and #fatyoga. Documenting her yoga journey, she wrote about body acceptance and encouraged others to do the same. She amassed a following in the online yoga and fat-acceptance communities. But after she started getting recognized in public, she became more judicious about balancing her public and private selves. Her photos might be brightly inspirational, but her life, like anyone's, is a work in progress.
"The truth of the yoga journey is messy and complicated and dark and sad," she says. "And that is not a conversation that needs to be had with everyone on the planet. Because my journey has been in front of other people, there can be an impression of completion, and that's not the case. That is what is really not understood about yoga in general: there is no finale. You're always diving deeper, you're always going further."
This article appeared in print with the headline "."