Five women are standing in a small white box studio on a very warm Sunday in June. It’s quiet, save for Kendrick Lamar’s “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” and the soft crinkle of a seamless beneath Jessamyn Stanley’s moving body. Quiet, actually, is an understatement. We’re all silent, jaws agape, mesmerized by our subject as she flows pose to pose. Stanley moves like a sunrise or a whisper, full of tension and want but completely untethered in nature, like the space between two lips before a kiss.
A yoga practitioner by trade and a beacon of a liberated movement by general consensus, Stanley has become a mainstay in the wellness industry for her democratic approach to exercise. She cracked the seemingly uncrackable yoga world—one synonymous with the rich, skinny, and white Madonnas and Gwyneths of the world—making it accessible to anyone and everyone who is not that.
Inclusivity, for lack of better buzzword, has become this sort of amorphous cloud hanging over the wellness world. Essentially, the two work in opposition: While detox and dieting propel us toward a socially acceptable—read: controlled—body type, inclusivity (and body positivity) tell us to ‘slow down, breathe, you’re good.’ One would think that while those forces run opposite, at some point, the force would wear out. But it hasn’t. If the internet backlash of Nike’s recent mannequins weren’t proof enough that fat-phobia is still running rampant—especially in the wellness space—I don’t know what is.
Despite isolating factors, Stanley has continued on, gaining impressive momentum along the way. With a best-selling book Everybody Yoga and a home-studio app The Underbelly, she’s spreading the gospel of inclusivity, reminding the wellness world that there is room for people who are fat, Black, and queer—it just needs to let them in.
In your own words, who is Jessamyn?
I want to give the short PR answer, but then there’s the yoga person in me that’s like, who actually are you? At the end of the day, I’m a yoga practitioner. I show up on my mat, I show up in life. I just want to try to find balance from moment to moment. As a yoga teacher, I am really trying to spread the practice of compassion around the world, that there is a light within every being that deserves to be honored. In addition to that, I’m an author and I am the founder of The Underbelly yoga app.
This month, we’re really trying to understand what movement means to different people. What does movement mean to you?
Movement, to me, is being alive. It’s what happens when the cosmic force of the universe is going forward. And I think a lot of the times, especially in terms of the human body, we understand it truly as cosmic energy moving through our bodies and creating force in the universe.
Has that always been your definition, or has it developed over time?
I think I’ve always had a pretty small definition of movement, probably because a lot of people have been very obsessed with the physical body—how it goes, what it looks like, and how it shows up for other people. But I think as time has moved on my thoughts on it have become a little bit more nuanced.
You’ve said yoga kind of gave you the opportunity to step out of your box and your boundaries, that you felt untethered. I think for a lot of people, that’s actually the untold narrative. Exercise—especially yoga—can feel intimidating and prescriptive and that you need to tick certain boxes (thin, zen, devoted, flexible).
Totally. It doesn’t just have to do with self-maintenance and taking care of this machine you have. I think we underestimate finding a connection to something more. But, I often think that yoga has been so thoroughly commodified in the west—and frankly, globally—that it’s no wonder that surprises a lot of people.
I don’t even know that I would consider yoga to be exercise. I understand it as a spiritual practice that has physical benefits. Practicing posture work is really the epitome of the movement—you are injecting your breath (breath is the only way you’re able to do it—into your physical body in order to create various shapes. We get so hung up on the shapes that we forget there is so much alchemy going on along the way, and that alchemy is really the work.
I’ve spoken to a lot of trainers and people—every shape, size, gender, color —for this issue, and the roadblock that I’ve come upon is that physical transformation is never a focus but rather a positive consequence of strength and hard work. And I think that’s bullshit. We know this idea of an ‘ideal body’ exists, but why can’t we admit it?
[Laughs] Yeah, totally. It’s funny for fitness trainers to say that. I love it.
I think capitalism is rooted in a need for people to be fundamentally unhappy with themselves. So I find it hard for the fitness industry that is so deeply entwined in capitalism, to ever really come out of that. I do think we can work on it individually, but trying to understand what about the activity is actually enjoyable. Yeah, I don’t think yoga is fitness, but there’s a lot of other fitness shit that I do, and the reason that I’m able to enjoy it at this particular stage in my life is that I finally remembered that my inner child is still inside of me.
When I was a kid, I would run around the block just to see if I could do it. You’d be like, ‘let me try to turn a cartwheel.’ You’re not thinking ‘how can I lose weight, or how can I get into that outfit, or maybe this person will like me.’ You’re thinking, ‘I just want to see if I can turn a cartwheel.’ That’s the energy I’m always trying to evoke when I’m lifting or swimming or cycling. It’s just you challenging yourself. Like, how far can I go? What am I capable of? Along the way, though, we all should listen to our bodies—and not just our bodies, but our minds, our spirits, and our emotional health. So much will happen, but you have to let go of that need to do it for somebody else.
Do you feel you’ve reached that point?
Honestly, I do feel like I’m at that point. But I know there will be days when I will slip back into that mindset, making it about something outside of myself. I think it’s just commitment to the path and being like, forever isn’t a destination, I’m just gonna be in it for the fun of it.
I feel like I’m kind of in that space now. But what surprised me the most was in finding content with my routine and being present in my practice was that the people around were more worried about my life than I was. As if when I gave up this anxiety of needing to feel or look a certain way, then everybody around me was like ‘wait, why are you happy with yourself? We want you to look this way.’
That’s so interesting. Like, how dare you be happy with yourself? That’s so funny. Misery loves company. I get that mentality all the time from people. But a lot people who are obsessed with wellness and fitness are actually miserable because they’re not running in tandem with what their spirit needs—they’re just trying to do what other people think their bodies should look like, and it distorts their minds. Then, that’s all that’s inside of them, and they deflect that shit onto other people.
It was really bizarre. And it’s kind of crazy to see these opposing attitudes running with and against one another. On one side, we have this amazing body positivity movement and I feel that we’ve made a lot of strides over the past two years. But on the other, we still have such present negativity.
I don’t even know that body positivity has really made that much of a difference. I honestly feel like the way that body positivity has been co-opted is basically just like, ‘Fat girls deserve to wear cute clothes, too.’ It’s just so…what? First of all, duh? I feel like the true core of body positivity is: Everybody is okay. Every way your body is showing up right now is perfect. If you use different methods to get around, if your mind works in a different way, if your skin color is whatever color…whatever you are, you are perfect right now. And then step forward. Where can you go from here?
But that message is not being conveyed.
What can we do as a wellness industry and community of people to truly express that message?
I think it’s all about passing the mic and giving it to people whose voices are not being heard. It’s wild to me—it’s June, it’s Pride month—how many people are on Pride right now. As a queer person (I’ve been out since I was in high school), I clearly remember when nobody gave a shit about Pride when it was not a thing. And the only reason brands are on it is because they’re passing the mic.
What tends to happen is that in all different areas, you get brands and companies that are like, ‘let’s try to fit whatever the different person is, into what we’re already doing.’ And the thing is, you need to actually pull up a seat at the table. You need to look around and see who’s in the room making decisions. That will clarify a lot.
You’ve now become a beacon and a representation for a different type of person that we weren’t seeing in the wellness community. Have you seen a surge of people come out that felt maybe their wellness space didn’t exist before?
What’s always been very interesting to me about being in the mainstream yoga world is how many people will be like, ‘wow, there must be so many more plus-size yoga teachers! You must have encouraged so many people to join this movement.’ And I’m like, ‘there have always been plus-size yoga teachers! I’m not even the first plus-size yoga teacher to put pictures of themselves on the internet.’
More than anything, I’m noticing people being surprised by who is already out there. Then, because of that, we’re lifting each other up through our work. And that’s creating more visibility for people who look like us, and, more importantly, feel like us, to feel like they can do it too.
From when I started posting on Instagram to today, there has been a complete change. But I do think it’s been built on the backs of what’s been happening long before I began.
How long is that?
I’ve been practicing for eight years.
What have been some career highlights along the way?
Publishing my first book, Everybody Yoga, was definitely a career highlight. I set a goal of wanting to publish it before my 30th birthday, and it came out like two months before. I was also the first plus-size business to win a Shorty award in the healthy living category, which was really exciting. That, and launching The Underbelly, my yoga studio app, which is definitely like the biggest project I’ve ever undertaken.
And the most challenging?
I do think that it is very difficult to be a minority in my industry; that I am fat, Black, and queer in an industry that is almost entirely cis and white and not just thin, but fat-phobic. It’s very interesting to operate in that space. I’ve always moved to the beat of my own drum; I don’t care what other people are doing.
Switching gears a bit. Let’s talk about personal style.
I would say that it’s like Clarissa Darling went to the beach with Wendy Peffercorn from the Sandlot. It’s very mid-century tomboy. Oh, no. I can’t even believe I said that. I like bright colors, but I also love to casual and fun. But my partner the other day so accurately described my style as it is now. It’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. I’m always wearing a lot of boots. I wear tank tops and high-waisted shorts or pants. If I’m wearing a dress, it’s usually bodycon. I like things that fit my body.
What are some of your favorite brands at the moment?
I’ve always been kind of an Asos girl. I really enjoy Premme. For yoga, I really like Athleta. You know who I haven’t tried yet but I’ve seen everywhere is Girlfriend Collective. I love that simple, bright color design.
Is there any single piece that’s your favorite?
Oh yeah. It’s my Athleta mock turtleneck. It has a cut-out back and it’s just so cute. It’s a design that’s really hard to find in plus-size and I wish more plus size designers did shit like that.
Tell me about your beauty routine.
I’m really into clean beauty I’m really obsessed right now with the magic of witch hazel and tea tree oil. Weleda Skin Food body butter is so dope., as is their lip balm. I love everything Ozia Originals makes, but [my favorites are] the charcoal soap and body oil.
I’m also really into masking. I believe in preserving my skin and my body as it is so that when I put on makeup—which I do enjoy doing—I don’t have to wear as much. Also, I can just enjoy [wearing it] and not feel like it’s of the utmost necessity.
You’ve said in one of your interviews that you actually don’t engage that much, both in the negative and the positive comments because it’s a big energetic toll for you. That statement felt something very spiritually grounded. Considering that engagement is what most people are after these days, was that a mindset that you’ve always had?
No, it definitely came with time. Initially, honestly, I was just putting things up on Instagram and not paying attention to the engagement at all. Then, as time went on, I realized people are affected by this. And the minute that I started to really look at the comments, I recognized that I did not need to be doing that. Like, this is not good for my spirit, this is weighing me down. People are obsessed with [social media]. And I get it.
I just know that I’m really susceptible to it and I want to be able to enjoy my life and not be mad at strangers. There are two sides to the coin. Yes there is positive feedback. I recognize within my yoga practice, I am so affected by the positive feedback of other people, I almost think it can be as negative as the negative feedback. And I notice a lot of people are like this on social, they rely on the feedback – it’s like a drug of some sort – like ‘oh people like me, they accept me, so it’s ok to be the way that I am. And I feel that, and I understand that sentiment and I feel like that’s the opposite of my yoga practice, and that’s what I need to avoid. With the negative feedback, anyone who is trolling on the internet or feels like they just want to talk shit, they’re probably upset about something completely different. And if I get myself emotionally involved in that, it’s starting this whole cycle of negativity that doesn’t need to exist.
I just feel sorry for people. Like you have to be an asshole every day, you have to live like that, and that’s a lot of shit.
Right, and it’s probably something really fucking terrible. If I knew them, I would be like, ‘Yo come over. Let’s get Ben & Jerry’s.’ There’s so much sadness in this world that if what I’m experiencing is happiness, I just need to continue to reflect that, and other people will get it as well.