Yoga teacher and advocate: This has nothing to do with leggings or destination retreats

May 20, 2018

Yoga is depicted in pop culture as a physical exercise trend involving elaborate poses, performed with grace and beauty, mainly by upper-class white people in stretchy pants. That fact is very much on the radar of our next guest.

Jessamyn Stanley, a yoga teacher, author and advocate, argues that yoga is so much more than the manufactured images we see on Instagram. She shared her thoughts on the spiritual and mental effects of yoga and the positive emotional impact it has had on her life. These ideas are also explored in her book "Every Body Yoga: Let Go of Fear, Get on the Mat, Love Your Body."

Stanley attributed the current portrayal of yoga in the modern world as a reflection of capitalist society.

“People want something that they can be sold,” Stanley said. “They want to be enticed and excited and they want to feel as though…they’re special or different because they learned how to do this.”

Credit Christine Hewitt

The culture surrounding current yoga perspectives has become bigger than what the practice actually involves, according to Stanley.

“When you peel it back, the practice has nothing to do with leggings or destination retreats or even these advanced, complicated yoga postures,” Stanley said. “It’s literally just breathing and sitting with your breath and being in a state of self-reflection.”

Stanley said yoga is at its best when it involves teaching people self-reflection and giving them a space where they can feel accepted by themselves and others. It is sometimes presented as a way to increase a positive body image, but Stanley said this is the wrong approach.

“Yoga is bigger than body positivity,” Stanley said. “It’s bigger than all of this sickness that has permeated our society, this obsession with what our bodies look like.”

"You can be beautiful and be fat. You can be athletic and be fat. You can be healthy and be fat. All of these things can exist together. And when we take the ammunition out of these weapons that are being used against us, we take the power away from our oppressors."

For her, Stanley said yoga did not directly cause her to have a better relationship with her body, but it did help her track her progress and emotional health as it improved.

“Whenever people see me and they see a fat, black person who’s become comfortable with themselves, and they see that I practice yoga, they’re like, ‘The yoga must be how you were able to feel better about yourself,’” Stanley said. “I just don’t know that I would draw that link.”

When she started yoga at home, Stanley would take pictures so she could track her technique, such as alignment, for ways to improve. She said it was during this process that she would look at the images of herself and start to criticize her appearance.

“It took the process of hearing myself saying those things about myself in order to see the connection,” Stanley said. “Now that I’ve noticed that as a theme…that’s where the true work comes from in terms of having a better relationship with my body.”

This discovery led to Stanley actively trying to reclaim the word “fat” for herself. Though she was not focused on doing so to affect others, her efforts to change the connotation of fat as it relates to her has incidentally had a positive effect on others who struggle with similar body image issues, Stanley said. She attributed this to the idea that the word fat should not have to represent a person’s entire identity.

“You can be beautiful and be fat,” Stanley said. "You can be athletic and be fat. You can be healthy and be fat. All of these things can exist together. And when we take the ammunition out of these weapons that are being used against us, we take the power away from our oppressors.”