Printed in Sweat Equity Magazine December / January 2018
She’s not what you expect to see on the cover of a fitness and lifestyle magazine. In today’s world, heavy black women fall far on the spectrum of cover models. I did an Internet search using the phrase, “women in fitness,” and of the 160 images that came up (that’s where I stopped counting), two were black. Two! That is a gross misrepresentation of a nation with over 14.5% people of colour! The vast majority of the female models (that is, 98%) were ultra slim or muscle-bound, long-haired, and white.
Now, do another search using the phrase “women doing yoga.” Of 100 models, 11 were black. Keep scrolling, and you’ll find that one woman, in particular, shows up more often than any other: Jessamyn Stanley. If you don’t recognize the name, you can’t miss the face (or the body). She’s the only overweight black gal with a super-short do, striking some of the most advanced yoga poses on the market. Once she’s on your radar, you can’t miss her. She’s everywhere. Full Splits, Wheel, King Pigeon, Forearm Balance, Dancer Pose, Crow, Bound Triangle, and Camel: you name it, she does it. And she makes no bones about flaunting it. Almost exclusively every picture shows Stanley in a bathing suit or bikini, sports bra and tights, short shorts, and often enough—her birthday suit. Even more striking than a big black body in a bikini doing an impossibly contorted pose, though, is the 1,000-watt smile that goes with it.
Stanley opened her Instagram account well before social media was the epic entity that it is today. Hardly anyone was posting at that time, and her intention was to be part of a community. She wanted feedback on her asana practice, and most of the yogis at that time were instructors and hard-core practitioners committed to a home practice. Without the studio vibe, the path can be a lonely one at times, so Stanley reached out. That was over five years ago. Now she is in high demand. With over 342,800 followers on Instagram alone, a book on the list of top sellers, a publicist, and a roster of events under her belt, including the Hawaii Yoga Festival, a guest appearance at the Indonesian embassy, New York conferences, and video shoots in LA, I’m not alone in deciding that Jessamyn’s got something worth wanting. But what is it?
As a tall blonde 30-something who weighs 125 pounds (on a cheat day), I pretty much fit the yoga mould. I log calories, track nutrients, and try my best to meet the 10,000-step goal. Yet, you couldn’t pay me enough to pose in a swimsuit on Instagram. What’s wrong (or overwhelmingly, thought-provokingly, and enviably right!) with this picture? What is the source of the light behind Jessamyn’s thousand-watt smile? According to Stanley, it’s her daily commitment to the inner work and introspection of the science and technology of yoga.
I didn’t buy that at first, figured she must be the star of some new-fangled spin on the practice, the Curvy Yoga trend or Yoga for Weight Loss. Maybe she’s a role model for how yoga can change your life, how you can use it to lose weight, get slim, and finally, finally fit into our “body-negative, physicality-obsessed world.” But I was wrong. There are no before and after pics on her website, not on Google, Pinterest, Instagram, nor Facebook. No Internet search uproots a story of dramatic physical change, followed by self-acceptance. There is only Jessamyn Stanley as she is, right here and now, in all of her full-bodied glory.
As it turns out, the source of that inner joy is nothing more than the authentic practice of this age-old tradition. Although you wouldn’t know it from our media-driven expectations today, it turns out that yoga isn’t all about flexibility, reduced body fat, or how you look on the beach, in a tree, or seaside in Dancer Pose. Apparently, there’s more to it than that.
In a sea of “aesthetic perfection” that the industry has come to represent, it is Stanley’s insistence on authenticity that makes the biggest wave. “My mission is to live my yoga practice and life authentically, at all costs and at all times. If that mission inspires others, that’s dope. But I do not think about my ‘audience’ beyond that. An audience implies performance, and I am not performing.”
Stanley didn’t ask for the attention that’s been pounding at her North Carolina door over the last couple of years. The whole experience had been a little surprising to her, to say the least.
“I’ve never been that kind of person who was easily accepted by others,” she says, “so I find it strange now that people are interested in what I’m doing when they didn’t care before.” But like it or not, she’s developed a platform upon which she can speak her mind, and this soft-spoken voice, with a slight southern drawl, demands to be heard.
“My brand is me, Jessamyn Stanley, living my yoga practice. Honesty and authenticity will encourage more people to live their yoga, to practice self-inquiry.”
“I don’t feel that I need to show myself in a certain way to benefit other people . . . I’m not trying to project anyone for anyone else because tomorrow all of these followers could be gone.”
Did I ask about her weight? About any aspirations to lose weight? Did I probe into the challenges of self-love and self-acceptance in a world predicated on self-loathing, body distortion, and the lie of “not being enough?” I tried to, sort of, but our conversation kept circling back to her insistence that yoga is a spiritual practice, one that offers unconditional self-love as the ultimate gift of doing the inner work. “I will gain weight and lose weight for the rest of my life because I’m human, and it will fluctuate,” she says. “My self-image can’t be tied up in how people think of me because followership is fleeting . . . One day, this ‘audience’ will be gone, and I don’t want my life’s mission to be tied up in the trends of other people.”
For Stanley, it is a process of continued growth and ever-more personal development. She says, “As an addict of self-loathing in a permanent state of recovery, I’ll always be looking for ways to infuse self-love.” Against the backdrop of such insight and wisdom, questions of weight loss and weight gain, the triviality of numbers on a scale, all became irrelevant.
As we closed the interview, I was flooded with a feeling of gratitude for having met such a grounded and influential woman, for having made this connection, and for being reminded, once again, of the ultimate reason why we practice.
“Whenever yoga and capitalism get mixed together, that’s when really sketchy things start to happen. We who live in the Western world are trained to hate ourselves because self-hate is capitalism’s most prevalent tender. Self-hate means people seek love in the form of purchases.”
“I march to the beat of my own drum. I enjoy community with other teachers, but otherwise, I keep to myself and ignore the mainstream yoga world. I don’t feel compelled to engage with an industry and corresponding community that does not respect me or people who look like me.”