Jessamyn Stanley’s first foray into yoga was a 90-minute Bikram class in a room that topped 100 degrees. She was in high school at the time, and her aunt thought she’d enjoy the intense, 26-posture class. Long story short, Stanley hated it so much she thought that first yoga class would be her last.
“I believed from a young age that I was not an athletic person,” Stanley, 32, told Know Your Value. “So, being in this environment that was challenging for even athletic people — my brain shut down and said ‘nope, not into this.’ If it seemed like a boundary was too hard or if I wasn’t able to get it right the first time, I didn’t even try.”
Her perspective has changed immensely. Now Stanley is a renowned yoga instructor, author and body-positive advocate. Her online yoga studio, The Underbelly, is based out of Durham, North Carolina, but is available everywhere. Social posts of Stanley doing headstands, splits and advanced balancing poses have gone viral. And she is known for encouraging people of all different colors, shapes and sizes to practice yoga.
“Yoga isn’t just for one type of person,” said Stanley. “Right now it’s only marketed toward thin, white, affluent people. That’s such a small percentage of who exists, and it’s not the group of people who need yoga the most.”
Stanley’s transformation wasn’t linear, nor was it overnight. She struggled with body image issues, family crises, and finding consistency with her practice.
“It’s ongoing work,” she said. “I think of myself as being in body-shaming recovery, and that I will never not be in recovery from it. I have days that are great, and I have days that are terrible. The beauty is in understanding that the ups and downs are the point, and if I can be OK with that, I’m doing alright.”
Stanley grew up in a close-knit family in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her father was an athletic amateur bodybuilder, but Stanley didn’t catch his athletic bug during her childhood.
“I was that kid who was told they were slow and uncoordinated, so I was always terrified of team sports. I was always trying to get my ankle twisted before field day,” she said.
When Stanley was a young child, her mother became ill and was often bedridden. Her father had to work two jobs to support the family, so Stanley and her brother were often home cooking quick but unhealthy meals like ramen noodles. She was depressed, and said she became “a fat girl” when she was about 8 years old.
“I started to get larger around the same time my mother started to get sick ... I definitely grew up hating my body and feeling very uncomfortable with myself,” Stanley said.
It wasn’t until college that Stanley discovered a new, budding world of fat positivity and acceptance through the online communities Tumblr and Livejournal. Stanley engaged with big women who preached self-love instead of shame, and slowly, she started to change her mindset about her own body image.
“Without that community ... I don’t think I would have been able to muster that from inside of me,” Stanley said.
Stanley was studying non-profit art management in graduate school when a classmate convinced her to try yoga for the second time in her life, and again, it was Bikram. She was a little more comfortable in her skin this time.
“The heat was the same, the postures were the same ... everything was the same except for me, Stanley recalled. “I was frequently the fattest person in the room and the only person of color. It was alienating. But I said ‘you could complain about it, or you could just try.’ And that idea of just trying without any fear of what would happen next, or not being good enough. It was an awakening.”
Stanley was also learning that yoga isn’t about showing off flexibility or superpower postures.
“Sitting on my shins was a major deal to me. It wasn’t some sudden realization that I was actually a contortionist. I was showing up for this medicine. It makes me feel good, and it was starting to pull me out of the fog.”
As she started doing yoga more and more, Stanley began posting photos of herself online to log her progress. She wasn’t looking to instruct, but comments kept rolling in with surprise, and glee, that a self-described “fat girl” was good at yoga.
Stanley underwent a 230-hour yoga teacher training and began instructing online through various apps. Her press exposure went through the roof. She appeared in Cosmopolitan, Shape, Forbes, Teen Vogue, and a lot more. Her part-autobiographical book “Every Body Yoga” came out in 2017.
In April, she launched her own app, The Underbelly, whose tagline is: “If you have ever thought that people who look like you or think like you or live like you don’t do yoga, this is your place to give it a go.”
To anyone feeling too self-conscious to try yoga or any physical activity, Stanley offered some advice:
“Try to stop thinking about what other people think of you. It seems difficult and it seems overly simple,” said Stanley. “But yoga is more than an exercise you do on a Saturday wearing your Lululemon. It’s about understanding compassion in every moment, and reaching for compassion before we reach for fear.”