Yoga is not all about flawless handstands, sweaty selfies and perfect crow poses at sunset, despite what your Instagram feed may suggest. The ugly truth is that it takes hard work, time and patience, not to mention strength and flexibility. Jessamyn Stanley, a yoga fan turned social media fitness star, is breathing proof of it.
Stanley’s first book, a part-memoir, part-yoga-guide titled “Every Body Yoga: Let Go of Fear, Get on the Mat, Love Your Body,” breaks down 50 basic poses to encourage beginners of all shapes and sizes — not just the willowy, Lululemon-clad swans that flood your social-media feeds — to get on the mat and start practicing.
The 29-year-old Durham, N.C., native, who is popular with her followers for shattering yoga stereotypes and spreading a message of self-love and self-care, swung through Washington on her national book tour to discuss her practice, her outlook and her latest work. She also offered some practical advice for both beginners and seasoned practitioners.
Stanley distinctly remembers her experience with Bikram yoga when she was 16 because it was hotter than, as she calls it, “Satan’s sauna” and it was so difficult she had to leave halfway through the class. It would be another handful of years before she would return to the mat.
Her advice to first-timers? “It’s important to remember that you don’t have to keep in line with everyone else, that it doesn’t matter if you’re practicing a pose in a way that looks completely different than the person next to you. No one — big, small, short, tall — is expected to be the best or even at [a] beginner level on their first day,” she said in an interview. “Try not to pay attention to how other people perceive you and value how you feel above all else. If you can say, ‘I’m just going to appreciate this experience for what it is,’ you’ve already succeeded.”
Stanley started posting cellphone pictures back in 2013 as way to easily track her alignment, log her progress and engage with the online yoga community. Now she has more than 290,000 followers on Instagram.
“When I started taking photos, I would do it because I felt really strong and powerful in the moment and in the posture. Then, I would look back at the photo and think, ‘Oh my god, my belly is so big! My arms are so jiggly!’ ” Stanley recalled. Over time, however, she began to realize she was her own worst critic.
“I began asking myself, ‘You felt so powerful before, what changed? Nothing,’ ” she said. “Addressing that conflict and allowing myself that freedom was monumental.”
Learning to be comfortable, or even just accepting, of your body is transformational. “If you say, ‘My body isn’t owned by anybody else. I need to love my body for what it is,’ it can make all the difference.”
“The word ‘fat’ has come to be associated in modern society with stupid, ugly and unworthy — like it’s the ultimate insult — when really it’s just another word for large,” Stanley said.
She is an advocate of reclaiming the word and its meaning. “If you can take away the weapon they are trying to use against you, you can reclaim your power, your privilege and step into your strength.”
“I used to obsess over what other people thought of me until I started digging deeper and discovering about how I truly felt,” Stanley explained. “And that started bleeding into other parts of life, like getting dressed in the morning. You start asking yourself, ‘How does this make me feel?’ rather than, ‘Is this something other people think I should be wearing?’ ”
“I’ve noticed there are a lot of fake people in the yoga world,” Stanley said. She’s over the Photoshopped pictures of asanas on the beach captioned with Gandhi quotes. “It’s all very, ‘Look at me, look how perfect I am’ and I am not really in to all of that,” Stanley said, adding, “All I am trying to do is live my yoga.”
“Try a new teacher or studio, or experiment with a different style of yoga. In a big city like Washington, you can find a different studio literally around the corner,” Stanley says. Also, “remember to praise yourself for the little things, like the fact that you showed up to class and got on your mat.”
“I love listening to hip-hop while I practice, because I like to have a hard beat that I can lean into, especially when the practice is very physically demanding,” Stanley says. “Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City” is the album I would pair with my book because he also tells a story about what’s it like to be living your life, . . . making bad decisions” and eventually getting to a place of self-discovery. (You can listen to Jessamyn’s yoga playlists on Spotify here and here).
When Stanley decided to give yoga a chance, all she had was a mat and a few improvised props (for example, an old scarf doubled as a yoga strap). Even her first cellphone photos uploaded to her now-famous Instagram account were taken with a self-made tripod of large chapter books. With research, patience and persistence, her yoga practice blossomed.
“You don’t have to buy anything or change your life,” Stanley says. “You can start practicing today, in this moment, one pose at a time.”
Jessamyn will be at Willow Street Yoga in Silver Spring, Md., on June 2.