Body positivity advocate Jessamyn Stanley on how to ace yoga, whatever your size

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Lauren Clark
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Yoga pro Jessamyn Stanley tells us how to flow, whatever your size…

Jessamyn Stanley hated her first yoga class. 

“When people have told me that they’ve found their first yoga class to be quite terrible, I tell them ‘I feel you’ because I also felt that way,” the internationally-cherished yogi, Instagram star and body positivity advocate says reassuringly.

Luckily for the world, Jessamyn persisted. From her home in Durham, North Carolina the 30-year-old now travels the world teaching yoga, and is slowly working to redefine the idea of a ‘yoga body’. Since starting to practice seven years ago she has assembled a fan base of 366k followers on Instagram thanks to her inspirational, straight-talking posts. 

She explains: “People may say I put out body positive content, but my account is more just me trying to have a better relationship with my body.”

However, Jessamyn’s journey hasn’t always been as seamless as one of her captivating home flow videos. It was finding a way to help with her depression that first drew her to yoga in the first place. Then there were the challenges she faced when realising she didn’t fit the white, skinny ‘ideal’ of a typical yogi.

“I was always the fattest and always the only person of colour in the room,” notes Jessamyn. “It was definitely an alienating experience.” 

But pushing herself to master every new pose thrown her way gave her confidence and clarity she needed.

“It was allowing me to look within myself for answers to the questions I had been looking out into the world for,” she explains. She credits it with giving her the courage to quit graduate school which was making her “miserable”, and helped her grieve when her aunt passed away shortly afterwards.

Without the funds to keep going to class, Jessamyn decided to give yoga a go at home. Beginning with 10 simple poses she knew how to do, she enlisted the powers of Google to slowly build up her repertoire of positions. Then, in 2012, she began posting pictures for strangers to give their feedback on her technique on a little-known picture sharing app called Instagram. The rest is history.

Jessamyn recalls that when she first started sharing images people would comment, “Wow, I didn’t know fat people could do yoga”, something which spurred her on to use it as an opportunity to challenge perspectives. 

She explains: “I do think my visibility is important to help other curvy, black women like me, as well as yogis of mixed abilities and ages who also don’t get a look in.”

Despite her incredible success - she has recently penned a book, Every Body Yoga - Jessamyn always tries to remain grounded. “If I didn’t have yoga I wouldn’t be able to handle it all,” she admits. “Giving yoga that second chance has really altered the course of my life.”

Here, Jessamyn shares her advice for kick-starting your own practice.

Push yourself

Step outside your comfort zone. “It’s really easy in life to just stay within the boxes that you’ve coloured for yourself,” acknowledges Jessamyn. “Allow yoga to become your opportunity to push beyond mental barriers.”

Just show up

It’s up to you to control how you feel if people stare. “If you look any different from what a yogi is ‘meant’ to look like, people will look,” explains Jessamyn. “All you can do is control how you react to that. So just show up, even if you’re scared.”

Listen to your body

Pay attention to what feels good. “Your body will always tell you what to do,” Jessamyn says. If your body isn’t playing ball, she recommends stopping, sitting, and re-connecting with your breath.

You might fall down

Let yourself mess up. “You’re probably going to fall over a lot,” says Jessamyn. “It’s fine - everyone is. And they’re probably trying not to fart too.”

Try it at home

Classes can be great for teaching you the basics, but learning how to flow on your own is crucial. “If your go-go teacher or studio disappears, your practice may go too,” Jessamyn warns.  

Low budget is OK

It needn’t cost you. “At the beginning buy a cheap mat and throw a towel on top for extra traction,” suggests Jessamyn, who started off using her dad’s old Pilates mat.

“A pillow can be a bolster, a book can work as a block, and a sweatshirt is always a yoga strap waiting to happen.” She adds that she still prefers underwear over nice leggings for her home practice.

Treat social media with care

Going online can provide that motivational community, but Jessamyn warns: “What it asks of us as human beings is the antithesis of yoga, which is looking within our ourselves for answers”. 

She reveals she has periods where she logs-off and wishes she could be more engaged with followers. “But I don’t want to become hung up on every comment and ‘like’,” she admits. “I’m not immune to that cyclone, and it’s important for me to stay conscious at all times. It’s a jungle out there.” 

Images: Getty / Instagram