Luckily for all of us, there are many initiatives that are challenging the notion that a girl’s/woman’s value is best measured through her ability to embody unrealistic ‘thin but curvy’ beauty standards and not for her achievements, intelligence and character. An unhealthy cultural obsession with women’s weight and body-shaming has a significant negative impact on the mental health and confidence of teenage girls. We are proud to introduce Jessamyn Stanley, an internationally recognized yoga teacher, and explore her journey of learning to accept and embrace herself and how she helps others to do the same.
Jessamyn has been profiled and/or featured in a wide range of media outlets, including Good Morning America, New York, Glamour, Shape, People, and the Huffington Post, among others. Check out her book ‘Every Body Yoga’
Teen years and emotional wounds
As a preteen, I needed constant reassurance of my beauty and, as time went on, I grew to loathe my naturally thick and kinky hair. Though I was always the fattest, the slowest, and the least athletic, I idolized the stereotypical beauty of cheerleaders. Despite my complete lack of natural flexibility and balance, I tried to join my middle school cheerleading team. A few years later, I became obsessed with losing weight. Harboring sustained hatred for your body? Yeah, it isn’t a good look. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that my childhood self-hatred created some very nasty, adult-size emotional wounds. In retrospect, all of these experiences directly point to a need for some kind of yoga. And not as an exercise routine, but as a way to stop acting like my own worst enemy. It only took me the greater portion of three decades to figure that out.
Body and shame
I associated so much shame with my body, I didn’t think I deserved to wear clothing that actually made me feel good. The strength of truly toxic shame comes when it’s
allowed to fester, like an open wound. And, by the time I tried to look myself in the eye during this yoga class, my body shame had been festering for the better part of two decades. I still don’t know why I didn’t run screaming from the class. Sometimes I think I was in such a bad place that nothing I could feel in the hot-as-hell yoga studio could be worse than what I was feeling every other part of the day. So I didn’t run from the class. I stayed to the bitter end. And I kept coming back. It wasn’t easy. The physical challenge of struggling through Chair Pose in a room full of huffing and puffing yoga dragons combined with the emotional intensity of all that eye contact caused me to swell with waves of anger and self-pity. This became a familiar pattern in the early days of my practice. When I found a pose difficult, I became defensive and prideful. Often, I literally stopped practicing until the next pose. My teachers and fellow practitioners saw a surly-looking, curvy black femme standing on her mat in stoic silence, grouchy because her body wouldn’t bend the way her mind wanted. But on the inside, I was in tears. “Why can’t I do it?” I thought. “What’s wrong with me? Everyone around me is making this look so easy! WHY CAN THEY DO IT AND I CAN’T?” The desire to cry inconsolably wasn’t really what I expected from a practice that my friend had assured me would calm and relax my spirit.
Yoga is not just exercise
My practice helps me transcend the all-consuming nonsense of daily life. It allows me to step outside of my mundane fears, endless obsessions, and senseless anger. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had that kind of feeling from other kinds of physical exercise. And it’s because yoga is NOT just exercise—it’s a life path. And if you allow it, the yogic path will envelop every moment of your life—every breath, every interaction, every gaze, and every thought. You see, when Westerners talk about “yoga,” they are almost invariably talking about “asana,” otherwise known as the fancy, gymnastics-esque postures that someone in your state is probably teaching at this exact moment. However, asana is only one limb of an eight-limbed path, and true yoga practitioners align their lives in pursuit of fulfilling all eight limbs, not just asana—important things like breathing, discipline, concentration, meditation.
If I can do it, you can do it
Perhaps you’ve tried yoga in the past and it proved to be an absolutely wretched
experience. Maybe you’ve given up faith in the potential for your own yoga practice. Maybe you thought it was boring, or just WAY harder than you expected. Maybe you’re thinking that you and I share some common ground that you’ve never been able to find with other yoga teachers.
Because your takeaway from seeing a picture of me—a fat girl practicing yoga in her
underwear—is that it can’t be that hard. So maybe you can do what I can do. I mean, it’ll
probably take a little effort and sweat, but you’ll be head-standing and deep back-bending in no time.