A Prominent Yogi on Fat Yoga, Instagram, and Changing Stereotypes

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Photo: Courtesy of Jessamyn Salem

If the thirst trap is a photo meant to “elicit compliments, high praise, or words of obsessive lust” then yoga enthusiasts have their own version, with their own set of unofficial rules. The image usually features a gravity-defying pose, either clouds or a sunset, and bright-patterned leggings. And it’s often a skinny white girl posting the photo.

Maybe that’s why people find Jessamyn Stanley’s feed so refreshing. Stanley, 27, is a self-described fat femme who documents her yoga progression on her Instagram account, where she has more than 40,000 followers. She originally tried Bikram yoga in late 2011, and began a daily practice two summers ago (her account garnered attention earlier this year). She’s since advanced to tricky forearm balances and challenging poses like king dancer, and she often photographs herself in swimsuits or her underwear. She spoke to the Cut about preconceived notions about beauty in the yoga world, “fat yoga” studios, and becoming a teacher herself.

Tell me about your practice. What’s been your experience in studios?
I just got a Groupon pass to our local Bikram studio when I was in graduate school and I loved it. I was always one of the bigger people in the classroom, but I think that Bikram is great because the size discrimination is very minimal. The teachers stick to a script and there’s less immediate communication with the instructor than there is in other styles of yoga.

Whenever I would go to other kinds of classes besides Bikram I always felt like I was spending $15 or $20 for a class to have teachers who think that I’m a beginner. When I moved I couldn’t afford to practice in studios anymore. As soon as I started practicing at home, this whole other world opened up for me, because when you’re in the classroom it’s really less about the instructors and more about the other students.

What do you mean by that?
I get emails from people all the time and they say, “I’m worried that people are going to be staring at me,” and I’m always like, “They ARE going to be staring at you.” That’s just the reality of it. We live in a society where we are trained to think that being overweight is wrong so people are going to stare at you. They’re going to have ideas about you. The only thing that you can control is your reaction to that.

I think that the best way to really get comfortable in practice is to just start practicing at home. And to build that happiness that will be with you regardless of what studio you go to.

What do teachers get wrong in your opinion?
Some teachers think if you see someone who looks like they might be having difficulty, then you need to put all of your attention on them. This is your moment as a teacher to show them what they’re missing and help them out. Really, what you’re doing is making them uncomfortable. They just want to go in, do their practice, and leave.

I finished teacher training and I’m actively teaching now. That’s the ironic thing, because now I see the perspective of the teacher wanting to help someone. I think the role of the teacher is to be there and to give guidance, but only guidance that you [the student] initiate. I think the development that is really important happens on your own. It’s a very fluid relationship that should be happening between teachers and students. It shouldn’t be: “I know best and you should be just like me.”

I’m teaching about three classes a week right now, then later this summer I’m going to teach every weekend in different parts of the country with my friend Dana Falsetti. She’s also curvaceous. There are a lot of things you learn as a larger-bodied person practicing yoga that are valuable tools to other people — what to do with your stomach, what to do with your breasts.

Did you always want to teach?
It kills me when people are like, “You need to come here, I don’t have anyone to teach me yoga.” The fact that there are so many people who feel that way is the reason to get out there. For the longest time, I thought I didn’t want to be a teacher because there’s so many teachers. But I know so many people who are very slender — I guess more “typical yoga bodies” — and those are usually the main people who are soliciting me because they just want to feel normal.

Is it intimidating to see the “typical yoga body” at the front of the class?
I think it’s intimidating. It creates more of an aspirational experience as opposed to an inspirational one. It doesn’t actually elicit what yoga should give people. The whole point of this practice is to burn away the parts of our lives that are built up over the years that don’t matter, and to burn that away to who you truly are.

You said that as a student, people would stare at you. Are you getting looks as a teacher?
Yes and no. Most of the people who come to my classes are familiar with me to some degree. So they’re not new to the idea of being taught by a larger-bodied person.

But I just taught a free-yoga-in-the-park class in a town that’s almost an hour away from Durham [where Stanley is based], it’s kind of the boonies. It was maybe ten to 12 women and they were all white. Western yoga is so white. You don’t even recognize that you’re expecting to see someone who’s white until you see someone who’s not.

And on top of that, you’ve got someone who’s larger-bodied. I can see it in their eyes, they’re thinking, Oh fuck, this woman’s not gonna know … By the end, they’re sweating and they’re in a different place about it. I encourage that. Come to this class with whatever preconceived notions you have, because the whole point is to get rid of them. You’re going to be so surprised when you can get much more out of life than those stereotypes give you.

What kinds of comments do you get on Instagram?
I do get some negative comments, much less this year than last year, and I think the reason that there’s been a decline in that is because I don’t acknowledge it. It’s not a good use of time to focus on a lot of negative shit.

But also I went through so much emotional turmoil in middle school that I just don’t know what someone could say to me at this point. What creative idea — “oh my God I’m fat!? I had no idea, thank you so much for telling me.”

In some of your photos you’re doing poses in your underwear.
If you go to hot-yoga classes, most people don’t really wear a lot of clothes. So much of this is based on being able to see and feel your own body that it’s counterintuitive to wear a lot of clothes, in my opinion. And I like to move around as freely as possible. So I always go for garments that are tight-fitting or just fewer garments because I think it’s distracting.

Part of this is that you’ve said you don’t care what you look like on Instagram — it’s all about self-improvement.
Absolutely. The best part about my blog and my Instagram feed, for me, is I can go back and literally see my progress. “Oh my muscles are better here, this is what I need to be doing differently.” That’s the point. It’s hard to really hone a home practice without having some kind of documentation.

What did you think about the apparent trend of "fat" yoga studios? Do you think having separate studios is a good thing or a bad thing?
I have so many mixed feelings about this. I think putting the words “curve” or “fat” before yoga says a lot. I’m friends with Michael Hayes, who owns Buddha Body Yoga in New York. I’ve expressed this to Michael: I think it is so much more important for us to focus on equality.

With yoga, there shouldn’t be a reason we need to separate. However, we do live in a size-focused society. If you’re a larger-bodied person, I completely understand how beautifully comforting it must be to go into a studio and have people who are not going to look at you weird. And at Michael’s studio he has mats that are so much bigger than the average; he has blocks that are bigger, he has the Iyengar wall, where you can do gravity-based work with ropes and you can invert like a 500-pound person on the wall. The problem is that if you go into a regular studio, you don’t have options like that and a larger-bodied person is probably not going to feel comfortable.

Most classes that are geared toward larger-bodied people are gentle. I’m not saying that everyone doesn’t need gentle yoga, but I just think that there’s so much opportunity in everyone’s bodies. I think there’s a very short-sighted view of that in traditional studio culture.

Again, I have mixed feelings about studios where you have to be a larger-bodied person to even go there because it adds to the community of people thinking that you’re either one way or the other, as opposed to thinking that we’re all the same way. Until that kind of discrimination stops I don’t see any way to get beyond this point.

That makes sense, and you sound like a motivated person who was happy to practice at home, but maybe some people really want the class environment to start.
That’s something that I’ve encountered more and more: “Where should I go, what should I do?” And as soon as I say I used to practice at home they’re like, “Yeahhhhhh but, you know.” Obviously, I’m not trying to convince people to stay away from class — I’m not saying that — but I think we need to make classrooms more accessible.

You should be able to walk into any studio. I think it’s really important for yoga instructors of all disciplines to become familiar with how to work with a larger-bodied person and then it won’t be as necessary to have studio spaces that are safe spaces.

Right, they should know what people might need to modify.
And why would they know that? If you’re a powerful yoga teacher who has only worked with people who look just like you and you’re really athletic and maybe you’re also a personal trainer, what the hell are you going to do when you get a 300-pound person in your class? You don’t know what to do.

This interview has been condensed and edited.