Pushing into a downward facing dog pose in the grass at Durham’s Rock Quarry Park, Jessamyn Stanley reminded her students to focus on their breathing.
Stanley, a larger-bodied black woman, knows she isn’t the typical face of yoga.
“In America, yoga is very, very white and is privileged, white women – skinny, white women – and that can be really inaccessible to a lot of people,” she said.
Stanley, 27, is not out to prove that larger people are able to practice yoga, she said. Instead she wants to show that yoga is good for everyone.
When her aunt dragged her to bikram yoga – a series of poses or asanas done in a room heated to 105 degrees – for the first time at 16, Stanley hated it.
“You’re sweating from places that you don’t even know you can sweat from,” she said.
Stanley said she made the worst mistake you can make in bikram yoga – leaving the room mid-class. Once you reenter, she said, the heat is overwhelming.
“I thought I was going to die,” she said. “Like my life was going to be over.”
Stanley didn’t want to ever try yoga again, but when she was in graduate school studying performance arts management, a classmate wore her down.
“I was lost in my graduate program,” Stanley said. “I wasn’t lost academically but emotionally lost. I was pursuing a goal that I had set when I was a teenager.”
She said that everything that had made yoga difficult the first time she tried it, made it perfect for her the second time. She needed something hard in her life.
“It provides that stabilizing thing for people that are adrift, and most people are adrift,” Stanley said.
After revisiting yoga in graduate school, Stanley said she was all in – she “drank the Kool-aid.”
“I drank it, I bathed in it,” she said. “I believe in it.”
After realizing she no longer felt drawn to the degree she was pursuing, Stanley left her graduate program to attend culinary school in Durham. She couldn’t afford yoga classes at a studio and began practicing at home.
Soon after she moved to Durham, her aunt died unexpectedly. Her grandmother died not long after, and Stanley was going through a break-up with her girlfriend of seven years.
“All these terrible things happened, and that intensified my practice,” Stanley said. “It’s therapy that you don’t have to buy.”
She said that yoga gave her a way to process and stop thinking.
“The methodical action is excellent therapy,” Stanley said. “You’re just focusing on the movement, and you’re just focusing on the breathing. Just breathing.”
“That’s the therapy that got me through it, definitely.”
More than physical
Michelle Johnson, a yoga teacher at Carrboro Yoga Company, said yoga is about much more than just the physical practice. Johnson, who is also a Carrboro alderwoman and a licensed social worker, said yoga is a way to practice meditation and activism.
Johnson said Stanley's practice challenges the image of yoga practitioners as exclusively skinny, white women.
“I think it's important to have some resistance to this image, to let people know – and she's doing it in a very powerful way – to let people know that they can practice yoga,” Johnson said.
Stanley began posting pictures of her practice on Instagram, where she said there is a preexisting yoga community. Stanley now has 94,900 followers on Instagram.
Stanley started practicing yoga every chance she got and studied yoga with Asheville Yoga Center’s 230-hour Teacher Training Program. Though she graduated from culinary school in 2013, she now is focused on her teaching career and teaches several classes a week in Durham.
“I noticed that there were more people responding to me because they were inspired by me,” Stanley said. “It was largely, in the beginning especially, a lot of women who felt as if their bodies, because of their body size or the color of their skin, that they could not practice yoga.”
Stanley will be taking her teaching all around the East Coast, from New York to Georgia, starting August 8, with Dana Falsetti, another “curvy yogi.”
After seeing a picture on Facebook of Stanley practicing yoga, Maria Helgeson, 33, a special-ed teacher in Durham, attended one of her classes.
“It’s kind of refreshing to see someone really proud of their body even though it was a little more curvy and full-figured,” Helgeson said. “That’s something that I related to.”
Tracy Bogart, 67, the director of Triangle Yoga in Chapel Hill, started yoga programs at UNC’s recreation center, the American Dance Festival in Durham and Duke Diet and Fitness. She’s been living in the Triangle since 1992, and said she’s seen yoga become a mainstream movement.
“It appeals to young people, and there are more young people now that have found yoga as a way to exercise,” she said.
Bogart said hot yoga and bikram yoga, Stanley’s introduction to yoga, are especially popular with newer yoga teachers and enthusiasts.
“There’s a mentality that’s very Western,” she said. “And that’s that you have to hurt – you have to hurt yourself to be good to yourself.”
She said that yoga should be more about meditation.
“Yoga is about learning how to overcome those difficult times, for example, strenuous times, like those poses, with grace and ease,” she said.
Stanley echoes this in encouraging her students to concentrate on how their bodies feel, rather than how they look.
“It’s not just about your physical body,” Stanley said. “It’s about your emotional, spiritual – all of these elements have to work together.”
Stanley said that she struggled with her body image for most of her life, up until she started practicing yoga.
“I hated (my body), I hated my stomach, I hated my arms,” she said. “I would focus on losing weight. That was a huge thing for me, trying to lose weight.”
Stanley said going into yoga with the goal of losing weight isn’t a helpful mindset. Instead, she said it’s important to focus on mental healing.
“How is your body ever going to look different because you’re hating it? Don’t hate it,” she said. “Just be OK with it. That was such a hard place for me to get to.”
Stanley wants to show that the word “fat” doesn’t have to be an insult.
“You put emphasis behind a word and it becomes so much more than that, when really, it’s just a word,” she said. “I am fat by definition. It doesn’t mean that I’m not also healthy.”