Yoga for all? Plus-sized instructor Jessamyn Stanley says inclusivity is a must

Zoe Litaker/Courtesy of @mynameisjessamyn

Jessamyn Stanley wants to broaden the yoga community.

When we think yogi -- especially in the western-world -- an image of a lithe white woman in warrior pose position typically comes to mind. The clichéd "yoga body" portrayed in mass media is limited and oftentimes discouraging for diverse audiences.

But imagery isn't the only reason why many women have yet to join the yoga bandwagon. There's also the issue of cost. With its expensive equipment: mats, towels, straps, blocks and gear, it has inadvertently excluded legions of would-be practitioners due to their body size, skin color and lack of means.

In all, typically yoga ... equals privilege.

But change is on the horizon, and self-proclaimed "fat femme" yogi and North Carolina native Jessamyn Stanley, 29, hopes to bring yoga to all.

After initially shying away from yoga in her teens due to it not seeming accessible to her as a plus-sized African-American woman, she revisited the practice in her early 20's as a means to battle depression at the request of a former classmate. In 2011, she began taking a deeper dive in to yoga and developed an appreciation for various styles. But it wasn't until 2013, when she began to expand her practice in the privacy and comfort of her own home, that she started reshaping her own perceptions of beauty and body image.

She now credits yoga and meditation for allowing her to understand "that unhappiness fuels the unrealistic beauty standards that haunt many of us." On a daily basis, she says, "I make a commitment to stand above the noise of our society in order to see the inherent beauty of each and every being on this planet, myself included."

And by the looks of her 240,000 Instagram followers, Stanley has successfully pushed through the body negativity clutter to reconstruct the image of the yoga world. "I want people to understand that the strength of a yoga practice doesn't lie in a person's ability to [do a] handstand, buy coconut water, or afford expensive yoga products. It's about how you feel after." 

Zoe Litaker/Courtesy of @mynameisjessamyn

Jessamyn Stanley in a headstand split.

But through Stanley's motivational social media presence and yoga instruction, she lovingly reminds her audience and students that life is full of challenges, and yoga is no different. "It's hardcore for everybody," regardless of body type. But the lack of diverse representation -- with about 80 percent of yogis in the U.S. being white -- and blatant size discrimination, the practice is still intimidating for many.

While the social media world sees her as a hero, Stanley is reluctant to celebrate her Insta-fame until the greater modern yoga community welcomes plus-sized practitioners of all abilities. "I am very keenly aware that my perspective and practice are still viewed with a tone of smugness by most of the modern yoga community. And furthermore, my success as a black, plus-sized practitioner is very abnormal on the scale of other larger bodied [yogis], particularly those of color," Stanley says.

"In general," she adds, "size and color discrimination are very much the norm within the Western yoga community and the opportunities I've been afforded are not indicative of larger scale change."

The smugness Stanley speaks of isn't solely reserved for her size or skin color. It has also extended to a past method of using books instead of yoga blocks, or a dog leash in place of a yoga strap, due to lack of resources. Her choice of music while practicing is also divergent. Enter the majority of yoga studios anywhere in the world, and you're likely to transition from one posture to the next while listening to soothing, ambient sounds of water flowing or chanting. But Stanley craves something different from the norm.

For Stanley, yoga is about mindful intention-setting. And she's most successful at doing so while listening to Compton rapper and activist Kendrick Lamar's inspirational works. For most, Lamar would be an odd musical selection for a yoga session. But for her, a southern African-American woman working within a predominantly white industry, Lamar's lyrics about black experiences and social injustices help get her in a zone.

It's this idea of celebrating individuality and self-acceptance that Stanley hopes to convey through her practice. "The yogic path has nothing to do with size, age, color, wealth, or physical ability," she added. These freeing ideologies make Stanley comfortable in baring her body to her blog and social media followers.

When scrolling Stanley's various timelines, readers are met with images of her strong, curvy frame nailing the standing bow posture in nothing more than a bra and panties. Which has coalesced her into being a body-positivity role model of sorts -- a title she didn't seek, but humbly accepts. "[I thank my] fellow non-stereotypical yoga practitioners [for helping] create the rainbow-hued community that the world truly deserves."

A community she'd like to see embraced by yoga teachers, studio owners, media outlets, business owners and students alike, to achieve a safe and inclusive space for all body types and people of color -- with a focus on feeling good, rather than looking good. A community she's willing to build and guide, adding, "For many of us, the pursuit of yogic bliss is really just a genuine journey towards self-acceptance, and I think my yoga practice is living proof of that path."

Shana Renee is the founder and editor-in-chief of All Sports Everything and a passionate New York Jets, Knicks and Yankees fan. Follow her sports talk on Twitter at @ItsShanaRenee.

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