It Girl | JESSAMYN STANLEY
I have been a longtime fan of Jessamyn's work. Initially I loved that she is her unapologetic self all up and down my instagram feed, something we could certainly all use a lot more of. Then I had the opportunity to listen to Jessamyn speak at the North Carolina Museum of Art where she discussed about her book and life. Jessamyn has such a way with words and speaks in a way that I feel only writers can. She has the ability to eloquently state feels that I have carried with me for my entire life about moving through the world has a plus size black women. I had the opportunity to chat with Jessamyn and below are her takes on my questions. This interview should read as a conversation, which I absolutely love.
Name: Jessamyn Stanley
Job Title: Yoga Teacher, Writer, Author of “Every Body Yoga, Let Go of Fear, Get On the Mat, Love Your Body,” Owner of Jessamyn LLC., Host of Stitcher Premium Podcast, Jessamyn Explains It All
Education Background: BA from University of North Carolina, Greensboro- Media Studies with concentration in video and film production, Associates of Applied Science in Culinary Arts, Art Institute Raleigh Durham, 2/3rds of an MFA in Performing Arts Management from University of North Carolina
1. Tell us a little about who you are.
I am a yoga teacher and a writer. I write about and teach based on the experience of my own life. The themes that tend to come up are body positivity, body politics in general, self worth, self image and generally what it means to sit at the intersection of fat, black, queer, southern identity in the 21st century.
2. What sparked your interest in doing yoga and documenting your practice?
I started practicing yoga when I was in graduate school. I was going through a period of depression and one of my classmates recommended it as something that would help out. I did not believe her at first but eventually I did come to understand that what I really needed more than anything was a way to look within myself to see myself and the world around me with compassion and with love and to find ways to consistently foster those emotions. I didn’t have any interest in documenting my yoga practice at all honestly until I started practicing yoga at home and I found that the experience of practicing at home was kind of lonely. I didn’t have a connection to other people or to other specific teachers and so I would take photos of my yoga practice and post them on instagram as a way to connect with other yoga practitioners and yoga teachers across the globe.
From there I realized that more-so than being a part of a larger yoga community, or receiving feedback from other teachers or practitioners, I realized that the primary reaction I got from people was like “Wow, I didn’t know that fat people could do yoga.” I was so confused by this because I was like “fat people do all kinds of stuff all the time. Why do you think that fat people can’t practice yoga?” Over time I have really realized that that one idea points to so much other pollution and poison in our world related to what human beings believe they are capable of doing based on their physical appearance. What began as just taking photos of my practice initially as a way to document it turned into a way to showcase what a real yoga practice actually looks like. Its not just something that is practiced by slender, wealthy white women. It is something that is really meant to be a form of therapy for all human beings. My perspective of when I came into what I do now and my perspective now are very very different from one another.
3. Who are you most influenced by?
I am most influenced by people who do not seek attention. Who don’t seek the limelight. Who are literally just trying to live their lives and be happy, whatever that means. This means that the people who influence and inspire me the most are people who I don’t even necessarily know that well. The more that I practice yoga, the more I see what the modern yoga industrial complex is about, and the more that I see the general direction that our world is moving in, I recognize that the most important thing that we can do is find what it means to be perfectly fulfilled and in the present moment and to really take every moment as a gift. I think that people who are just trying to take care of themselves, take care of their families and spread love around to others… that to me is very inspiring. That is probably the thing that kind of guides my steps the most. More than Oprah or Michelle Obama or whoever, even though they definitely inspire me too. There’s many yoga teachers who have definitely had a profound impact on me but I think that it is really the every person just trying to exist that is most influential on me.
4. What was your first job and how long did you hold that position?
My first job was working as the receptionist at a writing assessment center. Basically people who read and evaluate the writing tests that you take in school. I was the receptionist at that place. Fun fact: Reading and evaluating the assessments was one of my main jobs out of grad school.
5. Can you share one of your proudest achievements with us?
I have had a lot of moments that have made me very very happy and made me feel very satisfied but often because I am so caught up in the minutia of my work life, the ins and outs of actually making shit happen, I’m not that excited whenever stuff comes to fruition. When big stuff happens I’m usually just like “okay whatever.” I am on to the next thing. I don’t even notice or care but when my book came out, even though there was part of me that was like… I mean because by the time the book comes out, you’ve edited it to the end of the world and you wrote it a million years ago so by the time it comes out, it is like you had a baby a year ago and everyone is excited about it way late and you are just like okay… this is cool. I had wanted to write a book for a very long time. About five years prior, I had written on a vision board of things that I wanted to happen by a certain time. (Which is a practice I really don’t endorse, I think it is dumb honestly.) But at the time I was like, “I would like to publish my first book by the time I am thirty” and the book came out two months before I turned thirty. I was just really pleased about that. I did some shit I said I was gonna do.
6. What were your initial goals with your practice? How have they evolved?
When I first started practicing, I was literally just going because it sort of felt good. It was like “oh it feels good to push myself beyond these boundaries.” I definitely didn’t think about it in this really long winded esoteric way that I think about it now. At the time I was just like, okay so this is fine. I enjoy this. It’s okay. Then as time went on I was like “wow, yoga is really great. I feel so strong and powerful.” All of that is wonderful and I think that many people honestly stay in that space when practicing yoga. “This is really great! I don’t understand why it is making me feel good but I’m just gonna go with it. Maybe it’s because the poses are complicated and they make me feel really strong and flexible.” I felt that way about it for a long time but the place that I have kind of landed is that for me, when I am able to look within myself and see the layers upon layers and walls on top of walls that I’ve constructed over these thirty years to keep other people out and to hold other pieces of myself in… when I see those walls, it is so clarifying for me about the purpose of life and the energy that we are all constantly moving between one another. It motivates me to try to live in this moment and to really appreciate it and to appreciate the people that I come in contact with and the interactions that I have. All of that really puts a much higher premium just on the art of living. For me that goal is just dramatically different from where I began and it is something that transcends any pose that you could practice. Yoga poses are amazing but they are so far from the point. For me it is really about what happens when the shit that happens on your mat starts to resonate in other parts of your life as well. That is why I keep showing up at this point.
7. What do you think is the most important life skill you learned through your practice?
Patience. I have become an extremely impatient person over the years. I am impatient with the most basic shit. It is hard for me to even listen to people sometimes. Understanding that, that I am impatient, and being compassionate toward that as a reality, and trying to understand why I am impatient and then literally allowing myself the space to be patient is huge because that translates to every interaction.
8. Where do you hope to be in 5 years?
Wherever I am supposed to be. In 5 years, I will be 35. If I am alive, I hope I am happy. That’s it. If I’m not, it’s been a fun ride.
9. What is a typical day like for you?
It depends on where I am. If I am at home, typically I like to wake up and meditate and drink a bunch of water to flush out my system. I like to practice yoga for at least 30 to 45 minutes. After that it just kind of varies. I am a workaholic and I work for myself so I am constantly working. I could be in the office until ? period of time. When I am not in my office, I like to go outside. I like to go to the Eno river. I like to spend time with my friends. I like to read. I like to spend time with my partners and I like to see my family.
10. What was the biggest obstacle you’ve faced so far in the process of pursuing your goals?
I think that probably one of the biggest obstacles for me is working in the modern yoga world… it’s extremely white and extremely cisgender heteronormative. And very very fatphobic. As much as I have become immune (I don’t know if I’m quite there yet) as much as I am building an immunity to the bullshit of those worlds, it is still very difficult to be dealing with the white male gaze all of the time and dealing with the opinions of fatphobic people. That is very challenging and it’s actively challenging. I would say its very emotionally stressful as well.
11. What is the best piece of advice you have received?
“You are allowed to find your own way. It is okay to walk alone without a map,” which is actually something that I kind of thought in response to something that someone else had said to me along these general lines but they didn’t use this phrasing. We live in a world that really prizes conformity. We live in a world that really works at it’s peak whenever everyone hates themselves and believes that they need to look toward another human being for the answers. To walk alone without a map with no one else even thinking to walk next to you is an act of defiance and bravery that is very very difficult. People think that to live in defiance is easy. It looks fun and cool but it’s actually really fucking hard. Remembering that it is okay to be alone, its okay if no one else agrees with you. Its okay if no one else gets it. For a long time, nobody got what I was doing with this at all. Not even a little bit. And now, more people seem to get it but at the same time, I have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter if anyone else gets it. Just like it didn’t matter before. I have to always be true to myself no matter what. Even if it is offensive to others or doesn’t make sense to other people. Always be true to myself.
12. When do you get your best ideas?
I get my best ideas when I am practicing yoga. I am such a fucking cliche, but like for real. When I just let my mind go when I am practicing and don’t hold on to the need to think anything explicitly or make the practice be anything. That is when all of my awesome ideas come to me, every single time.
13. Can you share with us one time that you failed and what you learned from that failure?
There are very few things that I can think of where I would be like, yeah that was just a failure, because I feel like everything leads to everything else. So the things that didn’t go the way I thought they should have gone doesn’t mean it’s failure. This is kind of a far back failure but it taught me a lot about myself. In my book, Every Body Yoga, I talk about when I was in middle school I wanted to be in beauty pageants because I felt like that was the way for me to know that I am not whatever my idea of ugly was at that time. My parents were totally confused by this. I think probably to this day they are still confused by it but they were supportive. I did this local pageant and was the First Runner Up which was good enough for me. I was like, “This is dope.” I got to wear this little tiara and my trophy and I was also able to compete at the national level.
When I went to the national pageant I really learned that I had no business being in pageants and there were people who devote their lives to this and weren’t just wearing their Cheer America uniform and giving these little cheeky answers to the interview questions. They were really trying and trying to promote a very specific idea of perfection and beauty. That didn’t have anything to do with me and I found out in a very harsh way at the pageant and I was devastated. My name did not get called but my roommate’s name did. My mom was so embarrassed by my reaction and that I was such a sore fucking loser that she literally took me home to North Carolina from Florida that night as soon as the pageant was over. That experience really taught me that first of all, you need to sit down and calm down because it wasn’t that serious, and second of all, you are worth much more. If you are going to let your self-worth be tied up in the scoring from other people then that’s your cross to bear but you also don’t have to do that. It was a very helpful experience in a lot of ways.
14. How do you unwind?
Bubble baths for sure.
15. What would you tell someone else who is interested in entering your field?
I would say that if it is someone that is interested in being a yoga teacher- think of it not as a career and more as an extension of your person practice and then allow that motivation to be your starting point.
If you are interested in being a social media influencer, I would honestly recommend against it because it involves a level of narcissism that I think most human beings should probably stray away from but if you are interested in doing it then I would say that it is best to allow your social media presence to be an honest and authentic reflection of your actual life and don’t think about follower-ship at any point ever.
And I think for people who want to be writers, it is important to write and to just always be documenting your reflections on this experience because there is no playbook for creating or constructing words or sentences that will make sense for other people. The things that really resonate are things that are really authentic.
16. What do you hope people take away from your story?
I hope that what people take away is that I’m just as basic as anybody else and if I can find a way to try to be happy, maybe you can too.
17. Anything we missed that you would like to share?
All of the answers to life’s questions are within ourselves.