Jessamyn Stanley Knows That Yoga Is About More Than Postures — It’s About Honesty

Photo: courtesy of Cornell Watson.
The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word for “yoke.” To yoke is to meld, to bring two elements together, to unite several parts of oneself. It’s also exactly what teacher, author, and podcaster Jessamyn Stanley’s yoga practice is all about — connecting with yourself, and connecting with the world around you. Sometimes, yoga might mean meditating. It might mean attempting a specific pose, and confronting the fact that you just can’t do it today. It means identifying and challenging the white supremacy omnipresent in the current narrative of yoga, and confronting the history of cultural appropriation perpetuated by yoga practitioners in the U.S.
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As Stanley explains in her new book Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance , yoga can be as simple (or as complicated) as finding your inner flexibility, awareness, and self-awareness, and bringing it everywhere you go. “Yoga is to yoke,” she writes. “You yoke when you find a reason to get out of bed in the morning… You yoke when you manage to keep moving in spite of being completely overwhelmed. You’re always yoking, all the time.”
Stanley has accumulated nearly 500,000 followers on Instagram and a loyal following on her wellness app, The Underbelly, which offers inclusive, accessible, and welcoming yoga classes. Stanley’s teachings, videos, and words have become a respite for those who don’t necessarily see themselves reflected in the mainstream, filtered landscape of thin, white yogis showing off perfect handstands on the beach: She encourages her followers to start where they are, and creates space for people of all races, with all body types, and from all backgrounds to incorporate yoga into their lives.
Yoke is full of the kind of wisdom, honesty, and vulnerability that can only come from someone who’s mastered the art of yoking in all its forms: the physical, the spiritual, the mental. If Stanley’s first book, Every Body Yoga, convinced new yogis to start where they’re comfortable and go from there, Yoke encourages us to move further and challenge ourselves, accept ourselves, and bring the ethos of yoga into every aspect of our lives. Here, Stanley talks to Refinery29 about her new book, yoga as an individual and communal practice, and the ways in which the practice helps us heal, and maybe even create a better world.
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This book really expands on a lot of the ideas from Every Body Yoga, but many parts of Yoke are also a lot more personal. Was the process — and the emotional process — of writing this book very different? 
Definitely, although I will say that the emotional process of writing Every Body Yoga was really intense. It's one thing to accept something about yourself privately, quietly, even in a journal — even in an Instagram post. It is another thing, to me, to write that shit down and have it edited multiple times and have other people weighing in. So I feel like there was definitely a lot that came up for me in the process of writing Every Body Yoga. And then in the process of writing Yoke, it really required that I be vulnerable in a way that I just don't tend to do naturally. 
How did you take care of yourself when you were writing some of these more difficult, vulnerable parts?
Well, I mean, it definitely helped that I'm already an introvert, so I'm not inclined to really want to spend time with people — like, that’s not my go-to way to recharge. But I definitely think that the main thing for me was just to be by myself as much as possible, and to just let it be hard where it was hard, and let myself cry where I needed to cry, and just let it be messy and sloppy and confusing.
You cover so many important topics: white supremacy in yoga, cultural appropriation, capitalism. When you started working on this book, what did you immediately know you wanted to address?
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I definitely knew that I wanted to talk about racism in the yoga world, and I knew I wanted to talk about cultural appropriation. And I thought there was probably something there about slut-shaming or accepting my sexual identity, but I wasn't really sure what it was. I would say the topic that I was like, This is why I have to write this next book, is that in writing Every Body Yoga, I was like, damn, I really didn't get to talk about cultural appropriation in the way that I feel it should be talked about in American yoga. I talk about it minimally in EBY, but it really is such a huge part of the way that we practice yoga — and not even just in America at this point, literally all over the globe. It’s something that I think is a part of our collective yoga practice.
But also, talking about white supremacy… I think there's this desire to try to fix things or try to [say], “Oh, this is a problem. White supremacy is a bad thing. It shouldn't be happening.” And I think it's like, it kind of had to happen in this way, and it was always going to happen this way. White supremacy is in everything in our world, and so if we accept that it’s in everything, then we can at least accept it, and that is a better place to move from than trying to pretend it doesn't exist. And so talking about it in this book felt like a really important piece of that for me, personally. 
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I loved the metaphor you used throughout the book — discussing and addressing our own relationships with cultural appropriation and white supremacy is like taking out the trash. It’s not fun, but it’s better than just letting your house smell really bad.
Literally! Oh my god, it’s so cleansing. And freeing.
Was there anything you didn’t originally plan on including in Yoke?
I think that the main thing that I didn't know I was going to need to include in the book was really a critique of myself, if I'm completely honest. I think I didn't realize that, more so than saying anything to anyone else, that I really just needed to be honest with myself.
It sounds like yoga, as a practice, can really push you to be honest with yourself.
Exactly, yeah. I think that yoga really requires you to be really honest with yourself and even if that honesty is saying, like, “This is what the posture looks like for me today.” Accepting and saying, “I am going to find the version of the pose that makes the most sense for me.” That honesty is just being translated over and over again in different forms, and I think that life really is an endless source of opportunities to look deep in complexity, have that experience of honesty. And since yoga is everything and it’s in everything and everything is about that yoking, that union, that bringing together, yoga is really the path by which we can do that work.
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In a lot of your videos, you highlight the ways yoga and meditation can help you get to know yourself and connect with yourself. But I know there’s also a community aspect to yoga. Do you think yoga is an individual practice, or something that really helps you connect to a bigger community? Is it both?
I think that yoga is such a great example of duality and non-duality. In duality, there’s your own self and then there’s the all-encompassing, universal self. And then in non-duality, there is only that big one. There's only one big light, one big spirit. And yoga practice, I think is literally just like that: I think there is your personal practice that is totally unique to you. It doesn't have anything to do with anyone else, and it is fully yours. And then there is the yoga that we all practice together, that is this really immaculate, gorgeous, expression of light. I think that being able to find your own practice is crucial to being aware of a collective practice, so the community aspect of practicing yoga is really only something that I have come to over time. 
The Underbelly has really helped me understand the work that we do as a collective, by taking care of ourselves in community. It doesn't mean all going to the same yoga studio or all having the same outfit — it's not about material possessions at all. You don't even ever have to actually meet any of the other people. But acknowledging that I am doing this work of looking within myself and accepting every piece of myself, and the person next to me is doing the same thing, and the person next to them, and so on, we're able to do the work of healing really deep, systemic problems in our world. And I think that when we consider the impact of collective yoga practice, it doesn't mean that we all need to meditate together or even be conscious of meditation or breath work at all, but to acknowledge that every human being is on the path of accepting themselves. It allows for us to be compassionate for ourselves, for the world around us, for the people around us. And it makes space for us to let go and move forward from white supremacy, sexism, ageism, ableism, transphobia, et cetera.
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A lot of your followers love your Instagram because you’re so honest and candid, and you make space for people who might be new to or worried they’re bad at yoga. Do you think this is something we’re starting to see from more yogis? 
Yeah, I have actually really noticed a lot of people that I’ve been following for years who have really evolved the way that they share their practice on social media. That it's not just about their postural practice, but it’s about who they are as a person, and the ups and downs of that. And that's really the only reason that I kept posting on social media, because I had a moment a few years ago where I was like, I don’t want to be on social media anymore, because it really asks the opposite of what yoga is asking. Social media is like, “Look outside yourself for the answers to life’s questions,” and yoga is like, “Look inside yourself.” And so I was like, I just don't feel like this is serving my spirit.
But, I also feel like it is an incredible tool for connecting with other human beings. And honestly, if I had not found community on social media, I don't know that I would have been as dedicated to my yoga practice as I became. And I felt like if there was even one person who could see themselves in me, in my messiness and being problematic and, you know, not having a right answer, just doing my thing and just trying to find a way to be happy every day… and not trying to make it look happy. Not trying to make it look pretty. Just trying to be. I felt like that was reason enough to keep sharing my life and practice. And I do think that other people, it seems, are feeling the same way about their practices. And that's really exciting to see.
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What are some of the biggest misconceptions about yoga that you hope people familiar with the practice start to question after reading Yoke? And what are some of the misconceptions that you hope complete newcomers start to rethink?
You know, I think one of the biggest misconceptions from both groups is that postures really matter at all. Like they are a great way to deepen and to connect with your breath and to just create more awareness in your physical body, but our physical bodies are such a small piece of who we are in general, and the postures that we need to practice throughout our life are just going to change, depending on what's going on. As long as you're alive, you're in a posture, whatever that is — it might be lying on your back, standing down, standing up, whatever, but that posture is enough posture to practice the parts of yoga that are really needed. So that's probably the biggest misconception that I hope people question. And it’s really something that’s come up because of yoga being so closely associated with fitness, and I do think that fitness is important for your physical body. It is important, but it's not the only part of your existence. 
I think people who have been practicing yoga for a long time, who do not focus on anything but postures, or who see the practice as really being primarily about postures, I hope that they feel comfortable letting their yoga practice show up in every other part of their life as well. That in the moments where they feel shame for their identity, I hope that they are able to see that the same attributes that we practice in the postures — strength, grounding, flexibility, core awareness, all of those things — that all of that can be found in the acceptance of self as well.
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And for people who are brand new to yoga and they're literally like, “Wow, I have a friend who told me to go to yoga years ago, I told them to shut up, and now I'm reading this book about yoga and it seems mildly interesting. Maybe I should try.” I would say, just start from wherever you are right now. You don't need to get a special mat. You don't need to find the perfect class. You don't need to do anything more than just breathing. But you can start from where you are right now. There's nothing else needed. There's nothing wrong with your body. Your body is exactly as it needs to be. If you can breathe, you can live this practice. 
That’s one of the things I loved about your book, and that I love about your work in general — the idea that yoga should be detached from this idea of perfectionism, that’s become linked to it, especially in the age of social media. And the surface-level “coconut water etiquette” you describe in your book.
Oh, yeah. But I think also that the coconut water etiquette, all of the make-believe, all of the pretend, all of that is yoga, too. It’s all important. I feel like I spent a lot of time thinking about the people who really show that yoga or give the impression that yoga is all about beach handstands and strength training and drills and all these different physical things and I’ll get into this place of being like, “That’s not what yoga is! Yoga is XYZ!” And I’m like, that’s their yoga. They are allowed to practice this yoga. Just because their yoga and my yoga are not the same does not mean that there’s anything wrong with either one of those.
Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance is available for purchase here.

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