Jessamyn Stanley Is Tired of Being the Token Black, ‘Fat Femme’ Yoga Instructor
For Jessamyn Stanley, yoga is more than just a health and wellness practice; it’s a political statement.
“I want for everyone who believes that they do not have agency, who believes they are not free or they don’t have power, to understand that every bit of power they are trying to look for outside of themselves… you don’t have to do that,” she tells Brit + Co from her office in Durham, North Carolina. “Because every bit of power, every bit of compassion, every bit of love is already inside of you.”
The self-described “fat femme” yoga instructor has already begun to change how people see yoga through her popular Instagram account and her book, Every Body Yoga. Now, she’s hoping to spread her intention further with a new yoga app called The Underbelly, which she named in honor of the parts of ourselves that we don’t show everyone.
“To me, it just represents what yoga actually is,” Stanley explains. “Which is just, for just a few breaths, be yourself, and see what happens then.”
The drive to be yourself is something that Stanley has championed throughout her career. But she also makes clear that yoga, as it is often practiced in Western cultures, is informed by a capitalist mindset as well as by the drive for holistic wellbeing, which can sometimes make “being yourself” a bit awkward. Stanley tells us that the framework of what she calls the “yogi-industrial-complex” means she often gets centered as a token Black, fat woman in the industry, and not necessarily as the dynamic teacher she strives to be.
“Tokenizing [me] is a huge part of what birthed The Underbelly,” Stanley tells us.
She used to host her remote yoga classes on a different app. When the app was bought out by another company whose owners were up-front about how they intended to monetize her presence, Stanley started to understand exactly what she had to offer — and what she represented to certain higher-ups — as a teacher, as a Black woman, and as a fat yoga instructor.
“I recognized during this process with them just how much my worth is and was to a white-owned company who is really hungry for a more diverse audience,” she says. “But in order to have a more diverse audience, you need more diverse teachers. And I realized just how much I was being used and the extent to which my yoga teaching practice, I felt, was suffering as a result.”
While she’s on good terms with the app company’s leadership today, she also understands, deeply, that most digital yoga resources are not created from a foundation of anti-oppression and body positivity. That realization — combined with the growing acceptance that as long as people who look like her are an anomaly in yoga, yoga communities will continue to tokenize her — has become a pretty substantial part of Stanley’s life. But she says this newfound perspective has helped birth “many things.”
The Underbelly is just one of those things. The app and accompanying website offer users a chance to follow one of three tracks for yoga practice: Air, Earth, and Fire. In each, Stanley guides users through everything yogic, from simple breathing asanas to guided centering exercises.
She explains that the app is structured in a way that closely mirrors her own yoga journey. After starting in Bikram (a style of yoga practiced in hot rooms), Stanley found that flow-focused Vinyasa style yoga was a big challenge for her. (“Downward dog took me out!” she jokes.)
While watching YouTube yoga videos, she noticed that she tended to watch the instructors and focus on breathing. She realized that, in a sense, she was only beginning to learn to breathe mindfully. That realization has helped shape her app, her practice, and the way she hopes to introduce more and more people to yoga.
“Sometimes in life, you’ve got time to really give a f*ck about [yoga], but then there’s points in life where you’re like, ‘I’m just trying to hit this down dog before breakfast and we’re gonna call it a day.’ It’s gotta flow with you,” she says.
“And I feel like making the space for that truth makes the practice accessible to so many more people,” she goes on. “And if we’re talking about, like, why should everybody practice yoga, well, everybody should not practice yoga so that they can have toned arms and a bubble butt and practice scorpion pose. Everybody needs to practice yoga so that we can live in a world in which compassion is what we lead with, and not fear.”
Stanley sees yoga as a way for us to be compassionate with ourselves so that, in the long term, we can push that compassion outward and make a stronger, more compassionate world.
“It’s like taking the time for yourself as a service to others,” she explains.
And with The Underbelly serving as a yoga portal for “the rest of us,” as Stanley calls it, she sees her community growing to include health and wellness support for individuals who may feel underserved in those growing markets.
“We’re trying to bring yoga to the people who need it the most,” she says of her future plans. “And to me, that’s young people who are trying to figure out how to just be in this world, particularly a world that is dominated by so much negative social media sh*t, and also, people who are incarcerated and who need to be reminded that their humanity is of value, and that they don’t need to be stripped of that.”
Stanley recognizes, too, that even the way yoga is practiced needs to be reimagined, which is why she wants to spread yoga her own way. “I feel like a lot of yoga programming, in general, comes from [a teacher saying] ‘I’m standing on high looking down on everyone else,’ and I think we need to get away from that,” she says. “Maybe I don’t want to be like you, maybe I want to be like me.”
(Photo by Donald Bowers/Getty Images for Ford Motor Company)