Jessamyn Stanley, a yoga instructor who made a name for herself on Instagram as one of the first fat Black women to be a part of the social media yoga community which is still dominated by slim white women. Stanley now teaches yoga online at theunderbelly.com and offers sex and relationship advice on Dear Jessamyn — a weekly podcast she hosts with her girlfriend.
If you follow U.S. yoga culture, chances are you’ve seen Stanley on Instagram or on the cover of Yoga Journal. But even if you’re not a yoga enthusiast, you’ve probably come across her somewhere. Stanely can be found all across the interwebs and beyond, from Bloomberg News to one of the latest Adidas ads.
Stanley also recently made the news for her new venture: offering naked yoga classes, Shibari tutorials, and more on OnlyFans. She explained her motivation in an interview for Vogue Magazine:
I’ve definitely noticed over time that fat, Black, queer bodies are marginalized on social media a little bit more than others, and I thought that I should have a place where all this yoga of everyday life—that perhaps is not fit for Instagram, or for TikTok—can live.
In her latest book, Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance, Stanley introduces us to what she calls the “yoga of everyday life:” which is applying the “lessons and techniques that you learn on your yoga mat to the daily project of living.” And throughout this hybrid memoir/cultural criticism, she uses aspects of her own life to demonstrate how it works.
Those who already know and love her will not be surprised by the relaxed, talking-to-a-friend voice you find in Yoke. As she speaks openly about everything from past relationships to her body to smoking pot, you’ll feel as if she’s talking to you over coffee or on a mat in front of you at the head of the class. And she actually critiques this performed intimacy in the book, as well.
In her traditional non-apologetic style, Stanley takes apart her yoga practice in essays on poses and breathing, but she goes much further than a surface look at physical yoga.
What really sets this book apart is how deeply and candidly she talks about her fears, insecurities, and weaknesses. For instance, she writes about how she still seeks the approval of the white yoga culture that she openly critiques and the part of her that “wants to be proud that White people come to her yoga class.” And she writes about how loving her body doesn’t exempt her from being “plagued by fatphobia and self-hate.”
Stanley also walks us through her own spiritual practices, both on the mat and off, including her love of tarot, sacred music, and more. And when I first started thinking about this book review, I wanted to say that it is not a self-help book — one that leaves you with a numbered list of practices or beliefs that promise to make you all better. But then I realized: this is what a self-help book should be. There’s practical guidance throughout, but no empty promises. In other words, this book is an ideal demonstration of what yoga is.
The book’s title comes from the Sanskrit word for yoga: yoke. “To yoke is to marry breath, thought, and movement, to connect the body, mind, and spirit. To yoke is to explore the meaning of balance.”
In her first book, Every Body for Yoga, which is a body-inclusive guide to physical yoga, Stanley accidentally wrote “yolk” instead of “yoke.” When someone pointed it out to her after the book had gone to print, she was deeply embarrassed by the mistake. In Yoke, she uses the typo as a way to explore self-forgiveness and acceptance — two concepts at the heart of her yoga practice.
To me, the joy of reading this book is the consistent reminder that it’s okay to be “in process.” It’s like reading a yoga or meditation practice, the goal of which isn’t even to get better, it’s simply to accept what is.
I highly recommend the book and, if you’re a yoga aficionado, please consider following and supporting Stanley as an activist working to decolonize American yoga.
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Thanks so much for recommending this book and for your post! I picked up a copy yesterday and am really enjoying the read. Jessamyn writes in a wonderfully relaxed, ‘listening to a friend’ kind of way that is SO refreshing.