Creating a Judgment-Free Wellness Space

Courtesy of Bobby Quillard

Creating a Judgment-Free Wellness Space

Jessamyn Stanley calls motivation a “fickle bitch.” And she calls the first time she tried yoga: “hell on earth.” So, no, she didn’t think she was the kind of person who would write a book about how great yoga is. Nor did she think she would crack the yoga world open for people who feel like the practice is for…other people. And yet that’s exactly what she did.

Yoga is for everybody, says Stanley, and for every body. That’s because the practice is inclusive by its very nature—it is without gender, color, size, or creed, and it welcomes modifications based on ability. But that doesn’t mean it always feels approachable. On the contrary, just watching people walk in and out of a yoga studio can be intimidating—even demoralizing. Stanley’s been there. That’s why her book, Every Body Yoga, an instructional guide rooted in her anecdotes, has true-to-experience chapter titles like: “Is This a Cult?” and “What the Fuck Is the Eight-Limbed Path?” And her new digital yoga studio, an app and website called The Underbelly, is a gentle introduction to yoga in three courses: Air (to learn mindful breath), Earth (to connect the breath to simple yoga postures), and Fire (to advance skills and build heat). We signed up for a monthly subscription—and we love it.

Stanley’s yoga-for-all approach works because she takes on the challenge of inclusivity—modern yoga’s great irony—in a platitude-free, non-esoteric way. She simply asks you to take a page from her book: You start where you are, wherever that is. And yoga, she implies, might be the little hell you need.

A Q&A with Jessamyn Stanley

How have things changed since your first “hell on earth” experience with yoga?

I’ve learned that in any yoga class, no matter how excited you are to go, there’s always this feeling—for me, it usually happens about fifteen minutes in—where you’re just like: This is bullshit. This is harder than I thought it was gonna be. Every part of this is annoying, and I’d rather not be here.

Here’s the question that changes everything: How often do I feel those emotions? I’m not talking exclusively on the yoga mat. How often, in life, do I feel like, Wow. I would rather not even try to do this difficult thing? These moments of short-changing yourself happen all the time, and you have a choice: Give up, or don’t.

Because I’ve realized that hell is part of earth. And that you can find a way to enjoy it, maybe. When I look back on that first experience of mine, I really don’t think that my perspective has shifted that much. It’s just turned on this dime: What if I just focus on being present to the madness, instead of being pissed that madness is happening?

How did yoga teacher training change the way you see the practice?

I think of myself as, like, pretraining and post-training. Because before I went into training, I saw practicing yoga the way that many people see it, which is that it’s a semisuperficial exercise, and it’s a fun thing to do that makes you feel good, but it’s not really part of your identity. It’s not a path that you walk; it’s a class that you go to every so often.

I hate to be hyperbolic, but training cracked my soul right open. I realized that so much of what the practice offers has nothing to do with alignment or postural work or changing anything about the physical body. It’s not anything about history. It’s not about accumulation of knowledge. It offers an opportunity to have a real, authentic interaction with your most true self. And that true self can be reached only by crossing these boundaries and looking at the shit you’ve been hiding from not just other people but yourself.

“It’s the super typical, attractive white guy who comes up to me after I teach a class who’s just like, ‘Oh my god. I needed that message. I’ve been so down on myself and so down on my body.’ And I’m just like, ‘You can have body issues, too?’”

And that process is messy, and it’s ugly, and it’s not one size fits all. That’s why it’s so important to have different voices available within yoga, and why we all need to become teachers, at least in a way. My voice won’t speak to everyone, but it might speak to one person. And if I speak the language of that one person, then that invites them into a world of compassion. And then they can invite someone else. It moves us into a more loving world.

How do you think of inclusion within yoga?

When we talk about inclusion in the wellness world, there’s a lot of emphasis put on skin color and body size. And it minimizes what the conversation should be, because there are so many people who don’t feel represented within these spaces. And ultimately, it doesn’t have anything to do with body size or skin color. Or even age, or ability, or gender identity—whatever you think of when you think “diversity.”

The people who come up to me most often to say how much they appreciate the message of body positivity look like they could be on the covers of magazines. It’s not just those who feel that they don’t see themselves. It’s everybody. It’s the super typical, attractive white guy who comes up to me after I teach a class who’s just like, “Oh my god. I needed that message. I’ve been so down on myself and so down on my body.” And I’m just like, “You can have body issues, too?”

It can be hard to get into yoga, even knowing it has so much to offer, when you’re new to it or you don’t know what you’re doing. How do you get over that?

It comes down to mind-set. There are always going to be spaces where you don’t see yourself represented. And I think that we have to question why we need to see ourselves represented and what happens when we stop thinking about the other people who are in the room and we start focusing on our own experience. Because speaking as someone who is usually the only fat-bodied person in a live yoga class—and certainly one of the only fat-bodied black people—it’s still, after years of practice, an alienating experience.

And in those situations, when I feel uncomfortable, which 100 percent happens, I always just come back to this: Okay. So did you come to class for other people, or did you come to class for you? Because I’m pretty sure you paid twenty dollars for you and not for the person next to you. Give yourself the benefit of enjoying the experience for yourself, and stop thinking about everyone else. And it’s hard. You have to practice it.

It sounds simple to the point of being reductive. Like, “Well, duh, of course I’m trying that. What do I do next?” But that’s all you need to do. That’s all the work: trying to be there for yourself so that you can make any space for you. It can always be for you.

How can yoga studios—as well as other organizations within the wellness world—create real inclusion in their spaces?

Within the wellness community, we tend to get into spaces of tokenization rather than representation—organizations or companies being like, “Oh, look. We found a black person. So here’s your black person.”

The best organization is the one that actually represents the people that it’s trying to serve. If you want to serve a group, it makes sense to intentionally bring people into the room who are a part of that group. So in the context of a yoga studio: If you want to see more diversity in your classes, you have to represent that in the teaching staff as well as at the front desk and in the back of house. And when you make those changes, that is when you’ll start to see a larger shift in your community.

It is also really important, especially in the yoga world, for us to make spaces that are specifically for people who feel familiar to us. Whether that’s a space that’s only for fat people, or only for queer people, or only for black people—whatever it is—it’s dope to practice with people that you can be in community with, who understand your struggle and whom you feel safe around.

“I needed to make the space where people could be themselves. And it had to be run by the fat bitch in class who knows what it’s like to be afraid to be in the front row.”

I’m really an anomaly in the wellness profession, in that I’m somebody who looks and acts so different and is at the same time able to speak on a larger platform. Most of us can’t even get hired by major yoga studios. A lot of my contemporaries feel like they’re beholden to institutions. But thinking they have to get a corporation or a major studio to care about them limits our growth and potential. And it limits our ability to spread the practice. For a lot of people, I’m proof that it can work, and that you can create your own spaces.

Regardless of what you look like or what people expect from you, you are capable of making something that is beautiful and profound and impactful.

What makes a yoga class feel inclusive?

I think the most important thing in a yoga class is to feel safe enough to do whatever you need to do. Because sometimes people need to come to class and cry: Today you didn’t come to class to show off your vinyasas; you came so that you could cry. We spend our lives trying to avoid these emotions, and we need an environment where it feels safe to have that experience.

I’m not trying to create a space that’s just for fat people, or just for black people, or anything specific, even though those are important and impactful. I want to create spaces where everyone feels like it’s chill to just be themselves, whoever they are, because we get so little permission to really do that.

I needed to make that online studio. I needed to make the space where people could be themselves. And it had to be run by the fat bitch in class who knows what it’s like to be afraid to be in the front row.

Jessamyn Stanley is a yoga teacher and body acceptance advocate. Her book, Every Body Yoga, is part instructional yoga guide and part memoir, and her digital yoga studio, The Underbelly, is an introductory course for those just beginning their practice.