Deepening—and Undoing—Our Relationship with Yoga Poses

Yoga instructor Jessamyn Stanley. Photo courtesy of Cornell Watson.

Deepening—and Undoing—Our Relationship with Yoga Poses

Deepening—and Undoing—Our
Relationship with Yoga Poses

Yoga instructor Jessamyn Stanley notes that yoga is not ultimately about the postures. It’s about the breath. She’s also observed that many of us approach the poses the way we approach life—as something to be conquered, to look good doing.

“Wanting to be better at something or better than something is just about wanting to be seen, to be like, Yes, I am here,” Stanley says. “That, to me, is the most elegant practice of yoga.” She wants people to practice, no matter how it looks or how they’re thinking about it, as long as they allow their own experience of yoga to naturally unfold and evolve over time. Yearning is part of that journey. Her new book of essays, Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance, dives deeper into issues of race, capitalism, self-love, and sexuality through the lens of yoga practice; it’s enlightening and a joy to read.

  1. Jessamyn Stanley Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance
    Jessamyn Stanley Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance Bookshop, $15

A Q&A with Jessamyn Stanley

What was your experience with yoga postures when you first started?

I came to yoga seeking a physical experience, and it ended up opening a door to so much more. When I first started practicing yoga, I went because I was really depressed, and a good friend of mine had been like, “Oh my god, you should go to yoga. It’s going to change your life.” I had already decided all these things about myself—what I was good at and what I was capable of. In yoga, there were all these postures that seemed completely impossible to me. They were things that on the surface look easy, like crossing your legs or sitting on your heels.

I was always the fattest person in the room. I was frequently the only person of color, and usually the only Black person. It was a very alienating experience, but it also made me feel like, Okay, maybe even though I’m not practicing these postures like anyone else in the room, maybe I can just try. I can just go for it. Maybe I fall down and everybody sees and people laugh at me—like whatever nightmare experience I have in my head, maybe that’ll happen—but I’m still just going to try. The postures became the vehicle for me to step outside the idea of who I thought I was and who I thought I wanted to be and instead step into who I was.

I was not understanding the practice at all beyond the postures. I thought yoga was something that I did for exercise. I was unsure about whether or not it was even okay for me to approach yoga beyond the postures, because I was like, I’m not South Asian—is it appropriate for me to be practicing this? I thought, Maybe if I just stick to the exercise aspect of it, then that’ll be okay. It’s not that practicing yoga itself is cultural appropriation in itself; in my experience, yoking the light and the dark within yourself will always lead you back to your own culture and your own identity. However, stealing and mimicking South Asian culture and identity is cultural appropriation—and that’s frequently what happens when we don’t examine our yoga practices on a deeper level.

Why do so many of us come to yoga understanding it as a physical practice first?

American society is very much based on what you look like, and there’s a deep obsession with being appealing to other people and making it your life’s aspiration to change everything about yourself so you will be. Fitness started as a niche thing. People were like, “I want to be healthy. I want to take care of my body.” Then it became “You can also work out to look hot to other people”—or whatever the midcentury version of hot was. That then became this obsession to change your body so that Mr. Right or Mrs. Right would see you and be attracted to you and want to be with you. That is how so many different fitness trends have proliferated in America.

American yoga is a part of that. Yoga, when it came to America, was about spirituality. Over time, the way that it was popularized in the ’80s and ’90s was through this obsession with physical fitness: to look cool and shed the pounds and that kind of thing. It was not about looking within yourself or doing anything that didn’t have to do with finding a pair of leggings that looked cute or being able to show people how you could do a handstand or whatever kind of narcissistic goal can become the focus of a yoga practice. The yoga teacher in me would say it’s a beautiful reflection of the rest of our lives.

Specifically in America, the type of people who are generally associated with yoga are thin, able-bodied, White, cisgender, wealthy, and/or traditionally educated women. That’s the predominant idea people have about who’s practicing and who can practice yoga. Now there’s a conversation driven by body liberation movements ushering in this idea that no, everybody can do yoga. It’s said as if it’s a new concept, but the reality is that yoga has never had anything to do with what your body looks like.

What can we learn from yoga when we let go of how our bodies look while doing it?

The way your body looks is irrelevant to yoga because your body is going to change. When you accept that you’re in a constant state of change, it means that you can’t hold on to what your body’s condition is at any given time. At a minimum, your body is going to grow older. It’s also going to get injured. Regardless of what your body looks like, showing up for the practice is crucial because it allows you to be okay with all of those changes.

When the focus of our practice is only the postures, that obsession over maintaining the body mutates. It becomes: I have to practice yoga every day so that my body stays exactly the same, so that it gets firm and hard. But it’s not, you know? Your body is still softening. It’s ripening. Like cheese, like wine, it is getting older, and that’s a good thing. The whole point of this life is to age. That’s that your greatest crescendo, aging.

“The way your body looks is irrelevant to yoga because your body is going to change.”

When you are practicing yoga just to show up and breathe—because at the end of it, the whole purpose is to connect to the breath, the prana, the energy that connects all living beings and that moves through this life—then even the postures are just opportunities to breathe. Every posture, especially in a difficult flow, is just preparing you for the stillness that comes at the end of the practice.

All of this to say that you can get hung up on the postures, and they can be the only reason you’re showing up, but you still end up at the breath. And by connecting to yourself, you still end up living this practice that transcends what your body looks like right now. And it creates a sense of freedom so that you’re not as encumbered by the idea of what you have been or what you once were, and you can accept who you are.

Is focusing on postures a bad thing?

It doesn’t matter if you are obsessed with the postures. Here’s why. The practice of yoga is not only what happens on the mat but also what happens in every moment of life, even and especially when you think it’s not. The most difficult moments of your life that happen off the yoga mat are yoga in action.

Because the truth of yoga is so big and expansive and covers literally every moment of life, even if you are obsessed with the postures and they’re the only reason that you show up, you’re still practicing yoga in a larger sense. Instagram is rife with people who are digging into the physical practice of yoga and finding ways to monetize it. I just look at it like that’s their yoga, that’s their path. They’re learning about themselves. I’m learning about myself.

Any thought that somebody else’s practice of yoga is not right is coming from a space of insecurity within yourself and has nothing to do with the way that someone else is living their yoga. There’s so much so much conversation about like what yoga is, what you’ll get out of it, and the right ways to practice yoga. In my opinion, every way is the right way to practice yoga. Everything is always leading to the same destination. It doesn’t matter if you start by focusing so much on the postures, because as long as you practice, you’ll get to that destination.

How can yoga postures deepen our relationship with the practice of yoga?

It’s important to have something that you can practice that can provide structure in your life, give you comfort, and allow you to extend yourself mentally and physically and emotionally. And that is so much of what a postural practice can offer. It gives you an opportunity to engage with what it means to be strong, what flexibility looks like, the way that your body is put together. There’s no way of coming to terms with the you that lives inside your body without gaining some modicum of control over—some might say master, but I struggle with that concept—your physical body. The postures provide a gateway toward that.

It doesn’t have to be the most complicated postures. You don’t have to practice Ashtanga fourth series every single day in order to see within yourself. Some people, because of what their practice is like, do. But it’s not a requirement. Sometimes the only posture that’s needed is mountain pose: standing. Or sitting with your legs crossed in easy pose. Sometimes that is more than enough posture.

“In stillness and in silence, you can’t run from the thoughts that are going through your head.”

The most difficult posture is corpse pose, where you lie on your back. It seems easy. Some people even leave yoga class before corpse pose because they’re like, “Yeah, I got things to do. This is sleeping. I’ll do that later. It’s not that important.” But so much of that inner dialogue reflects the difficulty of the posture; it’s so difficult to lie down on the ground quietly that you don’t even want to do it.

The stillness and silence are what we are afraid of. In stillness and in silence, you can’t run from the thoughts that are going through your head. So many of us spend our entire lives running from what’s inside our heads and trying to pretend that it doesn’t exist or papering over it. That’s why I think I was drawn to a very vigorous vinyasa-style practice. It’s so physically intense that you don’t have room to think. You just have to commit to the practice and commit to the postures so you don’t fall apart. But what vinyasa ultimately does is challenge you physically so that you can accept the stillness when it comes. So that you’re not combative when the thoughts that you’ve been avoiding come to the surface. The postures are ultimately a very small piece of a much larger puzzle.

Jessamyn Stanley is a yoga teacher and body liberation advocate. Her new book, Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance, is a series of autobiographical essays that explores issues of race, capitalism, self-love, and sexuality through the lens of yoga practice. Her first book, Every Body Yoga, is part instructional yoga guide and part memoir, and her app, The Underbelly, is a digital yoga studio with streaming classes.

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