My legs were shaking and my palms kept sliding around on the mat, no matter how many times I wiped them. The pain in my wrists was so intense that spots were dancing in front of my eyes and I felt a lot like I might throw up. Against my will, I – an overweight, utterly unathletic woman with no enthusiasm for exercise – was in a yoga class.
I heard a voice behind me and my hips were grabbed and pulled further up into the air. “Try it like this!” a cheery voice trilled, the speaker clearly oblivious to the fact that she risked getting covered in my vomit any second. From somewhere deep inside my colourless world of agony, I saw my tormentor stalk back to the front of the class, her toned legs moving sinuously inside her extremely flattering blue leggings.
Needless to say, I left that room 30 minutes later feeling furious, humiliated and a lot like I’d just been run over. I haven’t been back inside a yoga studio since. Despite constant recommendations that it would be good for my health (both mental and physical), the sense of shame, the feeling that everyone was staring at me and judging my total ineptitude, was too strong. The teacher and the vast majority of the women in that class were everything I was not: skinny, self-possessed and able to support their entire body weight on just their wrists. Yoga, I concluded, was most definitely not for me.
Or, at least, that’s what I thought until I came across Jessamyn Stanley on Instagram. Her feed is a mixture of shots of her in awesome yoga poses, some of her hanging out with her friends and short video clips from the classes she teaches. Best of all, she is doing all of this with a body I recognise – curvy and with all kinds of bulges – except, unlike me, she is proud of it. The clothes she wears to exercise look… normal – no Day-Glo, skintight Lycra, just regular leggings and vests. Her captions are all about eating things you enjoy and letting yoga make your life easier, rather than allowing yourself be pressured into becoming someone completely different. For the first time since my disastrous first (and last) yoga class, I wondered: if she can do it, could I?
Alone in my room, it felt like I had unlocked a secret superpower. In the weeks that followed, colleagues and friends started telling me, unprompted, that I looked better, more relaxed, happier
Stanley, a self-described “fat femme” who lives in Durham, North Carolina, first started practising yoga regularly in 2011 while she was in graduate school, and has been doing it every day since the summer of 2013. She has since qualified as a yoga teacher and now teaches three times a week and tours the US and further afield (she has just been in London and is now headed for Dubai) to give classes for her hordes of followers and fans. She is an advocate for body positivity and inclusivity in yoga – it’s for everyone, not just for skinny people, is the story her feeds tell.
Speaking to New York Magazine last summer, Stanley explained how she likes to see people’s prejudices (both about yoga and about learning from someone who doesn’t have the “typical” yoga body) get broken down by her attitude and expertise:
“I can see it in their eyes – they’re thinking, 'Oh fuck, this woman’s not gonna know…' By the end, they’re sweating and they’re in a different place about it. I encourage that. Come to this class with whatever preconceived notions you have, because the whole point is to get rid of them.”
As well as leading by example when it comes to her Instagram and blog – a good yoga teacher should provide “an aspirational experience as opposed to an inspirational one”, she says – Stanley is a proponent of doing yoga in your own home, rather than forking out to go to a class where (if I’m anything to go by) you risk public vomiting and feeling fat. I felt silly about this idea of a “home practice” for a while – I couldn’t afford any fancy equipment and what if I fell over and got tangled in the laundry basket? – before yet another doctor recommended I try yoga and I managed to silence my doubts for long enough to give it a go. (I was reassured by Stanley’s blog that “a Star Wars VHS box” and “an old scarf I finally realised would never look good” would do just as well as specialist yoga blocks and straps.)
I downloaded Stanley’s video series “Everybody Yoga”, dragged myself out of bed half an hour earlier than usual, stood on my three-quid mat and pressed play. I did feel a bit silly to start with, but Stanley’s sparkling demeanour and supportive teaching style soon drew me in. It couldn’t have been further from my experience in the class. When she said, “Just go this far if you can’t manage the whole pose”, it sounded like practical advice, rather than a reprimand for my lack of skill. There is none of what I think of as “yogaspeak”, where words I don’t know are used to describe things I can’t do. At regular intervals, Stanley would give advice about how to stand “if you, like me, need to accommodate your belly”, or suggest we pause briefly to “fix our leggings”. I finished the half-hour video and felt better not worse, which was a first for me and exercise.
Alone in my room, it felt like I had unlocked a secret superpower. In the weeks that followed, colleagues and friends started telling me, unprompted, that I looked better, more relaxed, happier. My clothes started getting looser. Very gradually, I began to get better at the poses and at no point did I feel like I might throw up. Best of all, the reason for all of this was completely invisible to the rest of the world. It was a secret between me and Jessamyn.
The internet, it turns out, is the best place to exercise.