When Jessamyn Stanley first tried yoga, she hated it. Years later, when a friend suggested she try again, she was reticent. ‘Everything about it seemed completely impossible to me. Not only was it hard, but I was often also the only fat person and the only black person. It was a very alienating experience for me,’ she says.
But she found that it ‘opened a lot of mental and emotional doors’. Then a graduate student, Jessamyn had no aspirations to teach, but when she started to post on Instagram, fans begged her to start. ‘I was so confused, because I was like: there are literally thousands of yoga teachers! You can’t spit without finding one,’ she says, laughing.
After a while, Jessamyn relented, embarking on a yoga teacher training (YTT) course. ‘Before YTT, I thought of my practice as something relatively superficial that I just did. During YTT, I really came to understand why there have to be so many yoga teachers,’ she explains. After completing the course, she began teaching online and soon launched The Underbelly, a wellness community where people could connect, tune into classes and learn to be well in their own way.
Jessamyn, who lives in Durham, North Carolina, with her two partners and their pets, now teaches the compassion that connected her to yoga in different ways. Her first book, Every Body Yoga, a beginner’s guide to getting into yoga for all body types, was released in 2017. She launched a sex-and-relationships podcast, Dear Jessamyn, in February 2020 with her co-host Ashe Danger Phoenix. Her cannabis justice organization, We Go High NC, works to decriminalize and destigmatize weed. And her second book, Yoke, was released this year.
As she gets ready to embark on a life-changing trip across the country in an RV, Jessamyn shares with us her favourite brands, yoga tips, and daily routine as a ‘21st-century yoga teacher’.
‘When I wake up, I like to have a cup of hot water with lemon because it gets me moving; it ignites my body. With that I also like to smoke cannabis and write a little bit if I can, so I can unclog my brain. I also do other ritual practices, like tarot cards or reading my astrology. I like to do all of that right out of bed in the morning. After that, I like to practice some physical movement. That might be yoga postures, it might be riding my spin bike, it might be weight training. I’ll also usually do some sort of breathwork or meditation practice, but not exclusively. After all of that I drink water and I shower – I like to get really fresh. It’s a process!’
‘I’m a 21st-century yoga teacher, and that means that I am an entrepreneur. I spend a lot of my day running my business. After I get ready, I’ll usually go to my office or wherever that day takes me. If we’re shooting classes for The Underbelly, I’ll be on set; if we’re working on sponsored content or a branded project, I’ll go to set to work on that; if I’m working out of town modeling or speaking or something, I’ll go do that. Generally I’ll go to my office in town; I spend the vast majority of my day in my office working. Separating those spaces was crucial for me early on.’
‘Because my team is based in multiple US time zones, I’ll usually be at work until 7 or 8. When I go home, I literally just want to go to sleep. One of my partners is also my producer, and she has an office in the same building, so we generally go home together. My other partner is sous chef at a restaurant in Downtown, so sometimes we’ll go out to eat, but more often than not we go home, make dinner together with food from Costco and watch something that requires no mental effort, like Jeopardy! [a game show]. You can tune in or tune out, but it allows the day to flow out the ears. We’ll smoke weed, eat, maybe read a book before bed, and go to sleep.’
Welcome to Durham
Jessamyn lives in Durham, in the north-central region of North Carolina. ‘I love Durham so much. This town has offered me a lot, because it’s really a town built on entrepreneurship. Everybody who lives here is working on some kind of project and everybody is supportive of one another – but what that means is it’s becoming a Southern tech hub,’ she says. And the city is changing: ‘A lot of people from Silicon Valley are landing here and they have a different perspective on life.’
Jessamyn spends a lot of time in local nature: ‘There are a lot of natural water sources here, so that’s definitely one of the biggest things to do for fun. In the summer everybody swims; in the winter and fall we hike.’
Soon, however, she has big plans to take off in an RV and tour the United States full-time: ‘I feel like it’s time to move on. We are in a place where we’re ready to buy a house or land, but we can’t find the right spot. We’d like to spend some time traveling before we decide where we’re actually going to land,’ she says. ‘We were like: let’s just live on the road and take however long it takes to see all 48 continental states, to go to a landmark in every one and, when we’re done, we’ll decide where we want to land, buy land, move our RV onto it and build a house.’
Jessamyn’s daily skincare routine is something she never skips: ‘It’s one of the most important parts of my day; it sets me up to feel really strong and empowered. I always think of this interview that I saw with Megan Thee Stallion. She was getting ready and someone on her team was like, “We gotta go, we’re late,” and she was like, “Did they pick the hot girl or the not girl?”’ Jessamyn laughs. ‘I think of that every time it’s taking me a long time to get ready. I need self-care in order to be able to show up and be present.’
Jessamyn wrote her first book, Every Body Yoga, to help people that are often excluded from yoga spaces to try the practice. She started writing her second book, Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance, around the same time, and it was released in June this year. With Yoke, she wants to take her audience’s understanding of yoga deeper: ‘Once you actually start practicing, you realize that yoga isn’t just happening on the mat, it’s happening in every moment of your life, especially the moments that are hardest,’ she says. But it’s also about confronting difficult things. ‘It’s about accepting that you are complicated, you are problematic, you make lots of different decisions that potentially hurt other people,’ she says, adding, ‘That’s what yoga actually is: it’s yoking together the pieces of yourself.’
Yoke is an exploration of the unions within Jessamyn and the intersection of her identities: ‘That meant talking about my internalized racism, the fact that I slut-shame myself, how I culturally appropriate, and how capitalism and yoga really don’t go together. Historically, I’ve tried to sweep them under the rug or pretend that they’re not there, but really that work is the work of my practice. So that’s why I wrote Yoke.’
Jessamyn’s yoga tips for beginners
Be patient with yourself
‘I think a lot of people come to yoga and they immediately encounter the fact that the postures are hard, that meditation is not just sitting down and it’s not immediately calming. It’s chaos in both spaces. [Be] patient with yourself… just because you’ve never done something doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to do it.’
Start from where you are
‘Don’t think about where you could be, where somebody else is or what it could look like. Just think: this is what my practice looks like today. Maybe your practice is one posture a month; that’s a beautiful practice.’
Don’t spend lots of money right away
‘Don’t worry about buying the best mat or getting the right outfit. All those things are aesthetics, but if you spend less money in the beginning, it’s easier to get more invested and you’ll realize why you need a really good mat or why some leggings are constructed the way that they are.’
Use online resources
‘Build your practice at home. Even if you go out to [in-person] yoga classes, building a home practice is so crucial. I think it’s really dope to start with free resources on YouTube. There are so many free classes and a lot of the experience of practicing comes down to finding the teacher that really speaks to you. And that’s going to mean trying a lot of different teachers.’
Find a community
‘Once you find the experience that works for you, subscribe to an online yoga platform that you can take consistently and do over and over again, check back in on and really deepen your practice. That’s when you might subscribe to something like The Underbelly, or Yoga Glow, which I’ve subscribed to for years.’
This article was first published in Courier issue 42, August/September 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.