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“The only prerequisite for yoga is breathing,” says Jessamyn Stanley. “If you’re alive, you can participate.” It’s an ethos the North Carolina–based author and self-described “fat femme” outlined to much acclaim in her celebrated 2017 book, Every Body Yoga—it’s also an approach that’s decidedly at odds with how American yoga is presented today. “That practitioner is thin, able-bodied, white, and affluent, and that is who companies have always preferred to market to, because it’s the group of people with the most money to spend on things—and because of pure white supremacy,” says Stanley, who describes feeling so self-conscious during the first studio class she ever attended in 2010 that as a result she moved her practice solely online. She wasn’t the only one.
Now with a thriving digital practice, a yoga app (The UnderBelly), another book on the way, and a podcast (Dear Jessamyn) that explores the interconnection of love and relationships and yoga, Stanley is the doyenne of her own body-positive wellness empire, one that firmly believes yoga is not only one-size-fits-all, but that it’s a mental and spiritual medicine, one with a clear lineage to its origin in India thousands of years before it became a vehicle for athleisure brands and Instagram influencers.
Stanley is also convinced that yoga could do a lot more. She believes that the solution to the cultural inequality she sees—a kind of collective healing, the kind you can’t have without deep reflection and personal introspection—is not as inaccessible as pundits might make it seem. “I would argue that dismantling systemic inequality and systemic racism is something that’s a requirement of yoga practice,” says Stanley. “Until people are doing that, I would argue that we’re not really collectively practicing yoga.”