The broad perception that yoga is an exercise routine mainly for slim, white women has long been a sore point in the yoga blogging and activism communities. Studies increasingly show that the practice alleviates virtually everything, from high blood pressure to post-traumatic stress disorder. And so, for years, alongside Instagram pose challenges and gossip about the latest fallen guru, a niche conversation emphasizing that yoga is a spiritual practice accessible to everyone has flourished in the digital space, including awareness campaigns like last summer’s “This Is My Yoga Body” T-shirt push on the prominent blog YogaDork.
But there are signs (and listicles) that “body-positive yoga” is gaining prominence. The New York Times recently ran a feature on “fat yoga,” and there is a burgeoning community of #curvyyoga practitioners on Instagram who boast tens of thousands of engaged followers.
One of these curvy yogis is Jessamyn Stanley, 27, who Instagrams her poses at @mynameisjessamyn. As her following has grown past 36,000, what started as a way to get feedback from other Instayogis on her alignment has turned into a sizable time commitment for the North Carolina resident. “I think that it's just so critical for people to be able to see different kinds of bodies doing things that they did not initially believe that they're capable of,” Stanley says. “We are shown as a society that having a curvaceous body is a problem, that it’s something you have to change.”
Stanley’s helping to grow an online community that hopes to prove otherwise. This interview has been condensed and edited.
Why did you start posting yoga photos online?
The whole reason that I even started blogging was because I wanted to track my yoga practice, and it's much easier to do that if you take photographs of your body. And it's also a lot easier whenever you practice yoga to practice in either not a lot of clothes, or naked, or just wearing things that make it easy for you to see what your body is doing. So I started posting photographs of myself kind of scantily clad, and that had a resonating effect for people. I think that, in and of itself, is a kind of activism that's really, really necessary. Many people, whenever they think about activism, are thinking, you know, “being out in the streets” and talking about things and stirring up conversations. I do that too. But I really think that the most important thing we can do as a person who's marginalized is to just be visible. And that is my activism: visibility.
When did you start posting on Instagram?
About two years ago. There was already an Instagram yoga community of people who would post photographs of themselves and give each other feedback and advice, and I wanted that same kind of feedback. Whenever you practice at home, it can be difficult to have the community that comes from learning in a studio with a teacher. And it was just a really, really welcoming environment.
But it just had a weird, wildfire effect that I'm kind of still dealing with the repercussions of. I'm grateful because, again with the activism thing, I think that it's just so critical for people to be able to see different kinds of bodies doing things that they did not initially believe that they were capable of.
If you go to a yoga studio anywhere on the planet, you are really not going to see the kind of person who is traditionally shown in the media as a “yoga body.” You'll see men who have not tried to stretch their bodies since they were, like, three years old. You'll see women who have had children and don't really move around that much. You're not going to see, over and over and over again, Laura Sykora or Tara Stiles or these people who have traditional model physiques, and it's of the utmost importance for us to show that the community is much larger than it seems.
Can you speak more about what you call the “weird, wildfire effect” of starting to have an Instagram presence? I have 172 followers on Instagram. You have more than 36,000.
I can't really explain how it happened. I think that many people want to see someone that they can relate to. I can't tell you how many emails I get from men who are just like: "Thank you. I want to come take a class with you just because I see that there are different-bodied people out there.” It's like people are thirsty for someone who they can relate to. And I think that being genuine, and being authentic—I have a hard line on all of my social media about being as true to myself as I can possibly be, because that's the most important thing.
I always try and be really upfront about my ups, downs, highs, lows. I see on Instagram all the time people just being so overwhelmingly positive, because that's what yoga is to people. It's like this way to get happy and way to be happy, and everyone feels the need to sort of feed into that.
I find that to be so inauthentic, because every human being has volatile ups and downs. You'll have days where things are going great. You practice; you feel so calm and serene and like you can package that feeling and sell it to people and you'd be a millionaire. But then you have days where you practice and you're just working through shit.
I, like anyone, have had some kind of traumatizing things happen in life, and there are days where I'm practicing where I'm literally just trying to work through it. And at the end of the practice I don't necessarily feel serene or calm. I just feel like I found a way to work on it, and I found a way to deal with it. And I think being true to that feeling as opposed to the feeling of purity and serenity and calm and beauty—I think that's what people are attracted to. They want to see someone who's actually showing what it is to live life and also have something that can balance them out.
What happened when people started to figure out that you were there? At what point did you become a part of the #curvyyoga community?
When I started posting photos there were not a lot of people posting. I don't want to make it sound as though I started all of this, because I definitely did not. There were people who—Amber Karnes, for example, of Body Positive Yoga; Anna Guest-Jelley of Curvy Yoga—they've been doing this for years at this point. But I think that specifically on Instagram, there were not a lot of people. But there were a lot of different-bodied people who were on Instagram, they just weren't posting photographs of themselves.
I guess I'd been posting for about six months before there seemed to be sort of a ripple effect of other people posting as well. And the way that I really started to notice people watching me specifically is that I would post a lot in my underwear. I had never seen anyone who was curvy posting in their underwear, or doing anything in their underwear. And when I started to see other people doing that, I was like, “OK, that's at least in some part because of me.”
I think that seeing that level of comfort, which I honestly didn't even really get to until I'd been doing it for a few months, I think that was probably the turning point. I can't underestimate how important that is, because we are shown as a society that having a curvaceous body is a problem, that it’s something you have to change. We're just now getting to a point, because of Beyoncé, where people are comfortable seeing thick thighs and a curvaceous butt. People are still—if you have a stomach, that's something you need to change; if you have breasts, if you have really large breasts, that's only good to a point, and it's only good if men like it.
I just answered a Tumblr question yesterday, a girl who was like, “Can you tell me how I can be more confident?” And I said, "The way to be more confident is to stop thinking about what other people think." You will immediately become more confident after that. As soon as you say, "I don't feel this way. I'm fine with the way that I look," then the sky is the limit in terms of self-confidence and overall happiness.
What kinds of interaction do you have on Instagram? Have you made friends? Do you talk to fans? Does it take hours of your day?
I hate to think of people as fans. I like to think of everyone as a friend. I mean, obviously, there is a stopping point with that. But so much of what we're building is based on a community, and I don't think community building happens when you're thinking about fans and heroes.
I want to spend as much time as I can communicating with the people who have found me online, because it seems to have really made a difference in a lot of people's lives. I feel a certain amount of responsibility at this point, so it does take a fair amount of my time and energy. I spend a few hours a day just specifically looking at Instagram, going through my comments.
The thing that sucks about having a large number of followers and getting a lot of comments is that it's really difficult to respond to everyone individually. People ask the same kind of questions over and over again, so I'll try to find ways to communicate with them on a larger scale. And this also extends into using Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr. But specifically on Instagram, I would say it's a fairly time-consuming pursuit. But it's really worth it.
What kinds of interactions have you had through Instagram and what kinds of feedback have you gotten?
The number one question is, "How do I start practicing yoga?" I try to answer that as generally as possible, because there are so many ways to answer, and I always feel that anyone who asks me that question could have spent the time they spent asking me to Google the answer. But if you do that, there are a million answers to the question, so I understand why they ask.
The second thing is, people who have been practicing yoga who are interested in expanding their practice or who have been working on poses that they've seen me work on—they will ask me for advice about how I got where I am.
I also get questions about the accessories that I use. I get questions about confidence, and body confidence, and just sort of being happy on a general basis. And, of course, because I have photos of myself not wearing a lot of clothes, I get a lot of disgusting messages from men.
In the beginning I'd get messages from people that would be like: "Wow, that's gross. I hate fat people." Those are my favorite things to respond to, because I'll just write, like, "LOL," or, "That's funny," or whatever. Because anyone who says anything negative to me has obviously had a bad day, and they got home, and they saw a fat girl in their underwear practicing yoga, and they were so deeply offended by it that they wasted five to 10 minutes of their life composing a message to me. And I just can't even bother with people like that.
What makes Instagram a good way to communicate? I'm not that much older than you—I'm 30. And I feel like a fogey when I'm using Instagram, because I'm just like, "How are people having conversations in these comment sections under these tiny pictures on my phone?"
I think that Instagram in particular is helpful because it requires a minimal amount of communication. Everyone is so visual nowadays. They want to see something quickly. You can look at the picture, but you don't necessarily have to read the caption. If you like the picture, you can read the caption. If you really like the caption, you can respond to it. There's an element of choice, but it's really fast.
And it's really expanded a lot just in the two years that I've been using Instagram. I had Instagram before I started posting my yoga photos. I got it when I was in graduate school. And up until I started posting photos of my yoga practice, I posted maybe 100 photos, just interacting with my friends. And that's how I wanted to keep it, honestly. And it just turned into something completely different.
Have you made any friends on Instagram?
Yes, I have. That's definitely in the top five most awesome things that have happened because of Instagram. I've met so many people who are also practicing yoga, are also curvy, are also just really enthusiastic about spreading this message to other people. In particular, Dana Falsetti. Her Instagram handle is @nolatrees. She is based in New Orleans and came to yoga for a very different reason than me. She'd lost a lot of weight and was trying to tone up her body, and through that experience sort of got to this more body-positive place.
We've already scheduled a couple workshops in August in New York, and we're planning a series of body-positive workshops across the country in this upcoming year. It's really exciting to have made that connection. She's not from North Carolina. I would not have met her in a class here. That kind of connection is why Instagram is awesome.
I'll get on these rants about social media because it's just so sketchy, putting that much of your personal life out there. I personally find it to be kind of difficult, and I have lines. There are things that I don't talk about at all that other people would just be on a soapbox, giving way too much information, in my personal opinion. But I feel like giving a little bit of yourself is the way to get some rewards. If you share a little bit more than you thought that you would be comfortable sharing, I think that there's a lot of room for opportunity.
If yoga is a spiritual pursuit, ideally, what is to be gained from all of these physical representations? Shouldn't we all just take our practices off Instagram and go hang out in caves?
In the West, we're so body-obsessed. I live in a part of the country that is not saturated by the media, but if you live in a major city center, if you live in New York, or Los Angeles, or Chicago—I don't think I need to say anything else. There's a reason that Bikram Yoga is so popular in Los Angeles. There's a reason for this stuff. And I think that, because of that mentality, it's important to show different kinds of body types.
It's less about showing what that body can do. It is so irritating to me whenever people are like, “Wow, I didn't know that a person with this kind of body could do that," or, "I didn't know that a person with a fat body could do blah-blah-blah." Because that is so not the point. The point is that everyone should be able to do this regardless of what your body looks like. And if you only see someone who is white and slender doing it, then you might think that you can't do it. And you won't find something that is not about your body—it's about the way that it makes you feel.
Visibility is a way to do that. It's much easier to be visible on the Internet because it's actually an egalitarian form of communication. You don't have to go to a magazine editor and convince them to show a photograph. You don't have to go to Lululemon and convince them to show a person in a size 12—a size that they produce—in an ad. You don't have to do that. You just post a photograph of yourself.
It's super interesting to me that you have a very clear point that you're making about why the visibility's important even though it's not actually about what you can see.
It's funny that you have to go about it this way. I wish that I could make this exact same argument in rhetoric and in conversation with people, but it just doesn't happen. It just doesn't have the same kind of resonating effect as photography, as being able to see something that directly contradicts your perspective.
Digital Culture is a series of interviews about digital subcultures and communities.