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When Jessamyn Stanley was in graduate school six years ago, a friend invited her to join her in a Bikram yoga class. Stanley, who was going through a severe period of depression at the time, tried to skip it. “I didn’t want to go, but she wore me down, and I wound up loving it!” she recalls. “It was extremely difficult and moved me far out of my comfort zone.”
She continued to attend yoga classes, finding that it gave her the space she needed to move past her perceived limitations. “I was always the fattest person there and frequently the only person of color, but it helped me see beyond the definitions that I was drawing for myself at school and at work. I pushed myself there in a way I was not able to do in my day-to-day life,” she says.
Stanley says she frequently struggled with body image growing up. “I felt like I needed to look like whatever was going to be the most acceptable way for a black girl to look at my age,” she explains. “I thought my body had to look a certain way, but it was never about health—it was about fitting an image and worrying about what other people thought.”
To help get past these roadblocks, she says, you need to be comfortable with what you are doing. “In yoga, we often hear that you have to have a teacher there to make sure you’re doing it right, but when you’re starting out what you need most is an environment where you’re not embarrassed,” says Stanley, who recommends practicing at home with a video if you are too self-conscious to start out with a class. “This gives you the time to work into the poses at your own pace and to take breaks as you need them, or try poses you’d be too intimidated to do in front of others.”
The more confident Stanley grew in her own body, the further she took her own yoga practice. She began to post pictures of her practice on Instagram as a way to check her alignment and get feedback from fellow yoga practitioners, and was soon surprised to see how much positive feedback she was getting from others, who told her she inspired them to become more active themselves. Today, she has a robust social media presence, with more than 300,000 followers on Instagram. “I continue to use social media to show what a yoga practice really looks like in the 21st century from the perspective of someone who is not white, wealthy, heterosexual, etc.,” she says. Stanley also recently wrote a book, Every Body Yoga, to further inspire people to try yoga or other fitness activities.
While yoga hasn’t gifted her with instant body confidence, it has given her something more valuable: the opportunity to find that confidence in a genuine way. “Yoga doesn’t really create body confidence, mostly because yoga is about something much bigger and ultimately more important than body image,” she says. “However, yoga does create space for you to trust yourself. It can allow for any human being to look beyond the opinions of others—and ultimately, ignoring what other people think is the root of confidence!”