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Jessamyn Stanley is not new to the yoga world. She’s been on her mat — publicly — for almost 10 years now.
Despite all that time in the spotlight, many things have also, remarkably, stayed the same; she’s still tackling the topics of race, thin-bodied privilege, sexual identity, and the cultural appropriation and commodification of yoga with the wisdom of someone who’s lived her age (33, for the record) ten times over. She’s still firmly planted in her hometown of Durham, North Carolina. And somehow, in the age of bandwagoning and cancel culture, she’s managed to still be her true, authentic self — on all mediums — and give approximately zero fucks about what anyone else thinks (in the best way).
On a Rocket, Still Not Jaded
You’d think after a decade in the industry and with so many brand partnerships under her belt that Stanley would be sort of, well, over it. But that’s far from the case. “It really never gets old,” she tells Shape. This Adidas campaign, in particular, is simply an extension of what she wants to do with her voice.
“I feel so blessed to be able to work on projects where we’re able to lift up marginalized voices,” says Stanley. “I think that for so long the narrative around wellness and fitness has been about one body type, one lifestyle, and the ‘Watch Us Move’ campaign is all about celebrating all people and their bodies where they are today. That message has been so crucial in my own life, and I know the power of representation and the impact it can make — to see someone and think, ‘wow that person looks like me,’ and I feel like I can do more and be more because I see that. Ultimately, this campaign is about that, about giving people an opportunity to feel free.” (Related: How to Create an Inclusive Environment In the Wellness Space)
To be clear, when Stanley first started putting her practice out there for the world, she wasn’t looking for sponsorships from mega fitness brands or even to amass mega fans — she was simply looking for community.
“I was practicing yoga alone at my house, and it was very alienating,” she says. “I didn’t feel like there was a community I could turn to.” Even once she started connecting with like-minded people, the nature of her influence didn’t really kick in. “I still found myself not really engaging with the fact that other people were seeing this and being impacted by this,” she explains. “Especially when I think about when I first started sharing my practice compared to now, there’s been a really tremendous shift in the wellness industry and the conversation around body autonomy and body liberation and making space for different people to be out there and have their voices heard. There’s been such a profound shift, and it took a while for me to realize, ‘Oh, I’m part of that.'”
And now that it’s sunk in? “It’s like, ‘ok, what can we do now? How can we carry this message further?'”
Inspiring the Next Generation
One of the main ways Stanley hopes to continue to push boundaries is by engaging the next generation who have yet to formulate ideals around body image, and who — unlike those of us who have collected souvenirs of beauty standards and body shame throughout our lives and are now tasked with purging them all — have the opportunity to simply move through life without the same mental load.
“It’s crazy to think about, because [body shame] seems like something that is just a life requirement,” says Stanley. “Imagine: We have an opportunity for kids to just not have body shame. Adults are healing, we’re trying to understand ourselves and get it, but there are kids out there who can see this message, they’ll take an Underbelly Yoga class at their gym, or they’ll see Meg Boggs on TikTok, and they’re changed forever. That, to me, is a motivating factor far beyond connecting with people outside my living room. This is something that will stand long after I’m gone.” (Related: Jessamyn Stanley Posted a Candid Photo Revealing Scars from Her Thighs Chafing)
Deepening Her Practice, Not Her Poses
Though Stanley initially came to yoga for the physical practice, its role in her life has since taken a much different turn. (Here: Read more on her path to yoga through inherited perfectionism, team sports, and a Bikram class.)
“When I first started practicing yoga, I was very much obsessed with the postural practice and obsessed with which postures I could focus on and hone,” she says. “I’d fall into a nook of really deep hip openers, really deep heart openers, really deep inversions. Through that process, there’s so much self-discovery, but at the same time, it’s very much a surface-level experience. It’s not speaking to this larger practice of really seeing yourself in an honest and authentic way.”
As her impact grew — as did the responsibility of being an outspoken yogi in the public eye — the disconnect between the business of wellness and the essence of yoga put her in a bind. “I see the monetization of yoga and really live in the yoga-industrial complex and really understand that so much of business and yoga don’t really go together; there’s not really a match,” she says.
To cope, she turned right back to her mat with a different perspective. “[This disconnect] has actually deepened my practice in a way that I never could have anticipated,” says Stanley. “It’s created the portal for me to have that different understanding of the practice beyond postures. I find myself turning to the practice in a way that’s spiritually medicinal, and it allows me to accept some of the complicated emotions that come along with all of that and to be more gentle and compassionate with myself. Especially as things grow and my companies evolve and the brands grow, it allows me to stay at home within myself.”
While she adds new classes monthly on The Underbelly, her personal (physical) practice has dialed back. “Now I’m in this place where I understand why certain yoga lineages like ashtanga do the same flows over and over and over again and never change — it’s because there’s no need to,” she says. “The same flow, the same set of postures, can teach you so many things. My daily sequence now changes slightly over time, but on a daily basis, is just the same general sequence of postures. I focus way more on fine-tuning the movements and going as slowly as possible and really trying to let the breath be the thing that’s leading. In every posture, I’m just thinking about my breath. That could mean full stillness — it’s really all just in service of stillness. I think that when I first started, I thought that was easy, but now I’ve realized that’s actually the hard way to practice yoga.”
Harvesting the Fruit of a Shitty Year
Maybe you’ve heard the quote, “No mud, no lotus” by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist spiritual leader, referring to the fact that lotus flowers literally only grow in mud. While, of course, no one would ever elect for the world to suffer as much as it has in the last year, Stanley has hopes it’ll lead to blooms.
“Right now, I feel like we have so much opportunity because of all the turmoil, because of the elections, because of COVID, because of the ‘waking up’ of our society to the atrocities that have been happening for a lot longer than this year,” she says. “Because of that, there’s all of this new earth that we’re tilling together, and so much opportunity that will really show through the younger generations.”
And while social media has become a bit of a minefield (hi, cancel culture), Stanley is as committed as ever to remaining her authentic, unfiltered self. “If anything, [the events of the last year] have made me even more entrenched in the importance of authenticity and vulnerability, of being as open as possible to change and what feels difficult, and to really just letting all of that in and sitting in the hardness of it,” she says. “Before 2020, I — and I think a lot of other people — had a tendency to hide things away or sweep them under the rug and pretend that they’re not there. But 2020 was like, ‘we’re not doing that anymore. That’s old, that’s tired, that’s over.’ And because of that, I feel like we can finally just keep it real, 100 percent, all the time. And that means digging up whatever has been swept under the rug and not trying to avoid the hardness and the painfulness that can come from vulnerability. There’s no need to run from it. Because from that space of tender vulnerability, that’s where flowers bloom. This is the path forward.” (Related: Why Wellness Pros Need to Be Part of the Conversation About Racism)
Walking Forward, Sometimes Alone
For the record, the path forward doesn’t necessarily mean posting a black square on Instagram or regurgitating what’s been deemed “appropriate” for the moment.
“I definitely think that there are more people expressing their opinions now, and as a result, there’s more of a collective tide, a sort of party line, or a ‘here’s how we’re going to approach certain topics,'” she says. “But I’ve always been the black sheep, different, doing my thing, and the times that I catch myself in that collective tide or feeling like, ‘oh, but what should I say and what should I do?’ It always ends with, ‘this doesn’t feel right, this doesn’t feel good, this doesn’t feel authentic.’ That’s how I know to steer back to what I feel is the truth — even if it means walking by myself and not being understood by other people. What does it mean to want to be accepted by other people anyway?”
That’s not to say she knows the answer. “It’s just the path and it means uncovering my desire to hide in plain sight, to walk with the crowd, and to embrace what it means to be an individual,” says Stanley. “And while it’s difficult, I think it’s also the reason for being here and the reason for having a platform. What is the reason to speak out? What are we doing here, why do we say anything? For me, that’s tuning back into this idea: I’m just letting my light shine, and that’s not a light that can shine through anyone else. That light isn’t necessarily going to be understood by anyone else, and that’s fine too.”