Book: Every Body Yoga by Jessamyn Stanley and The Underbelly (App)
Age/Genre: Adult Non-Fiction, Yoga Instruction Book, Memoir
Reading Notes: I’d get the physical copy unless you can project your digital copy on a big screen that you can stretch in front of!
Content Notes: Body Image, Sexism, The Effects of Racism, particularly Misogynoir
Earlier this year, I was browsing my library’s ebook collection and Jessamyn Stanley’s Every Body Yoga caught my eye. I’ve known vaguely about Jessamyn Stanley for a few years now, having stumbled across a few of her videos online, particularly her collaborations with PopSugar Fitness. I love her videos, which are focused on showing that yoga can be accessible for a variety of body types. As a fat* black woman, Stanley didn’t always feel like she was welcome in the yoga community and her videos offer a lot of accommodations and encouragement for people of varying abilities.
Every Body Yoga is part yoga history, part memoir, and part yoga instruction manual. For an idea of the tone and layout of the book, here is a bit of the table of contents:
Part 1: Let’s Get Warmed Up
-”Hey Jessamyn, How Do I Start Practicing Yoga?”
-”Is This a Cult?”
-The Elephant in the Room
-Questions Asked by (Literally) Every Beginner Yoga Student
Part 2: What the Hell is This?
-The History of Modern Yoga, in a Nutshell
-What the Fuck is the Eight-Limbed Path?
-Which Yoga Practice Should I Choose?
-What Should I Buy?
Part 3: Jessamyn’s ABCs of Asana
-Getting Started with Asana
This part also has sections for specific types of poses, such as standing poses, balance basics, and specific body parts like hips, backbens, and hamstrings and core.
Part 4: Okay, But How Can I Do This on My Own?
-How I Learned My Asana ABCs
-Bring It On, Bitch
-Sequence: Sun Salutation A
-Sequence: Sun Salutation B
-Sequence: I want to Get Started
-Jessamyn Stanley, Pre-Teen Beauty Queen
-Sequence: I Want to Stand Strong
-A Chick-fil-A Bandit Walks into Weight Watchers
-Sequence: I need to Feel Balanced
-A Yoga Practice Grows in Durham
-Sequence: I want to Energize my Spirit
-Self-Acceptance: The Taboo
-Sequence: I Need to Release Fear
-The Scarlet A
-Sequence: I Need to Chill the F Out
-One is the Magic Number
-Sequence: I Need to Love Myself
Part 5: Is It Really That Simple?
Stanley shares her yoga journey, which is founded in the story of her body, and thus, her life. She talks about the life events and circumstances that led to her larger build, and explores the self-esteem issues she developed as a kid. The memoir sections show the systemic pressures that black girls in particular are subject to, and how hard it can be to just love your body as it is. As you can see, each section of part 4 is followed by a yoga sequence that relates to the theme or lesson covered. I loved how actionable this made the book. You see examples of how Stanley has benefitted from yoga and incorporated it into her life, then you get a breakdown of how you can do the same.**
Stanley’s life story is engaging and informative, but if you’re not looking for a memoir, Every Body Yoga still has a ton to offer. You’ll come away with a reading list to delve into the history of yoga and its foundational concepts. Stanley is intentional in making sure the reader knows that yoga is more than the Western fitness regimen that it has become. That being said, she doesn’t demonize using yoga primarily for fitness. She simply shows that yoga is much more complex, and focusing on only one aspect leaves out a lot of value. She outlines the eight-limbed path and discusses how she incorporates yogic principles into her daily life. She cites the foundational texts that she has learned from, which could easily be easily made into a syllabus for a History of Yoga course. Honestly, I’m tempted to design a self-learning curriculum based primarily on the resources she provides.
After I checked out the book, I looked up more of Stanley’s videos online. Many of her free videos are really short, which is great for beginners and for working into your day when you don’t have a lot of time. I’m at a point in my practice where I enjoy longer sequences. Luckily, I found that Stanley has released a subscription service called The Underbelly. It is $10 per month, and can be accessed both through the website and in app stores. I decided to give it a try, and so far, I have loved it. The app has different “tracks,” the bulk of which are part of “The Elemental Series.” These are 10-video courses named “Air,” “Earth,” and “Fire.” I’ve completed the Air and Earth tracks and am making my way through “Fire” currently. “Air” is predictably focused on matching movement with breath. “Earth” is a lot of balance and grounding, and “Fire” starts getting into inversions and some more complex postures. Almost all the videos are over 30 minutes long, with many in “Fire” approaching an hour.
I love Stanley’s casual, swear-word-filled demeanor, and how she encourages practitioners to do what their body needs in each moment. She often says things like “I did that really fast and made it look easy, but it’s not. If you fell down, that’s okay! It happens to all of us,” and “If you’re hating me right now, that’s fine. If you need to drop to your knees, I ain’t mad about it.” She not only demonstrates accommodations for different postures, but she will often stay in the modified versions of poses herself and is very open about doing what feels good for her body that day. I feel like a lot of yoga classes will allude to options, but not always show them, or will demonstrate them and then return to the “full” version of a posture. For Stanley, there is no “full” version, as each pose has a range. There is no “perfect version.” She does of course, give guidance to avoid muscle strain and injury.
Stanley’s yoga style is very prop heavy, utilizing blocks, straps, bolsters, blankets, and more. I think I’ve always had a bit of a bias against yoga props, partially seeing them as a barrier to access/commercialization of yoga, and partially thinking I should be working toward doing the poses without assistance. But Stanley made it clear to me that, even if one of your goals is to be able to do poses without props, props can be vital in teaching your body to be in certain positions before it’s able to do it by itself.” Also, sometimes props make things uber comfy. And Stanley gives lots of options for people who can’t or don’t want to buy props just for yoga. A lot of things can function as a yoga strap, and every time she utilizes one, Stanley lists some options.
In both her book and her videos, Stanley promotes the idea that there is no “one size fits all” approach to yoga. She acknowledges that different body types will look and feel different in poses. She also doesn’t seem to have a specific “target audience,” or at least, not a narrow one. Many yoga channels I’ve used assume their viewers are women, even if they do some surface-level “yoga is for everyone” messaging. Stanley also goes out of her way to mention barriers some people might face, like having very little room for their practice, having difficult emotional responses to specific poses, etc.
Though her most prominent messaging revolves around body accessibility, I believe Stanley and anyone helping her write and design her content is focused on accessibility on many fronts, and that she is very intentional about both her language and how her routines are designed. While the videos don’t get “political,” she is very blunt about some issues, like the fact that most yoga postures were initially designed solely for people with penises, and that uteruses do change how your body can do certain poses. Also, she has alluded to some of the reasons that using sanskrit names for poses can be problematic. She did this as an explanation for why she uses the names she does, and managed to do so without condemning practitioners who choose differently. Overall, I believe she is dedicated to offering a better, more inclusive yoga experience, and does so by improving on the past without demonizing those before her.
After reading Stanley’s book and regularly practicing her videos, I’ve started doing something I’ve never done before – free-forming yoga! Sometimes I just get on my mat and start performing random stretches that feel good. Other times, I try to do sequences I’ve memorized. Before, I always followed someone else’s video. I definitely think that Stanley’s works have helped me to advance my home yoga practice, which is one of the stated goals of her book. Objective achieved!
If you practice yoga or are interested in learning more about it, I definitely recommend checking out Jessamyn Stanley. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some stretching to do.
*If you cringed when I used the word “fat” because you are used to the word being weaponized as an insult, I encourage you to read works by fat activists who have reclaimed the term. Twitter user Kivan Bay analyzes a lot of literature on the topic, and Electric Literature has some recommendations as well!
**Stanley makes excellent use of footnotes as both informative and entertaining asides. 100% recommend reading each one, though this is a place where I think the formatting in the physical copy is likely more fluid, though clicking between footnotes and chapters wasn’t as cumbersome as I expected.