‘Fat’ Durham Yoga Teacher Breaks Down Body Barriers

By Hannah Smoot
The Chapel Hill News (Chapel Hill, N.C.).


Pushing into a downward facing dog pose in the grass at Durham’s Rock Quarry Park, Jessamyn Stanley reminded her students to focus on their breathing.

Stanley, a larger-bodied black woman, knows she isn’t the typical face of yoga.

“In America, yoga is very, very white and is privileged, white women — skinny, white women — and that can be really inaccessible to a lot of people,” she said.

Stanley, 27, is not out to prove that larger people are able to practice yoga, she said. Instead she wants to show that yoga is good for everyone.

When her aunt dragged her to bikram yoga — a series of poses or asanas done in a room heated to 105 degrees — for the first time at 16, Stanley hated it.

“You’re sweating from places that you don’t even know you can sweat from,” she said.

Stanley said she made the worst mistake you can make in bikram yoga — leaving the room mid-class. Once you reenter, she said, the heat is overwhelming.

“I thought I was going to die,” she said. “Like my life was going to be over.”

Stanley didn’t want to ever try yoga again, but when she was in graduate school studying performance arts management, a classmate wore her down.

“I was lost in my graduate program,” Stanley said. “I wasn’t lost academically but emotionally lost. I was pursuing a goal that I had set when I was a teenager.”

She said that everything that had made yoga difficult the first time she tried it, made it perfect for her the second time.

She needed something hard in her life.

“It provides that stabilizing thing for people that are adrift, and most people are adrift,” Stanley said.

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