"My first yoga experience was hell on earth," Jessamyn Stanley writes in her new book Every Body Yoga. “HELL. ON. EARTH.”
After barely surviving a 90-minute Bikram yoga class (a regimented type of yoga practiced in a room heated to 105°F) she attended with her aunt, 16-year-old Stanley knew "yoga obviously wasn’t for me."
Fast-forward 13 years, and Stanley is one of the most sought-after yoga instructors in the country: She has a dedicated Instagram following of over 316,000 users, is one of the fitness app Cody's most popular instructors, and packs venue after venue as she travels the country speaking about her brand of self-acceptance.
What makes Stanley so popular? For starters, she doesn't look like your "typical" yoga instructor in that she’s not a size 2. But it's Stanley's bold, brash, tell-it-like-it-is style that truly sets her apart from the pack. Proudly stamped on the cover of her book is the mantra: "Let go of fear. Get on the mat. Love your body."
You don’t need any particular thing in order to do yoga, Stanley says. You don’t need the "right" body or the "right" equipment or the "right" instructor—or any instructor at all. You just need yourself, a mat, and the desire to begin. Follow these eights tips from Stanley to grow a yoga practice of your own.
1. START AT HOME.
Stanley's journey from Bikram-phobe to yoga crusader began in a surprising place: her home. Years after that traumatizing first class, Stanley tried another Bikram class (at a friend's urging)—and this time she was inspired to explore it further. Unable to afford regular attendance at the expensive classes, Stanley began to string together the yoga postures (or asanas) she had learned previously in her apartment. “I just took the eight to 10 poses from the Bikram sequence that I really, really liked and felt comfortable with, then I practiced them at home,” Stanley tells Mental Floss.
"I think that the class experience is something that Westerners have come to think is the best way to learn because that's the way that it was easiest to teach large groups of people," Stanley says. "But the practice is a solitary practice and I think that it's really important to build a home practice of some consistency. Otherwise you're just going off the basis of what another person does, you're not actually exploring yourself. And I think that for someone who maybe feels intimidated by the practice, your first class experience might not be a good experience. So it might take just one experience to make you not want to do it again."
2. FIND A COMMUNITY.
Eager to learn more and different styles of yoga, Stanley turned to Instagram and Tumblr for inspiration. "This was back when Instagram first came out and it was definitely a lot less popular than it is now," Stanley says. "There was only like one yoga challenge and it was all about just creating community, making a space where we can talk about alignment and talk about the things that you don't have the opportunities to talk about when you’re practicing at home."
Wanting to feel a part of that bigger community, Stanley began taking pictures of herself in different poses and posting them to Instagram. And this is when she began to realize the impact she could make. "I was taking the photos and I noticed over time that the responses that I was getting from people weren't really alignment tips; it was predominantly people being like, 'I didn’t know fat people could do yoga,'" she says. “[Posting] turned into: I can log my progress, I can check my alignment, and also people can see that this thing that they think doesn’t exist exists."
3. USE PROPS.
As Stanley herself can attest to, when you first start practicing yoga, it's hard. Asking your body to move in new ways is uncomfortable (to put it mildly), and comparing yourself to more seasoned practitioners can be frustrating. But here’s a secret: You can use props to help you. Even the most advanced yogis do it. Yoga blocks, straps, and blankets help add support and cushion when you need it—and you should absolutely use them. "It's not a sign of weakness," Stanley says.
"I totally get that you think that you want to be like the baddest bitch that doesn't need to use a prop to have the deepest triangle pose, or that you want to work on your variations and you don't want to use a strap," Stanley says. "But the reality of the situation is that literally your arms are not going to grow [so that you can reach]. You're not going to magically become [more flexible]. We become more flexible as time goes on."
So grab a block, and check your ego. Stanley says to ask yourself, "Which part of this is 'I don’t need a prop,' and which part of this is my ego? So much of it is the ego, and the ego is what we’re trying to walk away from with yoga."
4. MAKE IT WORK.
Can't afford a block or strap? Make your own. "My props in the beginning were VHS tapes that I duct taped together and boxes that I duct taped together and I used a dog leash as a yoga strap," Stanley says. "You just figure out what is going to make the most sense for you and DIY it."
Yoga—and achieving a “yoga body”—is a big business. But the practice isn’t just about burning fat, slimming down, and toning up. “[The 'yoga industry'] doesn't care if you’re happy, they don’t care if you are actually enjoying the experience, all they want is for you to feel like you’re getting a burn, like you’re getting sweat,” Stanley says. But they’re missing a key component.
"The whole point is to breathe," Stanley says. "There is no other purpose. There is no other thing. So even if you just sit and breathe, that could be the most intense yoga that you ever experience."
Whether you’re in class or at home, there’s bound to be a moment where you're asked to try a new pose and you just want to laugh. It seems ridiculous and impossible that you could get your leg over there or your arm up there or balance in that way. Now what?
"The first thing you need to release is your obsession with whatever it is that you think you should be doing, because it's just not happening right now," Stanley says. "So you can’t worry about it, and you can’t enjoy the experience if you’re obsessing over how you’re not doing it."
So take a beat, breathe, and check back in with your body. "And then after you start assessing that, then you’re like, 'OK, cool.' So now that we’re good on this, why don’t you bend your knees a little bit more, because then you can shift your hips up more and then you can be a little bit more flexible." Making modifications—like bending your knees or grabbing a prop—is always an option.
7. STRENGTHEN YOUR MIND.
OK so, you've bent your knees in downward dog and it still feels like your arms are going to crumple beneath you. What now? "That's the moment that you need to dig in, because that's why you’re here: To get over that feeling," Stanley says. Otherwise, "you spend the whole time just thinking like, 'How can I get out of this?'"
Instead of obsessing, Stanley tells us, you could just stay in the pose. "That's when your mind goes blank and that's when you can be there for minutes. So just dig in to that feeling. Allow yourself to have it and then see what happens next."
And if your arms do crumple (they might, it’s OK!), take a few breaths and try again.
8. LET GO OF YOUR FEAR.
A few weeks before our interview, Stanley tells us, she was filming a video for Cody in which she approached people on the street and asked them to practice yoga. "We had so many interesting reactions," Stanley says, "but the number one thing that I heard from the people who didn’t want to [participate] was, 'I don't want to look stupid.'"
"It was so amazing to me to hear that because I was like, 'We are so afraid of each other.' Like everyone is afraid of the person next to them. The person next to you is afraid of you,” Stanley says. Even in a class full of yogis or at home alone, doing a pose like lion’s breath or happy baby can feel embarrassing. “So you have to assess that reaction and you have to really say, 'Why am I embarrassed? What is going to happen if someone sees me do something that they’re not expecting to see me doing? What is the absolute worse thing that could happen?'"
They could laugh, or you could laugh—but would laughing together really be so bad?
"I'm not saying this like it's easy," Stanley says. "It's definitely some of the hardest work that we do, working to release the boundaries that are placed upon us. But in order to really enjoy your practice, you have to get over thinking about what other people think of you."