Jessamyn Stanley’s 8 Commandments for Cultivating a Yoga Practice (at Any Size)

Christine Hewitt
Christine Hewitt

"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."

Cover of Jessamyn Stanley's 'Every Body Yoga'
Workman Publishing

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.

A page from Jessamyn Stanley's book "Every Body Yoga"
Excerpted from 'Every Body Yoga' by Jessamyn Stanley (Workman Publishing). Copyright © 2017.

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."

5. BREATHE.

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."

6. MODIFY.

Yoga instructor Jessamyn Stanley in a standing pose
Christine Hewitt

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.

Yoga instructor Jessamyn Stanley in a triangle pose
Christine Hewitt

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."

The ChopBox Smart Cutting Board Has a Food Scale, Timer, and Knife Sharper Built Right Into It

ChopBox
ChopBox

When it comes to furnishing your kitchen with all of the appliances necessary to cook night in and night out, you’ll probably find yourself running out of counter space in a hurry. The ChopBox, which is available on Indiegogo and dubs itself “The World’s First Smart Cutting Board,” looks to fix that by cramming a bunch of kitchen necessities right into one cutting board.

In addition to giving you a knife-resistant bamboo surface to slice and dice on, the ChopBox features a built-in digital scale that weighs up to 6.6 pounds of food, a nine-hour kitchen timer, and two knife sharpeners. It also sports a groove on its surface to catch any liquid runoff that may be produced by the food and has a second pull-out cutting board that doubles as a serving tray.

There’s a 254nm UVC light featured on the board, which the company says “is guaranteed to kill 99.99% of germs and bacteria" after a minute of exposure. If you’re more of a traditionalist when it comes to cleanliness, the ChopBox is completely waterproof (but not dishwasher-safe) so you can wash and scrub to your heart’s content without worry. 

According to the company, a single one-hour charge will give you 30 days of battery life, and can be recharged through a Micro USB port.

The ChopBox reached its $10,000 crowdfunding goal just 10 minutes after launching its campaign, but you can still contribute at different tiers. Once it’s officially released, the ChopBox will retail for $200, but you can get one for $100 if you pledge now. You can purchase the ChopBox on Indiegogo here.

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7 Pieces of Reading Advice From History’s Greatest Minds

When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
Lucien Aigner/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If there’s one thing that unites philosophers, writers, politicians, and scientists across time and distance, it’s the belief that reading can broaden your worldview and strengthen your intellect better than just about any other activity. When it comes to choosing what to read and how to go about it, however, opinions start to diverge. From Virginia Woolf’s affinity for wandering secondhand bookstores to Theodore Roosevelt’s rejection of a definitive “best books” list, here are seven pieces of reading advice to help you build an impressive to-be-read (TBR) pile.

1. Read books from eras past // Albert Einstein

albert einstein at home circa 1925
Albert Einstein poses at home in 1925 with a mix of old and new books.
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Keeping up with current events and the latest buzz-worthy book from the bestseller list is no small feat, but Albert Einstein thought it was vital to leave some room for older works, too. Otherwise, you’d be “completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of [your] times,” he wrote in a 1952 journal article [PDF].

“Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses,” he wrote.

2. Don’t jump too quickly from book to book // Seneca

seneca the younger
Seneca the Younger, ready to turn that unwavering gaze on a new book.
The Print Collector via Getty Images

Seneca the Younger, a first-century Roman Stoic philosopher and trusted advisor of Emperor Nero, believed that reading too wide a variety in too short a time would keep the teachings from leaving a lasting impression on you. “You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind,” he wrote in a letter to Roman writer Lucilius.

If you’re wishing there were a good metaphor to illustrate this concept, take your pick from these gems, courtesy of Seneca himself:

“Food does no good and is not assimilated into the body if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine; no wound will heal when one salve is tried after another; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong. There is nothing so efficacious that it can be helpful while it is being shifted about. And in reading of many books is distraction.”

3. Shop at secondhand bookstores // Virginia Woolf

virginia woolf
Virginia Woolf wishing she were in a bookstore.
Culture Club/Getty Images

In her essay “Street Haunting,” Virginia Woolf described the merits of shopping in secondhand bookstores, where the works “have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

According to Woolf, browsing through used books gives you the chance to stumble upon something that wouldn’t have risen to the attention of librarians and booksellers, who are often much more selective in curating their collections than secondhand bookstore owners. To give us an example, she imagined coming across the shabby, self-published account of “a man who set out on horseback over a hundred years ago to explore the woollen market in the Midlands and Wales; an unknown traveller, who stayed at inns, drank his pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly, laboriously for sheer love of it.”

“In this random miscellaneous company,” she wrote, “we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.”

4. You can skip outdated scientific works, but not old literature // Edward Bulwer-Lytton

edward bulwer-lytton
An 1831 portrait of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, smug at the thought of people reading his novels for centuries to come.
The Print Collector/Getty Images

Though his novels were immensely popular during his lifetime, 19th-century British novelist and Parliamentarian Edward Bulwer-Lytton is now mainly known for coining the phrase It was a dark and stormy night, the opening line of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. It’s a little ironic that Bulwer-Lytton’s books aren’t very widely read today, because he himself was a firm believer in the value of reading old literature.

“In science, read, by preference, the newest works; in literature, the oldest,” he wrote in his 1863 essay collection, Caxtoniana. “The classic literature is always modern. New books revive and redecorate old ideas; old books suggest and invigorate new ideas.”

To Bulwer-Lytton, fiction couldn't ever be obsolete, because it contained timeless themes about human nature and society that came back around in contemporary works; in other words, you can’t disprove fiction. You can, however, disprove scientific theories, so Bulwer-Lytton thought it best to stick to the latest works in that field. (That said, since scientists use previous studies to inform their work, you can still learn a ton about certain schools of thought by delving into debunked ideas—plus, it’s often really entertaining to see what people used to believe.) 

5. Check out authors’ reading lists for book recommendations // Mortimer J. Adler

mortimer j. adler in 1983
Mortimer J. Adler in 1983, happy to read the favorite works of his favorite authors.
George Rose/Getty Images

In his 1940 guide How to Read a Book, American philosopher Mortimer J. Adler talked about the importance of choosing books that other authors consider worth reading. “The great authors were great readers,” he explained, “and one way to understand them is to read the books they read.”

Adler went on to clarify that this would probably matter most in the philosophy field, “because philosophers are great readers of each other,” and it’s easier to grasp a concept if you also know what inspired it. While you don’t necessarily have to read everything a novelist has read in order to fully understand their own work, it’s still a good way to get quality book recommendations from a trusted source. If your favorite author mentions a certain novel that really made an impression on them, there’s a pretty good chance you’d enjoy it, too.

6. Reading so-called guilty pleasures is better than reading nothing // Mary Wollstonecraft

mary wollstonecraft in 1797
Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, apparently demonstrating that a book with blank pages is worth even less than a novel.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

To the 18th-century writer, philosopher, and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, just about all novels fell into the category of “guilty pleasures” (though she didn’t call them that). In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she disparaged the “stupid novelists, who, knowing little of human nature, work up stale tales, and describe meretricious scenes, all retailed in a sentimental jargon, which equally tend to corrupt the taste and draw the heart aside from its daily duties.”

If her judgment seems unnecessarily harsh, it’s probably because it’s taken out of its historical context. Wollstonecraft definitely wasn’t the only one who considered novels to be low-quality reading material compared to works of history and philosophy, and she was also indirectly criticizing society for preventing women from seeking more intellectual pursuits. If 21st-century women were confined to watching unrealistic, highly edited dating shows and frowned upon for trying to see 2019’s Parasite or the latest Ken Burns documentary, we might sound a little bitter, too.

Regardless, Wollstonecraft still admitted that even guilty pleasures can help expand your worldview. “Any kind of reading I think better than leaving a blank still a blank, because the mind must receive a degree of enlargement, and obtain a little strength by a slight exertion of its thinking powers,” she wrote. In other words, go forth and enjoy your beach read.

7. You get to make the final decision on how, what, and when to read // Theodore Roosevelt

theodore roosevelt in office in 1905
Theodore Roosevelt pauses for a quick photo before getting back to his book in 1905.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Theodore Roosevelt might have lived his own life in an exceptionally regimented fashion, but his outlook on reading was surprisingly free-spirited. Apart from being a staunch proponent of finding at least a few minutes to read every single day—and starting young—he thought that most of the details should be left up to the individual.

“The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be,” he wrote in his autobiography, and rejected the idea that there’s a definitive “best books” list that everyone should abide by. Instead, Roosevelt recommended choosing books on subjects that interest you and letting your mood guide you to your next great read. He also wasn’t one to roll his eyes at a happy ending, explaining that “there are enough horror and grimness and sordid squalor in real life with which an active man has to grapple.”

In short, Roosevelt would probably advise you to see what Seneca, Albert Einstein, Mary Wollstonecraft, and other great minds had to say about reading, and then make your own decisions in the end.