5 Questions with Durham Yogi Jessamyn Stanley

5 Questions with Durham Yogi Jessamyn Stanley

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Durham-based yogi Jessamyn Stanley – who was featured in our 2016 Women’s Issue – launches her debut book “Every Body Yoga: Let Go of Fear, Get on the Mat, Love Your Body” at Motorco Music Hall Tuesday, April 4. So, we caught up with her while she was in Seattle (she is an internationally celebrated yoga instructor who’s always on the go) to ask her about social media, her new book and why she’s pumped to start her book tour here in Durham.

I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me, since it’s so early on the West Coast! But, based on your Instagram, you’re an early riser anyway, right? Do you always practice in the mornings?

“For the past month-ish, I’ve been doing that because I was fasting for a big part of March and trying to practice before the sun came up. So I was like really on it, but usually I’m not that strict about it … as much as I am a yoga teacher and yoga practitioner, I’m also the owner of my own business, so I totally get it when people are like, ‘I don’t have time to practice yoga.’  I’m like, ‘You probably do, but I totally get why you think that you don’t.’ You have to just slip it in whenever you can, and I end up practicing a lot in the evenings, and because I don’t have children or anyone whose going to have an issue with it, I practice in the late evening, around 8 p.m.

“I used to be so paranoid that I was going to stop practicing, because I’ve always been the kind of person that it’s very hard for me to just [stick with something]. On the surface, the fact that I was able to maintain a yoga practice over so many years at this point is wild, because I was never able to do that before with anything else. And in the beginning, that’s why I was so obsessive about practicing every single day because it’s like, ‘I don’t want to stop doing this.’ I can totally see how, especially people who have been doing something for upwards of like, 40, 30 years, you know, all these years, and you’ve singled out the time that you can do it, that’s the time that you do it.”

When we spoke to you for our Women’s Issue almost a year ago now, you had about 167,000 followers on Instagram – now you’re closing in on almost 300K. To what do you attribute your success on social media?

“Carefully curated photos … paying attention to analytics … no, I mean, I feel like this always happens – people are like, ‘Wow this thing that is totally different than what everyone else is doing is popular. How is this gaining so much steam?’ And I feel like, because everybody is exhausted on all this other stuff, this ‘thinspiration’ and the obsessive leaning toward one specific body type – everybody’s over that, and I feel like I’m just kind of symbolizing the ‘I’m over that’ mentality. I want to be happy today, I want to enjoy by body, enjoy my space, enjoy my time, I want to be happy and explore what that is as opposed to trying to look beautiful for a cisgendered, heterosexual man. I think that people are honestly less into me, and more trying to realize new aspects of themselves.

“And that really does speak to how our society is moving: there is a lot of entrepreneurship in the most general sense – everyone is trying to figure out something for them across many different disciplines. It makes a lot of sense to me that this would become really popular right now, but at the same time, it’s all in the context. I don’t think about social media followship, and so I know the number is going up, but I just feel so detached from that at this point. It’s so small, as a way to count the way we are spending time on this planet, that could be gone tomorrow, and everyone is so simple(?) and it’s just based on what’s making someone feel good right now. I obviously don’t put that much stock in it, but I am glad to see more people really looking within themselves, because that’s the problem: There’s just not enough people thinking, ‘What do I think?’ as opposed to ‘What do other people think?’”

I’m curious what made you decide to write a book – you’re so spectacular at social media, and that’s become the way that so many people today digest information. Obviously I’m a lover of print media, but to some, writing a book might seem antiquated.

“It’s been a lifelong goal of mine to write a book. The main reason I wanted to write this book wasn’t like, ‘Oh my God, I should write a book,’ it was like, ‘No, I need to write this book,’ because I constantly get asked by people all the time – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, email, Tumblr –questions like, ‘Jessamyn, I see that you started practicing yoga, and you make it look so great, and just how did you do it, how do I do it, can you tell me?’ I remember thinking, ‘how could you possibly expect for me to give you all the information you need to get – in an Instagram comment?’ Or, another question – why did you ask me, why didn’t you just Google that question? But then when I would Google this, the information was so confusing, I would be like, ‘I don’t even know what this is, and I know what it is.’ It’s very confusing for a non-practitioner, so the book was just me wanting to simply answer the question, ‘Hey, Jessamyn, how do I start practicing yoga today?’ and ‘How does a 21st century practitioner practice?’ So in trying to answer that question, in determining what information needed to be said, I realized that I really could not tell the story without really explaining my life and why I started practicing yoga. A lot of the times when people ask me, ‘How did you start practicing yoga?’ they’re asking, ‘What materials should I buy, what mat should I get, what classes should I take?’ They’re not asking, ‘What is it that makes you keep coming back to the mat?’ Anyone can stop doing an exercise program – the reason that you keep coming back [to yoga] is because it’s a transformational experience to live within yourself. And then it’s like, ‘Why do you need to do that?’ The experiences that have happened to me have happened to basically everyone, to some degree – something in these stories is going to catch for you. The thing about really making a connection with someone so that they cement a yoga practice is that you have to be really honest and authentic as to who you are, as a teacher, and so for me it was like, a book is a way that I can have it just written down – if anyone ever asks me a question again, I can just be like, ‘Here’s this book, this is the answer to all the questions you have, this is a starting place.’

“There’s more resources in it, and I have another book coming after this that’s like, ‘We’ve answered these questions; now, where do we go from here?’ But, you know, the modern yoga practice is very different from any other king of yoga that has existed up to this point, and it’s really important for us to start logging these stories and creating our canon.”

What was the journey like for you to write this book – to put all your thoughts and personal struggles and victories onto paper and share with the rest of the world – and what lessons did you learn from the process.

“The process is very long; I knew it was going to be long, but from the time that I signed with my literary agent to the time that the book has come out, that’s a two-and-a-half year period. The actual process of writing it was a fairly smooth process, over a few months … I didn’t find it to be that daunting of a task overall, but I do think that it takes a lot of energy, it takes a lot of persistence, and it takes a lot of sticking to your guns.

“I have a very open and willing publisher that has been extremely supportive through the entire process, but I definitely think it’s an interesting experience to be writing a book that is so very much about an American experience that isn’t really logged, like the young black queer, that experience is not really shown, and so it’s wild to be with a very traditional New York publishing house [Workman Publishing] with that kind of book. For me it’s been amazing to hear another [side], you know, because I’ve really stayed in a bubble; I don’t spend a lot of time with people who are not like me, so it was very helpful for me to have a publisher that was really giving me the feedback that I needed. I think that makes it more well-rounded. It would be very different if [the book] was just, ‘Yeah, I’m black and I’m queer and I grew up in the South, and I have these issues and this …” because then it would be, every body yoga for black queer folks. The point is that it is every body yoga for all people, and so that evolution was probably the most interesting for me.

You’ll kick off your book tour at Motorco April 4, the same day “Every Body Yoga” goes on sale. What does it mean to you to start this tour in your hometown? What has you super jazzed about the event?

“It means so much to me, oh my God, there’s not way to verbalize it, because I might even cry. I moved to Durham just as I started practicing yoga, and while I was in a really sketchy part of my life. I was confused, I dropped out of grad school, and I did not know anyone in Durham, it was just that my then-girlfriend had just moved here. I didn’t even have a place to live at first, and I didn’t have a job. It was very much, ‘I’m in my mid-twenties, I’m having a crisis, and I just need to try to figure myself out, and this town sustained me and it saved me and I made community here and I fell in love with all these different parts. It sucks to be a part of the gentrification, but also just is what it is and I can’t do anything about that, but I’m just so grateful for so much that this city has done. I feel like it is extremely symbolic, to me, for it to start out in the heart of where everything started, and where my heart still is. The strange thing is I’m proudly from Greensboro, I’m not a Durham native, but I love Durham, and it is my home.”

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Amanda MacLaren
Amanda MacLaren is the executive editor of Durham Magazine. Born in Mesa, Ariz., she grew up in Charlotte and attended UNC-Chapel Hill, majoring in journalism. She’s lived in Durham for five years now. When she’s not at work, you can usually find her with a beer in hand at Fullsteam, Dain’s Place or Bull City Burger or getting takeout from Chubby’s.