Jessamyn Stanley on The Healing Power of Self-Awareness and Acceptance

From the 'Make Noise' issue, Politics Editor Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin speaks with yoga sensation Jessamyn Stanley about caring for your inner child, embracing queerness and centring yourself in your practice.

PHOTOGRAPHY Jaylan Rhea

Every Body Yoga: Let Go of Fear, Get On the Mat, Love Your Body is more than just the title of Jessamyn Stanley’s debut 2017 book, it’s a mentality – a mentality that she injects into every aspect of her life, her work and her relationships. Practicing high energy vinyasa flow as a spiritual journey that brings daily balance and healing from mental and emotional barriers, Stanley refuses to simply exist on the intersection of multiple marginalised identity – Black, queer, fat. Rather, she experiences them consciously, channeling this awareness to drive towards a better world for all. 

Jessamyn Stanley dons many hats but she is not merely a yoga instructor, an advocate or an author – she is a revolutionary. Through her company, The Underbelly, Stanley provides a home for “wellness misfits” who may feel displaced, discouraged or overlooked in the mainstream health and fitness community. We Go High, a Cannabis Justice organisation that she co-founded, campaigns to de-stigmatise consumption and highlight the connection between cannabis and prison abolition. Practicing non-monogamy in her personal life, Stanley also provides fresh perspectives on relationships that exist outside of society’s norms and expectations via her cannabis-inspired podcast, Dear Jessamyn. It is through these acts of rebellion, whether personal or community-orientated, that the queer existence transforms society. It is through these intentional conversations and actions that we simultaneously care for one another, and resist and revolutionise the status quo. It is through a level of self-awareness that Stanley effortlessly navigates and converts into mindful acceptance of herself and others that we heal not only ourselves, but society as a whole. 

A moving picture through my laptop screen, Jessamyn Stanley still exudes stage presence; a settled, calm confidence with strong roots deep within that is somehow all the more powerful for it. She communicates via a stream of consciousness, yet every word is sincerely measured and intentional; it is the perfect balancing act. Pausing thoughtfully throughout the conversation, Stanley looks forward to practising continued gratitude, and takes a moment to properly acknowledge the profundity of being able to live outside the restrictive confines of cisgender heteronormative society – of being free. 

Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin: When did you first start practicing yoga? What led you to it in your life? 

Jessamyn Stanley: I was in a graduate programme that I didn’t feel any kind of connection to; I didn’t know who I was or what I was doing. I realise now that everybody who is 23 goes through something like this. So, anyway, one of my classmates suggested I went with her to Bikram yoga. I had actually tried yoga once when I was in high school and did not like it at all, but I ended up going just to get her off my back. In those first classes, I don’t remember ever seeing other Black people and I was definitely one of a few fat people, if not the only fat person there – it was a very alienating experience. 

The postures seemed impossible to me and I would get into these intense mental spaces of thinking: “Why are you here? Why are you even trying? Everybody else knows that you shouldn’t be here.” Eventually, I decided that I should just try; maybe I will fall down and maybe it’s going to be horribly embarrassing, but I could still just try. I didn’t realise how many parts of my life I wasn’t trying in. It was not something that was just happening on the yoga mat, it was something that really perfumed every single part of my life. If I felt like I wasn’t going to be the best at something, then I wouldn’t try at all.  

I didn’t get into yoga and immediately understand it as a spiritual practice. I didn’t get into yoga and immediately think, “oh my God I had no idea I was so flexible, I love yoga.” I just kept doing it because it made me feel good to step outside of my comfort zone. Not so much for that specific reason as much anymore, but the practice is medicine that I can take not just when I’m physically practising yoga postures but also when I am living the yoga of everyday life – when I need to experience balance in any moment that is challenging for me. Being able to come back to this practice of just letting myself exist as I am is something that has opened up a lot for me in my life. 

Being able to come back to this practice of just letting myself exist as I am is something that has opened up a lot for me in my life. 

P: I love that you explore the spirituality associated with yoga. What do you think practicing yoga can do for us in terms of healing from past trauma and caring for our inner children? 

J: I’m so glad that you phrased it that way because it really is about acknowledging that there is this being inside that has never gotten any bigger than when you were a child; and that even though this being is still small, it’s so tender and vulnerable, it’s going through hardship every single day. But also that everything that’s happening in life is happening for a reason and it’s okay for it to be hard. I think, for me, the practice of yoga allows everything to just be there; I don’t have to pretend that there are aspects of myself that don’t exist or that I have to hide. All of it can be there – the good, the bad, and especially the ugly – but that is all okay. If I can just sit in the space of acceptance without trying to fix it or to change it, just look at it head-on and accept it, it’s much more likely that I will be able to experience happiness. I think that is something that all human beings need; we are all desperately craving acceptance.  

I think a big reason why social media is so popular and why people are so self-obsessed comes down to them just seeking acceptance. They just want someone to say that they’re doing a good job, that they’re living their human life correctly, in the same way that a child wants to be able to go to their parents and ask, “did I do that right?”. I think that we’re all still hungry for that feeling. One of the many things that I’m grateful for is that the pandemic has really pulled back the curtain on the bullshit that we’ve all been shrouded in. I think that there’s been a collective ‘make believe’ where we have been pretending as though things were okay – things have never been okay; they have always been chaotic. Now, we’re living in this time where we can’t pretend that that’s not the case and I think that it has really opened the door for so much healing that we can do on both an individual and collective level – but it has to start on an individual level. I think that there are many different ways and routes for this healing, and, for me, yoga is the way. 

P: Acceptance is definitely an inherent human need. For me, connecting with, and embracing, my queerness and the queer community helped me to feel accepted and to overcome a number of difficulties. Have you felt that your queerness has impacted this healing process and your relationship with your body at all? 

J: I thank God every day that I’m queer. I believe that everyone is queer; everything is queer. That’s a part of the acceptance, honestly, accepting this massive grey area of identity; and for me to be able to just exist in that and being able to queer everything means that everything is up for grabs, nothing is stable – everything can be exactly as I am, which is totally unique. It can be free flowing and contradictory, and exist at the centre of so many different intersections. In cis het society, there is such an obsession with putting things in boxes and labelling them. I think that being able to say that there’s no such thing as good or bad and that everything is exactly as it needs to be is a comfort to my spirit. 

I almost forget sometimes what it was like before I understood this about myself. This is only really occurring to me now, but I’m just thinking about how acceptance of yourself leads to making space for other people to accept themselves – living in queerness and letting that shine forth makes space for other people to do the same. It just feels really profound to be able to live my life in this way because I know that it’s not the norm. I really forget that, you know? 

I think that spiritual practices are really important for everyone to have regardless of how you find out about them or where you live or who you are, but I think that mindfulness in your practice, and awareness, appreciation, and a respect of the heritage just goes a long way.

P: Yes, I deeply relate to that; thank you for sharing. Apart from this requirement for labels and boxes, something I also find infuriating is that both the spiritual practice and body positivity movements have been so appropriated by white Western individuals. I know that you engage with crystals and the burning of sage and other spiritual practices. What are your thoughts on the appropriation of these spiritual practices and the body acceptance movement? 

J: I think my overwhelming feeling is that this is the problem with over-identifying with movements, because I think that with any form of mainstream popularity there comes appropriation and co-opting. I find very little identification with the body positivity movement at this point. I don’t have any issue with it, but at one point it was an offshoot of fat acceptance that has now been diluted into messages like “fat cishet femmes deserve the same clothing as thin cishet femmes.” It’s just such an intense bastardisation that I don’t feel any connection to it. The last chapter of my next book (Yoke) is called Mama always said, never trust a white boy and I really feel that way about it – always be cautious of anything that the white man is trying to give you. It does suck to see so many people who have been a part of the body acceptance movement – body neutrality now – and building those communities be marginalised. I think that’s why we have to be thinking bigger than the movement and working bigger than words; it has to be something that’s more than just hashtags.  

As far as other spiritual practices go, this is the one that is particularly hard for me because I grew up in a relatively assimilated family. I did not learn about crystals, housing sacred practises or building altars from my mother or my grandmother, even though that is absolutely a part of our ancestral heritage – a lot of my knowledge of it has come through white voices. I think that there is a requirement, regardless of how you find out about something, to be aware of what it is that you’re doing and to know the history. Nobody else has that responsibility but you as an individual. I think that spiritual practices are really important for everyone to have regardless of how you find out about them or where you live or who you are, but I think that mindfulness in your practice, and awareness, appreciation, and a respect of the heritage just goes a long way. We live in a world that inherently does not value those beliefs – white supremacist capitalist society does not value heritage or respect; it just rapes, pillages and steals. So, I think that as spiritual practitioners of the 21st century stepping into the age of Aquarius, we have a responsibility to be aware of where our practices come from and the long lineage that we’re standing in. This kind of respect and awareness can course-correct where white supremacy steers us in the wrong direction. 

P: I’ve also recently seen some discussions around how the yogi networks are enabling the spread of racism and white supremacist ideology. How awful but unfortunately, unsurprising. Does the knowledge that the space that you see as one of healing and spiritual growth is potentially unsafe or hostile ever impact how you navigate it? 

J: Absolutely, it definitely impacts how I show up. It means that I am extremely conscious of where I spend my time, who I associate myself with and, honestly, long before the pandemic, before we were drawn into our homes, I was staunchly in favour of home practice, and a good portion of that pie chart is related to not trusting the community overall. I know the impact that the energy of other people has on your practice. Even when you think you are living apart, there’s still information trickling in and filtering in all the time. It’s wild to me the way that conspiracy theorists and racists are finding a home in the yoga world but, at the same time, it’s not surprising at all. I think it’s absolutely possible to insulate yourself from that by drawing entirely into your own practice and not seeking the approval of other people or institutions; by doing your own research and not aligning specifically to one person’s words or one community’s approach. If it’s not racism it’s ageism, if it’s not ageism it’s ableism – there’s always going to be something with human beings. I think that knowing that the teacher I’m looking for is inside of me, and that other people or communities can draw me to that teacher but that’s always the final destination, helps me navigate this increasingly complicated community. 

P: That’s beautiful. I think it’s also so great that you care and talk about the connections between cannabis consumption and prison abolition through your work with We Go High. Why is this matter so important to you? 

J: I’ve realised that, as a cannabis consumer, I have a personal responsibility to my community. If I allow fear of persecution and prosecution to run my life and to control the things that I say, I’m just directly contributing to this system. The current system of legalisation of cannabis is specifically set up to only benefit certain people – predominantly white wealthy men – and, at the exact same time, strengthens the private prison system. The private prison system is really getting to me because it is such an intense industry – there are whole towns that are built up around private persons – and that all of these things are existing at the same time. That is why We Go High was created, because we have to do something. There are so many cannabis consumers who feel like they can’t even talk about smoking weed, whether it’s out of fear of professional persecution or being judged by friends and family. I wanted to make space for people to live their truth and, through living their truth, empower other people so that we can all be free together. I think that it’s ultimately about accepting personal responsibility for how things are and deciding to make a better world. 

P: Why do you think that there is still a lack of awareness around the racist roots of cannabis criminalisation and what can be done to combat this? 

J: I think the way that we combat it is by talking about it. In the same way that the police were literally created to corral black people, cannabis prohibition exists to uphold these systems. I don’t think that there’s any desire, certainly not on a global level, and especially not in the United States, even on a federal level, to do anything about de-stigmatisation. It’s all about control and wanting to keep certain people in power – it’s all about upholding white supremacy. That’s why people don’t know about it. I think that it’s been a very successful decades-long propaganda campaign, and it’s so fascinating how that campaign has worked, too, because after a few decades you really don’t even have to do anything, people will just tell each other the lies. A huge part of We Go High is debunking – we debunk the myths about cannabis. It’s so insidious; we’re all passing incorrect information to each other about something that is a medicine, that is literally meant to heal people. That is a big boulder to push up the hill, but if we all push it together it’s not quite so heavy. It’s a very intentional and impeccable propaganda campaign, but the end has come and we just have to do all that we can to reverse the stigma.  

I think that knowing that the teacher I’m looking for is inside of me, and that other people or communities can draw me to that teacher but that’s always the final destination, helps me navigate this increasingly complicated community. 

P: For sure, I hear you. I know that you also co-host a podcast, Dear Jessamyn, that’s cannabis-inspired. What do you think is the relationship between cannabis and sex and relationships – both for you personally and more generally? 

J: The reason we call it a podcast about relationships is because I feel like my partners are the most important yoga teachers in my life. They are constantly reflecting me to myself, they are always making me question the boxes that I created, and they force me to see and experience the balance that comes from accepting other people exactly as they are. To me, this process is really what it is like to be in a relationship. It’s not about having someone who’s going to love you unconditionally, it’s about accepting somebody else exactly as they are. It’s about knowing that they’re problematic because I’m problematic, because people are problematic – and that whole understanding is so much easier if your endocannabinoid system is properly satisfied. 

I have two partners and we basically live together; I don’t think that I would still be with them without cannabis. If you’re in a relationship with someone for any sizable period of time, you bump up against issues where there’s no compromise, and that’s okay. You just get to a place where you know where the line is and, to me, it is a lot easier to come from a place of acceptance and manage those realities with cannabis – it greases the hinges in a really beautiful way. I definitely think that you can have that connection with other people without cannabis, but I don’t think that we can ignore that every human being has an endocannabinoid system, and if you are not taking care of that system, if you’re not moderating your levels, then it’s likely that you will behave in ways that are not in the best interest of maintaining complicated interpersonal relationships – so, for me, it’s very beneficial. 

P: What’s something that you’re looking forward to in the future and why? Either in your personal life or in the wider world? 

J: Every single day feels like a gift at this point. I have a lot of professional projects on the go and there are many different things that my wellness community, The Underbelly, is working on that I’m very excited about. I am excited about what’s to come on the horizon but, at the same time, I know that everything is always changing, life is always evolving, so all that I can count on is what’s happening in the present moment. I appreciate being able to see the people that I love and tell them that I love them when I can, and being at a stage in my life where I can be more honest with myself and with other people than I’ve ever been. I feel a lot of gratitude for that and I’m just looking forward to continuing to practise that gratitude – even when it really feels like there’s nothing to be thankful for, there’s always something to be thankful for. Everything in life is cyclical; if I can shine a light for someone who is having difficulty feeling the light then it’s creating space for them to feel that light – that goes both ways. I’m just sitting with the knowledge that we’re living in this push-pull together and everything is exactly where it needs to be, especially when it doesn’t seem like it. 

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