Jessamyn Stanley guides body positive yoga and conversation at Amherst College

By Emily Johnson

(Daily Collegian Archives)
(Daily Collegian Archives)

When most people attend a yoga class and attempt a pose, they look at the teacher or the person next to them and ask themselves, “Do I look like them?” But in yoga teacher and body positivity advocate Jessamyn Stanley’s teachings, students practice the poses in the shapes right for their own bodies, shifting the question to “How do I feel?”

Stanley, who has reached fame for fighting the skinny yoga stereotype, taught a one-hour yoga session and facilitated a community conversation, both hosted by Amherst College’s Women’s and Gender Center.

55 people attended the yoga class at Amherst College’s Power House, where Stanley guided students and faculty from the Five College Consortium. She led many traditional poses like chair pose and warrior pose, but was unique in her facilitation.

“Yoga is an experience that is very personal, very individual, only linking to your breath,” Stanley says. She emphasized how participants must do what feels best for their own bodies and often acknowledged the beauty in the different shapes of everyone’s poses.

After the yoga session, Stanley opened up the discussion with the question, “How do you define body positivity?” Participants drew upon their own personal experiences, and Stanley referenced participants’ collective sentiments of shame, anxiety and struggle that are linked to their bodies. “Yoga can teach you a lot more than just your body,” she said.

A few years ago when a friend suggested to Stanley, who was depressed at the time, that she try yoga, she complained that she did not enjoy her one past yoga experience. Stanley attended the class and couldn’t do any of the poses, but she ended up enjoying the challenge. She continued yoga, became more confident and left her University of North Carolina graduate school program. She has since been teaching yoga for two years.

Stanley made it clear that body positivity is “always an ongoing story.” Her feelings of body shame have not completely dissipated, but yoga has helped shape her story. In the first phase of her yoga journey, Stanley said she kept telling herself, “I feel so good.” This thought became, “Why do I feel so good?” At this point, she was looking within herself, after spending her whole life looking outward for answers. This questioning eventually turned into, “What does this mean in a larger sense?” The practices in yoga – feeling strong and standing tall – have been brought into her regular day-to-day life, both mentally and physically.

“It’s really amazing to have her come here and teach body positivity within a campus culture. There is an implication with yoga that you have to look a certain way, not only with a certain body type, but racially, ethnically, and religiously,” said Irisdelia Garcia, an Amherst College junior studying English and digital humanities.

Abby Kahler, a senior nursing student at the University of Massachusetts, is new to yoga and said, “It was just nice. Moving forward in my yoga, I will take this with me.”

Jesse Beal, the WGC director, said that there were students from each of the Five Colleges at the session and community conversation. The WGC’s “Body Talk” program will consist of four to six programs throughout the year, including a “Talk Back Series” event called “Witches in Halloween” on Oct. 14. In Stanley’s hopes for a “body positive world,” she says, “talking to each other is the most important thing that we can do in this universe.”

Emily Johnson can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @emilyannejo.