by Hannah Bressler
Jessamyn and Dana have become widely known on Instagram as frontrunners in the movement for the celebration of larger bodies (also known as fat acceptance, body positivity, taboo yoga bodies, etc) and in yoga culture in particular, they are making waves. Currently they are on tour, teaching workshops across the United States. I interviewed them and recorded part of their class when they came through Portland to teach a weekend workshop on inversions and arm balances.
Jessamyn: We’re gonna swear a lot. It’s just us. If this language offends ya’ll, I’m sorry. We’re gonna keep doing it.
Student: A long time ago, like 1980, I was practicing Iyengar a lot. I was practicing like 6 or 7 days a week. Then I stopped practicing yoga for a while when I had kids. My youngest is 17 now. I haven’t really been in a class since then, except the past two weeks. And I felt totally lost. I even cried because I don’t have the same body anymore, it’s hard to feel that.
Jessamyn: Oh my gosh, thanks so much for sharing that. We do change.
Jessamyn: I was recently on a panel of yoga practitioners, who are in all different points of our practice, all different philosophies and backgrounds. It’s so easy for the yoga-narrative to come from just one of those perspectives, for there to be just one way to do yoga. I think it’s critically important to see yoga as something you utilize it when you need it. It changes at different points in your life. It’s important to stay open to that and open to showing up for whatever happens in your practice.
I also think it’s very short sighted to think we should all have the same goals all the time, same as everybody else, for our whole lives.
Yoga is not about breaking a sweat or doing the same old asanas again and again. That’s a very short sighted way to see your life. Anyone who comes to yoga, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been gone, it’s how you’re with it right now.
Dana: It really doesn’t matter what you’ve done before, as much as it matters how that translates into what you are practicing in this moment.
Jessamyn: And there is so much pressure to continuously practice, to have the same practice all the time, every day. Or to always keep the same schedule, [as if that’s the only kind of discipline.] People always ask me “How often should I practice? What type of yoga should I practice?” I dunno. You should just do whatever you want to do.
Dana: There are weeks where I stay a lot in my asana practice, and I’m just getting full in that, and there are weeks where I’ll just do pigeon a little bit every day or other shit. In terms of my asana practice, that’s just not where the focus is. It’s a focus on the process, not the postures.
Jessamyn: It ties into the bigger conversation of what’s the point of practicing asana? Is it so you will someday be able to practice the deepest variation of that pose? Or is it so you will be able to get whatever you need from that pose in that moment as you practice it? Like Warrior I, that is some real shit. How often are you not a warrior in your own life? How often do you let shit beat you down? That’s when you need to practice the warrior postures, that’s when they start helping you.
Dana: I had this habit [when I started] to practice, going through the motions, but telling myself it was never gonna happen. Like with Crow Pose, [a crouched, hand balance pose] face planting over and over again. Trying to practice but telling myself I can’t do it. Then when it happened, I was like “What the fuck just happened?”
I would show up every day just to prove myself wrong, maybe I could actually do it. I was starting to approach these limits that I always assumed were because of my body, but I kept proving myself wrong [with those limits.] This is why I’m obsessed with yoga. I’m literally showing up to prove myself wrong.
And if I show up everyday, one day it happens. And when you start to approach those limits, those moments where “it” happens, you realize those limits were in your head and not in your body. It’s a huge transition. I started looking around my mind to see what else was just a mental limit I had been telling myself for all these years.
Jessamyn: When I started taking yoga classes it was.. very very hard. Just the pranayama [breathing exercises to clean the lungs and expand oxygen capacity] was so difficult. For those of you not familiar with pranayama, it involves some deep breathing that, as you practice it over a long period of time, goes deeper and longer. I thought “How am I going to be able to hold it that long?” But even that, I remind myself, I DID survive it. Even though my yoga poses did not look like my teacher’s in the beginning.--That took a lot of time for me to learn, that no one says to modify it, but sometimes you need to.
It’s really about stepping out of what you think it needs to be and letting it be what you need it to be today. If that’s what it looks like today, than that’s what you need today. It doesn’t matter what it looks like… I try to encourage people to look beyond what you think you need to do today [on your mat] or what you think your body can do [within your mental limits]... It’s very easy as a larger bodied person to [write yourself off]. And we’re all walking around with all kinds of baggage, old injuries, or areas that don’t work like the used to. So each time you come to the mat it’s like a whole new body to get to know.
You can come to your mat and say “This is the first time. It might be the last time for me. I’m gonna stay present here.”
Hannah: You both seem very advanced in the practice. Have you been practicing a long time?
Dana: A little under two years.
Jessamyn: I’ve been practicing about 5 or 6 years. My practice is very different than when I first started though. When I first started practicing, I did a month at Bikram where I went every day. [A lot of yoga studios have low introductory prices for the first month.]But after that I couldn’t afford to go, so I started doing a work-study so I could practice 4 or 5 times a week, and for free.
I was practicing a lot then, and it gave me a lot of confidence to leave graduate school, which was making me so miserable.
Hannah: What were you studying?
Jessamyn: Non-profit arts management, which I still love, and have all kinds of feelings about, but I’ve come to a point that a lot of other people of our generation have come to; you have educational goals that are built from a young age, but when you come into adulthood you’re like “What the hell is this? This is not who I am, not what I am.” So you can give yourself permission to leave it.
Hannah: Have either of you done big social media campaigns before? You guys are really well known, a lot of people, not even yoga people, know about you two.
Jessamyn: I come from a non-profit, arts and media background, so I knew about publicity. I definitely have come up in the internet age, where I had multiple blogs before I had the blog that I have now. I had experience with understanding the ways people communicate with each other. It’s not about being on Instagram showing something like “Wow, this is so amazing.” it’s actually about making a connection with people by showing up online. And I was never thinking of that when I first started. I just thought “I want to get stronger and see how my body is changing.”
So many things in yoga felt impossible[When I first started]. I just kept after it because the one thing that yoga gave me that nothing else gave me that way was confidence, and it didn’t matter that I couldn’t do it all the way, it stayed with me.
In my personal practice now, it’s really not about asanas for me.
There’s just so much narcissism and showmanship in this yoga community. I’m like, policing myself on the issue.
[Showing yoga postures online] is the double edge sword of doing this. You obviously want people to have that [impressed] feeling, otherwise they may not come to your workshop, but at the same time, it’s not about that movement, because ultimately you have to completely get rid of that movement.
Interruption from other student: Hey Jessamyn, when it [the arm balance] happens in six months, I’ll call you.
Jessamyn: Oh, do that. Please. Wait, first of all, when it happens in six months I’ll be like “DUDE.” (Impressed face.)
Student: Yeah, (laughs) so if you need me I’ll be over here, holding planks.
Hannah: Dana, you seem so self-assured in your online persona, and your yoga practice and photographs are beautiful. How old are you?
Dana: Thanks. I’m 22 year old. I just graduated in May last year.
Hannah: Are you guys planning a huge campaign? Are you gonna stay on tour?
Dana: I don’t know. Right now, it’s short term. We’re definitely gonna continue doing things together. We want to keep teaching together for quite a while.
Hannah: What’s the most satisfying thing about teaching for you?
Dana: I love assisting, I love adjusting. those are my favorite moments as a teacher, when I am assisting a student directly, there’s this give and take, they have to be able to be trusting of me enough, and vulnerable enough to let me take them there, but they’re also doing it themselves. There’s an amazing exchange of energy and trust and all of these things, that to me, is the entire yoga practice.
And I love those moments with a student where they reach a point they didn’t think they could get to, and everything cracks wide open. To be there to experience that with someone is the most rewarding thing as a teacher.
Hannah: Tell me about your teachers. Was there a person who got you to love yoga?
Dana: I don’t know if there was a person who got me to love yoga. I think a lot of it was just my own practice, just showing up repeatedly really is the thing that got me to love it.
Hannah: “Showing up repeatedly.” Sounds like a description for building a relationship. And how did you and Jessamyn meet?
Dana: On instagram. That’s how we first connected. Then when we met in person we got along really well.
Jessamyn was someone I looked up to long before actually meeting her. It was pretty monumental, because of the person that she is, and also just all the other larger bodies on instagram, feeling that sense of community, because for me, when I first got on instagram, I didn’t know that it even existed. I didn’t know about the whole yoga-on-instagram thing. For me, always walking into yoga class and being the biggest person in the room, it was that [otherness] feeling. So to come into a community where there were all these other people who looked like me practicing, that gave me some self-acceptance to keep doing what I do. So I wouldn’t say it’s one person who made me love yoga, I’d say it’s the entire community of people who are the taboo practitioners of yoga, they are the people that keep me inspired to practice.
Hannah: What was your Teacher Training like? Who have you trained with?
Dana: At trained at Bohdi Movement Center, in Jackson New Jersey. I trained there with one of my teachers who is now my friend, Sam Vitrono. And Irene Pappas, (@fitqueenirene on Instagram), she’s another friend and teacher to me.
Sam and I have very similar personalities and teaching styles. We both respond well to discipline. She’s an Ashtanga practitioner, and while it’s not necessarily for everyone, for someone who needs a kind of regimen and discipline, it resonates. That training in discipline, that’s what Sam gave me.
Hannah: I like that you’re telling me this because I feel that, for people who don’t practice yoga, their understanding of “yoga people” is very, you know, simple and pigeon-holed.
Dana: Yes, which is so not the case for yoga. There’s all kinds of yoga and a lot of different kinds of teachers. I just said it today [in workshop] I recognize that there is a yoga teacher for everyone, and I am not that person for every yoga student.
Hannah: A nice way to take the pressure off yourself.
Dana: Yes, you know what I mean? There is so much pressure to be like, the best teacher ever, to inspire people, but all of that in itself is relative. For me, I teach from a place of my own experience, that’s what matters to me, so that’s what I’m going to share. It resonates so much with some people, and not so much with others. I can accept that.
Hannah: I was crying in your class earlier because it was such a beautiful experience. Thank you for sharing.
Dana: Thank you for showing up.
Hannah: At AFO, we work on self-love motivators, being inspired by people who killed it at self-love. Jessamyn, do you have more to say about your philosophy on this?
Jessamyn: (laughs) I always want to be the teacher that I wish that I had. I had this teacher when I was first starting yoga, Allison Hanks. It was Ashtanga and it was so hard. I felt like I couldn’t do… like even half of it. We were coming in for half-moon [a challenging balance pose on one leg, leaning forward] and I was just like “How is this balance even happening?” But she never made me feel like I couldn’t do it. She didn’t give me too much attention, she wasn’t all “Oh, so you’re the fattest person in here, look at you, girl power.” Instead she was like “You back here, you’re doing what you do.” And there was a lot of positive reinforcement, saying “That’s great. I know you may be all in your head about [that yoga pose] right now, but you need to know you’re doing great.”
Jessamyn: And giving people those little encouragements make such a big difference to the overall spirit. It’s way bigger than being able to get your student to do something that looks [impressive.]
I feel like there’s all these teaching approaches that people get caught up on because they have a lot to do with stroking the teacher’s ego. Like obstetricians who have the attitude of “I have to be right there, seeing the baby’s head come out.”
Hannah: Totally. I used to be a midwife. I remember all about that particular power dynamic.
Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. It’s like, dude, you do not need to be right there. You can get less involved and have more of an impact.
My teaching philosophy is pretty much: be there for people and give them positive reinforcement. Be positive to yourself and one another.
That’s where the body positivity comes in for me. You have to use this really good language, talking to your body. Hey you, you’re awesome and strong. You can do so much. To me the strongest parts of myself were the parts I thought were the ugliest to look at; my belly, my arms, my thighs, I would be like oh my gosh, my arms are so fat and then talk back with yeah, but that Warrior II pose was crazy. I was in it for so long. And my belly was hanging out through all of that? My belly must be awesome to hang out through all of that.
It’s about re-aligning and re-inserting, bonding with a different voice to talk to yourself. Learning to find this voice has helped me find a different way to talk to my students and myself.
Hannah: Obviously, we’re talking about self-love, but do you ever hear a specific person’s voice in your head, telling you stuff like “you got this!” ?
Jessamyn: More recently actually, I hear somebody talking, and I think it’s me, talking to me in this kind way, saying “Don’t go too far in that direction.”
Especially in meditation, you get to a place where you’re like, so into it. “Oh I’m meditating, I’m so meditating.” And in your asanas, it can feel so good, “Oh this dolphin pose, I’m so strong, I am so in this dolphin pose,” that you just keep going in it, but there’s this voice that, and I do think it’s myself talking, that says “Don’t focus on that. Just be. Be present here. Try to value this moment.” As opposed to the future, or what it could be, or what it was three weeks ago.
And that reminding voice is so hard to listen to, because everything else is really distracting.
And it’s when we’re so distracted that the poses become more difficult than they need to be. For instance, I think the inversions [yoga poses where you are upside down, or your heart and head are below most of your body] are a great example because they require so much of us. And there is SO much external dialogue going on “I have to be able to do this. I need to be able to go upside down.” Especially if you’ve done it in the past.
And what happens after workshops is that you go home and practice, and it’s more difficult alone, to pull up yourself, because in the classroom you have the encouraging voice of somebody saying “You can do this. You got it.”
But finding that voice telling the good things, that conversation, it helps a lot.
Does that sound strange to you?
Hannah: Not at all, I am always in conversation with myself.
Hannah: When my friend Aiano and I started Art For Ourselves. We wanted to confront the ideas about legitimate and illegitimate art, and feminism too, we got mad about being told “how feminism should be” and as a contrast to how people are actually organizing themselves around ideas of equality and social justice.
Jessamyn: I’ve worked in arts organizations before and there’s always just this conversation about “What is art?” in educated communities. It gets exclusive.
And also, with feminist circles everybody has their own feminism, their way of expressing something that feels like the be-all-end-all to them. It’s just like that in yoga too. Everybody has their way of doing something. It’s frustrating to me at times because it’s very limiting to the movement as a whole to see this one response as the end-all response. It actually leaves a lot of people out who are participating in that movement.
Hannah: I think of feminism as a method for organizing people around ideas of fairness, so it’s gotta evolve and be very creative. And I’m kind of over the whole “What is Art?” conversation.
Jessamyn: Did you ever have a chance to go to The American Folk Art Museum in NY, the whole thing about it is just showing what art really is, how broad it is.
Hannah: Even calling it “Folk Art” irritates me.
Jessamyn: God yes, can we talk about this? (laughs) Really though, there is so much variation in world. Even with Instagram, and how it’s changing about what it means to be a photographer, what it means to be an artist in any way.
Hannah: For me Instagram has been really powerful for seeing all these artists sharing their work. Like “Hey, we’re taking up space. And if you don’t like it, that’s ok.”
Hannah: And it’s engaging too.
Jessamyn: Yes, and what you guys are doing is really important.
Hannah: And what you are doing is really important. We appreciate you showing up like this.
For more yoga inspiration, or to sign up for one of their workshops or online classes, you can find Dana and Jessamyn at:
Youtube: NolaTrees Yoga
Youtube: Jessamyn Stanley
All photos have been sourced from Instagram.