Known for her insights on 21st-century yoga and intersectional identity, award-winning yoga instructor and entrepreneur Jessamyn Stanley always has multiple plates spinning. In addition to founding streaming wellness app The Underbelly, she is the co-host of podcast Dear Jessamyn, authored two books (Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance and Every Body Yoga: Let Go of Fear, Get on the Mat, Love Your Body) and is the co-founder of We Go High, a North Carolina-based cannabis justice initiative. As 2022 picks up speed, Modern Luxury had a chat with Stanley about the importance of online fitness classes, maintaining work-life balance and her optimism about the future of cannabis.
You started sharing your yoga practice on Instagram a decade ago. What accomplishment are you most proud of from these 10 years?
The accomplishment that I am most proud of in these 10 years is founding The Underbelly. I had been so inspired by the community of people that I had connected with on social media. They are how I was able to maintain my practice over these years, being able to retreat to a community of yoga practitioners that looks more diverse and is more radically honest than any physical yoga community that I’ve ever been a part of. I feel like being able to be a part of The Underbelly is something that I never saw in the beginning, I could not have imagined and is an incredible gift in my life.
Being able to work out at home has become important because of the pandemic, but you saw that need beforehand. Can you tell us more about the importance of having access to digital communities like The Underbelly?
It’s really important to have a space where you feel like it is safe to be yourself. Even if you go to the gym every day and go to live classes and train with a trainer, you still need to have a space within yourself where it is safe to just show up and be weird and make mistakes. It is easiest to find that space within yourself, within the comfort of your own home. The practice of watching recordings of people exercising is not new. Jane Fonda, Richard Simmons, Billy Blanks, all these people really pioneered the home experience. The digital yoga community is in that lineage. We’re making space to be ourselves. You hear those names, and think of the culture, but it’s also a community. A place where you don’t have to be ashamed of yourself. Regardless of the pandemic, or any other factors, from this point forward, it will always be necessary for us to have digital wellness communities, because so much of our lives are lived not just at home, but also online, and being able to be well wherever you are is crucial.
How can people who use The Underbelly to stream yoga classes from home still feel like they are part of a community?
In addition to streaming the classes, it’s really helpful to be tuned into the social media communities. The Underbelly has thriving communities on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and we’re working on all other platforms as well because it is so important to be able to connect with other people and know that you’re not alone. To know that there are other people who can give you the feedback that you’re asking for when you’re doing the classes. If you have issues practicing any of the postures or if anything comes up emotionally for you during meditation or if you just want to talk to people about “what mat do you use” or “where do you get your leggings” or “what does your headstand look like”— social media is like a digital kombucha bar, a place to go after class.
What advice would you give someone who doesn’t do yoga because the idea of doing any fitness activity invokes emotional distress?
I would say that practicing yoga is meant to help you deal with emotional distress. If you are experiencing anxiety about practicing yoga, then yoga is the perfect thing for you to do. It IS going to make you feel the anxiety. I’m not saying it’s going to be a magic salve where you don’t have to feel or do the hard thing. You’re going to be asked to do that hard thing, but ultimately, it’s going to feel better on the other side. You’re allowed to feel all the things you are feeling. You don’t have to ignore your feelings or pretend. If you’re looking for a practice that might be accessible for you out of the gate, it could be helpful for you to start with just closing your eyes and taking 5 deep breaths. Then, just pick one other posture. Maybe Mountain Pose or Cat Pose or Child’s Pose… just pick one and let that be your whole practice. There is no time duration needed. Everything you do is perfect. Give yourself that space, and it might feel less stressful.
A problem with conversations around health and wellness is the body positivity movement. How can we balance feeling enthusiastic about our bodies without falling trap to this toxic positivity?
I’ve always felt that body positivity is not about being happy. It’s about not seeing the body as inherently negative. It doesn’t mean that you have to be happy all the time. I don’t generally think about body positivity as being a problem in conversations about health and wellness, but I do understand the topic of toxic positivity. Toxic positivity has become deeply entwined with body positivity, and it makes it seem like you should be happy with your body all the time. In reality, nobody feels any one thing all the time. Nobody feels enthusiastic about any part of their body all the time. The key is to feel all the feelings you have about your body. Feel happy, sad, glad, mad, think you’re sexy or disgusting, love your belly, hate your chin… feel all your feelings. All of this is information you can learn from. The more you make space for all of your feelings instead of isolating them, the easier they are to accept and to realize that your body is inherently good and is inherently positive.
You are a co-founder of We Go High NC. Can you tell us more about the connection between wellness and cannabis?
Cannabis has been used medicinally by humans for thousands of years. It’s used in every culture, and can be grown pretty much anywhere on earth. The way that it impacts the body, heals it physically, and more importantly, really unites the physical body with the mental body and the emotional body. It really sweeps out the cobwebs inside your body. It clears out what doesn’t need to be there, energetically. I encourage you to do your own research.
Do you feel optimistic, to any degree, about future legalization of marijuana use in North Carolina? What about federal legalization?
I’m very optimistic about legalization of cannabis, not just in North Carolina, but in the United States and globally. I’m not very interested in legalization as a concept. Legalization is a function of prohibition culture, and I think that even when legalization happens, the stigma of what it means to be a cannabis user persists. It’s really important for all users, regardless of legality and where you live, to assume the responsibility of advocating for the normalization of cannabis culture because it leads to a wider, expansive feeling for all of us and for our collective society to be impacted by what cannabis has to offer.
You very generously give a lot of yourself to your audience. Is it difficult to be so personal in your career space, while still maintaining your own holistic wellness?
Yes, it is difficult to be so personal and maintain my holistic wellness practices. It is why I decided to move into an RV, so I could live closer to nature and not be so consumed by the day-to-day work life that I had established to get my businesses off the ground. It’s also why I don’t spend a lot of time socializing with people that I don’t know. I share so much of myself online that I feel like I have to keep some parts of myself private.
You are a podcaster, yoga teacher, social advocate and author. Among all your roles, how do you make time for yourself?
I leave all those roles at work and at home, I’m just me. I even leave part of what it means to be “Jessamyn” at work. I love all the things I get to do for work. It is so much fun, but it is not all that I am. Just trying to remember that helps me make time for myself.
This interview has been edited.
Photography by: Bobby Quillard; Jade Wilson