IT’S WEIRD TO BE THE FAT KID THAT THIN KIDS WANT TO KNOW/ BEFRIEND.
Stanley believes people are paying attention because they aren’t used to seeing a fat black woman tackle tough asana, the American yoga space being—in her words—“deeply rooted in white supremacy.” She’s uncensored in her critiques of modern yoga in the West and of forms of oppression and body shaming she calls “patriarchal white-centric beauty standards.” She calls herself fat constantly—in her Instagram posts (“It’s weird to be the fat kid that thin kids want to know/befriend,” she wrote in August); in her 2017 book,
Every Body Yoga; and in conversation—as a means of taking back ownership of a term generally reserved for shaming those it describes. To that end, she’s a one-woman visibility crusader, dismantling expectations about what a yoga body looks like and encouraging more people who don’t generally see themselves reflected in the yoga space to come along.
Stanley started her Instagram account not to become the poster child for fat yoga, but to solicit feedback on a home practice she’d started in 2012. Like so many yoga practitioners, she says she never truly felt comfortable in a public yoga class, squeezing herself into the farthest back corner of the room wishing to be invisible—the very opposite of what she stands for today. But back then, she was insecure and a little lost, having dropped out of grad school at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, so she began a yoga
practice from the safety of her own living room. She utilized Yoga Journal’s pose index and online classes from Kathryn Budig and Amy Ippoliti, documenting her progress online. “But the response I was getting from people wasn’t a lot of feedback about my practice, it was more people being like, ‘Oh, my god. I didn’t know fat people could do yoga,’” she says. “And I was like, ‘Why do you think that fat people can’t do yoga? Fat people do all kinds of stuff all the time.’” That’s when she realized her unique opportunity to broadcast a real yoga practice, “scars and all,” she says.
By the time she attended a 200-hour yoga teacher training (YTT) in Asheville, North Carolina, in March 2015, she had amassed a sizable online following and interest from the press. In January of that year, People ran a story about the “self-proclaimed fat femme” who, with 29,000 followers, had become a “yoga star on Instagram.” In the piece, she discussed her plan to crowdsource the money she needed to attend YTT later. “There’s obviously a need for this,” she said at the time. “People are thirsty for someone who looks like them— or at least who doesn’t look like everybody else—to show them what to do.”
But as we sit across from each other eating churros and sipping on lattes one October morning in Durham, where she lives with her partner and three cats, she tells me she never aspired to become a yoga teacher at all. “So many people were asking me to do it,” she recalls. “But I didn’t understand why I needed to be the one to teach.” Instead, she’d thoughtfully respond to her fans by researching and suggesting Jessamyn-approved teachers in their areas. It wasn’t until her father, who had disapproved of her foray into yoga “from the jumpoff” offered to help fund her training that she began to
take teaching seriously. “My parents do not have $3,000 laying around,” Stanley says. “For him to be so emphatic, I realized there were bigger forces at play.”
Stanley says her life could be neatly divided into pre- and post-YTT. “During YTT I had a number of experiences that cracked open my soul,” she says. “I was able to see so many things I’d been hiding from myself, and I understood that the way to teach people would be to genuinely live this practice and to shed light, as much as I can, on the spaces that are ugly and dark and complicated, and reflect that to the people. For me, that’s what teaching should be. Rather than being a career choice, it’s a mission. A call to action. Something to drive purpose in life. When I left training I was like, ‘OK, now it’s time to reach the people who have asked me to reach them.”
And she does. Stanley spends nearly every weekend on the road teaching classes in regions where she’s been beckoned by students who
ABOVE Stanley has kept a dedicated home practice for the past seven years.
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT Stanley at work in her office; her tattoos serve as a reminder to practice what she preaches; a comfortable home is the backbone of Stanley’s practice.