Fatphobia, Cultural Appropriation, and Other Touchpoints in American Yoga: A Review of Jessamyn Stanley’s ‘Yoke’

Yoke is the yoga book I didn’t know I needed. Written by Jessamyn Stanley, a Black, queer, self-described fat yoga teacher, Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance offers an examination of yoga that is both piercing and personal.

I’ll admit I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this book. I follow Stanley on social media and know her to be frank, vulnerable, and seemingly unconcerned with respectability politics. She speaks openly about her yoga practice, her sexuality, her use of marijuana, and the way she and her brand have been commodified by a mostly white wellness industry.

Still, Yoke is a book about yoga and spirituality, a genre of literature that can tend to veer into yoga speak – you know, the everything-will-be-okay-because-the-universe-is-working-in-your-favor philosophy that permeates many a yoga class. It has probably permeated mine at times.

But there’s something needling about this mentality that strikes me as the New-Age version of the prosperity Gospel. As a person who struggles with anxiety, I’ve learned that I can’t always manifest myself out of a funk. And as a person with an understanding of global power structures, I also know there are countless people who cannot manifest themselves out of poverty, global warming, war, and other realities.

But Stanley steers clear of these love-and-light tropes and drives directly toward the hard stuff: Religion. Anxiety. Belonging. Identity. Sexual assault. Cultural appropriation. Tokenization. Racism.

She takes an unwavering look at yoga in the U.S. where, she says, cultural appropriation is the norm and the “yoga industrial complex relies upon wealthy people believing that spirituality is a material resource controlled by yoga teachers, who are expected to be deified.”

Stanley would know this more than most. As a body positive yoga teacher, she has been simultaneously deified and tokenized. “What’s hidden at the root of my professional success,” she writes, “is an insidious belief that if a fat Black person can find a way to love themselves, then ‘regular people’ (Read: thin White people) must be capable of self-love. I think this is supposed to make me feel fulfilled and satisfied.” Spoiler alert: It does not.

A side-by-side view of the two covers for the January/February 2019 issue of Yoga Journal. Stanley, pictured on the right, was not informed that she would not be the sole cover model.

She spares no one of critique – not even herself. She wrestles with what it means to be a large-bodied Black femme in an industry dominated by thin, white teachers, as well as the ways she has sought approval from the very industry that continues to marginalize bodies like hers. This marginalization played out in dramatic fashion in 2019 when Stanley realized her dream of being on the cover of Yoga Journal, the premier yoga U.S. yoga magazine. The dream soured when she learned upon the release of the January/February issue that Yoga Journal placed her image on only some of the magazines; the other magazines were printed with a photo of Maty Ezraty, a thin, white yoga teacher. Having to share the cover – even with a respected instructor like Ezraty – was a blow not only to Stanley, but also to historically excluded yoga practitioners everywhere. Stanley’s candid and thought-provoking recollection of these events alone is worth getting a copy of Yoke.

Yoke gave me much to chew on. Many of Stanley’s words stayed with me, including these about cultural appropriation: “Avoiding cultural appropriation means exploring the reasons why we appropriate. Inevitably, it means gazing upon and accepting the colonizer inside of you. This self-exploration is yoga in action.”

When I look upon the colonizer inside of me, I wonder about the ways I have packaged yoga to fit my needs, or the ways I have benefitted from being a thin and able-bodied yoga practitioner. Though I may have felt out of place as a Black woman in many yoga classes, I have never felt out of place as a thin person or as one able to do the bulk of the poses called by the instructor. Within me, this has created a complicated experience of belonging and not belonging. I think this is why it took me a while to notice just how exclusive mainstream yoga classes can be to people who are not thin, and to examine how the way I structured classes or cued poses unintentionally contributed to the problem. Now that I’m more aware, I still wonder what it means to create an intentionally inclusive yoga class in a non-self-congratulatory way.

After reading Yoke, I can’t say that I have the answers – but doling out answers isn’t the point of the book. More often than not, Stanley doesn’t recommend a path of action or a road to follow. Instead, she offers her own personal self-examination as a path for the reader to take or leave.

Perhaps this is what I love most about the book: Stanley’s lack of concern with my salvation. She doesn’t want to save me or love-and-light me. What she seems to want is for all of us to understand that self-acceptance is a lifelong practice that involves examining both our light and our shadows with equal curiosity.

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