"People just want to see someone who is actually comfortable with herself," says 27-year-old Jessamyn Stanley
At 5’6″ and plus-size, Stanley posts photos and videos of her “non-traditional yoga body” in all sorts of poses in her living room.
“A lot of curvy people who practice yoga have defined limits in terms of how far they’re willing to go,” Stanley tells PEOPLE. “They think they can probably do downward dog or tree pose, but they’re not going to try headstands or handstands. They’ll say, ‘I’m too fat.’ ”
On her Instagram account, Stanley often focuses on complex poses like advanced asanas and inversions to prove that a person’s size should not prevent him or her from practicing yoga.
She admits that it takes a certain level of comfort and self-acceptance.
“I’m not afraid of my body, I’m not afraid to see every awkward curve or strange way it can look,” says Stanley, who lives in Durham, North Carolina. “I’m willing to be in my underwear upside down.”
And clearly, people are willing to look. But Stanley says she never expected to gain such a following.
“I started taking the photos to document my own progress. I wanted to watch my development, which is difficult when you are practicing at home and you don’t have an instructor to guide your body,” she says. “So I would take the pictures and look at them and adjust myself.”
Once she began posting the photos online, she received emails from people of all shapes and sizes calling her an inspiration. Fans include everyone from young curvy girls to older men – groups of people who feel like, for whatever reason, their bodies are not made for yoga.
Stanley’s message to them is simple: “Your body is not standing in your way. Only your mind is standing in your way.”
But she’s quick to point out she hasn’t always been so self-confident. “I spent my entire adolescence being made fun of for my weight.”
So imagine her surprise two years ago when pounds slowly began to melt. She’d started doing yoga every day to deal with personal problems. “Practicing became something I could put all of my energy into and not think about anything else that was bothering me,” she says.
Since then she has lost nearly 70 lbs., which can be a tricky topic for someone who preaches body acceptance. “I wish I could just be the same size as I was before and be like, ‘No you really can just stay the same!’ But ultimately you will lose weight, because this is exercise.”
Plus, she jokes: “It’s just harder to invert when you’ve eaten a lot of cheese.”
So what’s next for Stanley? She wants to become a certified yoga instructor and plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign in February to pay for her training.
“There’s obviously a need for this,” she explains. “People are thirsty for someone who looks likes them – or at least who doesn’t look like everybody else – to show them what to do.”