Yoga Teacher Jessamyn Stanley Believes White Supremacy Has Polluted Yoga - and It's Time to Talk About It
"Cultural appropriation in yoga is rampant because we are still living in the legacy of colonization," Jessamyn Stanley tells PEOPLE
Jessamyn Stanley needs you to know what yoga is really about - and it's not the poses.
In her new book Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance, the yoga instructor and body activist shares reflective personal essays that touch upon everything from racism to the cultural appropriation of American yoga, from consumerism to cannabis.
And while the timing couldn't be better considering the current cultural climate, the idea for the book came to her years ago while she was writing her first book, Every Body Yoga, a guide to developing a yoga practice.
"I realized yoga is a lot more than postures," she tells PEOPLE. "The postures get to be more complicated, not because you're practicing harder gymnastics or physical postures, but because you're practicing emotional and mental and really spiritual postures."
In fact, she says, yoga is not supposed to feel good. Take the example of someone expecting a Zen-like experience from a yoga practice - only to be disappointed. "You're like, 'This is hard. Everyone else seems to know what they're doing. I am not good enough, I shouldn't be doing this, maybe my body is supposed to look different, maybe my life's supposed to be different.' All these feelings start to come up. That's what the postures are leading you towards, is to have that experience."
Stanley has been nurturing this self-awareness in the nearly 10 years since she has been breaking barriers in the yoga world, tackling topics like fat-shaming, her queer Black identity and unattainable beauty standards. In Yoke - which means yoga in Sanskrit - she uses her own life as a a metaphor to further explore the coming together of mind and body, light and the dark, good and the bad - both on and off the mat.
"I wanted to reflect on what it is to practice yoga when we are as a society being forced to reckon with the long, deep, systemic, down-to-the-bone problems. We're being forced to look at things that we've never wanted to look at. And that's all that yoga is, is looking at the things that you don't want to look at. And ultimately, come hell or high water, accepting them."
The book explores the existence of white supremacy and cultural appropriation in American yoga. "I would venture to say that everything in our collective society is rooted in white supremacy. I am sure there are many people who would disagree with that, and honestly I don't care because I believe that and I know it's the case," she says.
"I think that we see it show up in a lot of different ways. In the same way it's everywhere else and it has polluted everything else, it's polluted yoga. It's very much a part of how yoga has spread in America. The popularity of yoga really came down to wealthy white people wanting to learn and explore in a very specific way, and that's why yoga has been so white for so long in America."
Detailing the cultural appropriation in yoga, Stanley says it's "rampant because we are still living in the legacy of colonization."
"The appropriation comes from practitioners who are not South Asian looking at South Asian teachers and saying, 'I need to do exactly what they're doing. I need to practice yoga exactly how they're practicing it.' Yoga as a concept exists in so many cultures. It's literally the basis of so many different things: the idea of acceptance and the yolking together of the light and the dark. But these teachers are just saying, 'Practice yoga.' They're not saying, 'Pretend to be Indian.' They're not saying, 'Steal someone else's ethnic identity.' They're saying, 'Practice the balancing of truth and light within yourself.' "
"I think that when you bring up cultural appropriation in yoga, everyone's butthole clenches because everybody's like, 'Oh s---, I think I might be guilty of this,' or, 'I could be apart of this and that doesn't feel good.' And that's the yoga. That's the hard thing. That's the thing that we're being asked to accept. It doesn't mean you have to sit in space of shame about it; it doesn't mean you're a bad person. It just means that you're a person and you're allowed to be that way."
Stanley talks about coming to terms with her own truth and internalized racism in the essay "White Guilt."
"I see a lot of people point fingers at other people and I definitely started writing that essay because I had a bone to pick with every person that I have met in the yoga world that I felt was being racist," she says. "But by the end of it I realized I don't have s--- to say to anybody else that I don't first need to say to myself - and that is the most important work of all."
Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance is on sale June 22.