Jessamyn Stanley’s guide to the ancient practice of yoga turned out to be deeper and more demanding than she ever imagined. The author of Every Body Yoga shares the revelations that shaped her second mold-breaking book about yoga, Yoke.
When I pitched Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance to my publisher, I thought I knew what it would contain. I knew I would have to talk about internalized racism, sexual assault, capitalism and cultural appropriation. Mind you, this was in 2017, before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were murdered for all the world to see and before white people were forced to stop pretending racism doesn’t exist. But when I actually started tickling the keys, the book became about much more than what a marketing pitch could contain.
I definitely thought Yoke would be about offering tips and tricks for navigating an ancient practice in modern times. But in the process of writing it, I realized the most important way to teach yoga has nothing to do with other people. The way to teach yoga is by authentically living it. Even the most gifted and inspiring teachers will only lead you to the teacher inside yourself, and they can only do that by being fully themselves.
Writing Yoke led me down a lot of philosophical rabbit holes. I ended up spending a solid year of the manuscript-writing process solely on research. I dove headfirst into American yoga’s history and theory, and I was forced to come to terms with the intersection between American history and American yoga history—how both have bloomed in the soil of white supremacy. I gained a deeper respect for the differences between American yoga and Classical yoga, and all the while, I was forced to interrogate myself.
For example, I was excited to write about cultural appropriation among yoga practitioners, and if I’m honest, I was excited to tell other people how to best live their lives. I’ve always been a know-it-all in that way. But once the dust settled, I realized I don’t have anything to offer readers beyond being open and honest about the ways that I appropriate other cultures.
Similarly, I was excited to write about racism and the ways it crops up in the yoga world, mostly because I was excited to air my grievances against all the white yoga people who have annoyed me over the years. But it didn’t take long to recognize that I have nothing to say to white people that I don’t first need to say to myself. I found that I needed to accept the ways in which I embody racism—first against myself and then against others.
Writing Yoke made me examine parts of myself I’ve never wanted to acknowledge and generally prefer to ignore. I didn’t know what it would take to get real about this shit. I didn’t realize there’d be so much crying. I didn’t know writing the truth would feel like disemboweling myself. I thought the whole thing would be a little more dignified than bawling into my laptop for weeks on end. But accepting my shame was the price I paid in pursuit of my truth.
I will say, though: It’s one thing to accept that you’re a messy bitch. It’s completely different to ask other people to read about it.
“I didn’t know what it would take to get real about this shit. I didn’t realize there’d be so much crying.”
Some of Yoke cuts very close to the bone for me. Yoga may be about accepting the truth of yourself, but the truth I tell in Yoke is one I was always told not to tell. The truth that I’ve been running from. The truth that no one wants to see in the light. And reading the truth without rose-tinted glasses can be painful.
I think Yoke will be inspiring even to people who have never practiced yoga, people who are not Black, fat or queer and people who’ve never been sexually assaulted. No matter your background, we all embody contradictions and feel pain. We all find identity at the heart of intersections. But our intersections are also founts of compassion—first for ourselves, then for others. This is true now more than ever, when we’re being asked as a society to reckon with the sins of our collective past in order to move forward. Yoke is a microexample of a process that’s needed on a very macro level.
I wrote this book because I had to tell the truth, even if I came out on the other end looking like an asshole. That’s who I am. I am problematic. I say the wrong thing. I am offensive. But I think that by letting my stank-ass baggage hang out, I can make space for other people to accept themselves as well.
Author photo © Cornell Watson