“Now We Begin the Teaching of Yoga”–Patanjali
Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance
by Jessamyn Stanley
reviewed by Seana Graham
Yoga instructor and Instagram success story Jessamyn Stanley starts off this book with a brief tale. A freelance copy-editor (hoping to be hired by her) points out an error in Stanley’s first book, Every Body Yoga—she has accidentally written the definition of the Sanskrit word yoga as “yolk” instead of its true meaning of “yoke” –to join together. Even knowing the definition hadn’t kept her from making a typo that eluded editing before publication. After running through a gamut of emotions around this mistake, she eventually does what she has trained herself to do in such situations. She sits on her yoga mat and begins to try and focus on her breathing. (If you’re offended by her at times salty language, this book probably isn’t for you.)
And, gradually, I began to see what had actually pissed me off.
It wasn’t the typo.
It wasn’t the email or its sender.
It was my imposter syndrome.
Stanley goes on to confess that she spends a disproportionate amount of time trying to feel as though she lives up to all the hype. But on that day at least, she stopped trying.
Yoga links the deepest and most conflicted aspects of myself. The light and the dark. The bad and the good. The ups and the downs. It’s both a process and a destination, both a question and an answer.
As a self described fat, Black, lesbian yoga teacher, Stanley has a particularly good vantage point from which to view what she calls the American Yoga Industry (white, skinny) and how far it tends to stray from its origins. For one thing, she says, yoga isn’t even mainly about the poses that anyone who has taken a yoga class will be familiar with. The postures were originally developed to get children ready for meditation.
Classical yoga teachers have always extolled the virtues of yogic spirituality, but postures are still the primary language of American Yoga.
Much of the book is an extended critique of what yoga has become in America, in other words in a capitalistic, celebrity worshiping and racially conflicted culture.
American yoga practitioners expect to pay for their yoga in the same way they expect to pay for everything else. In return, I expect to sing for my supper. But my heart’s not in the show anymore. At best, teaching yoga is an offering of self-reflection to others. Charging money for the privilege of self-reflection makes me feel gross. I always end up being a good little capitalist and charging for my services…But it still makes me feel gross.
The most shocking event of the book for me is when Stanley learns that she will be on the cover of Yoga Journal, a prestigious magazine of the practice, and will be the first “fat, Black person” (as she puts it) to do so. So imagine her surprise when on the publication date she rushes off to buy one and finds an entirely different person on that month’s cover.
It turned out that this was the first (and I believe so far only) time that the magazine had featured two different cover photos. The other woman was a leader in her own right, but a white, thin one. A controversy broke out in the community that followed the magazine, but for Jessamyn Stanley, the outcome was at first more detached, but ultimately more personal:
In the days following the cover debacle, I was forced to question why I had ever been so desperate for Yoga Journal’s approval. Yoga Journal is historically a White institution. Without thinking about it, I’d hitched my identity entirely on the approval of White voices. Why did I need the approval of historically White institutions? Did I think the proximity to Whiteness would prove something about me? Would it make my yoga practice more valid or important or worthwhile?
As she goes on to say, “Yoga has led me to question everything.”
There are many lighter moments in the book as well. Stanley talks enthusiastically about things I don’t usually associate with yoga—tarot cards and astrology and even marijuana. Growing up as a Baháʼí . In fact, it’s a fascinating account of the life of one unique practitioner, whom I very much doubt we’ve heard the last from.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She has also reviewed for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. The recent anthology Annihilation Radiation from Storgy Press, includes one of her stories. Santa Cruz Noir, a title from Akashic Press, features a story of hers about the city in which she currently resides.