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Stretch Further: Jessamyn Stanley Redefines Wellness Culture

Jessamyn Stanley


Stretch Further: Jessamyn Stanley Redefines Wellness Culture

Photo Bobby Quillard

Stretch Further: Jessamyn Stanley Redefines Wellness Culture

The renowned body positive yoga teacher brings her advocacy to the cannabis space.

When Jessamyn Stanley told me that she loves smoking spliffs, I was surprised. As a yoga teacher who has gained prominence as an outspoken critic of white-centric, commercialized yoga, Stanley occupies a particular intersection of weed and wellness that I didn’t expect to be cool with tobacco.

But perhaps I should have expected it.

After all, it’s Stanley’s seeming contradictions that have vaulted her to becoming one of the most sought-after voices in yoga. Identifying as fat, black and queer, Stanley is an inspiration to women who don’t look like the typical skinny-white-girl-doing-a-handstand image of yoga that has come to dominate wellness culture. She is here to tell us that, in fact, it is not a contradiction to be fat and fit. And now, she’s here to tell us that it is not a contradiction to be productive and a stoner. (Hear, hear!)

In many ways, her journey to becoming a cannabis consumer and advocate mirrors her journey to practicing, teaching and speaking about yoga.

“I’m a Reagan baby. My parents made sure that I was in D.A.R.E.,” she explained. “So I was really anti-everything up until undergrad, and even then, [smoking cannabis] still made me think, ‘This is like a bad thing to do.’”

The thought that marijuana could be medicine was not really something that occurred to her, until she dated a cannabis consumer who showed her the plant in a new light — as a “healing practice” rather than a shameful activity. And later, this new mentality about cannabis turned out to be instrumental to her success in the yoga world.

PHOTO Christopher Dougherty

An Elevated Flow

Stanley, who is based in Durham, North Carolina, re-discovered yoga while struggling with anxiety and depression in the wake of her aunt’s death. When she first started posting photos of her yoga practice on Instagram in 2013, she had hoped to solicit feedback and improve her form. Instead, she dispelled stereotypes and inspired others to start practicing yoga, too. Those early Instagram posts are littered with comments like, “I just started doing yoga and I didn’t think I could do some of the moves because I am not a twig! Thanks for showing me anyone can do yoga!”

As her community has grown exponentially since 2013, Stanley has been featured in publications from The New York Times to People, published a book (“Every Body Yoga”) and taught yoga classes all over the world. Earlier this year, she launched her new app The Underbelly — a subscription service for those who “have ever thought that people who look like you or think like you or live like you don’t do yoga.”

When we sat down for an interview at The Wing Soho in New York (Stanley and I are both members of the women’s co-working space) on a summer afternoon, she says she couldn’t have managed her whirlwind rise to prominence if it hadn’t been for cannabis.

PHOTO Bobby Quillard

“The combination of cannabis, yoga and meditation… I don’t know where I would be without them,” she says. Marijuana is “something that I attribute so much of my health and success to. As my life has evolved to have this career that takes so many different pathways, it’s very difficult for me to be emotionally available for my work in the way that I need to be without it.”

The Reagan baby-turned D.A.R.E. kid has now been a daily cannabis consumer for the past decade. She prefers smoking joints and spliffs (whether mixed with tobacco or other herbs). Vaping and edibles are nice while traveling, and dabbing is reserved for special occasions. “But smoking a spliff or smoking a jay is definitely my go-to,” she said.

As a fellow fan of smoking spliffs, I mentioned to Stanley the pushback to mixing weed with tobacco that I’ve encountered in the cannabis world. “People often view tobacco as tainting the cannabis,” I said.

“It’s the same with cannabis and yoga!” she said. “People think that it’s tainting the practice somehow, or that it’s fogging the space that needs to be cleared. And I think that that is the prohibition mindset.”

And while she hasn’t taught any 420-friendly classes yet, her home practice is “extremely” 420-friendly.

“Anything that you can do to let go of the f*ckery of this world is helpful. I think that that’s where the combination of cannabis and yoga is incredible.”

PHOTO Christopher Dougherty

Combating Stigma, On and Off the Mat

Stanley hasn’t always been so open about her cannabis use. Despite recent gains in legalization across the U.S., the stigma surrounding marijuana persists. People can still lose their jobs over medical marijuana use — even in states where it’s legal.

When she first considered opening up about her cannabis advocacy, she says her “immediate fear” was that that it would impact her professional standing, a fear that still keeps many a cannabis consumer in the closet.

But ultimately, she realized that, by not talking about it, she was complicit in a system where too many are still incarcerated for the very substance that had helped her succeed.

“I just felt like, ‘What’s the point of having the platform if you’re not going to really use it for something that matters?’”

The same forces of gentrification have shaped both the yoga and cannabis industries. As a fat-bodied yoga practitioner, Stanley says seeing changes in the yoga world helped inspire her to speak out about cannabis, especially since the cannabis industry is still in its early days.

“What’s key for marginalized people is to stop trying to be accepted by this mainstream whitewashing of the cannabis industry,” she says.

“I’ve noticed that in the yoga world, there are so many black and brown voices who have f*cking co-signed this [mainstream] agenda,” she says. “There are fat bodies that have co-signed… Lululemon. How far can we really go if we’ve already given them the sign off?”

In the cannabis industry, the forces of white, corporate control are especially insidious, thanks to the patchwork of state marijuana laws and continued federal prohibition that disproportionately punish black and brown people.

Often, it’s the already privileged who have the resources or connections to start a business, whether it’s a yoga studio or a marijuana dispensary. Stanley pointed out that these dynamics are even more pronounced in the cannabis industry because of all the legal barriers to entry: Funding is scarce due to federal prohibition and just applying for a license can cost thousands of dollars. And that’s not even considering the fact that many marijuana programs bar those with past cannabis convictions from even entering the industry.

PHOTO Gracie Malley

Mindful Movements

When Stanley first started traveling to Seattle as her yoga work took her around the country, she says she was excited to be in a legal state ­— a sharp contrast to her home in North Carolina. She looked up dispensaries on Yelp and headed to Uncle Ike’s, a popular spot in the city’s Central District. “I loved it,” she says. “Everything was great.” She went back there every time she came to town and started talking about it on social media, too.

But her followers started to push back. At first, she dismissed the critics — “yeah, y’all mad, whatever. It’s great,” she thought. But then, she realized, “Actually, it’s really not [great] because we’re just continuing to feed the cycle,” she says. “The corner that the dispensary is on was once the corner where like everybody was getting locked up… that story is being lost as time goes on.”

Now, she goes to the woman-owned cannabis retail shop Ganja Goddess when she visits Seattle. She’s mindful that consumer choices are important, and says this is about more than the façade of a company. “This isn’t an anti-white guys club,” she says. “It’s about the ethics of the company. What work are they doing on the other side to lessen inequality? What work are they doing in terms of prison abolition? What are you doing for incarcerated populations?”

Plenty of cannabis companies purport to promote certain values in the industry, whether it’s participating in social equity programs, funding expungement clinics or hiring those with past cannabis convictions. At best, these actions are well-intentioned attempts to remedy the harms of racially disparate drug enforcement. At worst, they’re cynical undertakings to gain good press while skirting the real work that needs to be done to achieve systemic change.

“Yoga studios and companies ask this all the time — ‘What can I be doing? We want to be body positive, we want to be diverse,’” said Stanley. “I’m like, ‘Look around you, dude. If you’re only looking at people who look like you, why would anything different be happening?’”

As for advice she has for companies looking to genuinely make a difference, she says: “Don’t tokenize your space, but truly diversify. Listen to the other voices who are in the room and then you’ll know what you need to be doing.”

PHOTO Gracie Malley

A Homegrown Practice

Moving forward, Stanley hopes to continue making use of her platform while incorporating cannabis into her yoga teaching, too.

But in the meantime, subscribers to The Underbelly are able to use cannabis at their own leisure. “The home practice is really designed for that,” she says. “Truly the heart of The Underbelly is to create the yoga space that is really authentic to you… [The home] is also one of the only places — even if you live in a legal state — where you can consume cannabis legally.”

And you better believe that she’s going to continue speaking out against inequality and unequal representation, whether it’s in yoga, cannabis and beyond.

“Activism seems fun and easy before you’re actually doing it. And then it’s scary and lonely,” she says. “If you think about it in the bigger picture, the discomfort in the short term just doesn’t really matter because [it] makes a difference to other people.”

TELL US, have you ever incorporated cannabis into your yoga practice?

Originally published in the print edition of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE

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