Jessamyn Stanley Quit Yoga Years Before Becoming the Namaste Boss Babe She Is Today
The body-positive activist shares how yoga helped her overcome self-doubt and forgo the need to be perfect.
I grew up in a household where team sports were idolized. My father was a small town hero when it comes to athletics. As a young man, he was the star of the baseball and football team—he even went to college on a sports scholarship. It was as though being a part of a team was a part of his spiritual practice, which had a huge impact on me as a young impressionable girl. While my father never pushed sports on me or my brother, there was this self-imposed pressure of being ‘perfect’ at what you do—as ‘perfect' as my dad was at sports—otherwise what was the point?
What Sports Taught Me About Self-Doubt
I'm really not a very coordinated person despite what my yoga practice might suggest. I can pitch a ball, and hit it (for the most part), but I never really felt comfortable playing sports that required people to rely on my skills. A part of me still idolized the idea of being a part of a team; being a part of something bigger than myself. So, in middle school, I decided to try out for the cheerleading squad.
For years I watched the ‘cool-girl' cheerleaders at sporting events and remember being amazed by their tricks. At the time, I'd messed around with dance and gymnastics and mistook my experience as being the prerequisite I needed to walk confidently into tryouts. Little did I know, there’s so much more to cheerleading than wow-worthy stunts that get the crowd going. Needless to say, I didn’t make the team. My ego was bruised, not only because I wasn’t physically able to keep up with my school mates, but I felt like I was being rejected in a larger, societal way as well. The experience as a whole was enough to make me swear off sports for the next few years. (Related: This Woman Spent Years Believing She Didn't "Look Like" an Athlete, Then She Crushed an Ironman)
When I entered high school, though, I decided to give team sports another go. Most of the girls at my school played field hockey or lacrosse, but I decided to try out for flag football and this time, I made the team. At home, I continued to stay active with my family, playing softball with my dad and brother. Still though, regardless of how hard I tried, I could never shake the feeling that I just wasn’t a good enough—that everyone around me was better and more talented. It got to a point where team sports created a lot of anxiety for me, all of which stemmed back to the lack of confidence and trust I had in myself. (Here's Why You Should Try a New Adventure Sport Even If It Scares the Crap Out of You)
That sense of self-doubt was, in part, what prompted me to try yoga for the first time when I was 16. It was more individualized than the activities I took part in growing up, which I was attracted to, but the experience still didn't give me the sense of empowerment that I was hoping for.
I remember walking into my first Bikram yoga class realizing that I was very much the youngest person in the room, and definitely the largest person—both of which made me feel very out of place. But that wasn’t what stuck out to me when I tried yoga for the first time: I couldn't get over the fact that yoga was extremely challenging. Not that I thought it was going to be easy, but I didn't quite realize that I was stepping into something that wasn't exactly beginner friendly. (Related: Yogi Jessamyn Stanley Gets Real About Trying CrossFit for the First Time)
From the overwhelming heat to the difficult movements, I felt so uncomfortable and out of place that I was completely overwhelmed. Somehow I made it a third of the way through the class before deciding to give up. The instructor even tried to convince me to tough it out, but I had made up my mind—I needed to get out of there. I left the class, got really sick and decided I was never doing yoga again. It just wasn’t for me. (Related: Why I Refuse to Commit to One Workout Program.)
That was the first time I became aware of my defeatist mentality. I began to realize that I was going into things that made me uncomfortable and decide that I just couldn’t do it and would never be good at it, without giving it my all.
Finding the Value In Yoga
I didn’t try yoga again until seven years later. A friend of mine asked that I join her for a class as a distraction from what was going on in my personal life. I was in a very dark place at the time, and my friend felt like yoga would be a welcomed distraction. My immediate answer? Absolutely not. I already knew that yoga wasn’t my thing, I told her. But she wouldn’t take no for answer and finally coerced me to go. Once I was sitting there waiting for class to begin, though, I realized that being physically pushed out of my comfort zone in this way that was actually quite cleansing.
This was the complete opposite sensation from what I felt the first time I tried yoga. I'm not sure if this change of mindset was because I was in a different place than my 16-year-old self or because I was going through a difficult time. I was struggling with a bad breakup, grieving over the death of my aunt, I'd dropped out of graduate school and was in the depths of depression. In that time, yoga provided me with the clarity I didn't know I needed.
Don’t get me wrong, yoga was still freakin’ hard—maybe even harder than when I tried it when I was a teenager. Sitting cross-legged or on my shins was insanely unpleasant. Every pose and position in that class was downright uncomfortable, but the fact that I made it through felt like an accomplishment. I left that class feeling better than I had in a while. I walked away understanding the importance of experiencing things that don’t feel great right off the bat. Putting yourself in those situations is when you learn the most about yourself.
Once I understood the need of feeling uncomfortable once in a while, I started on a journey to overcome the barriers that I’d created for myself: the biggest being negative self-talk and the defeatist mentality that I’ve struggled with my whole life. (See: Jessamyn Stanley's Uncensored Take On 'Fat Yoga' and the Body Positive Movement)
When I started out doing yoga at home, I’d take photos of myself to perfect my posture and technique. In the moment of the pictures being taken, I’d think of myself as strong and powerful, but as soon as I looked at the photos, I’d start pointing out all my flaws. (Related: Can You Love Your Body and Still Want to Change It?)
The way I viewed my stomach, arms, and thighs took away the confidence that practicing yoga was giving me. As much as I wanted to blame my life experiences for making me feel like shit about myself, I was the one saying these things. I was the one putting myself down. It was then that I began to understand that even though I can’t control my environment, I can control my thoughts. This led to a more positive relationship with my body and it's abilities that I'm so lucky to have today.
The Invaluable Lesson My Practice Has Taught Me
Yoga has given me a lot, but most importantly, it’s become a way for me to really be in tune to the fact that I can't be perfect at everything. While I'm constantly growing and changing as a person, my practice has helped me see my life objectively and without judgment. Regardless of what happens in my life, good or bad, I know that I can always turn back to my practice and that given me the confidence that's led me to a profoundly different place from where I started out: as an unsure young girl full of self-doubt.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t still days where I underestimate myself or feel like I’m still not good enough. There are still moments when I’m pushed out of my comfort zone when I want to run away because I feel afraid.
It takes me back to that cheerleading tryout or the feeling of inadequacy I felt while trying to be as great of an athlete as my dad. As a young girl, I never embraced the idea that falling down is a necessary step to success. Not to mention that when it comes to sports, you play for the love and spirit of it, not because it feels good and comfortable—something I couldn't grasp. If I’d gone into those early experiences with athletics knowing what I know now, who knows, maybe I could have been a team player like my dad and brother. But that wasn’t the life intended for me, and that's okay.
Now, when I have those same thoughts of self-doubt, I try to deconstruct where they’re coming from. It's usually from a very unpleasant and embarrassing place, but I've learned that facing that is beyond worth it in the long run.
For those who've felt the same, remember that showing up and doing the work that you need to do to feel better today, is enough. Tomorrow will be a new day, yesterday was a different day, but it’s today and now that really matters.