The yoga of everyday life: Jessamyn Stanley on nourishing the spiritual and physical body

The yoga of everyday life: Jessamyn Stanley on nourishing the spiritual and physical body

Jessamyn Stanley’s new book, “Yoke,” begins with a spiritual awakening prompted by a typo.

A late-night email alerted Stanley to a misspelling printed in her first book, “Every Body Yoga” She’d mistakenly defined the Sanskrit word for yoga as meaning to “yolk” instead of “yoke.” Instead of summoning images of joining together the dark and light of life, she’d invoked an egg.

This discovery kicked off rage, then embarrassment and self-doubt. But Stanley derailed the shame spiral by simply rolling out her yoga mat and trying to breathe. Nothing fancy. Just “steady, in and out through the nose.”

As her “breath whistled around the branches of (her) anxiety,” she felt herself softening. She began unbandaging the imposter syndrome “wounds” she’d been carrying for decades. By this point in her yoga practice, she’d grasped that “wounds need to breathe,” even those “you’d rather keep hidden.” Meditation offered her that space.

Stanley said she didn’t find her meditation practice until she stopped looking for it. Since then, it’s become her automatic response to stress and anxiety.

“Meditation isn’t something that’s only for certain people or certain situations,” she insisted. “It can and should be utilized by anyone who breathes.”

With chapters on loving yourself, yoga poses, cultural appropriation, “white guilt” and more, “Yoke” explores the “yoga of the everyday,” as she calls it, applying lessons learned on the mat to the challenges of living.

“Ultimately,” Stanley explained, “all of my work is about mindfulness.”

Q&A with Jessamyn Stanley

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CNN: You describe shaking off imposter syndrome by making space at the table for what you call your inner critic instead of trying to silence it. How do you do it?

Jessamyn Stanley: Making space at the table means being willing to open the door to what’s hard, messy, complicated or unpleasant. A lot of unhappiness comes from pretending and trying to sweep things under the rug. But lifting the rug is usually the scariest part. Shame is an impediment, a distraction. Making space for it can help let it fall by the wayside.

Many times, when you’re in a difficult situation that you just have to deal with, you wind up stronger on the other side, understanding how important the experience was. The trick is acknowledging all the feelings that come while you’re walking through it.

CNN: You recognize meditation as a significant part of yoga, yet for a while you thought you were incapable of doing it and hoped a loophole would let you out of needing to do it. How do you see meditation now?

Stanley: I used to think that my mind was too busy to find stillness. Meditation is often seen as what happens once the chaotic thoughts have settled. But it’s actually the whole process. It’s the trembling, the shaking, the thinking about a million different things.

One of the main reasons people say they can’t meditate is because their mind moves too fast. My thought is if your mind is not moving, that means you’re dead.

Instead of trying to force your mind into not thinking, try bringing to your meditation practice anything you’re obsessing over. Think about it all as much as you want.

Sometimes I’ll sit down with a whole laundry list of things that I want to obsess over. Then — this is the wild thing — I discover, wow, I really can’t think about everything forever. You get tired. It’s like wearing out a child.

If you want a kid to take a nap, you tell them to go run outside first so when you bring them back in, they can rest. So, let your mind go for a run around the block. Then let it rest. Meditation includes all of this.

CNN: Your description of meditation ties back to your concept of “yoke.” Could you explain what yoke means?

Stanley: To yoke is to bring together, to join. That’s what “yoga” really means: union. A lot of times we think of yoga as fitness. The postures help you link the body and the breath, but then you connect with your spirit. The practice of yoga is so much deeper than the poses.

Yoga honors the union between light and dark, bad and good, ups and downs — or, if binary is not your thing — bringing together and balancing all sides. It can be unpleasant to think about letting in every single thing, positive, negative and beyond. But without the dark, you can’t actually understand the light.

Recognizing that makes it easier to deal with the shifts that are happening in our lives right now. In the end, all we can really do is just appreciate what it feels like to be here in this present moment. Yoga happens every moment of life.

CNN: One of the shifts we’re dealing with in the US, and beyond, is a reckoning with White supremacy, which you address head-on in your book. Can yoga and meditation help address the wounds of racism?

Stanley: American yoga is the perfect container for us to deal with so many systemic problems. When you accept your faults and the faults of others, that’s yoga.

I don’t know that there is any other way for us to heal systemic racism without developing a practice of having compassion for ourselves and then reflecting that compassion to others. First, we need to accept that we sometimes say or do the wrong thing. Once you accept that about yourself, it’s easier to accept that about other people.

If we take the time to actually listen to each other, then we can hear that, wow, we’re ultimately all just scared of not having safety for ourselves and our families. That’s a very universal experience and something that we can all be sensitive to. If we believe all human beings deserve to feel free and happy, there’s a lot of common ground.

CNN: Awareness of what you describe as our ever-present divinity seems like another way to recognize our interconnection. Could you speak to that idea?

Stanley: Absolutely. We so often look externally for answers but everything that we’re looking for is already happening inside ourselves. Everything that you’ve ever needed was here from the very beginning.

Trust your intuition. Being vulnerable and honest and saying out loud that you failed, or you thought less of yourself or thought less of someone else — all of those are steps toward being able to listen to that voice inside you.

Yoga peels back the edges of your mask, pushing you to the edge of who you’re pretending to be, introducing you to the luminance that lies beneath. You can find the answers to life’s biggest questions within that light inside you.

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