It's health and wellness month here on Papermag.com. Below, Meredith Graves talks with yoga teacher and activist Jesse Amesmith on how you too can begin a lifelong practice.
Jesse Amesmith knows she doesn't fit most people's idea of what a yoga teacher is "supposed to look like."
"You see pictures on the internet of very fit, very white, sometimes very blonde women doing yoga," she says, "and that's the archetype, this suburban rich person who looks a certain way in their activewear."
Short and strong with half-ginger, half-green hair, Star Wars and Game of Thrones tattoos peeking out from under the ankles of her pants, she's made it her mission at Yoga Vibe, her newly-opened studio in Rochester, NY, to break down harmful stereotypes about yoga that have become pervasive in the west, and make the practice more widely accessible.
"All body types can benefit from tuning in and paying attention. Some of the most beautiful practices I've seen come from bodies that you would not expect to be doing yoga, because there is no type of body that does yoga," she says. "It doesn't matter if you're fat, thin, strong, if you have big thighs or strong arms or a lot of belly or no boobs — It really doesn't matter. Different poses are going to speak to you differently."
She often teaches classes that cater to new students, many of whom come in thinking that yoga could never be for them. "The first misconception that shows up is that you have to be a certain way to spend time in your body, and that's not true.
"Or that you have to have fancy yoga pants," she adds. "You don't need fancy pants to spend time with yourself."
Yoga, according to Jesse, is fundamentally a practice of being OK with who and where you are in the present moment, whatever that may be — which means that anyone and everyone, everywhere, can practice yoga. Here, she breaks down some fundamental truths of the practice for us, which will hopefully encourage you to get on your mat and spend some quality time with yourself today.
You can start right now, wherever you are
"People think they have to be ready to do yoga. Like, 'I'm gonna start yoga, but there's some preps first.' People think you have to already be fit, or you have to be a vegetarian or a pacifist or into new age spiritual stuff, and really, I think that it's limiting. What we forget is that yoga, at its core, is really about being OK with where you are regardless of what that is. We're not trying to always feel good, because that's false, and we're not trying to dwell in what's wrong, because that's false too. It's really more about, 'I feel crappy today, and that's OK,' or 'Wow, I feel really good today,' and that being OK too.'"
You don't have to be flexible to do yoga
"You know those Batman memes where Batman is slapping Robin? I always think about that. 'I can't go to yoga because I'm not strong or flexible enough,' and then Batman is slapping Robin saying, 'Well, that's why you do yoga.'
"You go to yoga to gain those things. Some people show up on the mat already flexible, and they aim to work on strength so they're not just tugging at their ligaments. Other people are really stiff and their muscles are stronger by nature, and those people are better at a standing balance or a strength-holding pose. We're not trying to be good or bad or feel good or feel bad. We're not trying to be super flexible or super strong exclusively. There's an interplay. You go to yoga as you are and work on what there is to work on, regardless of what that is."
Every body is a yoga body
"No one is more deserving of connecting with themselves than any other person. There's no such thing as a good yoga practice or a bad yoga practice as long as you're paying attention to what your body needs and what feels right to you. There's not a good type of body for yoga or a bad type of body for yoga, there are only bodies doing yoga. These poses, these shapes, these postures, they don't exist without someone to do them.
"If you're like, 'well, I want to go to yoga but I need to lose some weight first' — I don't want to say that's silly, I don't want to diminish people's real feelings, because we live in a complicated world full of nonsense that tells you your body's not good enough constantly, but there's never going to be a better time. Yoga is cumulative. It's not like, 'oh, I went to yoga for a while and then I stopped going to yoga and I feel guilty and out of touch.' Every time you do yoga is better for you. You get more and more every time, and you get something different every time."
Yoga is so much more than asana
"Back in India, where yoga comes from, when yoga was first happening, it was really a system of meditation and a way of approaching your life and your inner realm. The physical asana — the poses that we do — arose from a need to be able to sit and meditate. So initially this calisthenic physical practice that we call yoga here in the west came from a need to be able to sit still longer.
"In the yoga sutras of Patanjali, one of my favorite phrases, right in the beginning, says 'Now is the time to practice yoga.' As in, you've already started practicing yoga. I say to my students, to myself, to my friends, sometimes not doing yoga is doing yoga. We equate this physicality, this getting into asanas, sweating, having a good old fashioned American workout as how we do yoga, but really it's a system of eight things that make up how to be able to sit with yourself longer."
You don't have to do difficult poses to get something out of your practice
"The more you practice, the more you realize it's not about feats of strength or collecting poses like Pokémon cards — which is one of my favorite things to do, but no cookies or medals are awarded for floating crow. You can post a picture online and get a bunch of likes on it and that's its own form of social currency, but what I get out of learning a new pose or doing something really physical is the knowledge that I'm strengthening my relationship with myself. I now know where my strong suits are, I know what I need to work on. I'm paying attention to my breath, to where my fingertips are. And I know that it's because I've worked hard that I'm able to learn something new. These are the things that make yoga, yoga and not just calisthenics."
Guidance is good…
"It's really helpful to go to some classes. There's a lot of value in having that first-hand experience where you're tossed into the fire, so to speak — you're trying stuff and keeping up with a bunch of other people. My teacher says, if you do some cat-cow spinal waves and move your back, you do a leg stretch with a strap and some down dogs, really, you're going to feel better. Moving your spine, stretching your legs, opening your shoulders — just that little bit is enough."
… but you can (and should) go it alone.
"When someone says to me, 'I have some yoga experience, I've gone to a class or two, I want to get into a home practice and I don't know how,' the first thing I tell them to do is not bite off more than you can chew. Saying 'I'm gonna practice yoga for 90 minutes by myself every day' is something that takes a lot of discipline. I practiced on my own for like 70 minutes today, and it was hard. Even as a yoga teacher, as someone who's been doing this for ten years, I reached a point during my home practice where I didn't know what to do. So I said to myself, 'ok, if you can't figure out what to do next, you have permission to lay on the floor and roll around until time is up.' And even just giving myself permission to do nothing gave me an idea of what would feel good next.
"In trying to not bite off more than you can chew, my advice would be to start with 20 minutes. Give yourself 20 minutes on your yoga mat every day. A really great way to do that is by making a 20-minute playlist that you're familiar with. Have a song that happens at the 10-minute mark that you know means it's time to wind down and spend some time laying on the floor. Commit to being on the mat for 20 minutes, even if all you do is some down dogs, some shoulder stretching, some lunging. If I could go back in time and discipline myself in one way, it would be that way."
Don't be afraid to reevaluate your practice around your needs
"Balance is a verb, not a noun. Balance isn't something you can hold in your hands and say 'Look, now I'm balanced.' Just like anything in life, the wind shifts, your hips settle, your shoulders crunch, whatever it is, and you have to reevaluate that.
"One of the awesome things about yoga is that there's like a million different styles, there's a million different teachers teaching a million different ways. If you go to a class and don't click with the teacher, or you hate the music that they play, or you think they're not very smart or they're saying things that make you feel ashamed about your body, that's not you and yoga. That's you and that facilitator.
"I've been to classes that I couldn't care less about, or that upset me, that were full of other people who liked and enjoyed it. I would encourage people who have gone to a yoga class or tried a video they didn't like and had a negative experience to get up and try again, to pick someone else, another studio, because there's a kind of yoga for everybody out there. In 2016, more and more, that statement is becoming more and more true.
"In the studio that I run and teach in, we have a body love yoga class that caters to all shapes, sizes and abilities. The woman that teaches it is Curvy Yoga Certified, and we have yoga chairs for people who can't sustain a lunge yet, or people who need assistance sitting while they're stretching or opening things up. Stuff like that is popping up more and more.
"On the flip side of that, you never know what's going to work for you, so even if you think you need one thing, work on not prescribing that to yourself — being open to the idea that you could go to a million yoga classes and like a million of them, or two of them. You're allowed to not like something even if other people think it's great."
You can practice yoga without cultural appropriation
"Be aware of where it all came from. If you go to a yoga class at the YMCA, or your gym, or even at a yoga studio, it's worth the 40 minutes on the internet that it'll take you to read about the history of yoga, to read about British Imperialism and the Raj and how they took the people's practices and tried to turn it into a militarized thing. The British Raj didn't want just anyone doing yoga. They wanted their army of young Indian boys doing a system they developed.
"One of the ways yoga spread to the western world was because Indian practitioners were like, 'no, fuck that, fuck imperialism, this is for everybody.' And it spread in this way that's really interesting to learn about, especially in England where, when yoga spread, it was suddenly all rich white ladies doing it, which is so — not ironic, that's not the right word, but telling. One of the ways to decolonize yoga is by making it accessible to people who aren't just rich white ladies. Recognize that.
"Not telling people how they should be feeling and not telling people what's going to happen to them when they do yoga is an important part of making the experience more universal for all people. Not just different races but different genders, sexualities, lifestyles. What you get out of it and what I get out of it are different, and inevitably we're not going to get there at the same time or in the same way. Recognizing that is the most important."