Move More... But for the Right ReasonsThe Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos
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- 25 Jan 2021
Moving more is great for your happiness - but many of us decide to exercise because we're unhappy with our bodies and long to change them. What should be fun and life-enhancing often becomes saturated with self-loathing.
Jessamyn Stanley identified as a "fat and awkward weirdo", who shied away from exercise until she realised that it was her own body-shaming that was holding her back. She tells Dr Laurie Santos how she decoupled her love of yoga from the corrosive idea of transforming her body - and in the process became an inspirational teacher and author for those who think exercise isn't for them.
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On the face of it, moving your body should be a really good New Year's happiness for most research shows that exercise makes us feel good. In fact, one study showed that a half hour of cardio a day could be as effective for reducing symptoms of depression as taking an antidepressant medication. So I should applaud the fact about half of us intend to exercise more in the new year. The problem is I worry we're kind of not doing it right. For many of us, hitting the gym isn't about enjoying ourselves or feeling better.
It's about looking better. It's about not really liking our bodies and trying to get them to look like the ones we see on Instagram. But could there be a more compassionate, more happiness inducing way to get our bodies moving and one that could help us achieve a bigger well-being boost than we think? Of course there is. So if you're ready to learn how to be happier through movement, then join me, Dr. Larry centers for this final New Year episode of The Happiness Lab.
You know, I think that there was a time that I did really enjoy movement.
This is another one of my heroes, Jessamine Stanley, I used to love just like running around in the yard and like run a lap and ask my mom to time me just so that I can know how fast I am. Or like, I would just try to turn cartwheels just because I can just simmons', childlike love.
Moving her body was pretty short lived because, like me, Jessamine grew up as a chubby kid, or as she puts it even more bluntly in her book, Everybody Yoga, a fat, occasionally smelly, supremely awkward weirdo Jessamine quickly learn to fear all things fitness like gym class and that awful lineup where you get picked for dodgeball teams and that trauma inducing eight year old rite of passage of sit ups, push ups and sprints, the presidential fitness test.
I don't know if this is a thing for you if you did this test in grade school, but I remember that a component of the presidential fitness test was running a mile and I was the very last person in my class to the point where if memory serves like either one of the other kids in my class or the teacher came back to join me and I was so mortified and I felt so totally insufficient and that directly impacted me, never wanting to do sports at all.
I used to on the way to field day in school, like try to look for holes in the ground so that I could turn my ankle in a hole so that I could claim that like, oh, my ankle hurts.
And now I can't do feel like I went out of my way to not do physical exercise as much as possible because I was so worried about keeping up with other people and really just at a bare level, being good enough and hating your body when it came to kind of gym class and the presidential fitness contest, that was part and parcel of not liking aspects of your body and your identity generally when you are growing up, right?
Exactly. I definitely felt as though I was insufficient that as a fat black woman, I didn't see any representation of my body at all where my body was not the punch line.
And this was in the era of like Jennifer Love Hewitt and Christina Aguilera and the Olsen twins. And there was definitely this very pervasive idea that being small bodied, small featured having blonde hair or brunette hair, basically just having like really short hair was very important, but certainly not having dark skin, big lips, really kinky hair. None of those qualities were represented. And so I just felt there was something fundamentally wrong with me. And honestly, I felt as though there would always be something fundamentally wrong with me that really, even if I did lose weight, those changes would never be enough because I just fundamentally was not good enough.
Even if you weren't a fat kid, you may be able to relate to this sort of low grade self-hatred just means talking about that deep sense that there's something bad about you that you need to fix. We feel deep down that will only be happy once we've lifted enough weights or run enough miles to get that new idealized body. But all of that is a lie that your mind tells you. And that's the important lesson that Jessamine Stanly learned when that she now teaches to millions of people around the world.
Her early forays into the world of fitness involved all the body hating that many of us are feeling when we make that kind of exercise more New Year's resolution. But she was able to break free from all the body shaming in a way that transformed her career and her overall well-being. But as you'll hear, her journey wasn't a quick one.
My very first yoga class was when I was in high school. My aunt at the time was obsessed with Bikram yoga, which is a style of hot yoga where you practice twenty six of the same yoga postures over a 90 minute period.
Jasmine's Aunt Traci was the epitome of nineties glamour. She was tall and beautiful and everything teenage Jessamine thought she wanted to be. So despite her reservations, Jessamine joined her on for that first ever yoga class.
I remember it like it was yesterday. I went into the studio and it is extremely hot. It's like somewhere between 100 hundred to 104 degrees, kind of depending on how sadistic the teacher is. Immediately I walk in and I'm just sweating in places that I didn't even know, human being sweat like I was sweating from the tops of my fingers. And this is before anything has ever happened like this is there's no posture's up in practice. And I was like, I got to be in here for an hour and a half.
And I mean, I made it, let's say, a third of the way through the class. I think I'm being too generous with that. But I made it about a third of the way through the class before I was like, I'm done. I don't need this anymore. I'm good. And they tell you before you go to a Bikram class not to walk out of the room. But I was like, these people don't know me. I cannot do that.
So I'm going to die. And so I walked out of the room and I learned a very important life lesson about why you should not walk out of the house because the transition in your physical body is so intense, going from hot to cold, that temperature change can bring on a lot of different physical experiences. And for me, it brought on a wave of nausea. And after when we left, I was like, I'm never doing that again.
And this is the worst.
It's bad experiences like this that discourage so many of us from making exercise a regular and fun part of our daily routine. We can feel ashamed or humiliated by our bodies and abilities or just discouraged because the aesthetic changes we so desire don't materialize right away. Fortunately, Jessamine got a second chance to find joy in moving.
I was in graduate school and I was going through a really tough time in my life that I now recognize is emblematic of being twenty three. Like I don't know who I am, what is the purpose of my life, what is going on? And one of my close friends, she had gotten into Bikram yoga and she was like, oh my God, you should come to yoga, you're going to love it. And I was like, I am not doing that.
I have done it before. I know it's not for me. And she got me caught up on a Groupon, though. She was like, what's the worst that can happen? You go one time you paid thirty dollars for this past, like, what's the worst? And I went and the interesting thing about Bikram yoga specifically is that I think of it as the McDonald's of yoga. It's literally like you could go anywhere in the world and get this practice exactly the same.
So nothing had changed. It was still hot as hell, hard as hell. Everything about it was the same. But I had changed, though I didn't realize that so much of what was making me unhappy and unsatisfied in my life was that I had created all of these boundaries for myself. And I made all these decisions about the type of person that I am and about what I'm capable of handling. And I never allow myself to step outside of those boundaries.
And yoga requires that you step outside of your boundaries. And it put me in these situations where I actually had to look at the way that I talk to myself and look at the way that I process information and be like, you know what I know I decided that I'm not going to be able to do this, but maybe I'm just going to try the example that I think of often, especially that first class back. I remember we were practicing a posture called Awkward Pose, that is literates so aptly named because it is extremely awkward.
I was watching everybody around me just like sit down into this posture and it looked like they had all practiced it together beforehand in Bikram yoga. You look at yourself in the mirror, so I'm looking at myself in the mirror and which is traumatizing on its own because I literally would go out of my way at that stage of my life to avoid errors. I went out of my way to not look at myself, forced to look at myself. I'm looking at myself.
And I'm just thinking like, why did you even think you could come to this class? Like, you obviously don't know what you're doing and everybody here knows it and you can't even do this basic thing. This is like maybe the third or fourth posture in the class. I'm like, if you can't do this, then why even show up? And I had this moment where I was like, you know, you could just try. Maybe you just try.
But yes, maybe you're going to fall down. Maybe everyone in the room is going to know that you don't know what you're doing. Maybe the teacher is going to know that you don't know what you're doing. And maybe that's just got to be OK, because did you spend this money to come to this class to just stand here and talk shit about yourself? Because you could have done that at home and that moment, that breaking point to this day, ultimately, that is why I continue to practice yoga.
It's a cracking open of the spirit. It's being able to I think of it a lot of like it's like you're looking in a foggy bathroom mirror, a mirror that you fogged up and like just swiping across it and seeing your actual reflection back at you. And it was so profound for me in a way that I certainly didn't walk into class thinking I was going to experience Jasmines inside of noticing how she was really talking to herself, kept her going back to that hot studio.
But eventually her group on ran out and she was out of work and out of money. She couldn't afford the yoga classes that were teaching her so much. And she started backsliding to that bad emotional place. But she decided to fight back.
And so literally one day I just rolled out my mat in my living room and I like pushed I had to push all the furniture out corner of the room. And I really didn't feel confident practicing any postures that were outside of the postures that I knew like. So I would practice the same like eight to ten yoga postures from the Bikram sequence. And I just became my medicine. I'm a yoga and I feel comfortable doing this without a. You're watching me, this is great, but then over time, I became more and more obsessed with the practice and wanting to try out postures that I saw on the Internet.
This was back whenever Instagram first came out because I was practicing at home. I wanted to be able to receive feedback from other people, but I was also very scared to take photos of myself because I was so afraid to look at my body. And when I first started taking the photos, I would take them at really random angles. I be like, no, I think this ankle is my good side, so I could shoot it from here.
But after a while I was like, I can't even see my body. Like I have to do something. So I had a timer set up on the camera. I have like 30 seconds to hold the posture while it takes four photos. And in that moment when I'm in the posture, I be like, oh my God, yoga's amazing. I feel incredible. I'm lifted up to another place. And then I would go and look at the photos and I would just immediately start talking shit about myself.
I'd be like, oh my God, look at my belly, look at my arms, look at my chin. Like every negative thing that everything that I thought was negative was getting picked at and scrutinized. And it took a really long time, like I would say, months before I started to really question that. And I would be like, no one else is here saying these things about yourself. Like, I you know, we always want to blame the media.
I want to blame my family and I want to blame my partner. That's why I hate myself. No, I'm looking at these photos. I'm saying these awful things about myself. This is me. I have to own that. And if I'm the one saying these things about myself, are these things that I really believe about myself, like it turned into this whole space for therapy. But again, I didn't go into it thinking like, yes, I'd like to have an emotional or emotionally complex relationship with my higher self.
No, I was just like, this is dumb. I hated that aspect of it. But it really opened up so much for me in terms of just being able to understand where self-hate resides and that it's something that I have to own as an individual. It really helped me to understand that I am a body shamer at my core, like how an alcoholic is an alcoholic forever. I'm a body shamer forever. And all I can do is just be aware of it.
I can just know it and see it and I have to accept it about myself. But I think that had I not started that practice of photographing myself, then I would never have started that conversation.
When we returned from the break, we'll try to figure out how being ashamed of our bodies and exercise got so intertwined and how we can all begin to separate them out again. The Happiness Lab. We'll be right back. Start your morning with the news that matters by listening to Axios today, a new podcast from Axios. I'm your host, Niala Boodhoo.
Give us 10 minutes and we'll give you the latest scoops from the White House and Congress. Analysis on the economy, insights into the forces shaping next week, next month and the next five years. You can hear us every weekday on X.com or wherever you get your favorite podcasts. Through photographing her own fat body and tough yoga postures, Jessamine Stanley began to realize that fitness could be about feeling good and loving yourself just the way you are. In the years since she's turned the simple insight into a mission.
She's now a world renowned yoga instructor and author of the book Everybody Yoga. Let Go of Fear. Get on the mat. Love your body. As one article put it, she's now become famous for everything, yoga instructors are not supposed to be black, queer, messy, unapologetically fat, and she swears a lot just means used her yoga practice not to achieve some perfect body, but to accept and allow her imperfect reality to be there just as it is.
And in doing so, she's realized that a more self compassionate approach to exercise can be an important way to boost your health and your happiness. When you look at people who are extreme athletes, people who run ultramarathons, they're not doing that for their health. They're not obsessed with that experience because it's like, oh, my God, my body is going to look this way. No, they are working out deep psychological truth. So they are having a spiritual experience.
And I think that the more that we can approach fitness from that perspective of just wanting to get inside yourself, just wanting to touch something that is a real it's really ultimately coming back to that experience of being a child, that experience of just running around the block just because it feels good, not because there's any kind of goal or any kind of expectation. You run around the block, you try to turn a cartwheel, you swim in the ocean, not because something is going to change about you, but honestly to honor who you are right now.
And this is something that really isn't talked about in the mainstream with yoga, because in the mainstream, yoga is only about fitness. It is postures that you practice for exercise. I think that what really shifted things for me was understanding that yoga is really a spiritual life path.
I love to dive into some of these benefits because I think they're so powerful. So I mean, one of these approaches about thinking of yoga, not just as fitness, but as kind of life changing, is to recognize that yoga really is about mindfulness. It's about being present with whatever is going on. And this is something we talk about a lot on the happiness lab, that being present even for negative stuff, is good. This is the kind of thing we need to do is to work on allowing and so, you know, talk about how that works.
And yoga either as a practitioner, as a teacher, when you're holding these postures, that might not feel great in the moment, but the act of allowing that like, how does that change you?
It really, I think, allows you to see life as being so much more than it seems on the surface. Let's take a posture like ChipMOS, for example. You look at a posture like chair pose and it's like, what do I need to do? I need to turn my thighs toward one another. I need to engage my core. I need to fall down backwards while also sitting upright. I need to lengthen out of the crown of my head when I'm feeling challenged, when someone is pushing back against me at work, when I feel like someone is being mean to me, those are the same things that I need to do.
I need to pull into my core. I need to try to fall down backwards, but also stay upright. I need to lengthen up to the sky. I need to pull. It's all of these ideas that seems theoretical and that seem like philosophical, but that are really actually very practical. And I think it makes it easier to deal with the parts of life that are really hard, really, really hard and complicated and that are not meant to be anything other than that.
Like, I think sometimes in life bad shit happens and you think this isn't how things are supposed to be. Things are supposed to be good. I'm supposed to be happy. This is wrong. And what yoga reminds is that everything in life is not good. Everything in life is not happy. You need for things to be hard so that you can actually strengthen from the inside. So practice the things that you do when when things get hard, pull into your core drawer, your butt cheeks together, whatever the things are, practice that in the moments that feel emotionally hard and you will be strengthened as a result.
In yoga, we talk about it as a top us and top us. It's many definitions, but I would loosely define it here as fire and that we step into this fire that is burning away the pieces of ourselves that don't need to be there. And you think about how anything becomes strong. So anything becomes honed and deepened. And it is always through intensity, it's always through things being complicated and messy and unpleasant. And really, it's just are you OK with that?
Are you willing to get OK with that? Are you willing to take the tools that you have in your arsenal to withstand that intensity?
I love that you brought up chair pose in this capacity because that is one of the poses that any time one of my yoga instructors is like, let's go through chairs secretly in my head. And my first reaction is like, I hate you.
Why did you do that? Then I have to turn on the sort of voice that I talk about a lot on this podcast, my sort of stoic voice that says, no, I invited this. You know, this is a nice challenge. I didn't want to just go through this yoga class and just flop over. Right. I invited this. So I could work through it and allow it, and so it's great to hear that that's such an important part of it.
But for me, another thing that yoga gives me is it allows me to to experience my body, not just in terms of the way it looks, but in terms of what it can do. And that, for me, has really been a game changer. And it's one of the reasons I love following your practice and practicing with you. Right. You know, sometimes when we're engaging with any kind of activity, we can get sort of obsessed with how our body looks in that moment or what our body is supposed to be doing.
And I think one thing about yoga is that it really allows you to sort of see your body flexibly, to kind of understand better what it's doing to pay attention to it in a way that I never had with any other kind of movement practice. But I think one of the things I loved about practicing with you, we had this wonderful opportunity to practice together at a retreat in Montana, was that you also, as a teacher, really encourage people to, you know, listen to their bodies and allow their bodies to be however their body has been?
One of the poses I've often struggled with is a Gomo Cassana or Kalfus, where you kind of squashed your hips over one another. You kind of like leg over leg and then you kind of bend over to stretch. And immediately when my body gets into that position, my stomach is in the way. And I take the you know, it's so hard for me to be in that posture without saying like, oh my God, my stomach is so big, why is my stomach here?
I'm doing it wrong. And the first time I did that posture with you in your class, you said, and if your stomach isn't in the way, move your stomach out of the way, like make space for your stomach because your stomach is going to be there anyway. And this was like a bomb went off in my head of like, wait a minute. Like, I can still practice this posture with my stomach in the way it's OK.
Like it's good to take up space. And so you talk about the kind of freedom that you give to your students by kind of acknowledging that, you know, yoga is for everybody.
You know, I think that it is the great benefit of my life that I have had to learn how to love my body, learn how to love a body that society has actively told me not to like, because it allows me to have more empathy with the fact that everybody is having that experience or feeling like not good enough or that something is wrong with their body. Because when you started talking about that with Gomulka, I was just like literally the reason that I know that and feel that is because I feel the exact same way about that posture.
Like I it is one of the most challenging postures for me. It's something that I've been extremely critical of myself about and very judgmental. And it always comes down to just accepting it exactly as it is exactly as I am right now, so that, like, maybe my legs are not crossing over each other entirely. Maybe I'm using a block man resting my foot on a block, maybe my fingers are not pressing together. Maybe I'm just trying to even get my arms somewhere near one another.
And that is OK. I'm OK exactly as I am right now. And in addition to that, I think that getting OK with exactly as you are then opens the door for this idea that you were saying taking up space and that idea of taking up space has been a game changer for me because I don't know about you, but I really try to make myself small all the time. I'm like trying to take up as little space as possible. And it's not just physical space, it's emotional space, spiritual space.
It's like I don't want to encumber anybody else by existing. Like, I don't I don't want to offend anybody else with my existence. And that I do talk about a pervasive idea. It seeps into everything. You can't do anything because you don't want to take up space. And so just allowing yourself practicing, taking up space in the yoga practice, the effects in the rest of your life, it resonates in a way that words can't express. It becomes about something that it's not just about a yoga posture at all.
Like if you can practice taking up space in a physical posture, you can take up space in the rest of your life.
And another way, I think that kind of coming to terms with your own body and your through your yoga practice can be really profound in terms of increasing your happiness is a way that it kind of connects you with the rest of the people out there. Right. I mean, I think, you know, like allowing my body to be just as it is on the yoga mat allows me to see that everyone has these critiques of their body. You talked about being a permanent body shamer and body shaming recovery.
But I think, you know, secretly, most of us are right. You know, if I don't like how I'm doing, oppose it means I just kind of share common humanity, would like basically everyone that's ever tried yoga or any fitness thing in their life, or if, you know, maybe you're perfect in the fitness realm, but in a different realm, you're kind of feeling shamed. And so kind of talk about what that sort of connection has done for you and your happiness as you've practiced more and taught this practice to others that it's been crazy and.
And I had so many assumptions about how other people experience life, I felt like it's only people who look different than the mainstream that feel uncomfortable with themselves. But the turning point for me, I hope I never forget, but knowing me, I probably will eventually let me say it now, while I still remember, I was teaching in London and it's this huge class, like hot as all hell in there. And it was like we were really getting into it.
So it's like it's sweaty. There are tears, lots of energy in the space, and we get to the final posture, resting posture. And I had to pee so badly it was taking up all of my mental space. I had a piece of that and I was like, I'm not going to be able to get out of this room before meditation, like I'm going to have to pee on my mat. So I peed on my mat in this class.
Right. So I'm feeling all this. I'm feeling a lot as the the teacher, as a practitioner. I'm feeling a lot. And the class is over and people are coming up to say thank you and say goodbye. And this guy came up to me. He just looks like a like a model, just like a very traditionally attractive white guy. And he comes up and he's just like, oh, my God, I want to thank you for this class.
It really means a lot to me. I've been feeling so down on my body and he just launches into this whole emotional tale of what's going on with him and his body. And I really hope that I processed anything that he was saying, because what I thought in the back of my mind was like, you have body issues to this. Wow. Like, I was really like, damn, this isn't everybody problem. You know, like we think about it probably because of the way that body positivity as a concept has been co-opted as something that is only for fat women.
But I think that because of that misunderstanding of like who needs to feel better about themselves, we miss that. Like everybody has this. And this is a universal issue. In fact, I would argue that people who see themselves reflected in the mainstream are more likely to feel uncomfortable with themselves because they feel like they have to reach that standard in a way that if you don't see yourself represented, you can just be like, well, the options are I can either get used to this or die.
So I guess I'll just get used to it. And so I think that there's there's like a low key freedom there that can get forgotten. But for me, it has been really transformational to understand that every problem that I have with myself is a universal problem and that everyone is struggling with themselves and it might not be struggling with your physical body and might be struggling with something in your emotional life or somebody who's in your life. There's always something that is holding someone hostage from themselves and really being able to understand that has been, I say, transformational, but that just feels so small to me because it has been it's really changed my worldview, because it makes me understand that if I am able to accept myself, then I can reflect and from there reverberate energy that allows for other people to accept themselves so that the more that I can accept myself, the more that I can lean into my truth, the more that it can resonate in ways that I will probably never understand.
Like I will never understand the impact fully of making space for even one person to be comfortable with themselves because that person is going to influence another person and then so on and so on.
And this is one of the most powerful concepts that we're talking about in this mini season, is this idea of self compassion. Right? Like kind of giving yourself some grace can feel selfish, but ultimately it's one of the biggest gifts we can give to the people around us, because if we allow ourselves some grace, that means that we're naturally extending grace to other people who who need to give it to themselves to. I think that's one of the reasons, at least when we practice together in Montana, you ended your class with a wonderful phrase, and I thought it'd be a nice ending for this this mini season on self compassion about the light in me, sees the light in you, but the darkness in me also sees the darkness in you as the big man, because it's like it's not about changing anything.
I was just saying to my partner the other day, like I spent so much time trying not to accept something about myself and but just trying to change it. I'll be like, I don't need to look at that because I'm going to change it. Whatever the thing is, it'll be like, yeah, I don't I don't need to look at all of that. I'm just going to change it. But how can you change it if you don't look at all of it?
All you're doing is just making a bigger mess. And so really being able to see that like, no, there is darkness inside of me. There is pure darkness and I can. See that darkness, and if I make space for it, I can accept that darkness. And the beautiful thing is that when I accept that darkness of myself, I can accept that darkness is somebody else, if everybody else, because it is in everybody else. And those who know there is none among us that get away from that darkness and that the darkness has to be there, or else how could the light be there?
There's this assumption that comes with being a person who's on a journey of self acceptance, that there's an assumption that like, oh, well, that she's got to figure it out. Like you figured out how to love yourself and how to be OK with everything. And so and I just do not find that to be the case. I think that I'm on a journey for the rest of my life to accept what the universe has brought me. And I think that the more that I can just accept that it is an ongoing journey and that there will always be new ways that that journey looks, the more that I can accept that, the better, because it's never going to end.
I'm so grateful that I've discovered specimen's yoga practice, she's really helping me break that link in my mind between exercising and some dark urge to change my body. Now it is when I roll out my yoga mat, I'm trying to be more OK with how I look and to concentrate instead on how the poses make me feel. But that's because yoga is my thing for you. It could be something different. Running, hiking, cycling, it doesn't matter.
What really matters is that the goal of exercise should be that it brings you some sort of enjoyment and happiness. It shouldn't be some panting, sweaty ordeal of self-loathing. With Jan coming to a close, this is the final episode of our New Year season. I want to thank all of the experts who came on the show. I hope we've convinced you that self compassion can be a much more powerful weapon in our happiness arsenal than most of us usually think.
The happiness lab will be back this spring with more of our happiness lessons of the ancients, we look at what we can learn from the spiritual and philosophical thinkers of the past. And until then, I'll ask you to do just one thing, which is be kind to other people, but never forget the power of being kind, caring and compassionate to yourself. The Happiness Lab was co-written and produced by Ryan Dillie, the show is mixed and mastered by Evan Viola and our original music was by Zachary Silver.
Special thanks to the entire Pushkin team, including me, Ollabelle, Maggie Taylor, Carly Migliore, Heather Fain, Sophie Greenmarket McKibbon, Eric Sandler, Jacob Weisberg and my Agent Bendamustine. The happiness lab is brought to you by Pushkin Industries and by me, Dr. Larry Sanders.