How This Yoga Superstar Overcame Anxiety & Depression

mbg Contributor By Leigh Weingus
mbg Contributor
Leigh Weingus is a New York City based freelance journalist writing about health, wellness, feminism, entertainment, personal finance, and more. She received her bachelor’s in English and Communication from the University of California, Davis.
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When Jessamyn Stanely first discovered yoga back in 2011, her body was stiff and inflexible. She was prone to bouts of anxiety and depression, and sleepless nights were not uncommon.

But a regular practice promptly changed her body and mind, so she decided to share this transformation with others by becoming certified to teach and sharing the details of her practice on Instagram. Six years later, she's the author of Every Body Yoga, out this month.

We caught up with Jessamyn last week to hear more about what kind of impact yoga has had on her life and how her practice has evolved over time. Here's what she had to say.

1. Yoga has made it easier for her to deal with the ebbs and flows of life.

Yoga allows me the space to see that the good and the bad of life are supposed to happen. Life is not supposed to be pretty all the time. It's not always going to be filled with rainbows and sunshine. It's complicated. You learn from both the good and the bad.

I'm prone to very extreme mood shifts and depression, and to me it's very important to have a constant reminder that yeah, all hell might be breaking loose, but it's cool. I can handle it. So I try to be OK with the fact that the good and the bad are going to happen.

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2. Yoga has helped her sleep better.

Yoga allows your mind to find your calm. I'm prone to really bad anxiety and not being able to sleep as a result. It's so weird to think about it now, because it doesn't happen as much anymore. And that's because of yoga. When I was in graduate school I had so many sleepless nights because I would stay up, my mind working.

Even now, I'm sure my life looks glamorous and fun, but it's also busy and complicated. I'm wearing 20 hats at one time. I really think I would be even more prone to anxiety now if it wasn't for yoga. But because I'm constantly focusing on breathing and meditating, I'm able to breathe my way through it. If you can find your breath, you can fall asleep.

3. Yoga helps her stay in the moment.

Yoga requires that you find the present moment. Most people who are ambitious, driven, goal-oriented—you're constantly thinking about the future or past. Not what's happening right at this moment. There's such a tendency to feel like the present moment isn't good enough. But in order to practice any asana or meditate, you have to be in the moment.

Some people will say, "Oh, this pose or that pose is really hard for me." This difficulty comes from not being in the moment. You might have the strength to do forearm stand, but instead you're in dolphin pose with one leg up. You're not going to be doing the pose if you're not present. It's about accepting that this is the moment you're in."

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4. It's not all about "nailing the pose"—but that's certainly a good feeling.

Those moments—when I finally get into a pose that once felt impossible—those moments are why I continue to practice. That's why I keep moving forward. When I first started practicing, even chair pose and downward dog seemed impossible. Camel pose was so tough.

Seeing the progress grow over time and seeing things change makes it worth it. It's the day when your body goes just an inch forward more than it did the day before. And you're like, "Shit, I never thought that was going to happen and it's happening now!" It's the little moments that make the big difference for me.

5. Yoga has made her wiser.

If I could go back to my adolescent self, I would tell myself to chill out and work on being the best version of you. But then at the same time, I really would not take the opportunity to go back and tell myself those things. It's important that I had those experiences, and I'm not living on somebody else's timetable.

I thought of it when you thought of it, and that's when I was always going to think of it. If I hadn't had so many negative experiences, I wouldn't be able to do the thing I can do now. There's a lot of beauty in the pain, the damage, the sadness.

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6. Yoga has helped her understand her needs better.

When I first started practicing, I was obsessed with asana. But more often than not, what we need to be doing is sitting and breathing and releasing the things we don't release when we're out and about. Now it's evolved to be more of an adaptation of what I need for that specific day. Depending on the day, I would try to practice for at least two hours, and if I was taking photos after that it would be four to five hours.

Now I'm in hotels more often than at home, and I'm trying to figure out how I can get what I need. Now, my meditation practice has become more important than my asana practice. But I still love asana. I usually get about 30 minutes per day. If I can get an hour, that's amazing. You may not have time for 90 minutes of ashtanga every day, but you may have time for 20 minutes of yin or 30 minutes of iyengar. For me, it's about figuring out what I need on that day. It's about the application of things I absorb on the mat.

7. Yoga has changed her body. But that's not what matters.

My body has changed really dramatically via yoga in every single way. But we tend to overemphasize the physical ways our bodies change—yes, I've become stronger, more flexible, more agile.

While that's obviously a good thing, I think the more important change has been my mental state. It's very hard to accept when things don't go the way you think they should go. The time when my practice is most valuable is when I'm caught between a rock and a hard place or I'm angry, and I figure out a way to react differently and be in a state of calm and find the present moment. That's when it's the most beneficial.

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