Personal Essay by Jessa Voos
No Place Like Home
I did not want to leave Los Angeles. I did not want to move back to Kansas. Manhattan was a place I had intentionally fled from years ago, vowing to never call it home again. I was returning to my birthplace pregnant, cold (Kansas is really chilly compared to sunny California) and with massive amounts of reluctance.
At the time, there was essentially no yoga, no yoga community and no real yoga studio in my home town. Yoga, especially in my time in Los Angeles, had become my daily routine, career and passion. Manhattan offered me none of those things. I immediately missed my life in California and was jealous and bitter about my Los Angeles yoga friends and their daily pictures, posts and social alerts regarding their successes. My husband recognized my struggles and talked me into the idea of opening a studio, thinking it would help my state of mind and also be good for the Manhattan area. I fought him. I fought him hard. I was determined not to continue along the road that was being laid out before me. My argument was that I had no idea how to be a studio owner. Heck, I didn’t want to own a studio. All I could focus on during that time was what I thought had been taken away from me, what I had lost in my move, what wasn't here, that was so abundantly there. Most of my days were NOT spent taking on the responsibilities of running a studio in Kansas, but plotting on how to get back to Los Angeles. I was slipping down a hole quickly.
In fifth grade, I walked into my homeroom to find dog biscuits on my desk and the entire class barking at me. The "woof, woof, woof" of the students cut me deeply. When I went to tell the teacher she didn't believe me and ignored my pleas for help. The kids saw my "tattling" and the teacher's rejection as an opportunity to continue to torment me without repercussion. I spent much of my youth in Kansas fighting off insecurities, bullying and trying to find my way. I was quiet and a little pudgy and not very good at school. I think I was an easy target, or maybe the cliche, an obvious one. This didn't help my schooling and I was constantly worried about what kind of daily abuse might be waiting for me at school.
A year later fortune smiled upon me. I had an amazing teacher who gave me the confidence to pitch myself as the class president. As I presented my "platform," many of the bullies mocked me, making faces and muttering insults. I'm pretty sure my teacher felt sorry for me because I "tied" that election with the most popular kid in class and we shared presidential responsibilities. There is no way I tied that race. Similar acts continued pretty much until I graduated high school. One of the "cool girls" took me under her wing so I was seemingly part of the in - crowd. I was a cheerleader, had an older "it" boyfriend and had turned into a good student. But playing the part didn't fool anyone, really. They could see right through me and knew I was still uncomfortable in my own skin. Despite my many accomplishments I still remained an easy teasing target. My insecurities and my huge desire to fit in, to belong, caused me to compromise myself. I would find myself doing anything for anyone if I thought it would bring me their approval. I would offer to do all the work in group projects if it might mean they would like me. I would pay for someone's lunch if it brought the slightest gratitude. I would bend over backwards for anyone and put what I needed to the side. I would let my friends blow me off and not say anything about it. I was a doormat.
Every June, I attended summer camp in Northern Minnesota. Here, removed from my tumultuous daily life, I got a glimpse of what I might one day become. No one from home went to this camp. They didn’t know me as "Jessa", the girl that got picked on. I could let down my guard, be silly and act how I wanted to act without the fear of being judged. I remember feeling so liberated, more happy and comfortable in my own skin than ever before. I was forced, both by others and even myself, to become so restrictive in my actions at home. It felt so good to have freedom to take off the amour at camp. The negative result of this newfound joy was that I began to naively think the answer to continuing and maintaining the feelings of freedom would require me to escape my situation back home. Safety came if I ran away from Kansas. Manhattan was the root cause of my suffering. Not me.
Ignorance to truth is a powerful shield. As soon as I could, I ran from home. When I finished high school, I left my small town, but still didn’t have the strength to make it very far. So I went to a university 90 miles down the road. College was a different experience entirely from high school. I made great friends and started to find a little bit of confidence. My college friends didn't know me as the girl that had been the center of kid bullying for years. They thought I was funny, smart and cute. I had never been cute before. All of these "Jessas" were new for me. With each positive encounter or experience I was able to shed a bit more of the protective armor I held so tightly and become more of myself. That small shift gave me the strength to move further away from home.
Nashville is where I was first exposed to yoga. This hippie dude that I knew through friends recommended I try yoga, specifically Bikram style, as a way to heal my knees from running. I remember thinking he was slightly crazy to think that yoga could heal my knees but the sever pain from countless miles of repetitive motion and my love for anything physical made me game to try. Like many people who come to yoga as workout junkies, I really liked sweat and routine, Bikram quickly became my passion. Even though I practiced regularly, I still didn’t know what about yoga had “hooked me.” I think a lot of people feel that way when they first start the asana practice, they feel stronger and calmer, but aren’t sure why or how this was achieved, so they keep coming back to look for the answer.
At this point in my life I was still searching internally. I was looking to find ME and kept looking in the wrong places; bad relationships, bad friendships, bad work environments. I still found myself acting as a doormat with people. The cycle within me of "needing" friendship or approval from those I knew deep down brought me no real benefits persisted, even though most of the time I didn't need to sacrifice myself in those ways.
Yoga helped heal my knees. My body, somewhat freed of pain, returned to running. I ran the same route on Belle Meade Blvd, usually just made one lap up and down. One day on my run I made several passes up and down the street completely lost in my thoughts. I couldn’t stop thinking that I didn’t feel whole. The entire run I questioned every aspect of my life. What am I doing? Where should I go? What is my purpose? All early - something - 20 - year - old questions. Anxiety and dread hit me quite hard. I even prayed about my questions. When I returned to my apartment from my run, I turned on the television for some background noise, as if the chatter in my own mind wasn't enough. The first thing that came up was a commercial for California. The tag line read: “find yourself in California.” There, before me in a trivial ad, was the excuse I needed to try and escape again from my demons. Sold. I’m going to California!
Once I arrived in Los Angeles, things happened quickly. I started practicing yoga with fierce determination. My daily practice led me to a 200hr teacher training at YogaWorks, which soon after became full-time teaching. I immediately loved (and still do) teaching. Before I arrived, the Los Angeles yoga community looked so shiny and perfect. It seemed to be everything I had read about. Beautiful people, teaching beautiful shapes and postures, packed classes, healthy living, good feelings all around. I was totally sucked in and loved it. I attached myself to these beautiful people that made beautiful shapes. I tried to teach the most challenging, creative asana I could. Everything seemed a perfect fit.
Yet, in the face of all this “goodness,” I still felt a disconnect. Something was missing. Emptiness and insecurity still existed within me. I began to kind - of - maybe - sort - of begin to understand a little more of the yoga philosophy, at least a rudimentary understanding. The mysterious good feeling I received on my mat began to fuse with what the bigger picture of what yoga was, could, and hopefully might, become for me.
Looking back now, I know I was still clueless. At that transitional time, however, it felt as though things were starting to click. This connection caused me to begin to view the LA yoga community differently. I could see where some of the teachers I knew were not living yoga but only trying to look like it. I began to get frustrated with my friends and fellow teachers when I could see them being hypocritical in what they said in class versus how they lived their own lives. Don’t misunderstand me, I definitely was not living “the yoga” either. Truthfully, I was back in high school. On the surface, I was getting to hang with the “cool kids.” In some ways, I had become a cool kid. But my desire to be accepted by the “in crowd of teachers” was so strong I started to realize I was compromising what internally didn’t feel quite right, but still could not put my finger on.
Although I felt this way, I still was determined to “make it” in the LA yoga community. I didn't really know why. Maybe I felt that I would finally be accepted by people if I could succeed in such a competitive place. Or maybe I was trying to prove that I was worthy of other's acceptance. I had found something I loved and was kind of good at and I wanted to be the best. I ignored the nagging feeling in my heart and worked my butt off to do everything I could to get teaching gigs. Rather than move away from the contradictions around me, I chose instead to dive deeper and even embrace them in my mad hopes to succeed. I was on a path and had no intention of deviating. Only apparently, that wasn’t my path.
When visiting Kansas one chilly Christmas I ran into a boy I knew growing up and we fell in love. I had, much to my surprise, convinced him to uproot his life and move to Los Angles to be with me and the life I had worked so hard to build. It seemed I had everything I had ever wanted. Just weeks before my boyfriend's move to California we discovered I was pregnant. In a second, my entire world changed. I was suddenly forced to make choices I had never planned to make.
We decided having the support of friends and family, raising our kids in Kansas, was the best option. Suddenly, I was going back to a place I swore I would never return to permanently.
I opened Orange Sky in a converted office space owned by my grandmother. The first year was incredibly difficult - no one showing up for classes, fighting people’s perception of yoga, teaching 20 plus classes a week that usually would only be attended by a few people, if any at all. I quickly found that I needed to adjust, not only my expectations, but my methods. People in Manhattan had never practiced the Los Angeles style asana I was used to teaching. If I was going to survive - and survival seemed uncertain at best - I had to learn how to teach beginners, which was not what I wanted to do and found very hard. I was faced with the reality that I was still holding onto my LA yoga mind - set. And on top of all that, I no longer had classes I could attend. I no longer had my own teachers to study under. I was the only teacher, teaching at my own studio, teaching all the classes while raising a new family. I was exhausted every day. My precious practice suffered neglect. I tried to do a home practice, but found (this has changed) that I hated it. Challenges began to seem the norm.
One day, magic happened. It wasn’t really magic, it didn’t happen in an instant. It had been there for a while, but it hit me all of the sudden and it felt like magic. Right in front of my eyes was this incredibly beautiful yoga community. An entire group of people that supported each other in the most humble and honest way. They set aside competition and judgment and let each other shine. People from different backgrounds, professions and life experiences gathered together and connected in the studio. They knew each other because of the studio. A true feeling of love filled the space. The moment I witnessed the magic I was overwhelmed. I saw a reflection of myself in this yoga community. I witnessed people conquer fear and get physically stronger. I had countless people tell me how yoga was healing their bodies and souls. I listened to people talk before and after class to one another and share their yoga experiences and life stories. People laughed and cried and hugged and came together in an honest way. There was no armor people were holding onto. They weren't trying to prove anything. They were genuinely their raw selves and loved for it. I suddenly felt I was right where I was supposed to be. What I felt on the inside was finally connecting with what was happening on the outside. I was open to what was happening in my life and the goodness flooded in. Great teachers came into my life. They taught me so many lessons, that before, I probably wouldn’t have been open to absorbing. I became a better mother, teacher and yogi.
In order to find what I was looking for within myself, I had to come back to the place that I fled from. All my travel, my running, my fear, my experiences, taught me there wasn't a real need to escape. My return home provided me with the opportunity to understand yoga and myself more completely. I know this path will continually change. There is more to learn, more to discover, more connections to be made, more mistakes I will make, more work to be done. My understanding and knowledge today will be different from tomorrow. But today, in this moment, I feel more connected than ever before. There is no place like home.
Photography & Art by Lindsay Morris & Josef Hoflehner & Marc Quinn & Nidaa Badwan & Eric Meola