Overview: In this episode of the Humanitou Podcast, Jessica Patterson shares some intensely shaping experiences in her life and where her feral spirit comes from. We talk about yoga as a homonym, how the word, while it looks and sounds the same in its uses, conjures different meanings for different people and leads to common misperceptions. We talk about how we construct identities and realities through language, and the essential value of taking a reverent pause. And we explore how to hold a perspective of hope and not to get swallowed up in this challenging season of despair. These things and more in this episode of the Humanitou Podcast.
EP 87 SHOW NOTES, LINKS & TRANSCRIPT
Connect with Jessica Patterson:
On Being with Krista Tippett: Gordon Hempton episode
The Bhagavad Gita (via Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver)
Connect with Adam Williams & Humanitou:
Media Kit for Humanitou
“Tupac Lives” by John Bartmann | freemusicarchive.org
Hi. I’m Adam Williams, creator and host of Humanitou, a podcast that empowers connection through conversations of humanness and creativity.
Today, I’m talking with Jessica Patterson, a teacher, writer and yoga therapist … among other things.
She is the founder, owner and director of Root Center for Yoga & Sacred Studies in Colorado Springs, and continues to teach nationally and internationally, as well.
Jessica also is someone I consider to be a mentor to me and a friend … which makes this a particularly rare Humanitou conversation.
I’ve talked with more than 80 people for Humanitou in the past three years, and Jessica is only the second person I’ve talked with who I have known and had prior relationship to outside of this Humanitou experience.
The first was my wife, of course, Becca Williams, who was my guest for the inaugural episode of the Humanitou Podcast.
Having trained and apprenticed with Jessica as a practitioner and now teacher of yoga, I have had so many opportunities to have lengthy conversations and to ask her questions.
Here, we’re finally recording one of those conversations to share with others. I think what you will hear in this conversation is a meaningful session with an especially intelligent, light-filled teacher and human being.
Jessica shares a wealth of knowledge, things that will resonate with wherever you are in your lives. In fact, I recommend you consider grabbing a notepad and pen to keep handy as you listen.
To finish setting the stage here … This particular exchange with Jessica took place all the way back in November. We’d intended to share it as a readable Q&A on the website, which is how Humanitou started. It was still months before the Humanitou Podcast and studio would come to be, and months before we’d self-isolate with covid-19-induced stay-at-home orders.
We sat on the couch in Jessica’s living room. I hit record on my phone. And we dived into what the two of us often talk about: the practice of yoga and how it applies to the very human, very real experience of actual daily living, as well as how it applies to the bigger picture of life.
In this conversation … Jessica shares some intensely shaping experiences in her life and where her feral spirit comes from. We talk about yoga as a homonym, how the word, while it looks and sounds the same in its uses, conjures different meanings for different people and leads to common misperceptions.
We talk about how we construct identity through language, and how we create realities through our words rather than merely reflect our realities with what we think and say. We talk about the essential value of taking a reverent pause, and knowing the wisdom of stillness in action and action in stillness.
We talk about a lot of things, as typically happens in these conversations. And Jessica also helps me work through some pains in my life as I try to make sense of a world gone mad, and try to figure out how not to get swallowed up in despair, rather how to shift to and have faith in a perspective of hope.
And finally, as you listen to Jessica’s insights of humanness and creativity, which of course is what Humanitou is all about, I’ll ask you to consider the question I usually put to listeners at the end of each episode: How are you living humanness and creativity in your life?
Here is my conversation with spiritual teacher and more Jessica Patterson.
Adam: Is there a particular shaping experience in your life? Something that has shaped perspective, how you see your own humanity, maybe, community in general?
Jessica: (00:03:25) Well, it’s interesting, because I do think that so many of the formative events for all of us are the ones that sort of strip away, or, at least really challenge, a sense of identity, and in that process yields a more authentic, real, resilient identity.
But that process, right, for most of us is pretty– it can be pretty grueling. So I say that, because I think they’re also really beautiful formative experiences that give a different nutrient. And so it’s, and maybe, it’s maybe not easier to point to the formative experiences that I’ve had that were apart, but that it’s so much clearer to me how they shaped me, and they shaped me by throwing into question who I thought I was.
So if I’m speaking about, as you know, I speak a lot about the death of my father and it’s bigger than, it’s bigger than the death of– the death my father was plenty — but it’s bigger than that, because, right, in that process is the realization that you’re going to lose everyone you love.
(00:04:35) And it was so sudden, and he was so young, comparatively, that it, it, it made me very aware of how I might lose everyone. So that, that for sure drove a lot of the yogic experience for me in terms of having a way of staying connected to something other than the forms that come and go, and we can speak more on that, but–
But prior to that, I mean, I would say another really major experience in my life was graduate school. I was doing essentially nonfiction writing, it just, the MFAs where I was, uh, only had fiction or poetry as options. And that’s not that, that’s not what I wrote.
(00:05:38) So to do what I did, we had a separate program called communication development, and from those classes, and from that, this like, paradigmatic shift in thinking, it was this realization that who it is we think we are is so often constructed and conditioned patterned by culture and power structures. You know?
And so my writing went in the direction of challenging a normalized, naturalized, violent, quote-unquote human being. And this is were “Unbecoming Human” all came from, that was the name of my master’s thesis. That experience, I spent, you know, a good, in writing my thesis, I was researching the naturalized violence against the most invisible of the most invisible, which would be farmed animals.
The ones whose entire being is reduced to products, you know, the way we talk about their bodies and so forth. It’s fairly easy to get people to pay attention to, or acknowledge, sentience or have awe or respect for something exotic, someone exotic I should say, because that’s my point is that in language violence happens first. And as soon as you say a being is a thing, now it’s just a product, it’s just not good.
Adam: (00:07:01) Do you mean violence happens first in the language we use?
Jessica: (00:07:08) Yeah. Which is to say it in my circuitous way, right, in our conversations. So my graduate work was about how we construct identity in part through language, which creates a reality and doesn’t reflect a reality. And so if I’m steeped in a culture where the language only allows me to talk about men and women, then we have a very hard time acknowledging any other gender, right? Or any other possibility of identity.
So language is one of the first sites of violence. As soon as we refer to another being as an object, as an it, or a thing, we’ve already created that pathway. That work, that research, first of all, bearing witness to some of the most horrifying things, and, and also knowing that a lot of the violence against other humans in the world historically, in particular, has been drawn from the naturalized violence against non-humans.
(00:08:13) It was so barbaric and it was so hard to digest, coming back to yoga, my yoga practice actually became very, very important to me in graduate school, because I was commuting a lot, and I was witnessing and reading things that would keep me up all night, and just wreck my nervous system. And so I started practicing very regularly as a way of mitigating that stress, I mean it’s trauma, right? It’s very traumatic.
This is something I walked away with, as sort of an aside: I started working with animal advocacy organizations in that time, who I would do work, helping with communication, because, of course, when you’re the one on the front line and you’re bearing witness to something, whatever it is, you’re so horrified that the main reaction tends to be shrill and angry and horrified. And while that’s valid, it’s also not effective in terms of trying to educate people.
(00:09:21) Yeah. And also, for me, the educational strategy of just shocking people, what it does is it traumatizes people a lot. And having had this experience where I’m watching video footage or I’m, and I’m reading accounts and what, and what you’re watching, so what your senses are taking in, or you’re reading and it’s, and it’s so awful and brutal, of course, and this could be true in any sort of advocacy, right? But what you’re watching is so brutal and you, and somewhere in you, you know in that moment, there’s nothing you can do for that being.
So we get into these sort of general, uh, you know, now I’m going to change my diet or now I’m going to put my money to this cause, or now I’m going to go volunteer and do that. And, and that’s productive and it’s really powerful. But somewhere in us, we know that we just watched that individual being, you know, we watched that orangutan, we watched that cow, we watched that pig get beaten to death with a pipe, you know.
And I think what it does is it, like, a part of us just cannot, because of the deep compassion and the, this is for me, this is the heart of yoga.
(00:10:12) We’re so deeply connected. And we feel things so deeply, but if we don’t have a system or a way of metabolizing what we feel, then we compartmentalize or we push it away. And we say, “I just don’t want to know.”
So I became somebody who was very interested in, how do you educate and encourage change in a way that isn’t just about shocking and paralyzing people through the utter horror or guilt, you know? Like, when I would work with groups that almost the sort of implicit message of their communication was to guilt people into, it’s like the Elvis philosophy, you know, um, “don’t be cruel.”
(00:11:28) The foregone conclusion is that if not told to not be cruel, that will be cruel. And I believe that there’s actually this deep intimate kindness for the most part. How do you access that? So that someone feels that as their natural state and makes different choices.
And so for that, that period, I would say my graduate school, my graduate work and challenging naturalized violence against non-human farmed animals, meaning that this idea that what it is human being is acted out on other bodies and historically has been, right?
So whoever’s been left out of the hierarchy of inclusion has included of course women and, uh, and people of color and, uh, you know, whatever, wherever the, the bar of inclusion, just, just lowering the bar and saying, “Okay, you’re human,” doesn’t challenge the structure of it, which is that it’s all predicated upon a certain conception of what it is to be human, and that kind of human being I had no interest in, which is why it’s unbecoming, unbecoming something, unlearning patterning that tells us that it’s natural for humans to do this, it’s inevitable.
(00:12:50) And these same conclusions, “so this is natural, this is inevitable, this is normal,” is what I feel like I challenge all the time in yoga. It’s just a different platform. It’s a different forum to get people to, to pause and question, “I understand this is how I’ve been, but is this the only way I can be?” And, um, and that began in graduate school.
That began in this questioning, discerning the difference between what we have been habitualized to, how to be in this world, the way we perform. And if you spend any time, if you even have the opportunity to spend any time in a culture different from the Westernized, um, consumer based, right, all of that, think of particularly indigenous people who have had the, who’ve been able to maintain some sort of continuity without the interruption of this, the conception of what it is to be human and one’s place in the world is so different, and offers different, it allows for different opportunities of relationship with the world and one another that feel, and I’m not saying that in a homogenized way.
I just mean, right, as soon as I investigate other possibilities of being, something in me comes alive. It’s when it feels inevitable, and it feels hopeless, that I think we, we lose that engagement.
Adam: (00:14:38) You and I are open to this idea of different possibilities, what if– the things that you were just saying. And then there seems to be, at least perception of a sizeable population of people in our country and in the world that are, that seem opposed to possibilities. I would say, maybe it’s simplification, but the willingness to conserve what we’ve always said, that status quo, “status quo,” there’s nothing else possible.
So to me, there’s an openness, a softness, a willingness, a curiosity. And then there’s also, I don’t know if there’s an opposite to that, or just a plain closedness to that. And I don’t know how to make sense of that. And I see that being a big part of politics and culture in our country now. I’m curious from a yogic perspective on what we are going through and experiencing, and– This is all so complicated. There’s so much to it.
Jessica: (00:15:44) So on one hand, we’re just acknowledging what is, what is happening, what is actually happening. And this, I’m going to do this again, but I’m coming back to what you just said, because one of the things that I think is, uh, critical in any of this work, and I, and I feel like is so critical in the quote-unquote yoga world, is an understanding that, while theoretically and philosophically, we may acknowledge certain principles at work, say, for example, “all things are connected,” which the Western sciences would agree with. You know, things are connected, or, or we could say, you know, “We’re all kin.”
These sorts of things that you hear that become really easy memes in the world, and the problem with it is it doesn’t account for the material reality that the way identity, politics and politics itself, and institutions of, of white supremacy and, you know, whatever it is, how it plays out differently on different bodies. Right?
(00:16:58) So, so, uh, I hear a lot of fluff in the white yoga world about, you know, we’re all, we’re all the same. And that’s a white-privilege thing to say, because on a different body, a different skin color, different sexual orientation, a different, like, whatever it is, if the identity is at all closer to periphery than center, how the world reads and writes that body has material consequences that are very, very real.
And what the spiritual or philosophical principles I think can help us to do is to ask, “Is this the only way we can be?” And that question then, holding, like, “Is this the only way we can be” and honoring, and this is how it is right now is I think sometimes really missing from a lot of the, the discourse of the softer, more open, because it just wants to say none of it matters. And that’s one of the most offensive things, as I’ve paid attention to what it is to be a conscious ally in any advocacy or in any movement.
(00:18:02) If I want to be a conscious ally of our indigenous people in this country, um, to say that race doesn’t matter, it matters to those who’ve been, whose bodies have been written and read in particular ways that perpetuates it, right? So my point in that is that I think that, here we’re in this very volatile discursive that’s driven by belief systems. And when you talk about, like, those who hold on more and more to the status quo, may think in our lives, “How am I like that?” where I am most rigid in something not changing is where I’m most afraid. And I’m not saying that that, you know, you’re not going to necessarily wrap your arms around a Make America Great Again person and say, there there, I know you’re afraid, you know.
(00:19:07) One of the questions that, I think, helps us navigate it is, can I acknowledge that there’s something that’s going on underneath what’s being said? When you think about when, when you were in training, and we talk about this in terms of, as a yogic thing that a certain belief system, a certain kind of codified or concretized belief system is like a blueprint. And it doesn’t really matter what materials you keep using. Meaning, you can change the words around, but you’re going to keep scaffolding the same structures. And it’s not until you get a different architect or different, you know, different engineer– I’m not sure where the metaphor drops off here. (laughter) I’m not really sure if who’d exactly address that, but the point that you need a different blueprint, and that is this sort of deeper, subtler work that I don’t think happens when we’re cast so far– It’s overwhelming, if I look at what’s happening in the country or the world.
(00:20:10) But I can turn to this, like, where change happens in the most deeply localized level in actual communication, actual relationship with people, these, these subtle shifts, someone opens up to something I’m seeing, something differently, seeing their spouse differently, seeing the person begging on the street differently. It doesn’t have the immediate sort of dramatic effect that we all long for so often, but it’s that incremental change, right?
And so that’s, that’s what I think I’m, I, that’s how I hold hope even as I have– And this is another thing I don’t generally get into publicly, or, you know, because I feel like what I’m an advocate for and where I have the most power as a voice is in people feeling safe to be vulnerable about what scares them or what they want in their lives.
Like, for me, it’s this, it’s very easy, the onslaught of what we’re witnessing and this polarization– yoga has always been a, well, I shouldn’t say– some yogas and yogic philosophies are about challenging that the polarity’s a true polarity, right? And, like, what people are driven by, I think, is actually far– can be more similar than what it looks like on the surface.
Adam: (00:21:53) There’s often this idea that yogis don’t engage in politics and advocacy, right, because the idea of, “I’m supposed to be just peaceful.”
Jessica: Yeah. Neutral.
Adam: That’s where pain and suffering is. That’s where people who need what yogis contribute in the world. So go to that, be an activist, be an advocate, be part of this. And, so interestingly, in the last couple of years, since I have, you know, since RootEd for me, since I’ve become more a part of this, and engaged in this practice and these things, I’ve probably felt more hope, in general, more like what I can do can actually change the world, but that’s extremely localized, it’s within me, that what I do and these ripples give me more a sense of what I am and who, you know, who I am in the world matters more than I ever thought before, where before I might’ve just been like, what does any of it matter?
Jessica: (00:22:50) Well, I think, so if you remember in the Bhagavad Gita, you must act. And just today, I think it was on one of the accounts– Is that what you say, is one of the accounts? I follow on Instagram is one of the First Nations advocacy groups. And it was, um, something that I don’t, I don’t remember, but it was essentially that silence itself, that silence is acquiescence type thing.
And that reminded me of this, right? That it, like, this, we get so overwhelmed in part, just to be fair, like, in part, because we are, we are literally inundated with information and awareness that we have not yet developed an actual capacity to make use of. That’s where I do think yoga practices become vital.
This stuff is coming at us, and that’s not going to change. And so how do we create an internalized system? How do I become, how do I develop some kind of equanimity and clarity so I can be responsive in the world instead of reactive in the world? That I can be creative in my responses, instead of just always the knee-jerk reactions?
You can’t be a yogi and not in some way be engaged in this, because you will become a sort of radical — at its best — a radical embodiment of these different possibilities, right? But the difference becomes, like, you can become a voice for things and advocate for things, which you also have to, you know, to this oft-quoted, and deservedly so, of Gandhi, like, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
(00:24:33) The most effective way that I ever have created change was not by telling people what they should be or how they’re doing it wrong, or that they should feel terrible about what they’re doing, but is in fact to be someone in whose presence, others feel called into something in themselves. And so that’s, I think, part of that. It’s not so much about do or don’t I engage, you have no choice. Even if you try withdraw from it, then that’s a kind of engagement.
And it’s a kind of engagement that often, I think it’s the Joan Halifax– I think it’s the Joan, it’s either the Joanna Macy or Joan Halifax interview with “On Being,” where they talk about– I think it’s Joanna Macy — this love for the world. And there’s so many brutal, awful things happening in the world. And we feel hopeless. We feel despair. We feel wrecked by it. We feel overwhelmed by it.
But she makes the comparison to, if your mother, you know, or whoever for whatever it is for someone — of course, that’s deeply touching for me — were sick and were dying, you wouldn’t not visit her because of that. You’d still show up. And I think that’s it, like, how do we connect to what we’re devoted to and keep showing up, even if in our lifetime or in this time, what we also have to bear witness to is how ugly it is?
(00:25:56) Like for me, what politics, the way it works in my life is the actual relationships. These ripple effects, you talked about the ripple effects, you know, like, if I can get clear and centered in my own being so that, if nothing else, I have a clear, I have a clearer perspective as I have to take action, that action will be more effective. People who are erratic and reactive and — what’s the term, I always want to say willy nilly but, you know, like I’m frenetic — frenetic is less effective, is less powerful, has less presence. So if anything, just becoming a clearer, more effective presence in the world creates a change, right?
(00:26:44) But also the flip side, the despair, the “why should I care, my voice, doesn’t matter,” or all of that? We are seeing the effects of that ripple. Like, that is the, if we want to put it this way, that is the karma, that is the unresolved action that we are witnessing at this time that we could trace back to all these other experiences.
Um, we don’t often take that bigger point of view, because there’s this tendency to idealize, you know, like even in the, again, in the political discourse, this is like, like, “Oh, things were great. And then they weren’t.” But if you really look, like, that’s just never been the case. And of course, speak to any of our, any of the tribes, and ask them like, “When was it last great?”
(00:27:48) But this is almost like it requires of us geological-level perspective with the urgency of the present time to call to action. But if you’re at, if the action we take is only ever informed by this moment, we’re so myopic in that, if we’re not recognizing the much bigger pictures. And I think, so it still is this dance to me, between the rigidity of institutions, the rigidity of ways of thinking, the rigidity of, um, systems that aren’t working and, and, and a strange often, and what we see is even people who are hurt by certain policies or structures have this dysfunctional devotion to them anyway, right?
(00:28:44) And/or this sort of, to the extreme, right? Chaotic, almost kind of an anarchic energy that starts to happen. And so, you know, like, a yogic teaching, like sthira sukha asanam, you know, a structure for its own sake is rarely beneficial. A structure that creates sukha is what we’re, we’re, we’re looking for that. Right?
So beginning with ourselves, because if you don’t, number one it will wipe you out. The despair and the ugliness of the world will just, it’ll take you out. But, and so if you want to, if you need to get up, like, you know, Krishna ,”Get up, you must do this.” And then you say, okay, “If I must do this, what do I need to do to be able to do this?” Right? “So what do I need to be, what do I have to do so that I can do this and not fall apart?”
And that is, I think the, the very– I feel hopeful when I teach a class and I, I happen to know, I look around and say, and of the 28 people who are there, you know, this person is a doctor and this person is raising kiddos, and this person is, you know, um, recently off welfare, and this person has just finished their last chemo treatment. And, and you see this community of people whose lives might not intersect in any other way all being attuned to a certain shift in perspective, and then carrying that into their lives.
And that for me is the, the ripple that’s in the long term makes a difference. You’re, like, how you are with your children and how you are with your wife, and how you are in your community. If we get too caught up, it’s like, if we get too caught up in the, in the drama, that’s happening, then we’re never actually present to what’s happening.
Adam: (00:30:56) This is an ongoing practice and action is inherent in that, isn’t it? So there’s, I suppose like a lot of things, there’s a spectrum here where my practice has to make a huge impact. That’s where I said, I feel the most hopeful, and I feel like I have the most impact I’ve ever had in the world, and that going off to be part of protests or things, okay, yes, that’s an action I can take, but that it doesn’t necessarily mean that.
Jessica: Right, well the–
Adam: (00:31:31) I feel like, if I don’t have me in this work, like, that’s the, that’s why I said the word “start.” That’s a starting place, is whatever this time is of this practice, because then everything goes from there.
Jessica: (00:31:43) Exactly. And it will determine how it goes from there, right? This is what you hear me say all the time.
So two things, one is the reverent pause. I know you’ve heard me use that phrase, but the reverent pause for me is the key action. And again, this is a teaching in the Bhagavad Gita that’s very poignant for me, is, uh, to the wise one knowing that there’s stillness in action and there’s action in stillness.
We are so often motivated by our chaos or motivated by our drama, or motivated by our reactivity that not only renders us less effective in our day-to-day, and in that, whatever that salient action we’re trying to take, what is it to be driven by cosmos, you know? What is it to be driven by stillness? What is it to be driven by, um, my dharma instead of my drama? What is it to be driven by my faith, my hope, instead of my despair?
(00:32:56) It doesn’t actually, for me, preclude– So it, what it does is it gives me, I will go deeper and further and go for longer, because I’m resourced. That’s it. So that’s what the main part of that practice is for me. But it’s life in general. Like, I have found when I had, when I was doing my research, and yes, I practiced and I had been practicing for a long time, but it was not the central part of my life, right?
And, and because of it, it took me to my knees on a daily basis, and I hated people, you know what I mean? Not specific people, this is the point. But it made me, like, so misanthropic. And so I just found every, like– commercials would come on, like a commercial comes on with a, with a, a pig as a character to sell pork. And it’s, it’s like, so flawed, right?
(00:34:01) So I would get incensed by these things. And my point is that the accumulation of those reactions will eventually, it’s like, you know, dirties the windshield. You can’t see, you just, like, you’re only ever seeing through that anymore. So you’re seeing through– everything is moved, moved by your, your commotion and your drama and your reactions, and all of those things are real, but, if you want to put them into real action, you need the reverent pause.
How unwilling we are, kind of, culturally in intimate relationships and friendships, and– just pause and take a breath and, and then respond. And so, if you could say, like, what allows me or you to feel more hopeful is that we’re not, we’re, we’re pausing a little bit and that’s not disengaging. It’s actually, it’s like taking the big, deep breath so you can engage with much more efficacy and, and care.
I think, there’s this funny thing. I know this is a yoga thing, but it’s also just a life thing. I hear people talk about vairagya, this term. And they’ll say “detachment,” you know, “detach.” They use all sorts of words around it. I know that’s what it, you know, that can be translated into non-attachment, but it’s not being attached to the fruits of something so that you can be deeply with the thing itself.
(00:35:38) And so what I see is this perspective that what it is to be a yogi or to be spiritual, or whatever, is to be totally disengaged from everything, which for me is just another way of talking about privilege, because the only people who can really disengage have the privilege to disengage.
But if instead you say, “What I’m not attached to is the outcome, and I’m not going to try and control the variables, so that I’m going to go into this with all I’ve got.” Like, think about that in a relationship. We can go toward one another, whether it’s an intimate relationship, meaning, like, sexually intimate relationships, all of these relationships, they’re intimacies, right? Friendships and communities. Intimacy.
But so if I could go toward that and say, “It doesn’t have to only look one way. It doesn’t have to only look one way,” which means I’ll keep showing up and paying attention to who you actually are, and I’ll keep listening to who you’re actually saying you are, and so forth, which is different than saying, it can only go this way. So for me, it’s this practice of resourcing myself so that I can engage more deeply in my relations, all my relations. In my family and my friends and my work and my community, and with lovers, like, whatever it is that I really engage, because I’m not like, “Oh, it can only look one way. There’s only one way this can look.”
(00:36:58) Allowing for different perspectives, and all of that, has a greater effect than you going to one, like, great, go to the protest. That’s great. But it’s like the difference between the person who just practices yoga once a week for an hour and a half, and the person who’s doing something every single day, like, the, the effect that will have on your children and therefore the ripple effect happens because we’re consistent in something. Not because we just do it once in a while in a big, loud way. The, the big, the big loud things are great, but they’re more powerful if you’re doing it all the time in subtle ways, too.
Adam: (00:37:46) I’m wondering about your, for you to describe yourself before yoga.
Jessica: (00:37:55) So, like, when I, of course, we’re always looking back through the lens of who we’ve become and who we are, but what I can say is, when I was little, growing up, first of all, I felt I had a great childhood. My parents divorced when I was very early and, um, there were, it was, my mom worked full time and raised the three of us and, and went to graduate school, and did all of that at a time when it was, you know, very sexist in terms of what she was paid, and all this stuff. And I had, I had the most, my, my mom and my family created, like, created– I had a remarkable childhood.
(00:38:36) And I want to give credit where credit’s due, because I know so much of what I experienced as a kid was because I had the safety and support and independence, and sort of, like, wild creativity in my family. Well, I spend a lot of time just running a muck in the woods where I grew up out northeast of Black Forest (Colo.).
And I should say I grew up in two places. I mean, I grew up as a faculty child at Fountain Valley School, which is a boarding school here. And we had on-campus housing all my life. And so would sometimes be on campus and then go out to our place out in Black Forest, which was real home. And then, and my mom eventually married my stepdad and he lived there during the week, and we would go back and forth.
(00:39:24) And then eventually after my sophomore year of high school, my mom and I both wanted to live in Black Forest and just commute. That’s all, that’s neither here nor there. But to say that I grew up in these two very different experiences than most people. One was this kind of strange utopia of almost like a commune, because of boarding school and the, and the, in the Seventies and Eighties, way more so than now. Right? First of all, there were, there wasn’t as much development around it.
So it really was, like, isolated out on the prairie. But all of these families, all the faculty of the place were like aunties and uncles, right? And we would just run like wild, we just ran around and did whatever we wanted, and we were always looked after and, right? So there’s that experience. And then there’s this experience of growing up way northeast of Black Forest, also back then, none of the development, which to this day breaks my heart, and I’ll get at that as part of who I am, and on 80 acres of forest, like again, just run around.
(00:40:29) And so I spent a lot of time– I’m very feral and that’s not changed. And when I got to college and lived in a dorm, but then, like, in neighborhoods and, like, houses next to houses? I’d not done that. I’ve never lived that way. And that’s okay. So unusual, a bit. I think that’s a huge part of why I am the way I am.
I’m really comfortable having big stags in my yard, but I get really weirded out if, if I feel like a neighbor’s just dropping by, you know, um, so I had a deep love for wild places as a kid. We had a cabin and at some point too, when I was younger up between Roosevelt National Forest and Rocky Mountain National Park, and the Pingree, near CSU’s Pingree campus up in the mountains, um, which is where we scattered my father’s ashes.
(00:41:30) And my, all my memories of childhood are, like, my best memories are memories of that. Like, being outside in the woods and imagining things make, like, imagining entirely different worlds. And, um, by the time– and I had this deep, profound love for non-human animals. Like, when I had, I had my allowance would go to Green Peace when I was a kid.
My best friend and I wrote a song about when the Rainbow Warrior got sunk, we wrote a song about the Rainbow Warrior, which was Green Peace’s ship. I also grew up in a very musical family. My, my parents were in a band together. My mom’s a beautiful singer. Father’s a great musician. I grew up playing piano. And then I played flute and clarinet, and I played guitar, which I still have a guitar. Um, I sang. So grew up as this very musical, creative– was an athlete. I played soccer from a very young age all the way through high school, and field hockey. Um, loved backpacking and camping and all of that.
(00:42:36) So, so all of these experiences, it’s interesting to me, because I remember being really young and sitting down in the woods. I have this journal somewhere, a little “dear diary” thing. And I had this realization, I mean, I think I was in fifth or sixth grade, and I wrote it this way — I should find the original — where a storm was coming in. And I knew that from the storm’s perspective, like, the way I was experiencing it was very much based on who I thought I was, but from the storm’s experience something very different was happening.
And so I think this deep love of the why of wild, um, uh, sort of feral spirit that never really quite understood why I’m supposed to be this way or dress that way or act this way, or any of this sort of, like, I don’t think I was properly trained how to be, like, you know, living that way. Um, so by the time I got to high school, what, the way I’ve always described as like I have this really magical childhood and junior high and high school were profoundly disappointing realizations.
(00:44:06) Uh, and it felt, like, it just felt, I don’t even know how to explain it, right? I think a lot of people go through that at that age. For me, it was just, like, all the magic got taken out in the world, and it felt just really kind of gross. And I, and I wasn’t terribly interested in it. And that’s probably when I gravitated more toward punk and this sort of, like, music and culture that rejected a lot of that.
But at the same time I had this spirit that just, you know– I took 30 days off of high school one year, and I would literally sit, I don’t know how, I don’t remember how I got, I think I was depressed, but I wasn’t. I was really just sort of disenchanted. That’s what I was. I was a disenchanted 16 year old. And I sat in the woods almost every day and just wrote and observed and just, it was, for me, like, I always understood Thoreau. I understood all of that. I didn’t understand how I was supposed to be a teenager. And I was so resistant to my training to be a particular kind of young woman or a particular thinker or anything. So I’ve always had this very rebellious streak, I guess. And that also continued to play out in my yoga training.
(00:45:39) Like, it’s great to learn a way of doing things, but I am not going to ever say, like, that’s the way, you know, this sort of disenchanted, like, “okay, I guess this is the way we’re supposed to be,” but I always had this rebellious streak, you know? So like my ex-husband, again, like, if two, if people meet the two of us back then in particular, we would seem like polar opposites.
But anyways, so I, you know, I got married and I, I mean, I started practicing yoga right when I went to college so that ,it was there. But in terms of when it became really solid for me was I was kind of living the life and I don’t have any regret, like the the marriage and the, I was teaching UCS, like what, all the different things I was doing were fine. But I think I was on that path of just being patterned into the sort of blending in, like, this is what you’re supposed to, this is what marriage is supposed to look like. And even within a marriage, this is what you, you know–
(00:46:40) I remember always railing at, like my, my ex husband would want to do chores on our days off together. And I’m like, bleh, “Let’s go drive to the mountains and go hiking.” He’s like, “But we’ve got to get this stuff done.” I’m like, “Why?” And I’m still like that, you know, “Why?” when we can go have this experience.
So I do think that prior, I think, um, as who I was, I’d become, you know, I was teaching, I was teaching writing, interestingly, I think this is the connection that I keep making is that who I’ve been in some ways has been very constant, but the forms that it takes has been very, like, so on the outside, it looks very different. But for me, there’s a very consistent, this love for the natural world, this connection to the natural world, this desire and this drive to do things differently. And then what happened when yoga became a much more central part of my life, that’s kind of a lifeline, when my dad died and everything felt thrown up in the air, was it gave me a way of doing all of that.
Adam: (00:47:54) I’m wondering if that is, or how much of that might have been, in hindsight, with reflection and these things, to recognize yourself as, you know, “I’ve been this.” Because I feel like I might be, within my own story, connecting some of those things.
It’s like, “Wait a second. Okay. Now I’m seeing,” whereas I might’ve previously, I probably have previously described some of that story as, “Oh, there was this thing. I was trying to fit in ‘shoulds’ and whatever.”
I didn’t like that. And almost as if I’m just now in the last couple of years, getting to be me when really, there really probably is that thread. It’s just, what did that look like? And what was my perspective on it?
Jessica: (00:48:43) Yeah. Or how did that part of me– I don’t like essentialism. So it’s not this, I don’t have this belief that everything’s always distilled down to some sort of essentialist thread. But I do think that there’s something that threads through our lives that in retrospect we realize has been pretty steady and, you know, and it’s aspects of us that a more spiritual part of me would say, it’s also the part that I think drives us to our own dissatisfaction. And this isn’t language that always works for me, but I think it’s a way of articulating it that can make sense is to say, on some level, you know, who you are really, you know, some people will call that your soul or your spirit, your true nature, whatever, is always insisting on a kind of, is insisting on you, is insisting on itself.
So like, I may have taken a job to do, to teach writing or whatever, and it’s not, that wasn’t a wrong turn, and it was like a necessary thing to do, but that, like, in our culture, it would be like, that’s your job, and the expectation, less so now, but generations before, and we certainly, you know, have been on the cusp of that shift where this expectation that you’re going to do one thing for a long period of time, um …
(00:49:59) So to be able to say, like, there’s something, there’s some valuable experience I had or you had within something that we did as adults and necessarily had to move away from it. And it’s, like, the same part of us that took us into it, and out of it, there’s, there’s something consistent in it.
Adam: (00:50:33) That, for me, actually has been part of the conversation with myself as I’m more recently, again, kind of looking at, “Well, I’ve been this all along.” Regardless of what the job was I had, or whatever. What I thought was happening that I didn’t like or was taking me away from this thing, that this wispy, vague thing that I didn’t know who I wanted to be, and whatever. You know, that language that we would use.
And so a question that I have, then, is what you see as to what your dharma or duty, or I think a lot of people would say, purpose, in life. And I think that’s a really big question. The purpose part of that. For those maybe more recent years where it wasn’t just do this one thing, have this one career, one, whatever, and retire when you’re 65 or whatever, and then you have your life. But rather, you know, there’s been this kind of shift to the idea of, well, let’s find purpose. How can we align the meaning of my life with livelihood, or whatever?
Jessica: (00:51:37) So, dharma for me is much more a question of how I am in the world than what I’m doing. And I feel in line with my how. And that’s why I’m okay with whatever form or forum it takes. If I can feel at peace with how I’m doing things, then I’m not so attached to the what. Like, I’m not the person who’s driven to have multiple studios, right? Well, we don’t even call it a studio, right, actually?
(00:52:10) And it’s not that I don’t care about Root. Like, I care so deeply about Root. I care deeply enough about Root to let Root outgrow me. Like, that’s my attitude, right? That’s the vairagya, so, like, my love for what I do is the quality with which I do it, not the thing I do. And so how I would answer that, like, do– I don’t, I don’t, I’m not very– It’s impossible for me to say what that is and really encapsulate it. And I think it would be impossible for most people to say about themselves without getting, without, you know, conflating what they’re doing with the actual dharma of it, as I understand it.
So for me, it’s the how. What’s been consistent in everything that I have done, and therefore– And when I say that, not because I’ve always wanted to do it, but I’ve been, how I’ve been kind of called into, or called myself into, has been this challenging of identity in my personal life, in my relationships and in my work, with this sort of possibility of– With possibility, right?
(00:53:22) So that’s, that’s kind of, like, what I do consistently. I did it when I taught writing, I did it when teaching women’s studies. I do it as a teacher of yoga. All along the way. Even if we’re like, “Oh, my shoulders will always be this way.” It doesn’t, you know, like, on any level we can say, we can challenge where we’ve confused our habit with our nature, and create possibilities to reclaim what’s natural about us, or what’s intrinsic to us. And that seems to be consistent in what I do and how I do it.
Adam: (00:53:56) You’ve mentioned yoga as homonym.
Jessica: (00:54:04) Yeah. Yeah. Yes.
Adam: (00:54:06) It’s not either/or. I feel like there’s such a vague, it’s all a gray area, in terms of all these interpretations of it. But to use two words: there’s yoga and use the capital Y with that. And then, what I look at as, to pick another point in their gray spectrum of things, “fitness yoga,” that perception that that’s as thin and narrow as the lane is: go to a studio, bend around, wear the brands, put photos on Instagram.
And how do you answer somebody when they say, “What do you do?” And for me, I struggle with this idea, because I feel uncomfortable with the idea of answering, “teach yoga,” among the other things I could say, because I know– It’s like, and I’ve had a few artists that I’ve talked with for Humanitou bring this up, kind of on their own even” “If people ask what I do before, I even say ‘artist,’ I just, I know what’s going to– I don’t want to say it. I know what’s going through their heads.”
And say “yoga,” and it’s a similar kind of thing? “Oh, they have their idea of what it means. And it most likely is not what I’m saying it is.” But it’s that one word, that homonym and how you work with that in a world that, I feel like, just kind of doesn’t get it.
Jessica: (00:55:34) Mm-hmm. This is what I ask of any teacher trainee or mentee, or anything like that. As I say, “Figure out what your definition of yoga is,” because that’s what you’re always actually doing.
The word “yoga,” right? For so many reasons, for these, sort of, cultural misappropriations and the dishonoring of certain traditions, and then, right? All the confusion around all these different traditions. And you’ve got this tradition, which says this, and this one that says that. And so that’s why — and that was Mark Singleton just to give credit where credit is due — and that in his introduction to Yoga Body is the one who suggests that, rather than refer to yoga, as in, like, they’re all pointing to the same thing, to say they actually sound the same, but they’re pointing to different things.
All right, so on one hand, I think that’s useful just as a heuristic. It’s, like, just a way of learning something to be able to say, like– Let’s almost just dispense with the word for a moment, and think about the why underneath any of these things and, and the how, right?
(00:56:31) So if I can say, okay, if I define what yoga is for me as, and, and the two definitions that have meant the most for me all these years, the one being Sri Brahmananda Saraswati’s “yoga is the state of missing nothing.” And you’ve heard me say that over and over and over and over and over again, because it’s so resonant for me, that I know that what I’m actually teaching and practicing is that experience of oneself as whole and capable, and therefore completely equipped to engage in the world and do meaningful work, right?
Like, and the state of missing nothing, that you’re not checked out all the time, are just so deeply ingrained in your habits that you’re missing your life, right? What I say, the performance of a life instead of presence in our life.
And then the other definition, um, really from Mark Whitwell, “yoga is direct participation in life as life itself,” that that’s what it is. So I take these definitions to say that’s what I’m really doing.
(00:57:31) And there are cohesive, time-tested ways of experiencing that, because in both those cases, even if I just take those two definitions, say, are you whole, are you whole and missing nothing? Yes. Do you feel that all the time? Nope. And fair enough. Why would you. That yoga is the direct participation with life as life itself in the expression, the fullness that you are, that the beauty and the function, and the intelligence of the cosmos, as Mark would talk about, right? Is this true? Are you in fact that yes. Do you feel all the time? Nope. Fair enough. Why would you?
So that’s what I always say. Like, there’s what I’m really practicing or what we’re really teaching. And then there’s this recognition that those can be facts, just like your relationship, your dependency on the sun. The sun is life itself. We’re not 24 hours a day, seven days a week aware of that connection.
(00:58:33) It doesn’t change the fact. So there are facts that we’re not aware of, that we don’t have, we’re not embodying, we’re not experiencing in our relationships and in our thoughts. And so what I’m practicing are ways that allow that experience to, to be, uh, to have that experience more often with less effort to hold the charge of it.
Like what happens when I hold the charge of my wholeness, I interact in all my relationships very differently. So when people ask me what I do, and I say, “I teach yoga,” the other part of that is, like, if someone automatically, assumes that all I do is teach stretchy, bendy stuff, I’ll meet them there.
Because I’ll say, you know, the whole purpose of the, of that experience is for you to disrupt the patterns your body. If you’re habitual in your body in a particular way, you’ll only experience yourself that way, and you’ll say, “This is all I am.”
(00:59:29) So even stretchy, bendy stuff does its job, and still can be in the service of these definitions, right? And you know me well enough to know that I, I have no problem then, telling someone like, “Look, that part of yoga is one aspect of a whole apothecary of practices from which we can draw and, and effect, change, and effect healing, or, uh, catharsis,” whatever it is that someone thinks that they want from it.
So, you know, but I have a zillion, different conversations with people about when they ask what I do and just, you know, it’s fascinating to me. I was on a plane coming back from California, and I was sitting next to this elderly couple who were really sweet, because they were holding hands a lot. But I had my big noise-canceling Bose earphones on, and I was listening. I was relistening to the Gordon Hempton interview on On Being, because it’s one of my favorites where he talks about the last quiet places, right?
And I was madly taking notes as I was thinking about all sorts of stuff. And at one point there was a pause and it, I have the noise cancellation, but I could hear them. And I heard him say to his wife, “She must be an executive or something, she’s working so hard.”
And it made me laugh so much inside that, from their perspective I’m, like, working. And in my perspective I’m, like, I was working, but it wasn’t, it was not like this is an executive, you know, like, I’m writing about the fact that human hearing evolved to be most attuned to bird song. That’s what I was writing about. I wasn’t writing, like, I wasn’t doing my bookkeeping. You know, I wasn’t doing sales. I wasn’t trying to market my training program, you know.
I was fascinated that our, that the evolution of human hearing had, it was attuned to bird song as an indication of a healthy environment. And I just thought was a funny– So if I had said, “I’m a yoga teacher,” where that conversation would have gone, you know.
You know, in simple ways too, I’ll say, “I really just am someone who teaches and helps people reclaim something of themselves through their breath, through their physical posture, to the way they relate to people through the way they think, to the way they care for themselves. And sometimes we stretch and bend.”
Adam: (01:02:06) I will sort of, I, I think this is a sign of, I don’t want to say amateurism, but lack of experience. I don’t have the experience with, formally with the practice and the teaching things that you do, obviously.
And I suspect that that is part of what continues to confuse, maybe even nag at me sometimes, but it also comes from my personal experience that I think you might remember, that whatever it is, getting close to 15 years ago now, when I, I think that’s when I went to my first yoga classes, and it was in a studio of a gym.
It was in, it was in a fitness gym. And in my perspective, and in hindsight, still, even though it gets a little fuzzy now, the experience was entirely one that was physical. And that teacher was pretty young. And I say that only to say, so just by math, probably a bit limited in experience herself, when she asked me once what I thought of class. “Well, I’m not sure about the physical parts.”
Because, for me, I would go run. I would go lift. I would, I would do physical, physical, sweaty things. That was the way I wanted to connect physically. So I’m only seeing it as fitness. And it’s the only way I feel it’s being presented. But I said, “I like the meditative qualities.”
And I had at times worked with meditation and read things, and whatever with that. So I was interested in these things and dabbled in that over some years. But the conversation dropped dead right there. And I did not go to another class for more than a decade, easily.
And so it’s from a personal place, as well, that I feel this sort of– I want people to know there’s more to this, and I don’t want to come at it from that immature and amateur sort of place of, let’s get on a soap box, and let’s just yell it, right?
Jessica: (01:04:12) Right, right. Well, I, there’s two things that come to mind on that–
Adam: (01:04:16) It still is the homonym thing.
Jessica: (01:04:19) Yeah. Well, actually there are three things, so one is– four things!
Okay. One thing is, in fact, you’ve been practicing yoga all your life. Your body and your breath have been in this merge, this union, always. They’re one thing. Without one, there’s not the other. They’re one thing. Yoga, right? So there’s that. There’s the, the, the, maybe the more important things like teaching asana can be just the kind of dumbed-down gymnastic, exaggerated body contortions for its own sake, for sure.
And that, that’s just, that’s fine. Like, that’s, I mean, I say dumbed down, cause that’s what my teachers said. You know, and it’s sort of like, “Let’s take all the yoga out of yoga,” and then, you know, like, “I like everything about this, except the yoga part.” Like when people are, like, I don’t know about the spiritual–
Adam: That’s why I’m saying, “capital-Y” yoga and fitness yoga.
Jessica: (01:05:28) Right, yeah. So if we say that, but, but what I would say is that there’s a generous place to also say that, um, one can– Okay, the purpose of yoga, this is what Indu Arora would say, “The purpose of yoga is yoga.”
The purpose of running may be something else, right? So if you’re calling a practice, a yoga practice, and Sharon Gannon, we used to say this too, if you want to call it, if you want your asana practice to be a yoga practice, then right, then you, then, then you’re moving through it in a different way.
So if what I want, this is what I would say, to teach this and to, for your own purpose, and for mine too, because believe me, there’s a lot that I look around, in terms of my long-term asana practice, mental kind of, like, “Why the hell are you doing this?” And people will come up with the therapeutic benefits of certain things, and the contra-indications and all of that.
But we can come up with that with anything, with running, with swimming, right? We can come up with all of that. So instead of this need to make everything about yoga asana ancient, which we both know it’s not, a lot of it, or in and of itself, some sort of magical moment. What makes it different is how we do it, that the invitation in a formal asana practice is that I am, in that time directly, directly connecting my breath and my body in a particular quality, right? So, like, through the evenness of breath, I am actually practicing in my nervous system, equanimity, you know.
(01:07:15) If I, like, that’s for me that the asana practice, again, has less to do with what I’m doing, then how I’m doing it. And if I can do it in a way, if we want to use the word meditative, if I can do it in a way that is creating balance, that’s allowing me to, if I am spending 14 hours of my waking day, anxious and stressed and rushing from thing to thing to thing, there’s a breath pattern for that.
And I’m, and my body is doing all that too. That’s the thing that we forget, is that our bodies, our minds, bodies and breath are one thing. And so then when we say, “Well, I’m going to set aside a little bit of time every single day, where what I’m asking of my body, my mind, and my breath is this collaboration of sort of like just participating with my life,” then whatever I’m taking or asked to take, and I’m doing that allows me a different experience.
(01:08:16) It’s different. Then that’s the difference between performing the performance of the asana as though there’s this Platonic, like, there’s this ideal and I’m going to fit myself into it, there’s this mold, this is what it should look like, and I’m going to try and be that, versus I’m going to have that, I’m going to let that experience arise in me, through me as me. Then it becomes infinite.
You know, like, I’m not trying to be a snake. I’m not trying to be a cobra. I’m not trying to be a tree. I’m not trying to act like a warrior. I’m letting warrioress-ness arise in me as me. I’m letting tree-ness, the qualities of tree, arise in me as me, so that anything that’s not tree in that moment within me dissolves.
(01:09:03) And I have this different experience of myself, and it disrupts the patterns of my body and my breath, my posture, the way I carry myself. All of that. That’s what the power is for me.
The shapes, you know, there, to be creative with the shapes, be intelligent, in terms of, you know, what we’re doing, so that we’re not creating injury, to honor where certain things, but, you know, most of the shapes that have been passed down to us were passed down by other people’s inquiry into experience.
So to say to, uh, to a student, “Look, the purpose of the forms is for you to get to know the consciousness that’s taking that form, or for you to become more adept at, at various forms in your life.”
Adam: (01:10:00) Ok. Those were today’s words of wisdom and perspective from writer and teacher of capital-Y Yoga … Jessica Patterson.
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