The sunny and wholehearted presence of yoga teacher Jessa Walters is one that makes everyone around her feel they are connected deeply to a beautiful world. And, she seems to always be drawing more wisdom and joy from the world around her and sharing it in unique ways in her classes. I got a chance to ask Jessa questions about her life. Enjoy reading more about her life and perspective in this interview.
Q: Where were you born?
A: Up in the North Country. Grand Rapids, MN.
Q: Did you grow up there?
A: For the first four years of my life, then we moved to Smithville, Texas for my step-dad’s job. Let’s just say, I was very happy to return to MN when I was 11 years old. From that point on we lived in Minneapolis, until I moved to California at the age of 25.
Q: I know you have a sister. Is she your only sibling?
A: I have two younger sisters, one on each coast! Joy and Jenny. The three J’s!
Q: Did you play sports as a kid? What kind of kid were you?
A: I was a little tomboy, for sure. I hated dresses. I’d run around in just a pair of shorts, no t-shirt or shoes. I had tons of cats and always a dog or two. I loved to climb trees and play outside till after dark. Since I was an only child until I was six, I spent a lot of time playing on my own, with my cats and dogs, oh yeah, and with the bugs in my bug barn! I loved to build villages in the woods and create alternate universes where I lived with my animals and imaginary friends…we had all kinds of adventures together. As I got older, I loved playing team sports: kickball, softball, volleyball, basketball. In addition to sports, I read voraciously. I loved learning. I was also a very spiritual kid, even before my parents “got religion.” When we moved to Texas, they became very involved in the evangelical Christian movement. Parts of it freaked me out, but I took God and Jesus and heaven and hell all very seriously and decided I wanted to be a preacher when I grew up. So, I spent hours in my childhood writing sermons and songs and played “church” with my sisters in our living room. Not your everyday childhood pastime!
Q: Wow. That is really interesting, Jessa. And I can totally see it. Now later in life, you lived in San Francisco for a time and then South Korea, is that right? How long were you in those places?
A: Yes, I moved to Calfornia in 2002 for graduate school at The California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. About a year before that I discovered earth-centered spirituality, feminism and Buddhism almost all at once, and my world blew open. I found a graduate program that delved into both feminist philosophy and spirituality, earth-based traditions and Buddhist studies. It changed the course of my life. I lived in the Bay Area for 5 years before moving to South Korea to teach English at a university in Daegu for 3 years. I felt deeply at home both in California and Asia.
Q: Ah, it all starts to come together. Do you miss those places?
A: Korea is always in my heart. I think of my time there often with incredible gratitude. As for San Francisco, mmmm…I miss the Bay Area every single day. (laughing…shaking head…big sigh) Out of all the places I’ve lived and traveled, the Bay Area is where I feel most supported by the natural world, not to mention the diversity and culture. I think there are places on the earth where we are able to access more of our life force, more of our creativity and gusto. I feel I come alive there in a way that I have yet to experience anywhere else on the planet. It feels like my power place! So, I return there at least once or twice a year to reconnect with that medicine. And, I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself living there again. It’s simply THAT powerful. Although, if I do, I will be packing up Invisible Bee and bringing you all with me in my suitcase! 🙂
Q: Uh oh. I think all of us would try to fit in your bag if you do move back! Now tell me, was it in Asia that you first studied wellness modalities? You mentioned something to me once about studying cranial-sacral therapy. And, I know you know about Chinese Medicine. Tell us more about those backgrounds.
A: That all began when I moved to California. I became educated pretty quickly about holistic living and healing. My journey into yoga was taking off. Really, upon moving to CA, my world cracked completely open and I was like a sponge, soaking up all the progressiveness that Northern California had to offer. It wasn’t long before I enrolled in massage school (at the same time I was in grad school) and became a massage therapist as a way to phase out of bartending and support myself financially in a more fulfilling way.
When I moved to Korea in 2007, I had summer and winter semesters off, due to teaching at the university, so I did piles of traveling all over Asia. I went to the Yunnan Province of China one winter and participated in a Chinese Medicine intensive where we studied TCM, acupuncture, herbs, Tai Chi, etc. It was an amazing dip into the deep pool of Chinese wisdom. After the intensive ended, I took a long and harrowing journey northward, by bus, through incredibly high mountains to Lugu Lake to visit the last matriarchal community in China: the Mosuo. By the way, a phenomenal book about the Mosuo is called “Leaving Mother Lake.” Highly recommend it. Also, during my years in Korea, I joined a Yoga Leadership program at a yoga studio in Daegu. Part of the program was learning cranial-sacral bodywork. It fit beautifully with my existing background in bodywork and added so much to the yoga training.
Q: Jessa, I can’t put my finger on it but, you have a way about you that is genuinely reverent to whomever you are with. Do you think it’s in part that some of the Asian culture seeped in? Or have you always been that way? Chicken and egg kind of thing.
A: Hmmm….I remember even as a very young person sensing the sacredness of life and feeling very moved by that, especially with all the time I spent in nature and with my tribe of animals! And the way that I was brought up fostered a sense of respect for others that felt very innate and genuine to me. The first time I set foot in Asia, I felt like I was rediscovering another piece of myself and my long lost community. It felt like I’d been there many times, it was so utterly familiar. The way that people related with each other, the cultural nuances, the spirituality…I felt like I had come home to a culture and society I knew very well already, deep in my bones. In Korea, upon greeting someone, each person bows their head as they say “hello.” The first time I did this, I felt like I finally had the gesture that had been missing all of my life when relating with others. In finally having these gestures of reverence and respect, I felt that daily life took on a new beauty, elegance and humility.
Q: What is one yoga practice or asana you could not live without?
A: Just like my life, my spiritual practice is always changing. Right now, being that it is summer in Minnesota, I am able to be outside with ease so most often I wake up in the morning and either go down to the lake to practice yoga or I walk briskly around the lake and then practice. And sometimes, I need to move my body in ways that don’t fit on my yoga mat, so in those moments, I turn on the music and let her go! I just keep myself open to whatever is most needed in the moment and then I give myself that. Coming from a lot of religious dogma in my early life and a tendency to try to obey all the rules, to “get it right,” I’ve had to really work with that in relation to my own spiritual practices – to not fall into getting rigid and thinking there’s a right way or a wrong way to do it. Learning to tune in and honor what is needed in the moment, this is ultimately my practice right now. Having a varied and wise tool box to draw from, that is the key.
As far as a practice I cannot live without:
Yoga Nidra. The time of day I most often practice this is during the afternoon slump time (3 or 4pm). I emerge feeling regenerated and uplifted.
Q: Oh Jessa, I know exactly what you mean about not getting rigid or relying on a set of rules, so well put. OK, so this may make you feel shy, but your students remark on your presence- it is as if there is almost like a joyful buddha at the front of the room guiding the class. Do you really feel that joyful? Have you always felt that way?
A: (laughing) I have to say I do feel a lot of joy in my life! There have definitely been times where I’ve really struggled, felt lost and haven’t made the wisest choices. I have experienced some deep grief and loss in my life and went through a period where I identified pretty intensely with rage. Times of getting lost and forgetting still ebb and flow, but way less time is spent there now. It seems that this range of emotional experience is just part of being human and that we CAN learn how to relate with it more skillfully. I feel as I deepen into the teachings and practices of yoga and Buddhism and also align with what most deeply nourishes and supports my well being (right livelihood, connection with nature, dancing, community, harmonious relationships, etc), my heart feels more and more peace and from that peace flows a really sweet joy. I also feel that when we open ourselves to truly feeling and experiencing the suffering and pain that can emerge in this life, we also open to truly feeling and experiencing the greatest joy.
Q: Yes, yes, yes. So, how would you inspire your students in one tip to get a sense of that joy that you have uncovered for yourself in their own lives?
A: One tip, eh?! This is something that was introduced to me a while back and I’ve been playing with it. It’s very simple and really helps with clarity in aligning with what feels positive and true, which lightens the load and fosters the uncovering of that inner joy:
Get really conscious about the choices you’re making, even the choices moment to moment, and realize how you are constantly making choices. And then ask yourself when making each choice: Does it feel light or does it feel heavy? If what you’re choosing to do feels heavy, then you know it’s probably not quite aligned with what you truly want or need. If it feels light, you know it’s right! But, don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself!