It’s hard to sum up a life time of moving. My first memory of movement practice. I’m wearing my mum’s old bridesmaid's dress – dusky blue – Top of the Pops is on TV, and I’m dancing. It's 1968 and I’m five. I can date it by the music: me and Mary Hopkin, dancing forever and a day. That was the life we'd choose all right.
On the one hand there is the call to this ecstasy that feels so much bigger than me it's scarcely survivable, and on the other an urgent desire for a structure that will cohere my scattered parts. I experience myself as in a state of constant disintegration. I love cut-out dolls because their bodies are contained by thick black lines. I crave a boundary like that, through which I'm not always in danger of dissolving. I create my own form (I think it was a ballet / yoga / aerobics kind of mash-up), and I become obsessed with ballet – watching it, reading about it. It never occurs to me that I could actually do it.
My formal involvement with movement techniques begins in 1981. I’m 18, and I do my first yoga class – Iyengar – every week in the students’ union. The dance boom is underway, and a studio opens in my university town. I start ballet. I move to London and do class every day (literally every day – seven days a week) for the next 18 years. I experiment with contemporary dance, pilates, various forms of conscious dance, and all sorts of yoga.
In the meantime, I’m also writing. For many years it seems as if writing is my legitimate occupation, and dancing ... moving ... the life of the body ... is the mad woman in my attic – even though I dance every day. I gain a first-class degree and a doctorate in English. I race from my PhD viva to Covent Garden for 4pm ballet class. I publish a book, journalism, poetry. I write journals.
Back in the day, yoga was a fairly static pursuit – and this is my problem with it. It isn’t until I come across ashtanga vinyasa, in August 2001, that I finally fall in love. I’m captivated by the choreographies strung on the thread of the breath, the intensity of the physical challenge, the repetition and return to the same thing again and again but always different. I become a dedicated practitioner. At the same time, I discover the 5Rhythms™ of Gabrielle Roth. It turns out there’s a whole community of people who are regularly transported by dancing, just like me. I dance the Rhythms intensively.
I spend some time hanging out in covens. I learn Sanskrit and read a few yogic texts. I become involved in buddhism, completing the ngöndro (a heavy-duty series of preparatory practices) with the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. I end up a kind of pagan buddhist – the wild sort, who lives in a cave.
I’m diagnosed with hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. I’m diagnosed with Autism. Things start to make more sense.
Years go by, my body changes, and so does my relationship with movement. The daily commitment to practice remains, but what happens in that alembic has become a response to my present moment needs, and sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t resemble an identifiable movement form. I remain in ongoing relationship with ashtanga vinyasa, but the power dynamic has shifted. I no longer feel like a holy vassal of the practice; the practice is in service to me.
Over the years, I have the privilege of working with many wonderful teachers, but my primary teacher is always my body in movement. I am also fortunate enough to take part in trainings in a wide variety of yoga, dance and body-related practices, and to receive a number of professional accreditations. But I'm always composting – breaking things down, mixing them up, being the ferment of something different and new.
Holding space for other people’s embodied enquiry is in some ways less an intention than a natural outgrowth of my own practice. In 2003, I start teaching ashtanga vinyasa, and I also certify and begin practising as a Phoenix Rising yoga therapist. In 2009, I start to experiment with facilitating conscious dance. Teaching, facilitating and holding therapeutic space also becomes a field of practice.
My body moving is a kind of fluid compass for me. Through it I emerge authentic direction and feel into what I need now. As I get older, the urgency to repattern, recalibrate and become better versions of myself has ebbed away. Practice is more about relaxing a little more into my own humanity – being, enjoying, exploring, just because I can.
Here me and see me talking about my life in movement
Hear me talking about my life in movement on the Stillpoints podcast – and see me in another movement conversation in the People of Yoga series. Listen to me talking about life Autistic on the Life: an Inside Job podcast.
What students say
“One of the big things for me is that Jess is so absolutely authentic in her practice and it is an inspiration to know that that integrity underpins all her classes.”—Belinda
“The sense of the presence of spirit makes Jess’s classes very special and different from the normal yoga class. Jess creates a space that feels sacred.”—Tinsel
“I have deeply appreciated the clarity of Jess’s teaching.”—Anne-Marie M
“Jess is a fantastic teacher ... I am particularly struck by and inspired by her calm, relaxed demeanour. I pretty much relax as soon as she starts speaking at the beginning of the class.”—Leah
“Jess is a very gifted teacher and creates a space where one is entirely free from judgement and the soft energy of acceptance is ever present. She encourages deep listening in a very profound way because she is so finely tuned in to the present moment. A class can therefore be full of quiet, gentle surprises and slow awakenings.”—Anne-Marie D
“Jess’s teaching gently reveals the magic of yoga.”—Yana
“Jess is in a totally different league from other teachers. Her attention to detail is bar none. She is a fabulous teacher and I really enjoy her classes.”—Ljiljana