Welcome to Off The Mat, a student spotlight series where Yoga Tribe Brooklyn interviews experienced practitioners about how yoga has equipped them for (and had an impact on) their non-yoga lives.
This week we’re chatting with Dr. Jessica Datema:
What type(s) of yoga do you practice? How often? Has that cadence changed over the years?
I stumbled upon the hot yoga studio walking up Flatbush and started doing hot yoga in my early thirties not long after moving to Crown Heights in 2004. Up to that point, I’d done a lot of running cross-country in college and in graduate school and was open to a different exercise regime, or what we call a practice. As a born ritual enthusiast, after the first time I took hot yoga, the 24x2 postures made me completely ecstatic. It seems so rare these days to find a healthy cultural activity or communal ritual that allows you to improve slowly without judgment. For a minute, I thought maybe there was some catch to the hot yoga routine and it would be a different sequence next time. But it hasn’t been yet!
Can you tell us a bit about your life when you’re not doing yoga?
Fragment 69 from the ancient philosopher Heraclitus says: “The way up is the way down.” This statement encapsulates my life in and out of the hot room. Life, like stretching at hot yoga, is this oppositional tension that is manifest in its ups and downs. On good days I am totally grounded while expansive and upwardly looking. Experiences like commuting, job, academics, home, laughing, love, or work are never done and depend on how we activate their tension. To activate the tension is to access our higher and lower powers. Psychoanalysis never worked for me even though my writing utilizes psychoanalytic critical theory and particularly Jacques Lacan.
I utilize more bodily therapies, like Bach Remedies with Katherine James, hot yoga, and meditation. I’m an academic, so I’m always challenged to exist in my body as much as in my head. After moving to Brooklyn and finishing a PhD in comparative literature, I got a tenured professor position at Bergen Community College, which can be a long commute from Brooklyn. Fortunately, my teaching schedule is always two or three days a week. Still, it is a physical and mental challenge to teach a heavy load, keep my research alive, and remain healthy. Hot yoga is one key to handling the ups and downs in life experiences.
What skills have you learned on the mat that have been applicable to the rest of your non-yoga life?
There was one hot yoga class in the early days when I was learning not to care and starting to think about my body differently. Robin was teaching, which made the class already awesome. But then I looked around the room and saw Jamie Hector, the actor who plays Marlo Stanfield on The Wire. It was the Flatbush studio, so everyone was close to one another. Seeing him actually interfered with my flow and I started getting heart palpitations and breathing weird. No one said anything, and Robin was acting cool as usual, but I knew it was him by the scar.
In The Wire, Marlo is a young drug lord who starts out small but eventually takes over after the drug lords Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell are jailed. Marlo’s character is unscrupulous, intelligent, and ruthless, all of which is embodied in this really formidable scar that runs entirely across his truly stunning face. The Wire character is no doubt named after the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s only real rival, because of the respect and power he amasses on the Baltimore streets. I had read his fellow actor’s “Snoop” Felicia Pearson’s memoir, Grace After Midnight, and I asked him a lot of dumb fan club questions about the show after class.
Until that day at yoga, I thought the scar on Marlo’s face was cosmetic or part of the TV character’s creation. Then reality and imagination merged and I realized: the scar was real! There is this ferocious and powerful moment in The Wire that Marlo yells: “My name is my name.” His demand for unconditional respect in an environment where law, family, and many community supports are lacking rings true.
During that class I thought about how our bodies carry scars that can be a vehicle to recognition and naming in dissolving communities and not simply bodily flaws. I have vitiligo, which is a lack of pigment in many places on my body. After realizing Jamie’s real scar was a critical component of why the fictional Marlo was compelling I started viewing my own scars differently. Jaime’s scar was a bodily asset and what made him famous as the character Marlo. Why shouldn’t I view my own bodily flaws, like vitiligo, as places for creative inventive recognition? Our scars are not a lack (of pigmentation or anything else) but an opportunity to distinguish ourselves. What I really learned in practice that day was that our scars, flaws, and quirky marks set us apart.
Can you think of any memorable moments in life when you thought to yourself, “Wow, I’m sure glad I’ve done yoga to help me through this experience”?
This question relates to the everyday things, like how practicing Bikram helps with my commute during the academic year, which is a subway ride from the Nostrand A stop to the GWB Bus Terminal and then hopping an NJ Transit 175 bus to the community college. But there have also been larger crises in my life where I was glad to have the methods of yoga, meditation, and breathing. After getting the PhD by 33 and then tenure at 39 my biological clock started loudly ticking like a time bomb. Until then I thought babies would happen automatically, which was naive. By my 40s I took desperate measures and did IVF and hormone shots. This went against all my core beliefs.
After I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroid disease in my 20s I have been wheat free since I was 23. I avoid dairy and exercise every day so injecting hormones felt like self-sabotage. After the third IVF procedure I got pregnant for a couple of weeks then lost it. This was one of my most difficult life experiences. American women are still held to this mythology that we should be able to do it all — have a career, kids, beauty and brains. It’s ridiculous. We cannot be everything and limits are what distinguish us. Hot yoga teaches us that we cannot have it all and how to manage just what and where we are. Just figuring out how to do that one posture really well resembles these tradeoffs. The fact that life is about not only accepting our limits but making them into where we flourish and prosper.
How has your yoga practice evolved as your life has evolved?
It has helped me a lot to practice core classes and other forms of yoga than hot yoga. Core classes are real strength creators and stress relievers. It’s funny the only exercise I don’t enjoy is swimming. Being raised in the South I was never taught how to swim properly but I love the ocean and being in the water. After the first day I practiced hot yoga I have aimed to do it three times a week. I also bike more with confidence. I really like how the hot room is a mostly tech-free bodily centered communal zone. These zones are becoming rare.
If you could invent your own style of yoga, what would it be? (Assuming no budgetary constraints and a guaranteed target market of eager students!)
I believe the lack of respect, dialogue, and cooperation could be fixed if politicians were forced to engage in some non-partisan hot yoga test of their character. Hot yoga should be used as a mandatory tax-free activity to bridge the many political, class and gender divides that characterize our country right now. For examples Google CEO like Sundar Pichai, of Google, should be forced to do yoga with the youngest programmers and contractors. Likewise. Bikram should be mandatory for all politicians in the house and senate, all three governing parts of government, and for the President. If they can’t stay quiet in the room they should be fired. It would create fellow feeling for them to see each other sweat and be vulnerable together. Bob Corker can’t be the only Republican who does yoga. Republicans and Democrats should have to put away all their electronic devices and do all 24&2 sweating side by side together in a hot room with the president. This is a plan for building better communities. Too often people view yogis as beach bums, surfers, or people that do not care about society. In actuality the power of yoga practice creates empathy in community and could be channeled into our school, businesses and politics in order to facilitate more peace and dialogue. Finally, to quote Damon Albarn, “I started yoga for posture, then I realized it was really difficult and I didn’t have to do anything else if I did that all the time. Meditation is really holistic for the whole body. They should teach it in primary schools. There is such an epidemic in anxiety now, it seems. Having been someone who has taken many different ways of conquering anxiety over the years, this is definitely the best one.”