Meet the Teach: Rachel Jesien
The story of 87-year-old yoga student Anna Pesce's transformation was a sensation this summer--the before and-after-pictures of her going from hunched to standing straight and tall should be burned into every yogi's third eye. The stir it caused was so great that her teacher, Rachel Jesien, had to transform her entire business model to keep up with the newfound renown.
Having lived with a hunchback for years due to scoliosis, osteoporosis, and a herniated disc, Anna was practically immobile when she met Rachel in 2014. Rachel could could certainly empathize with her student. She herself spent 5 childhood years wearing a brace for scoliosis 22 hours a day, free of it only when dancing.When pain brought with it the threat of surgery, Rachel found a better path to wellness through the teaching of Deborah Wolk and Alison West.
Within weeks of starting yoga therapy Rachel had
Anna, then 85, upright and walking again. Within several months she was doing modified headstands that would make yogis half her age feel like slackers!
The article on Anna's return to vitality lit up social media and 28-year-old Rachel rushed to accommodate the now huge demand for her services. She got super-savvy overnight, hiring a PR team; creating a website, Yoga with Rachel Jesien, along with an FB page and YouTube channel.
Launching this March is an online home practice series, where students will receive 5 sequences a week for general backcare or scoliosis, learn how to create a home practice space, and become part of a private facebook support community where Rachel will answer questions. And if you want to go old-school and share actual physical space, that's an option too: she still teaches class twice weekly at Yoga Union!
In person, Rachel exudes the joy of someone who has found her true calling. She is openly emotional at being given the opportunity to heal others who share the condition she grew up with, while laughing about the particular challenges of joining the social media/tech universe. YogaCity NYC's Jim Catapano recently sat down with Rachel to ask her about the challenges of becoming a yoga celebrity.
Jim Catapano: Since your work with Anna, you have attained tremendous attention, What's it like to be a go-to healer for back issues and scoliosis?
Rachel Jesien: I grew up with really severe scoliosis myself, so being able to share this knowledge and bring some clarity to these issues has been really incredible. Since I found this work with Alison and Deborah, I knew this was going to be a big part of my path. So that article really gave me such a huge platform to speak about this; it's really a blessing. God bless western medicine for coming up with so many life-changing surgeries that can save people, if they decide to go that route. But I believe people deserve to know about all the options that are available to them.
JC: Having experienced these back issues as a child, what's it like to now work with kids with the same challenges?
RJ: I think about 8-year-old me in upstate New York, I once thought surgery was her only option. So now it's interesting working with kids specifically--teaching them how to stand properly, and how their habits also contribute to scoliosis.
What a yoga practice does that a brace doesn't do, is teach the person how to move in a different way.
And for kids it's about making that fun and accessible. Structural yoga can feel very stagnant for kids, so you have to give them bigger tasks to achieve. A lot of kids love using the slings and ropes; it's like a Jungle Gym. For my youngest student, Emily, if I need her to be still for a certain pose, or hold her spine in a certain way, I have her pretend she's a robot. And she'll go "Beep-Bop-Boop," as she does all her block lifting! Or I'll have her close her eyes and see if she can tell which foot she's standing on more than the other.
Getting the parents involved is also huge, and having the whole family on board with practicing every day. That's actually really important for all demographics.
JC: What are the unique dynamics in working with more mature students like Anna?
RJ: For older people it's really about giving them poses that help them maintain their independence. And I really see fast progress when they have a supportive spouse or friend. I recommend they have a family member there to record the session on their phone or iPad so they can practice right along at home. In Anna's case, she has a wonderful daughter, Rosemarie, who would help her with poses that I would show them how to do together. Anna also had a set of poses that she could work on by herself. So if nobody else is there and she's feeling any kind of pain, she knows the poses to go into.
JC: Many with osteoporosis, scoliosis and other back problems believe that there is little they can do to fix it other than surgery, and Western practictioners would appear to encourage this. How do you go about convincing them that there is another way?
RJ: The spine is not a fixed entity. There are little joints all the way up and down it. It's all flexible, all malleable.To say that it can't be changed, is absurd. I compare it to to what Western medicine does for feet. We have 26 little bones in our feet and the first thing doctors do is put in an orthotic. As if to say, "this is just how your foot is." It's probably because we're in a quick-fix society, we don't want to change habits. "See if that works, and if not come back for more and more painkillers, and if these don't work we'll do surgery." How about doing standing poses to build your feet up, instead?
JC: What's your personal experience in attaining this awareness of your own body and how it can heal?
RJ: What was really eye-opening for me is that when I first started to bring this work home with me, my back started to change. I was taking class, and listening to what my teachers were telling me and their corrections. But when I took it home is when I started to understand where my asymmetries were coming from. And that is really what was huge for me, so now I require my own students to practice daily, even if it's only 5 minutes. .
You're really retraining the nervous system when you're working with scoliosis and back issues. We're basically putting new pathways into the weaker, more compressed side of the back, and in order to keep those awake, alive, active and flourishing so those organs can function at their highest and we can bring more balance to both sides of the spine, you have to do something every day. It's not like going to a gym, where you go for an hour Tuesday and Thursday, and that's going to keep everything at bay. Which is a shift for a lot of people. It's a totally different ballgame when you're retraining that nervous system.