Find Your Passion: May Graduate Became 'Yoga Jess,' Finds Career Path

By Rachel Childers

Jess SmithSmith is pursuing graduate school and an occupational therapist career incorporating yoga (Samantha Hernandez).

Jess Smith was once a high-school athlete who couldn’t touch her toes.

But, at The University of Alabama, she says she became “Yoga Jess” and that her passion for yoga helped her find a career path, a healthier lifestyle and a sense of well-being.

Smith, a Prattville native who graduated in May with a communicative disorders degree, is pursuing graduate school and an occupational therapist career.  She’s focusing on an emerging trend in occupational therapy that incorporates yoga and emphasizes, she says, becoming an active participant in life.

“Yoga drew me to OT because it is more about how you feel,” she says.  “It focuses more on the sensory work.”

During recent summers, she has worked at various camps for kids and shadowed occupational therapists who work with children. This, she says, solidified her desire to work with children with physical or cognitive disabilities, and she says she also would like to work with people with traumatic brain injuries.

Jess Smith
Smith calls yoga “the art of getting rid of mind clutter (Samantha Hernandez).”

This fall, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, she will research how yoga relates to self-motivation in a therapy setting.

“My UA experience has challenged me and helped me to become ‘Yoga Jess,’” Smith says.

Smith took her first yoga class at the UA Student Recreation Center … on a whim following her freshman finals, she says.  She continued taking classes that summer at a fitness center near her Prattville home.

“I wanted to know more about it,” Smith says. “I could feel a difference in myself. I was sore, but it relieved all my tension that had been built up from finals.” 

She wanted a yoga teaching certificate, she says, so she could share the joy she found through yoga with other UA students.  

“College students are usually unhealthy, and, even if we are physically healthy, we are emotionally unkempt,” she says.

Smith says she felt it would be easier for her to relate to her peers in her classes. She, too, had exams, projects and late nights, just like her students, so she understood the barriers to becoming physically and mentally healthy.

Jess Smith
UA’s Honors College and her students inspired Smith, she says, to increase her knowledge of yoga (Samantha Hernandez).

Yoga, a mind-body workout, provides both through yoga breath, Smith says. While breathing in and out while flexing and releasing muscles, participants are encouraged to mentally “let go” and focus on that single moment.

Smith taught at the Student Recreation Center and also at two other fitness facilities in Tuscaloosa. She has YogaWorks 200-hour teaching certification through Yoga Alliance, and she said her goal is obtaining a 500-hour teaching certificate. At each level, the teacher is required to spend a certain number of hours teaching, learning and teaching specifically for community service.

Smith credits the UA Honors College and the students in her classes for her success. She says they inspired her to keep reaching for more knowledge about yoga.

Shortly after attending a Level 1 workshop, Smith approached the Honors College about leading a class for incoming freshmen.  They agreed, and Smith began teaching in the Riverside Community Center.

“I thought no one would show up,” Smith says.  “I was surprised to see that the class was full. We were wall-to-wall. People were literally almost on top of each other.”

Smith says she could tell the Honors College wanted her to push herself and get better, but they also wanted her help in improving the level of community on campus. She says when the dean of the College came to one of her Sunday afternoon classes, she knew she had made it.

Jess Smith
Now a certified yoga instructor, Smith took her first class following finals her freshman year (Samantha Hernandez).

Smith says she also wanted to teach the students what it means to take yoga “off the mat.” Learning things like letting go of what you can’t control, being in the moment and being nice, even when it seems impossible, are at the heart of making yoga a lifestyle, she says.

“The best yogi is not the one who can do the most intricate poses, but the one who lives it,” Smith says.

In what she calls “Real Talk,” Smith outlines for her class what it means to live yoga. 

“Yoga is the art of getting rid of mind clutter,” she says.

She said college students, and others, forget to live in the moment. She uses her class to teach participants to physically feel how yoga breath benefits the body but also how it clears the mind even outside the yoga studio.

“That’s why I tell people to inhale and lift, exhale, and let go, just like in my classes. It’s part of taking it off the mat. Yoga breath helps you let go of things you can’t be in control of,” Smith says. “Yoga breath reminds you to be in the present, to take a breath, to relax. It tells your body it’s time to relax.

Jess Smith
Smith, facing camera, leads a class (Samantha Hernandez).

“There is an infinite possibility between the inhale and exhale,” Smith says. “It is the possibility to be nice or be ugly, to falling or balancing. Just like we inhale, we have to exhale.”

With this, she says she shows people they can stop and make the right decision. They can be kind or be mean. They can fall or they can stand, but they have to decide. Yoga breath reminds them to do this for an hour in class and for a lifetime outside of it, she says.  

There is a quote that Smith says she lives by:  “Pain that has not yet come is avoidable.”  Smith says this quote, to her, summarizes yoga.  It means you are in control of where you sit within yourself, how you see yourself and how you treat others.

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Rachel Childers is a senior from Fort Payne, majoring in public relations and double minoring in business and creative writing. She served as an intern in the UA Office of Media Relations during the spring 2012 semester.

This story is part of the Find Your Passion feature section of the UA home page. For more stories, please visit Find Your Passion or Crimson Spotlight. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.