Bending Toward Northampton: Jocelyn O’Shea on teaching and yoga for kids

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If you had the opportunity to work as a designer for Law & Order and Gossip Girl, would you quit and teach yoga instead?

That’s exactly what Jocelyn O’Shea did, and she has no regrets about it.

The Cambridge native recently moved back to Massachusetts after spending about 15 years away. After only a few months in Northampton — she moved here in September — she’s quickly vinyasa’d her way into five of the area’s studios, in addition to teaching private yoga sessions and a class at Leeds Elementary School.

How did she manage to make all of those connections so quickly?

“It didn’t feel quick to me!” she says laughing. “I have a really good resume.”

She says Northampton was calling to her. A longtime friend who lives in Amherst suggested she move to Northampton and then it all felt right.

“Things kept lining up so I just went with it,” says O’Shea, 33. “And New York doesn’t have any trees.”

Sampling her Tuesday evening class at Yoga Sanctuary, I find I’m so glad that Hamp sent out that beacon. Even though I’ve done yoga for about a decade, getting into the right rhythm with my breathing can be challenging, and breathing is the key to unlocking so many of the benefits associated with yoga.

In O’Shea’s class, there’s no need to worry about that. No need to think about anything. She counts each inhalation and exhalation for us, gracefully incorporating the breathing instruction with the rest. She does this efficiently, and her style remains soothing and not at all chatty. During the class, I feel like I’m being rocked back and forth to the entrancing rhythm she seems to effortlessly set.

The results are clear — after class, I’m the most relaxed I’ve been in a long time.

The following afternoon we meet at Dobra Tea in Northampton, and she speaks to the importance of intentional breathing.

“It can be very telling if you investigate your breath — like when you walk into a bakery and you breathe in,” she says, inhaling deeply. “That’s your life. That’s the prana. That’s everything.”

In her teaching — O’Shea teaches classes at Yoga Sanctuary, the Northampton Athletic Club, the Hampshire Regional YMCA, the Hampshire Athletic Club, and Ananda Yoga — she says she adapts the class to who shows up and what’s happening. “I teach to the room, to the time of day, the weather, and to the experience level,” she says.

At Leeds Elementary, she says, she teaches a secular version of the practice. In the athletic clubs, she also tends to cut out most of the chants because there isn’t enough time to fit them into a one-hour class.

Teaching at Leeds isn’t her first experience teaching in public schools. In fact, O’Shea’s ultimate yoga dream is to incorporate yoga into the nation’s public school system.

“Part of me thinks maybe that’s why I moved here,” she says.

She says she’s seen firsthand how much of an impact yoga has on kids’ focus and mindfulness.

While working for Bent On Learning — a non-profit that brings yoga to New York City’s public schoolchildren — O’Shea was hired by Long Island University to participate in a study. She would teach yoga to a group of high schoolers while another group would participate in group sports and standard physical education exercises.

“The yoga students,” she says, “were better at managing stress.” Researchers at the University measured the stress hormones in both groups to make that determination.

Before she started teaching yoga full-time in 2009, O’Shea worked in the film and television industry. After studying textile arts at the Oregon College of Arts and Craft in Portland, Oregon, she landed a job with Law & Order’s costume department. She also worked on films alongside famous people like Charlize Theron. She was good at the job, but there was a pivotal job opportunity — a coveted one in her field at the time — that prompted her departure.

“My friend who was also in the business said, ‘If you want stay in the biz, take this job. If not, this job will be hell,’” says O’Shea of the chance to work as costume director for the then-new show Gossip Girl.

The friend’s wise words inspired O’Shea to get out of the industry and dive more deeply into her yoga practice. She transitioned out of that world and started working for Bent On Learning.

“How is this blue v-neck slim-fit good for the world?” she remembers thinking. “Yoga’s been a constant in my life. I realized it’s what I loved the most.”

While in the city, O’Shea also partnered with a studio called Makara Yoga, which coupled yoga and acupuncture. She never thought that’s what she’d do, but fate brought her there. “I was teaching a ton of classes at the time,” she says. “So I asked the universe for something more sustainable.”

Not long after her call, she ended up misreading a yoga schedule, took the wrong class, and left her cell phone behind. When she returned for the phone, she met her future business partner.

“I followed the signs and that’s what I’m trying to do here,” she says, adding that the business was treading water and she didn’t like not being able to pay the yoga teachers what she felt they deserved. Running the studio, she says, showed her she’s more interested in the academic side of yoga than the business side.

In pursuit of a simpler life, she landed here and is happy she did. “I saw a flock of pheasants on my way to teach this morning,” she says excitedly. She’s never lived this far out of the bigger cities. “The air, food, and lifestyles are cleaner.”

Field Notes

Want to catch a yoga class somewhere, but don’t want to bounce from website to website as you’re deciding which one? If you’re like a lot of us yoga-goers in the Valley, where there’s no shortage of studios to sample, you don’t necessarily feel beholden to any one spot. So if you have a free window for a class, some shopping around is in order.

When you’re at work and you only have a minute to check a schedule, it can be tedious to click from page to page and — oh, phone’s ringing — retain the information long enough to decide which class strikes your fancy. For these reasons, Northamptoner Mandy Gerry created yogaclasstoday.com. It’s a website her husband, a computer programmer, created and she manages that incorporates 30 local studio schedules into one page. Gerry charges no fee for studios to use the website — any income the site gets comes from the Google ad window on the homepage. Gerry, a mother of two, works as an educational coordinator and has only made $30 so far off of the site, but hopes to expand geographically and start taking on local advertisement. In the meantime, it’s great one-stop shopping! •

Contact Amanda Drane at adrane@valleyadvocate.com.

Amanda Drane

Author: Amanda Drane

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