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YJ: We’ll get to the questions that focus on International Women’s Day. But first, I want to find out a little bit about your yoga journey. How did you come to yoga?
Ajax Jackson: Well, I was invited to go [to a class], and I said yes. That was 17 years ago. I had no clue about what I was doing. I just said yes to the invite. That’s really all that’s needed for yoga: just an open mind.
What was it like?
It was quite impactful. I was an educator in Los Angeles, in a very stressful position, and I noticed yoga was helping me sleep better, which in turn just supported everything else. So, I remember negotiating contracts with a school in Los Angeles where I said, “Listen, I have to be at a yoga class at 4:30 p.m. every day. If you let me do that, I promise you I’m gonna be so much more productive and creative.” The Head of School was a Black woman and she listened and agreed.
How did you land in New Orleans?
I lost my job in education and I was like, Okay, they say do what you love. I love this yoga. So I went for a big international hot yoga training—very expensive, very intensive. I taught my first classes in Mexico City, and then I came to the East Coast to teach in Florida and Connecticut, and I finally got to New York City. Teaching in New York gave me a lot of confidence. I got some hardcore experience, which I then took to Northern California. I found some great mentors there—business mentors, yoga mentors, badass women who have been running yoga studios for 25 years. Then I decided I needed to nurture another side of me. I decided that place is New Orleans. And I came here very much on a whim. It has worked out even better than my dreams.
It’s a Black city. I specialize in Black women’s health but, ultimately, yoga is about unification so I also open it up to all women, all people. I’m really focused on women right now. I’m like, Listen, you’re taking care of a family, you’re a CEO, you’re running this city in the middle of a pandemic. You’ve got to take care of yourself.
You’re caring for others and you’re caring for people who are caring for others. Why is that exchange of care important for women in particular?
We’re the care bearers. Women are wonderful at it. I’ve learned a lot about care in New Orleans, because everybody here cares for 25 people. When I talk with women who are caring for multiple people in the family, I say, “Okay, that’s not going to change much—I get it—and it shouldn’t change. The only thing is, make sure you’re at the top, so you have the strength you need to take care of everybody. Otherwise, [if you fall], it’s a domino effect.”
How do we lift each other up when we’re tired ourselves?
There are a lot of women who are tired of [putting themselves] last. We’re tired of knowing better, then not doing better. Women are incredibly knowledgeable. But are we really practicing what we know? I do my best to practice what I’m preaching and teaching. And so I wake up at 5 a.m. every day and I take as much time as I can for me. I do my practice. I do my yoga. I do my walking, biking, meditating, dancing. I don’t let go of that. It’s hard sometimes. But I see the results, so it’s hard for me to deviate too much.
Who are the women you admire—people whose life you look at as a model?
I’ve always admired Maya Angelou—her writings and her memoirs. I appreciate her being so honest. I think her life helped prepare me for my life. I also see the same thing with Isabel Allende, the Latina writer. When I joined the Peace Corps, I chose Kenya because Allende wrote about her travels there.
Of course there’s my own mother, who crossed the border from Mexico when she was a little girl. She was very smart and worked hard and skipped grades and got scholarships and married a Black man years before it was even legal. It’s pioneering women who speak to me, and my mother happens to be one. I reflect on those stories to help me pioneer, to help me keep going.
We may have other women who influence our lives, but for many of us, it always comes back to our mother.
AJ: A couple of years ago I probably would have answered very differently. But I have to give it to my mother because she laid the foundation. I wouldn’t have been able to read Allende without my mother. I wouldn’t have been able to travel to Kenya without my mother. Even though, let me tell you, she was not always happy about me traveling to all these places! Yes, she supported me but there were times where she opposed me and that opposition actually has helped also make me who I am. So, she’s a dance partner—sometimes you step on each other’s feet, but sometimes you have these beautiful moments.
What is your experience working with women?
It’s wonderful, to be honest. I’ve worked for a lot of female-led organizations. There’s a lot of women in yoga, so a lot of my mentors are women. So are a lot of my clients. It’s been very productive for me. Yes, there are challenges. I’m always trying to work with folks who understand that we are responsible for our own energy. It’s time for us to be at our best. That’s what I ask for, and that’s what I nurture. My job is to empower women to see the best in themselves. And I do.
Do you find that maintaining sisterhood is difficult—especially when you’re talking about business and having to make tough decisions?
Kindness is my favorite thing. It’s a commodity. It’s just as valuable as a million dollars in my opinion. I try my best to practice it. It gets misunderstood, but it doesn’t matter. That just inspires me to become more careful and more intentional with my kindness. I love things like yoga because it helps us get clear. So many people (including me) have those aha moments in yoga where you’re like, Oh yeah, I know exactly how to say that and know exactly how I’m gonna handle this now, and it’s always a kinder, more responsive result.
If somebody said, “OK, you get to do one thing on behalf of women,” what would that thing be? What do you think women need most from you?
I think it’s a real emphasis on women’s health through yoga—a very specific, beautiful dedication to that. Because yoga is medicine. It’s therapeutic; it’s preventative. It helps manage—and in some cases reverse—disease, illness, pain conditions. And a lot of people just don’t know that. They may feel good doing yoga; they may be doing it for all kinds of other reasons. Yoga is a billion-dollar business, but how serious is it as part of our healthcare system? There’s years of research on the medical benefits of yoga. It’s time for us to validate that. If we can really position yoga in our health [care systems] in a very serious way, it can make an incredible contribution. And that’s what I’m after. I’m just trying to make it fun, educational, informative, affordable, diverse, inclusive—all the things needed to get as many people I can to sign on.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.