We caught up with Jessica Johnson, a founder and guiding force of Bhav Brigade, the mobile, largely outdoor, always donation-based troop of yoga teachers. Jessica recently left Hampton Roads to continue her medical studies.
AltDaily: When you look back on your years in Norfolk, what is the scene that comes to mind that best encapsulates your experience?
Jessica: The scene that best encapsulates my experience of living in Norfolk? Ironically, it’s probably my last. Nearly five hundred people moving together with our bodies and our breath as one to raise money for the Elizabeth River Project—a local nonprofit that drives community efforts in the restoration of our waterfront’s environmental health. Five hundred individuals willing to throw down all the labels we attach to ourselves on our mats to stand shoulder-to-shoulder for a cause we believe in. Five hundred beings of all shapes and sizes, ages, ethnicities and experiences coming together atop the USS Wisconsin for yoga under the setting sun, paying homage to our city’s undeniable military heritage and world-class civic engagement. You just don’t get more “Norfolk” than that.
Had you planned on being this engaged with the community — or did Bhav just sort of happen?
Ha. Not at all. I couldn’t have created Bhav Brigade if I’d tried. But I think that’s the point—we (Danielle, Jeff and I) had no ulterior motive, no business plan, no personal interest which created space for the community to rush in and mold the platform into whatever it needed to be. I think about this a lot actually—how I never could have anticipated what was in store or made any of it happen. How each year I spent at EVMS — a school, you’ll be shocked to know, was not my first choice of medical schools (don’t hate me, but I’d lived in Virginia my whole life and wasn’t thrilled about the move to Norfolk initially) — something absolutely magnificent and life-altering happened and yet none of it was planned. My first year here I met my teacher Logan, started practicing at Satya and developed a free meditation and yoga program for the EVMS campus community out of a desire to promote caring for our current and future caregivers. The next year I completed Logan’s teacher training and before the end of it I realized that my place in all of this was to help broaden the scope—to create what didn’t already exist in the void left by Satya’s closing. Shortly after we gave legs to that idea by founding the Bhav Brigade and then over this past year our platform really became more of a movement. With a budding bi-coastal presence, dozens of community partners, tens of thousands of dollars raised for local charities and other worthwhile causes and a community-oriented teacher training in the works we’re expanding far beyond ceilings I thought were real, but it turns out aren’t.
What surprised you about working with all of these outdoor spaces around Norfolk and Hampton Roads? Was it easier or harder to make the community your yoga studio than you expected?
Easier! I say this a lot—that it had to be Norfolk. Things are so easy here; it’s such fertile ground for a creative grassroots philanthropically driven organization like Bhav Brigade to take root and flourish. As I’m looking at things now expansion-wise through more of the lens of an entrepreneur, the idea of credibility keeps coming up. In new cities, people want to know who can “vouch” for us, what we’ve done in the past, why we *might* be worth their time? We were never met with any of that here in Hampton Roads. It all unfolded organically and people supported us just because they genuinely resonated with what we were doing, not because we had some impressive reputation or glowing track record. Our logo was a gift of time and talent from Malia Paasch, owner of the Birch who doubles as a graphic designer, the hundreds of beautiful photos you see of our classes are courtesy of volunteer local photographers, Eva Fuze, George Vu, and Peter Squicciarini, our website is a labor of love on behalf of our teacher, creative director, and Otto marketing executive, Megan Kresse, the indoor spaces we teach in are all donations from local businesses and individuals. Starting out, we were just three young yoga teachers doing what lit us on fire and this community was, as it always is, eager to fan the flames.
What three local restaurants will you miss the most?
Chelsea Bakehouse, The Birch and Chocollage. Mostly because of the food and drink, but also because of the hands that put them on the table. Things made with love are just better, don’t you think? Also even though after over forty years it closed last year, I have to give a shout out to Joe and Mimma’s in Newport News—I worked there throughout college at CNU and (having eaten my way through Italy) it’s arguably the best authentic Italian food this side of the Atlantic. The owners are still good friends of mine and I literally have dreams about their marinara. Oh, and I can’t end this conversation without mentioning Chartreuse, Luna Maya, Press 626, the Field Guide/Handsome Biscuit/Toast clan, Greenhouse Kitchen, the LeGrand and Shiptown duo and Nouvelle.
Whoa, that was a lot longer of an answer than I had anticipated. Bet you didn’t plan to open that can of worms, did ya? But hey, I’m a foodie and this IS Norfolk.
In what ways do you hope the Hampton Roads community grows and matures over the next few years?
I hope we (and I say we, because I’m not counting myself out in the future) continue to be expansive and collaborative and inclusive and engaged, but I also hope that we start believing in ourselves a little more. I hope that we start to really, truly believe in the limitless potential of which the souls of this community collectively are made. There’s a lot of ragging on Hampton Roads that goes around—and maybe to some extent that’s true for all cities—but this is a badass, exciting, momentous place to live and it’s time we all realize that it’s the people that make it so. I’d also like to see more being done about the sea level rising and our inadequate drainage system (see below).
What *won’t* you miss about living in Hampton Roads?
Oh, this is an easy one. The flooding!
What are your thoughts on EVMS? Was that a healthy and happy community for you? Would you recommend it?
To some extent, in today’s society I’d argue that no American medical community has reached the ideal of “healthy and happy.” It’s an honor and a privilege to be able to pursue a career in medicine, but it’s also really, really hard and we haven’t yet learned how to take care of each other within the field the way we do for those outside of it. Did you know that an entire medical school’s worth of physicians commit suicide each year? Things like physician wellness, burnout, humanism in medicine and the power of personal narrative in healthcare are still novel topics and the unpacking of those issues is really where my heart lies in the medical field. I’ll get off my soapbox for now, but “yes and no” is the answer to your question. There’s a lot of work to do culturally and in many ways I wish our administration was more proactive, but what does make EVMS a positive place to train is the faculty—they’re leaders in their fields, they’re approachable and they’re genuinely invested in the well-being of their students. Because of them, I’d definitely recommend it.
What was your ideal 24 hours in Hampton Roads?
Wake up, walk the dogs to the Bakehouse in Chelsea for breakfast sandwiches on croissant bread (leave with one of every seasonal fruit pastry on the shelf), squeeze in a morning class with Meaghan De Roos at Breathe if at all possible, spend a few hours at the beach, or if I’m really lucky on a friend’s boat, grab Taste Unlimited for lunch, spend 90 minutes at the hands of the most intuitive, therapeutic body worker I’ve ever met (her friends just call her Liz Sanderson), come home and take a nap in the sunshine (I’m a big fan of naps), catch the sunset over the Hague Foot Bridge or on the end of the pier outside the Pagoda—or if it’s Wednesday do so at Sunset Yoga with Bhav Brigade, get dinner and drinks outside at one of the restaurants above with friends, walk home under the stars and repeatedly swoon over how lucky I am to call this place home.
Who are a few of the people that you’ll miss the most in Tidewater?
My Bhav sisters – Megan, Danielle, Leah, Lolen, Vanessa, Diane and Neve and my many, many mentors (it takes a village) at EVMS, especially Dr. Allison Knight and Dr. Barry Knapp.
You’re gone but not forgotten. What are your parting words for this community you gave so much to?
Thank you, thank you, thank you. You are, and will always be, my home.