Jennifer Pastiloff—a yoga teacher and writer with a global-wide following stretching well into the millions—was born to listen.
When she meets you, she reels you in with eyes that sparkle and shine and narrow into a concerned and thoughtful stare. She asks you how you are. And she means it. She wants to know. It’s her passion, her joy. She is a fierce listener. In fact, Pastiloff’s meteoric rise on social media can be in great part attributed to her genuine affection and empathy for those suffering in the world, those aching to find their way. In what she likes to call “non-yoga yoga” retreats held throughout the world, from villas in Tuscany, Italy to France’s Dordogne Valley, Pastiloff embraces and encourages her students with raw vulnerability and unfettered candor, urging them to ignore their “inner asshole,” IA for short, and go “beauty hunting,” which means to seek out beauty in the most unexpected of places, wherever and wherever possible. She even offers retreat scholarships for parents whose children have died through her Aleksander Fund, named for the stillborn baby of a woman who attended one of Pastiloff’s yoga classes and reached out in a time of crisis.
As a child, her nickname was “The Connector.” That’s what Pastiloff does—she connects.
“I fall in love every day,” Pastiloff wrote in her debut autobiography, published this summer and titled On Being Human: A Memoir of Waking Up, Living Real, and Listening Hard.
“I look at people with their quivering lips and their rounded shoulders trying to hide their hearts as they say, ‘I am afraid I will be alone for the rest of my life,’ and I fall so totally in love with them that I want to take them home to my one-bedroom apartment and make them coffee and say, ‘You’re not alone, I got you.’ I want to say, ‘Everything is going to be OK.’ So I do.”
But what’s particularly stunning about this skill is that Pastiloff is profoundly deaf. Pastiloff listens, but she can not hear, not without her hearing aids. It’s been this way since she was a child, her hearing getting progressively worse through the years, but she denied it. She made, in fact, a full-time job of denying this hearing loss. She did everything she could to pretend it didn’t exist. She drank wine, exercised and starved herself, slept with men whom she knew didn’t truly love her, all in pursuit of suppressing a truth that seemed too unfathomable to accept.
Denial and acceptance are primary themes running throughout Pastiloff’s memoir, a searing, riveting narrative that begins with her youth in 1980s Pennsauken, New Jersey, where she attended Jewish day school and sought endlessly to navigate a complicated relationship with her mother while relishing her proscribed role as her father’s closest confidant. Her younger sister, says Pastiloff, “belonged” to their mother; Pastiloff belonged to her dad, a charismatic, chainsmoking figure nicknamed “Mel the Jew” who managed a men’s clothing store and had an extramarital affair. “He treated me like a daughter, too. But in my mind, first and foremost, we were buds and my mom was the enemy,” Pastiloff writes.
The last words Pastliloff, 8 years old at the time, said to her father, whom she idolized more than anyone else in the world: “I hate you.”
The next day he was dead, a heart attack, and doughnuts filled a shiva kitchen.
“My grandparents were very Orthodox and old school and kept kosher, and my father rebelled against that a lot,” says Pastillof. “He did not want to be like the good Jewish boy, the mama’s boy, and so he hung out on street corners and was ‘bad.’ But then when we were born all of a sudden it was important that we become religious and so we went to this Kellman Academy. And then he died after I finished third grade, and that was that.”
Pastiloff’s mother moved with her two daughters to Southern California and Judaism fell by the wayside: Pastiloff was never bat mitzvahed.
“It’s complicated, but even though my mom is Jewish, she never particularly identified with being Jewish because when she grew up the Jewish girls were all really mean to her,” says Pastiloff. “And so when my dad died, my mom’s like, ‘Okay! We’re done!’”
Santa Monica, California, was where Pastiloff started writing and took improv acting classes, but it was also where chronic ear infections and tinnitus, the relentless “droning sound” in her ears signaling hearing loss, grew in its intensity. By the time she was entering eighth grade, Pastiloff’s mom moved the family back to New Jersey, this time Cherry Hill, and Pastiloff descended into depression, self-doubt, and a period of near-paralytic aimlessness. Shame—at being hard of hearing, but also just a general sense of dread—took hold. She turned to alcohol and sex, not quite understanding who she was or what she was meant to be.
“I’m fine,” she told everybody.
Of course, she wasn’t.
It was on the yoga mat that Pastiloff found her footing. That sense of peace and rootedness she’d been searching for since the death of her father found her in warrior poses and savasana. She had dropped out of NYU just shy of a few credits, was again living in California and had been working as a waitress at the Newsroom Cafe, a popular hangout spot for film industry types on Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles. In a gym in the courtyard opposite Newsroom, Pastiloff took her first Iyengar Yoga class. Her grief “untethered itself” and her mind became still. No longer was her mind in a constant state of “worry, fear and obsession.” Pastiloff was forging a new path, one that eventually led her to complete a yoga certification course and marry this credential with her ongoing desire to help others and plumb every bit of beauty in the world.
It wasn’t Judaism, but it was a way of “connecting” that felt right and whole.
“When my dad died and my mom moved us and we were done with being Jewish, I was kind of like ‘Yeah!’” says Pastiloff. “But then as I got older, I had all this resentment because, and especially now, I’m such a proud Jew. I’ll be like, ‘I’m Jewish!’ And I’ve been vocal about that. There’s so much I still don’t know, and I never did the Birthright thing and I feel like I missed out on a lot. And so now I find ways to try and connect.”
More of a “cultural Jew” than an observant one, Pastiloff had borne witness to so many people in her workshops finding their own brand of spirituality, inspired both by what Pastiloff brings to her workshops as well as various other elements woven in, from poetry to prayer to cooking classes and dance parties to books (Pastiloff often co-teaches with famed writers such as Emily Rapp Black and Lidia Yuknavitch, who penned the intro to On Being Human.)
“I think it’s so deeply personal how someone finds spirituality, and I particularly find Judaism to be very spiritual,” she says. “But I think a lot of times nowadays people are uncomfortable with the idea of religion and spirituality sometimes falls in that—it all gets lumped together. [My retreats] are not synagogue or church, but it’s still a community and a lot of the same things happen. But I do think it’s a personal thing and each person gets to decide what spirituality means to them. That’s one of the reasons that I’m so big on beauty hunting, because I find that to be such a spiritual practice, because it causes you to really pay attention.”
For Pastiloff, beauty hunting can mean spending time with a lonely person you find wandering on the street, or it can mean celebrating the folds of fat on your stomach. Beauty hunting can mean being absolutely OK with the fact that you never finished college, or finding some tiny slice of pleasure and joy wrapped up in an experience that was otherwise dismal and sad. Beauty hunting is the opposite of shame—it’s about total radical acceptance of wherever you are in life, especially when that life doesn’t measure up to how you imagined it was going to be. One of the things Pastiloff instructs her retreat attendees to do, no matter what their circumstances, is “to give themselves a medal.” Just for being present, alive.
“That feeling of listening to other people and sharing stories and realizing, oh my God, I’m not so alone —that’s what I love,” says Pastiloff. “It’s made me such a better person, it’s therapeutic and that has little to do with the actual yoga part. The yoga part, that’s great because it gets you out of your head, especially when dealing with depression. Moving the body is so important. But it’s also a conduit to get people to take off their armor. Because what I’ve found is that when people are more tired and hot and sweaty, they are also more vulnerable and open and honest. It’s all about tapping into that place of possibility.”
It’s also so much about timing. One of the primary lessons Pastiloff imparts in On Being Human is that “there’s never a right time.” When Pastiloff got married (to her filmmaker husband) it wasn’t the right time. When she had her baby (Charlie, now 3) it wasn’t the right time. When she wrote her book it wasn’t the right time. But what that really means, notes Pastiloff, is that it’s always the right time.
You just have to choose it.
“Look I’m still in a one-bedroom apartment, go ahead and write that,” she says. “And there’s so many things that I could have been like, well, I have to wait. I have to wait until we have a house, I have to wait until we have two bedrooms. I mean, what are we going to do? What are we going to do? We share a bed. And, you know what? We’re happy. Does that mean I don’t want another bedroom? Absolutely not. I do. And I have many good friends who say they need to do x, y or z before they fall in love or get married or do whatever it is they want to do. But there is never going to be the perfect time. I’m always going to be busy. I’m always going to be traveling. Maybe I’ll always live in this apartment. I can’t say. But I have to go for it, because so much of not doing something is fear talking, and I do my best to not let fear run my life. Sometimes I fail miserably at that. But we wait around for so much in our lives. We wait and we wait and we wait—so much of our lives is spent waiting. And I still struggle with this, waiting for someone to find me, to save me, to rescue me, to give me something. But there’s no right time. You just have to do it.”
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Malina Saval is the Features Editor at Variety and the author of The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens and the novel Jewish Summer Camp Mafia.