“Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
Vanessa Van Noy is walking around a yoga studio in black thigh high boots, red velvet boy-shorts and nothing but a hardcover book in front of her chest. It’s me, two male photographers and another male friend in the studio. Vanessa flashes scintillating smiles at the camera as everyone in the room watches with bated breath. She coolly gazes directly into the camera in one minute and in the next minute her mouth curls into a huge smile and she is laughing, eyes sparkling. The moment flips from pensive to lighthearted in a second. She has such cool confidence that I feel as if I’m in the presence of a rock star who poses for photo shoots every day.
In our community, Vanessa has rock star status. Part yogi, part lululemon ambassador, part humanitarian, part comic book character, part pinup. Vanessa has more dimensions and facets than a brilliant cut diamond. She is transfixing. She’s seen a lot, done a lot and knows a lot. I feel like nothing I say would surprise her.
With a giant mug of coffee, I settled into a cushioned chair on a balcony crowded with lush greenery. Vanessa is sitting across from me wearing a tank that reads “Be all in.” She talks about growing up in New Jersey in a middle-class environment. She pursued a degree in Fine Arts after high school. With no athletic background, her foray into the fitness world began with a desire to lose a few vanity pounds in college. What started off with Jane Fonda VHS tapes soon led to employment in a gym to attain a free membership. Next, tapes from Brian Kest, the creator of power yoga, made their way into her routine. She hadn’t thought about teaching until a boyfriend encouraged her to learn more about yoga. At a time when there were only four yoga studios in all of NYC, and Vanessa found and committed to a 6-month teacher-training program. She says, “a lot of people go to yoga looking for something.”
What she wasn’t looking for was an unhealthy environment organized around a charismatic but a morally suspicious teacher. When the Yoga Alliance, a non-profit professional and trade association, refused to take action against the teacher for unproven accusations, Vanessa left the studio. She “couldn’t rationalize looking the other way while impressionable young women were being manipulated.”
Soon she was part-time teaching yoga and bartending on the side, working in both NJ and NYC. She stumbled into teaching yoga to Thai fighters since the breathe is an essential tool in both yoga and boxing. Knowing how to stay calm in the clinch is a tremendous asset to a boxer. It wasn’t long before she was training alongside these fighters. She says, “training brought strength not only to my personality but to my yoga practice. I built the confidence to say ‘no’ to things I didn’t want in my life.”
In her home, colorful canvases fill her walls, remnants of her painting days. A giant easel in her studio sits blank, waiting to be caressed by a paintbrush. Vanessa says she is going to paint one of these days, but the inspiration has yet to strike. Sometimes the vessels of our creativity change. We make room for new things in our lives.
Vanessa’s creativity has shifted from the visual to the physical. It’s as if her body is a paintbrush and her mat is the canvas. Her work is not meant to live on a wall. It is meant for other people to carry around in their hearts and minds. Vanessa is the kind of yoga teacher who gets on your level. She fills you up and leaves you in better condition than before you walked in the studio, be it in mind, body or spirit. Her class is never taught without laughter and compassion.
Students have new ways to get a daily dose of their favorite yoga teacher through social media. Her daily Facebook and Instagram posts feature her in a yoga pose accompanied by tidbits of personal insight. You won’t find glamorized “yoga porn” in her feed. Nope. You’re more likely to find a yogi catching a cigarette break. Yeah, that’s Vanessa: honest and real. She shares her thoughts and experiences openly, and is the first to admit that things aren’t always as they appear. Daily messages about internal reflection, acceptance, kindness and veganism fill her feeds, but never does she expose her personal struggles. Strong women usually have stories to tell but I can’t help but feel there are pieces of herself that she doesn’t reveal.
“Listen, sister: if everybody put their shit into a bowl, and you picked one out, you’d want your own back,” she tells me. Some people sermonize their hardships. Other people just learn from them and move on. Vanessa does the latter. That’s exactly why you won’t find her talking about overcoming the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, or dealing with the break-up of her marriage on her social media accounts. “It’s surprising who shows up for you and who doesn’t,” she says. Hurricane Sandy turned her life into chaos, completely destroying the home she owned with her then husband in Sea Bright, NJ. People are forced to come together in times of crisis. Vanessa learned the hard way that sometimes those who are supposed to be closest to us disappoint us the most. Like a hologram, appearances are not what they seem. You reach out to touch what is in front of you and are left with only an open hand. Other times, you are amazed with who fills up your empty hand. People she barely knew came to her aid in the aftermath of the hurricane; some are her closest friends today.
Vanessa is learning to live again as a single and more empowered woman after 10 years of marriage. Vanessa doesn’t apologize for who she is, and she shouldn’t. It’s not easy to come through multiple channels to build a life that you love. But of course, it’s discouraging when people don’t step up to the same level in relationships. Her last birthday brought the revelation that she was giving permission to people to be at arm’s length. What you allow to persist will indeed persist. Expect to only be disappointed if your expectations aren't made clear. Friends and family will sometimes ask her if a specific social media post was created in reference to them. She doesn’t call people out, but she does use social media to process her daily thoughts and emotions. Some broken things stay broken, but she feels giving without expectation allows her to be her most fulfilled self.
At eighteen, Vanessa walked out of her first open model call and into a tattoo parlor. She felt discouraged by the harsh scrutiny of the modeling industry. Adding a skull to her skin that day was a statement of self-ownership. She would no longer value the judgment of others about her body. It was hers alone to own.
That skull has long since been removed from her body, but that act of empowerment has only led to many other expressions of self-authority. Vanessa has posed for lingerie and nude shoots, once being featured in a lingerie calendar. She worked in an adult store and, not surprisingly, she apprenticed to become a tattoo artist at a shop in Trenton. It was around this time that she tattooed roses on her own feet.
The sweeping arms of a blue-ringed octopus cover much of her right arm. This creature is the small but deadly. Despite its diminutive size it carries enough venom to kill twenty-six adult humans within only minutes. It also has the ability to camouflage its skin until it is provoked. Quite appropriate that the blue-ringed octopus was symbolic of the stealth and danger of a beautiful woman in the James Bond film “Octopussy.” It is also no coincidence an octopus has four pairs of arms, and “ashtanga” literally means “eight limbs.” The practice of yoga is guided by an eight-limbed path structured to create a union between mind, body and spirit. The eight limbs are: yama (universal morality), niyama (personal observances, asana (body postures), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (control of the senses), dharana (perceptual awareness), dhyana (meditation on the Divine), samadhi (union with the Divine).
The peacock on her left forearm is associated with Lakshmi, the archetype of benevolence, kindness and compassion in Hinduism. Following the winding imagery up that arm leads to a floating lotus flower. An unexpected metal chain is banded around this same arm full of greenery, but the chain serves as a reminder of our inability to control everything in our lives. Sometimes the best things in life are the fruits of releasing things we hold onto.
The word “regret” is tattooed on her forearm. Flip the same arm upside down and it reads “nothing,” a reminder to live a life full of risk and reward. Life is still full of mysteries that will never be revealed to us. Vanessa chose a black crow for her abdomen because they are associated with mysticism and magic. They are also well known as the most intelligent of birds.
Both wrists are encircled by a single snake, symbols of protection. It is said that Naga, a cobra-like being in the Buddhist mythology, shielded Buddha from the elements for seven days while he was meditating. These are my favorite of her tattoos because serpents have so many symbolic values, and they are one of the oldest universally used images across the world.
To live in your body with such confidence requires a mastery over it. Like tuning up a string instrument, a musician recognizes the pitch by the feel of the tension on the string as it winds around the peg. When the strings are in perfect pitch, they create clear and bright harmonious sounds. When you are in-tune with your emotional, intellectual and sexual being, your harmony creates vibrations that others around you can feel. That’s what it’s like to be around Vanessa.
There is an art to capturing the female body in ways that are seductive but subdued. From the classic America pinup art of Vargas to the modern photography of Suicide Girls, the common theme is playfulness in the expression of femininity. An all-American sweetheart is allowed to be risqué without being explicit. Vanessa and I share an appreciation for flirtatious but fiercely independent women. In her grandmother’s time, the Vargas painting that hangs above her bed, would have been stashed in the garage. Now it is free to exist where it was intended to be - pinned up.
Next to the Vargas painting hangs an unassuming framed black and white picture of a spirited young woman sitting on the beach in a one-piece bathing suit. This woman, Vanessa’s grandmother, was an exotic dancer in Miami in the 1940s. Gloves, red lips, painted nails were the status-quo of her daily wardrobe. Vanessa remembers her as having a wardrobe full of statement pieces and radiant body-confidence. Vanessa comes from a long line of saucy, strong women. Her mother worked at the Playboy club. The sauce just might have boiled over of the edges of the pot a little bit with Vanessa. When Lorde sings “pretty girls don’t know the things that I know,” in the song “Magnets,” I believe her. Vanessa and Lorde could be soul-sisters. Both create art with a soulfulness beyond their years. Grit and glamour are closely related, and both walk a fine line that is both slightly aggressive and yet feminine. And both possess a quality of self-possession and awareness that is rare.
With tumbling blonde locks, an hourglass figure, and a radiant smile Vanessa looks every bit the part of a modern pin-up. From a trunk full of treasures, Vanessa pulls out piece after piece of original Victoria’s Secret lingerie, from back “when it was good,” she says. She pokes deep into her closet and I have no idea what she is going to pull out next. It could be a strapless leather dress, a vintage silk kimono, or a backless jumpsuit. Expect the unexpected; that’s Vanessa in a nutshell.
We are going through two closets full of pieces from mixed decades, a box of tank tops of all colors, a drawer full of bras, a chest full of jewelry and we’re putting together outfits. Everything is one-of-a-kind. How she makes sense of these things together makes her style uniquely her own. She pulls out unusual bracelets, earring and rings that have been hunted and gathered. Each piece either makes a statement or has physical weight to it, always reminding wearer of its presence. Much like people in her life, she prefers to collect and cherish the ones that have substance.
Vanessa is always thinking outside of herself. Vanessa is a sort of larger than life character, but her goals are even larger. Lululemon Athletica offered a platform to elevate others from mediocrity to greatness as a brand ambassador. Having a platform to inspire others, to speak and have others listen, comes with much responsibility. But never have I seen Vanessa mold herself to please others. Vanessa the yoga teacher, the social media figure, the lululemon ambassador, the activist, the friend, the woman always shows up as herself.
As a leader, she wanted to use her visibility to facilitate the local community making a deeper connection through outreach. So she organized local Jersey shore teachers to create the event “Headstands for Hunger.” The concept is powerfully simple: “flow to feed.” Many times yoga teachers ask you to dedicate your practice to something or someone as a gift, or offering of love and compassion. Imagine hundreds of yoga mats, side by side, each with someone offering their practice in support of others all while collectively amassing over 3000 lbs in food donations for people and pets. Local yoga teachers and photographers donate their time and talent to the event. Her long-term goal is to grow H4H to support all 200 affiliated national food banks across the country. The principles of yoga are meant to be practiced off the mat. The fourth annual Headstands for Hunger event will be held in fall 2016.
There is not much closer to Vanessa’s heart than animals. Patton, her most trusted pit bull companion, and her two cats, Dan and Sage, are all rescue animals. She has been seven years a vegan for reasons regarding both health and animal cruelty. Years ago she spent time at Catskill Animal Sanctuary in NY rescuing animals from abuse and neglect. There is nothing she loves more than cuddling up with her “kids” at home. Mornings start with the whole family piled in bed. One of her lifetime missions is to help protect creatures that cannot speak for themselves through veganism and animal rights activism.
The woman who already looks ageless wants to stay that way. Vanessa says, “aging is a sneaky, slow process.” She has her yoga toolbox to keep her body resilient and pain-free. However, she is forthright about aging. “I want to keep it together as long as I can,” she says. We are always chasing things in our lives, be they material things, people we emulate, or relationships in our lives. Having goals set forth in front of us keeps us moving forward, yes, but also makes us overlook what is around us. Stop chasing for a moment. Sit still and reflect on what you are grateful for right now and it might be easier to find a life full of joy and wonderment.
The idea that you can “have it all” is a myth. No matter what image is put forth on social media, it only scratches the surface of what might be the truth. A woman that can weather the turbulences of life, pick up the pieces and put them back together in way that reinvents herself… that is the woman that “has it all.” As UFC fighter Ronda Rousey recently said after her unceremonious loss of her undisputed title, “being undefeated is a choice. Everyone has loses in their life, but I choose to be undefeated.”
Vanessa believes that her greatest achievement is yet to come. She is building her best self, one day at a time. We don’t always have one great crescendo moment in our lives. She says, “Injuries have taught me the most.” She has learned to slow down to respect and honor her body’s physical limitations. Social media is constantly bombarding the mass population with “yoga porn,” as she calls it. The high levels of contortionism and acrobatics often captured for artistic yoga photography foster of a perception of unattainable and unsustainable standards. She chooses to both practice and teach thoughtfully and intelligently in development of functional flexibility. Over-practice can be ego-driven and might eventually lead to injury.
She might not admit it, but I would beckon to say Vanessa’s greatest body achievement is teaching others acceptance of their own bodies. From her recent Facebook post, “Image is beautiful, but action changes the world.” We are not perfect in body, mind or spirit, but women like Vanessa inspire us to work on these things one day at a time. Look past our shortcomings, appreciate our truths and find a way to give back. Vanessa doesn’t just lift spirits, she elevates lives.
“Yoga is . . .
a strong body and a quiet mind.
being powerful in your core and soft in your heart.
being kind to others, animals and even yourself.
community, like minded people lifting each other up.
making your life and that of those around you better.
finding the compassionate way through a problem,
encouraging others to do the same.
lending a hand, offering some time, being present for those who need you.
looking shit straight in the eye and saying NO, and sometimes saying YES.
slow breathing at difficult times and a steady hand to hold.
Yoga is all of these things, every day.
Embrace it all.
Encourage it all.
Be it all.”
-Vannessa Van Noy
Vanessa teaches at Synergy Hot Yoga, Power Yoga Center, and The Atlantic Club (Red Bank). She is also available for one-on-one training. For more about Vanessa visit www.vanessavannoy.com or @vanessavan_noy. For more information about Headstands For Hunger please visit www.headstandsforhunger.org.
Photo Credit: Brian Motzenbecker at Simply Photography simplyphotographynj.com
Written By: Elizabeth F. Murphy
Clothing and Jewelry: Model's own