Jennifer Pastilloff has brought her unique style of teaching — and radical listening — to thousands of women while traveling the world for her On Being Human workshops. She describes these workshops as “a hybrid of yoga related movement, writing, sharing out loud, letting the snot fly, and the occasional dance party.”
Jennifer’s work is driven by her very real struggles with depression and anorexia, which exposed her to the self-help and wellness industries, as well as to the benefits of therapy. While chatting with Jennifer, we asked her more about her personal journey, how she overcame low points — including the early loss of her father and the gradual loss of her hearing — and how teaching has changed her perspective: empowering her, while she helps empower others.
She has been featured on Good Morning America, New York Magazine, Health Magazine, and CBS News. Jennifer is also the founder of the online magazine, The Manifest Station. When Jen is not traveling, she is based in Los Angeles where she lives with her husband and son.
We discussed her work and book, On Being Human, via email.
You do a lot — can you describe your work a little bit? And how do the disparate things you do inform one another?
I lead these workshops and retreats that I created called On Being Human. It combines (a little) yoga, writing, sharing aloud, deep listening, sometimes singing, letting the snot fly, and what I call “dorking it out.” The workshop is an experience in deep listening —in fact, despite my deafness without my hearing aids, I have become known as a fierce listener.
I was born with tinnitus that has only worsened to the point that I can’t hear without my supersonic hearing aids combined with reading lips. I have also struggled with depression and anorexia. Convinced I needed to power through, that’s just what I did — until I figured out that my “Inner Asshole” was giving me some bad advice.
So, I set about speaking my truth, and my truth had a lot to say!
I channeled it into my blog, then my workshop, and finally into my first book, On Being Human: A Memoir of Waking Up, Living Real, and Listening Hard. The book takes you on a journey, starting with an unsteady childhood, through years (and years) of waitressing to, well, waking up and starting workshops. Though theoretically they’re about yoga, they really involve a whole heap of listening, truth-speaking, and beauty hunting.
Essentially, I combined the things I was good at, namely being with people (most of which I learned waiting tables), and I developed an experience aimed at helping people feel “gotten.” My feeling is that there is nothing more powerful than knowing someone’s got you. What is better than hearing “I got you”? My workshop and book aim to leave one feeling that and that was my intention, since it is what I crave the most in life.
What pushed you to write the book?
I said I was writing a book for years. Meanwhile, I let my “Inner Asshole” be the boss of me by telling me I wasn’t a real writer, I didn’t know what I was doing, I wasn’t enough — you name it and my IA (Inner Asshole) has a b.s. story for it. I wrote a lot of personal essays that became very popular online and created my site The Manifest-Station, but I was feeling stuck on what the book should be. And then I remembered: “Should is an asshole.” (I think that’s the title of my next book.) I struggled with the structure so I hired someone to help me write a proposal. I am a big fan of asking for help, so I did. And my dream came true —with a little help. Help is good.
You’ve had some low moments — could you talk about those and what helped bring you back up?
I always hear noise in my head —that’s the tinnitus, which often makes me feel low. That’s what I equate with silence: whooshing, humming, and ringing. For me, the idea of silence is the absence of chatter in my mind rather than actual silence. That’s when I feel quiet.
I have moments, especially when I’m tired, where I feel sorry for myself. I get frustrated when I wake up with my family, and they’re talking to me, and I have no idea what they’re saying because I don’t sleep with my hearing aids in. But I don’t wallow in, what I call, “my own suckery” too much.
If I am honest, which I am committed to being, I have had many low moments. What helps me? Antidepressants, but also making sure the people I spend time with don’t let me hold on to my bullshit stories, moving my body, and dorking it out with my toddler. Antidepressants saved my life ten years ago. When a therapist suggested I take them upon first meeting me, I wanted to walk out the door, but he was right. It allowed me to see a sliver of possibility where there was none before and that sliver got me to take a yoga teacher training, and the rest unfolded from there.
Losing my dad
When I was young, my dad had heart failure at age 38, right after I yelled “I hate you” to him. Losing my dad at such a young age, in such a traumatic way, colored my belief system about myself. I decided at age eight that I was a bad person, which became my mantra. I believed that a bad person doesn’t deserve to exist in the world. Recently I realized that that is my Monstra —a play on the word mantra. Your monstra is the mantra your Inner Asshole gives you, and it lies.
My big epiphany in life, or one of them, is that you get to change your mind. I changed my mind about who I was. Every day I must do this, and some days are harder than others. That’s why I call my work: On Being Human.
What advice do you have for people who feel stuck in life, like you did before you began hosting your retreats?
Don’t be an asshole, especially to yourself. Practice radical self-care and compassion every day. Commit to doing something specific every day, even the tiniest thing. For me, sometimes it’s going to the bathroom without my toddler at my feet. Be diligent because you deserve it, you are enough, and that isn’t some corny platitude.
All the years I thought I was stuck, I wasn’t. I believed I was. That’s the problem with our b.s. stories — often we carry them around in our bodies for so long that they feel like the truth.
I wrote this in an old poem but here it is again: “Do things that make you feel good. Let your joy be contagious. Let it spread through your home, your job, your children. Let it spread through the world like a virus, so that every so often, when you forget it, you’ll catch it from someone else.”
And yes, I own DontBeAnAsshole.net.
What have you learned from teaching your workshops?
That human beings are capable of so many things at once: grief and joy, sorrow and gratitude, anger and love. I’ve learned that listening to another person is life-changing, that being seen and heard is such a radical thing because a lot of us never feel like we are. That most of the things I thought mattered when I was younger, don’t. I’ve learned that the most important thing is love, which is why my mission statement is: When I get to the end of my life and I ask one final, “What have I done?” Let my answer be, “I have done love.”
That connection is EVERYTHING. When we stop taking ourselves so seriously, life becomes delicious.
The self-help and wellness space is crowded, there’s a lot of information out there. How did you carve out your very unique place and what would be your recommendation for others looking to make sense o the bounty of information?
I stayed true to myself, which, even as I do this interview I am committed to. I told the truth about being on meds as a yoga teacher at a time when no one was doing that. I never tried to be a guru (please don’t ever call me that as someone did last week on TV, I don’t pretend to have it figured out (I have no idea what I am doing.) Rather, I just tell the truth about my life, about how I feel, and about what I chose. I just shared my journey. Some don’t like it, and some go wild for it — it will always be that way.
There will always be the folks who gravitate toward us and those who don’t like us (or who we perceive as not liking us), and the more okay we can be with that fact, the more free we are in our self-expression. Does that mean it doesn’t hurt when someone puts us down? Sure it does, but we bounce back quicker. I don’t let it shut me down. My message is: keep going or shut down. I kept going.
I always make clear that I’m not a therapist, I’m just a person living their life, so take or leave what I say. I always do the best that I can, so I’m pretty good at not backtracking.
My recommendation for others trying to sort through the myriad of wonders on the internet (and all the other places wellness and self-help are offered) is: find who makes your arm hair stand up. Find who makes you nod “yes, yes, yes” as you sip your matcha (coffee if you’re me, I don’t mess with tea.) Find who resonates. Find who knows their sh*t. Find who makes you laugh. Find who doesn’t seem contrived or overly curated. Find the person you want to sit down and talk to in real life. That’s how I find my people.
Who are some folks who you look up to that our readers should check out?
Elizabeth Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, Glennon Doyle, Rachel Brathen (@yoga_girl), Rachel Cargle, Jameela Jamil, Selma Blair, Emily McDowell, Jessamyn Stanley, P!nk, Sheri Salata, Tianna Bartoletta, Maggie Doyne, Roxane Gay, Brene Brown.
Too many to list!