Updated: Dec 12, 2019
“Speak softly and carry a big stick.” -Theodore Roosevelt
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 bot