Jase Cannon, formerly Jason Cannon, AKA the Bearded Yogi, is a well-known yoga instructor and activist on the New York City wellness scene. Cannon is a teacher at Modo Yoga and a lead barista at trendy coffee spot La Colombe, as well as the organizer of God’s Love We Deliver’s Big Love Weekend gala. After being diagnosed with HIV five years ago, she lived at Sivananda Ashram in the Bahamas, and she returned this past fall after entering a deep depression. This time, she emerged accepting her gender identity as a woman. This is her story.
This past year was the most challenging I’ve gone through. I was in such a dark space. There was a lot of fog surrounding me. Five years ago, my drug addiction was very strong. Then I got sick with HIV. But it was five years later, and I was living a “healthy” lifestyle. But I was still in a deep depression and questioning my own authenticity.
There were two big things that confronted me: Why can’t I love myself, and what do I hate about myself? As a yoga teacher, I would lead self-love practices and meditation. But it was a lie. I thought, “why don’t I have that?” I was in a super dark place, but I was very aware that way I was living wasn’t truly healthy. It was only when I went into deep surrender that everything flew into place.
I called my main teacher from the ashram in March. He is a Vedic and Tantric priest from a 700-year-plus lineage. He suggested I come back for a few months. From there everything was so easy. My landlord let me sublet my apartment, and Modo and La Colombe said my jobs would be waiting for me when I came back, so I went.
As I said, the question of authenticity was really big for me. I made a decision going into the ashram to share myself in a way I’ve never shared myself before. I decided to try a new medium, and I started to write.
When I was writing, I did my best to go back and listen. Since I was a little kid, I dressed up in my mom’s clothes. I learned from an early age that it was unacceptable and shameful to do that. I learned to hide it. I learned that my personality was not likable outside of the home. In high school, I reinvented myself. I created a version that was more acceptable and likable. But at 18-years-old, I came out to my mom as gay. I was subletting my own apartment at this point. I said, “I don’t think I’m gay, I think I’m a woman.” Mind you, this was way before the internet, and in Westport, Connecticut. I worked in a shoe store, and the owner suggested I buy shoes and clothes and dress up in private to see what it felt like.
Soon after that, I was thrown into the gay bar scene in New York and then moved to Atlanta, Georgia. I had my first boyfriend, and I dressed up in public for the first time. It was an expression of me that I really loved. It didn’t feel like a performance. I didn’t want to make people laugh, it was just me. But my boyfriend told me, “I’m done dating a girl.” Again, I learned that that expression was not lovable. I never dressed up again. I’ve never felt comfortable with sex. I was sexually abused by my stepfather as a child, and my drug addiction was surrounded by sex.
Fast forward five years to this past fall, and again, I was in a deep depression and feeling lost. In therapy, I said, “I think I’m a woman, not a gay man.” My therapist suggested that I dress up at her office, but I felt like I would be a freak. At this point, I was the Bearded Yogi, but on the inside, I felt like a woman.Women have always had a strong influence in my life. My friend, Patricia Moreno, was the one who suggested I write every day at the ashram. So I wrote every morning and evening for no one else. I listened to sound baths and allowed myself to go on deep journeys. What came up were my dreams that I had since I was little, the same ones of dressing up. In my journals, I questioned why I had such hatred towards this expression.
So in the safety of the ashram, I let let everything arise. My intention was to come to the ashram and be authentic. Slowly, I began texting my friends and letting them know about my questions of gender identity. I was met by nothing but love and acceptance. I made a joke about it every five seconds, but for the first time, I was just trying to be okay with it.
My transgender friend came to visit, and I was able to ask every question I had. I called my mom and told her, and she told me that at three years old she took me to the doctor because I kept calling myself a girl. I called my doctor, Eddie Meraz, an HIV specialist, and he told me he’s also a medical trans specialist. I came out to myself and everyone at the ashram and shaved my entire body for the first time. I let go of judgement and became raw and willing.
What I feel today is light and completeness. I feel love. I feel a new flow of energy that’s guiding me. Still, I keep questioning what’s authentic to me. Within the ashram, it is such a sacred space. There is constant sharing and meditation and blessing. You fill up on the energy. I knew I had to continue to surround myself by phenomenal teachers and mentors within the city. And to continue to take a self-love action every day.
I’m not judging myself today, and the one consistent thing in my life is happiness and contentment. I’m able to serve my community better. My teaching is on a different vibration. I’m no longer the Bearded Yogi. I’ve taken the name Jase. I’ve taken the feminine pronouns, and I get to wear yoga tights and other women’s clothes. What I’m noticing now is that my vibration is wanting to be guided, and I’m surrendering to that without expectations.
People keep asking me, “have you done something with your teeth?” But I haven’t, it’s just because I never smiled before as much as I’m smiling now. The Bearded Yogi was such a part of my identity, but it was the biggest mask I ever wore. —As told to Jamie McKillop
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(Photos: Liz Clayman)