Nourishing is not usually an adjective I’d use when describing a conversation, yet it is the first word that springs to mind when reflecting on my chat with Jessica Thompson; simply nourishing and wholesome in all the best ways! Ballet is art, health is art, career paths wind, yet somehow the winds always have something to teach us. If you’ve ever wanted to find out more about the fascinating and ancient wisdom of ayurveda, and all the benefits it can harbour for an artist and human in general, then this interview is for you. Jessica also had a stunningly colourful dance career and talked honestly about the raw highs and lows of that journey for her. There is so much innate wisdom unveiled in this conversation, so without further ado… let’s get to it!
Disclaimer* all of Jessica’s amazing insights could not be put into a blog post word for word. Hence, some of her answers have been condensed with her approval.
What is your current profession?
Long term, I am studying to become an ayurvedic practitioner, however the first part of my qualification that I am currently gaining is an ‘ayurvedic lifestyle consultant’. Whilst being a student, I already offer certain ayurvedic consultations and treatments as part of my training curriculum. In saying that, the most honest answer to this question at this point in time is that I’m a full time mother, the greatest portion of my time is spent in that capacity.
What is your background in Dance?
I grew up in Perth, Western Australia, and at the age of 15 moved to Melbourne to join the Australian Ballet School. I repeated my first year at the school, which at the time felt like a giant tragedy but ended up being a true blessing, this meant I spent four years training with ABS. Upon graduating I was offered a contract with The Australian Ballet Company, where I remained for four years. I felt guided by my soul to leave the company after this time. In some respects, it may have been naive, but wasn’t feeling completely fulfilled and wanted to find what else was out in the world for me. My now husband and I went to Europe and had a really rough 12 months trying to find work; auditioning around the place, but primarily just trying to survive living in London. Whilst it was a difficult 12 months, it set our lives on the path we are on now and I’m so grateful for all the things we became aware of needing and wanting because of that struggle. After returning to Australia, we both took jobs with Royal New Zealand Ballet where we stayed for 6 months. We missed Melbourne so much, so we came back after those 6 months. Upon returning, I danced with Melbourne Ballet Company for several contractual seasons. I had previously done a cattle call audition for Sydney Dance Company and about a year after that audition I received a call asking me to join the company. I was offered a year’s contract but ended up staying for three. It was then that I made the difficult (but in other ways not difficult at all) decision to stop dancing professionally and begin a family.
How did you transition from ballet to ayurveda?
I feel as though I’m in a state of flux. I’m making that transition from having been in the dance world for such a long time and identifying so deeply with everything that that brings, and now moving into this completely new area of wellness. Coming out of ballet, I dabbled in yoga and that felt like a pretty natural way to begin the transition; not that yoga is actually about the physical but it is a definite component, and that physicality of yoga helped me when I was no longer dancing in a professional capacity. Completing my ashtanga yoga teacher training allowed me to come to the internal place that has let me study and offer ayurveda to others.
Can you summarise Ayurveda for readers who have never heard of it before?
Ayurveda literally means life science. It is based on simple yet beautiful principles that make sense to all of us on some subconscious level, because it all has to do with nature. It centers around the idea that we are a microcosm of the macrocosm, and basically we contain what the universe contains and the universe contains us. The aim of ayurvedic healing is to align oneself with the natural elements, forces, and environments, so that we can experience harmony. It is a way to look at your life through a holistic lens and access the truth of who you are. Ayurveda aims to balance the doshas’ which are a pairings of the five elements (earth, water, fire, wind, and ether). The doshas govern all the physiological and physiological processes; our thinking, feelings, endocrine function, elimination, digestion, energy levels, and our sleep to name a few. All ayurvedic treatments aim to balance the doshas within our mind and body. There are also daily rituals one adopts and completes regularly to bring forth the fruit of who they are.
Was anything particular happening in your life when you found Ayurveda?
My mother had a few ayurvedic cookbooks on the shelf when I was a child, so I was always semi aware that it existed. As an adult I came across it randomly at isolated moments, but it was after the birth of my daughter (my second child) that I started to deep dive into it. For me, her birth was fast, and my energy centers that opened in the process didn’t feel like they fully closed. There was a good month postpartum where I just felt… bizarre; hypersensitive, emotional, just like I was existing in a different space to the rest of the world. My consciousness felt altered. The lack of groundedness I felt in day to day living was problematic, and in this time I just kept getting drawn into ayurveda. One evening, whilst lying in bed I had a crystal clear thought ‘I really want to heal myself so I can heal others’. Around nine months later I was studying a textbook where the doctor used nearly that exact phrase, it was a true goosebump moment. I felt like a lot of my understanding of who I was was broken apart by having children and put back together in a much more whole way. Actually, a lot of the illusions that I had been grappling with for all of my 20s most of my dance career, suddenly I was able to see through them to the truth of who I was beyond that. Ayurveda provided me with the framework to do this. It gave me context for so many things that I had struggled through, and also for really beautiful insights that I’ve had along the way. All of a sudden, I had a way to piece it all together so I could see the full picture.
Do you have a morning routine?
I wander out of bed bleary eyed and the first thing I do is scrape my tongue, which I actually find stops incessant coffee cravings as well as its multitude of other benefits. Every morning I also have warm water with lemon, honey and ginger, which is a traditional and simple Ayurvedic formulation for balancing the doshas and assisting your body with elimination and digestion. Then I will definitely do nasya, which is administering a specific warm medicated oil to your nose. This helps you to breathe better and gets rid of any kind of mucus gunk, but its main function is to balance your pituitary gland and endocrine system. Nasya is really great for everyone but especially for women, and especially after having gone through pregnancy with your hormones being up and down. I find that it’s an essential part of my day. Most days I try to give myself ‘abhyanga’ which is a massage with warm oil. I fit in a full abhyanga approx 3-4 times a week, and on other days I do an abbreviated version where I just apply the oil to certain points on my body. The other profound change I made when I dived into Ayurveda was the simplicity of daily conscious breathing. I truly feel my insight and creativity are greatly enhanced when I maintain the routine of these practices.
In a society that tends to progress rapidly ‘forward’ do you find value in the ancient wisdom and practices?
I definitely find deep value in the ancient roots of Ayurveda. I find immense refuge in the daily Ayurvedic practices and use them as a way to help me remember what’s real and true. The practices, teachings, and wisdom of Ayurveda basically guide us back to our own intuitive knowledge of how to heal ourselves and how to be happy and whole within ourselves, which is not being taught at all in our society. It’s drilled into that you need more, you should be more, you need to earn more, do more, and the list goes on. Ayurveda just brings it all back to your origin. You were born whole, you are everything already. You’ve just forgotten and wandered a little bit away. I believe the ancient wisdom and practices give you a way to get back to yourself.
Do you feel Ayurveda has changed or enhanced the way you view art? If so, can you give an example?
Ayurveda has changed my understanding of myself and I think the way that we experience art is in a way how we experience ourselves. We truly are like mirrors, what we see in art and life is simply a reflection of our own experiences. Since finding ayurveda, I feel my experience with art has been more open and less affected in a way. I harboured a lot of pain around leaving my professional dance career, as part of me still felt so connected to that part of life. Essentially what I feel ayurveda has given me in terms of how I experience art, is that now I feel a sense of security, and I actually feel the same way about the art and science of Ayurveda that I did when I started out as a dancer. I feel this vast huge ocean of beauty that is waiting for me. That’s the way that I always felt about dance and I think now I can see that the two things are in a way the same path, this understanding has helped release that pain I was feeling. I now have a lens to see that art in any form is simply a catalyst for how I view the world.
Do you have a favorite quote/poem/piece of art?
“There are no shortcuts to any place worth going” – Beverly Sills
When I was a student at the Australian Ballet School and living far from home, my Mum sent me that quote and it has stayed on my fridge throughout most of my career and beyond! I guess it is a reminder to have courage, to stay the course of my heart, and to accept the turns along the path with grace, trust and acceptance. There is never an easy substitute for integrity and continuing to show up moment to moment, and I think this is true for health as well as for art. This quote has reminded me (more than once) that if I return to integrity, truth, and grace, it is always worth it and I am never lost.
How did you get involved in writing? What was your intention behind this work?
After I stopped dancing with SDC, and whilst I was pregnant with my son, I began a blog titled toi toi. I created this alongside photographer Justin Ridler, and the intention was to lift the veil and allow people to see what’s within an artist. People know what it’s like to see a dancer up on stage, or to see a director in action, but we wanted to learn what it’s like for them from within, to actually be in that position. That blog is no longer active, but I always have and always will love writing. Right now, I am actually in the process of writing a book about dancing and my experience within that world!
What perceived ‘failure’ has turned into your most helpful lesson on your journey thus far?
Leaving the Australian Ballet Company felt like a personal failure for a very long time. To many people, and even to myself, it appeared as if I had been handed this golden platter, and I beat myself up for a long time over not being able to ‘make it work’. I don’t want to mislead people, there were numerous (both subtle and big) incredible moments of joy and contemptment in my time with Aus Ballet, but after my second year I had an increasing sense that both for myself and my art I needed to go elsewhere. I became increasingly unhappy, and by the time I left I was in a bad state of depression. I had no self confidence, and went from someone who could easily open the door of their heart to an audience, to someone who doubted themself at every step. I felt deeply, deeply saddened and distressed by the fact that I had lost the most precious part of myself. I remembered being a little girl and how I felt about dancing and how I felt when I was about to go on stage, and back then I felt like I’d lost that feeling. I sobbed to Kieran (my now husband) in the car park when we left the studio one night and remember saying “what happened to me? I don’t know what’s happened to me, I’m lost”. The company tried their very best to offer me support, in hindsight I really see that they did everything they could, but ultimately they couldn’t provide what I wanted and what I needed. That wasn’t their fault and it wasn’t my fault either. When I left the company, I felt like a refugee who had left their home and couldn’t go back. I couldn’t make sense of the turn my life had taken. In the coming years, when I couldn’t find work, I would always go back to the moment I left and torture myslef over that decision. Now, I think the lesson for me was in recognizing that sometimes it’s the most uncomfortable aspect of myself that I have come face to face with that might be the seed of truth for my path in life. Ultimately, it was that decision to leave that has allowed me to evolve into the woman that I was supposed to be and the dancer that I was supposed to be. I could have stayed, but at the time I was simply too battle weary to do so. However, had I done so I don’t believe I would have accessed some of the most precious understandings and experiences I ended up gaining from dance. I guess sometimes the things that are most painful to give up actually make the space for the things that are valuable beyond what you can possibly perceive at the time.
Many people worry they ‘don’t have the time’ for ayurvedic routines and health care rituals in general. On top of that, dancers in particular (who are often perfectionists) may feel that if they can’t do the whole routine perfectly it’s not worth doing any of it. In your opinion is some better than none?
I think the fact that dancers tend to thrive on rituals and routines- such as always having a particular snack before performances or always doing a significant pilates warm up before class etc, makes Ayurveda a natural accomodation and integration in their life… if the person is open and ready for change. Dancers often have no trouble finding the time in their day for the things they truly believe in and believe are of benefit. In this way, the simple daily routines of Ayurvedic diet and lifestyle can easily become a sustaining way of life which quickly begins to serve your higher purpose and daily efforts. I wish I had known more when I was dancing professionally. I don’t know how I coped without the simple things that are regular features in my day now! In saying that, some is definitely better than none. There are definitely benefits to gain from doing really small things, such as scraping your tongue when you wake up. This is going to provide your body with a ‘leg up’ in terms of eliminating toxins and assisting your body with proper digestion, balancing your taste, and helping your gut to heal itself. Even taking five minutes to breathe deeply in a day, that’s gonna open the way for your own intelligence to guide you toward what you need.
Are there any specific ayurvedic practices you feel would benefit artists (particularly dancers) to incorporate in their lives?
The essential routines that most dancers would benefit from are things like drinking warm water throughout the day to nourish digestive fire and assist metabolism, tongue scraping upon waking, avoiding stimulants in general (such as excessive coffee in place of food), and daily oil massage. And, of course, breathing, because breath is literally life. If breath is shallow or held your cells are starved and in distress. Conscious breathing brings inner quiet and floods the body with Prana which is absolutely essential for dancers given the physical and mental pressure they place upon themselves.
What does the word ‘holistic’ mean to you?
For me ‘holistic’ refers to a state of being integrated and of feeling at peace within. Being within wholeness, and not grasping for fulfillment from outside myself, but knowing it and finding it where I am.
They say the pen is mightier than the sword, so if you could scribe one word to use as your weapon in life what would it be?
Without grace, you’re fighting against the river of life. When you find the grace within to trust who you are and what you can offer in life, I think that grace will then allow life to carry you to where you need to be.
In what ways would you like to see readers’ minds expand with this interview?
If ayurveda and my story somehow reminds readers that there’s always a pathway back to your wholeness, your happiness, and your health, then that would be amazing! All you need to do is be still and breathe. Close your eyes and see from within.
Featured Pic Credit: Pedro Grieg