(Photo: Jessica Huneycutt)
The Daily Rally

Jessica Huneycutt Is Making Moves

During a spontaneous jungle trek, the athlete had a wild idea: she would become the team yoga instructor for the New Orleans Saints

Jessica Huneycutt

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Jessica Huneycutt told her story to producer Sarah Fuss Kessler for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.

After sitting in the Saints lobby for four days, I think this receptionist just really took pity on me. She sent this coach an email. He comes out and we talk for two hours, and he’s like, “Thanks for the info. Love your enthusiasm, but there’s no precedent for yoga in the NFL. Stay in touch.”

I live in New Orleans, Louisiana. I grew up as a competitive swimmer, a junior Olympian. And it was kind of like, What is yoga? Is that like a religion? I don’t get it. Now I have been practicing yoga for about 15 years, and teaching for about 11 or 12 years.

Yoga helped me to be at peace within my body and find more stillness, to combat that anxiety and the PTSD that I had felt for a long, long time after being sexually assaulted as a teenager.

There are times where life challenges us to take a step back and look maybe with a more macrocosmic lens.

It was 2016, probably one of the lowest points of my life. At the time, I was going through a divorce and I was teaching dozens of classes a week at different peoples’ studios and barely making ends meet. I knew that it was gonna be tough. At the same time, my mother had just been diagnosed with cancer, and she was given two years to live.

It was just devastating. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to live, I wasn’t sure how I could live.

One of my very early teachers was hosting a yoga retreat in Belize, and I had already done two separate, 200-hour yoga trainings. Really at that time, I was teaching, but I still didn’t consider myself a teacher. I just wanted to really learn.

On that retreat in Belize, we spent a week waking up with the sun, and going down to the water and practicing yoga twice a day, just really absorbing the natural beauty. I was so full of energy and life from the setting and the people and the situation. The training was so lovely.

I decided to stay in Belize for an additional week. It was just me and my backpack and a couple bucks in my pocket.

I met a couple who turned out to be these scientists from the UK who were in the jungle in Belize studying spiders. We got to talking and they invited me to come to their outpost in the middle of the jungle. And I said yes.

At 7:00 AM, I waited by the side of the dirt road by a stop sign. They picked me up in their truck, with me just running on blind faith. It was a lot of heaviness in my heart, and I kind of felt like, What do you have to lose?

We drove for a long time down a one-lane dirt road and then this guy looks to his wife and he just says, “I’ll get the boat.” And I’m like, “Oh gosh.”

So he comes back a few minutes later with this little, tiny motor boat, and the three of us get in.

When I say remote…it was so isolated. I couldn’t even tell how this guy was navigating the waters. There were no landmarks, no signposts whatsoever. We saw a few crocodiles, a few monkeys, and that was it.

He ties up the boat, and then he digs in the ground and uncovers a few machetes. And he hands one to me, and one to his wife, and he takes one himself. And he says, “Stay close, there are big cats in this jungle.”

We walk another 45 minutes, and we get to their little outpost, which has a water tank and solar power. Everything they need to survive. It was really there, in that remote part of nature, with two absolute strangers, that I really was able to sit. And just kind of think and be.

Life is short, and none of us know how long we have. I just knew that I had to do something to change my life in a way that it felt like I wanted to live it. I thought to myself, What do I want my life to look like?

My first thought in my heart is just, I have to be in New Orleans. New Orleans has always, since the moment I first set foot here, felt like home and has called me back. For my second thought, I got this wild idea that I was gonna be the yoga instructor for the New Orleans Saints football team.

Maybe it was a few days before or after that trip, but at the time, a friend of mine was running a school in inner-city Philadelphia. I started an afterschool yoga program there, and the first day, like a hundred 15-year-old young men showed up. And I thought, Surely, something is amiss. And I asked this kid right in front of me, “Did one of your teachers offer you extra credit?” And kid looked at me and he said, “No, ma’am, we play basketball and we heard LeBron does yoga.” That’s when it really dawned on me the incredible impact and power that somebody with a platform like that can have, because I want to help people heal in the ways that yoga has helped me heal or in any way that it can be beneficial.

When I came back from that trip, I researched the role of yoga in professional sports. I researched who the strength coach for the Saints was, and wrote a really hilarious-to-me-now report entitled “Yoga for Elite Athletes.” It was a bullet-pointed four-page list of the ways that it would prevent injury and save money, et cetera.

Then I just flew from Philadelphia down to New Orleans, and I gave myself a week.

I had my report printed out, and I would go and sit in the lobby and ask for this coach and the receptionist, the first day she’s like, “Well, is he expecting you?” And I’d say, “No, ma’am.” And she’d be like, “OK.” And I would sit down and I would just sit from nine to five.

This continued Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. I want to say the fourth day this receptionist sent this coach an email. And he welcomes me back into his office and we talk for two hours and he’s like, “There’s no precedent for yoga in the NFL. Stay in touch.”

I was like, OK that’s it. I’m moving back to New Orleans. I’m gonna go down there and make it happen. Everybody was like, “Love you, Jess, but you’re crazy to move down to New Orleans. It’s not gonna happen.”

I had been down here for a month or two, and was starting to really sweat it. Then I ended up getting a text that just asked me if I could come back out to the training facility. I was so excited because I thought, Gosh I’ve got a second interview.

When I got out there, he said, “Thanks so much for coming back in. There are 90 guys on the indoor football field, you have 15 minutes to warm them up. Good luck.”

I walked out on the football field and I’m screaming at the top of my lungs. “All right, everybody, lift your arms up by your ears. Bend your knees. Sit back into a chair.” And while they were sitting in a chair, I just said, “My name is Jess. I was a junior Olympic swimmer. I’m trained in Russian kettlebells and pilates and yoga and martial arts. I’m here to stretch you guys out and keep you injury free. Fold forward, touch your toes.” I was sweating, screaming, shaking. And then afterwards, I shook the coach’s hand. I said, “Thank you so much for the opportunity.”

He just said, “You’re hired. We’ll see you Monday.”

This will be my eighth season coming up this year.

I have taken vows as a Buddhist. And a lot of these athletes, my students, who I consider my teachers, are very devout Christian. I might speak a very different language, but it’s all love.

Something I say to them is, “OK, great. Demario Davis, you’re a very Christian man, right? You’re a man of God. Yes?” “Yes.” And I say, “Great. Well you know prayer is when you talk to God. Meditation is when you listen.”

The best and hardest lessons that I’ve ever learned throughout a lot of hardship in my life is to be still and to be quiet. Because, as one of my teachers said to me very early on, you already have everything you need inside of you. And you’re gonna need it all.

Jessica Honeycutt is a lifelong athlete and lover of movement, the arts, the great outdoors and other people, most of all, her son. She has been Team Yoga Instructor for the New Orleans Saints since 2016.

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Lead Photo: Jessica Huneycutt