Jess Norby is delivering a Saturday sermon of sorts.
Her church? A windowless yoga studio heated to 88 degrees in Charlottesville.
Twenty-seven cross-legged congregants are sweating on their mats as she shares a story that sounds uniquely millennial about skipping drinks with a friend and feeling guilty about it. She closes with a broad message meant to address her guilt and whatever anyone in the room is worried about at that moment: “You,” she says, pausing, “are enough.”
Soft electro-pop begins pulsing through the studio’s speakers.
Choose an affirmation, she instructs. What do you want to be today?
Her students inhale on the beat, and exhale.
Norby was born and raised in Springfield, Va. Her parents emigrated from Vietnam as refugees and met in the United States. After they married in 1988, they had Norby and named her after the actress Jessica Lange. Her sister Catherine followed in 1993. When their parents divorced a year later, she and Catherine lived with their dad in Virginia and spent weekends with their mom in Washington, D.C.
Growing up, Norby recalls feeling self-conscious about a number of things: her surname at the time (Dang) and her family’s food (heavy on the fish sauce). But her introverted personality gave her the most anxiety.
“I never was the life of the party or the center of discussion,” she says. “Even now, I don’t tend to be the one telling the long story with all eyes and ears on me.”
Yoga has allowed her to role play as an extrovert. At 29, the yoga instructor, personal trainer and social media consultant can be the only voice heard in a crowded room for an hour. She can take that attention and direct it right back in the form of affirmations.
At FlyDog Yoga in Charlottesville, where Norby teaches a power vinyasa class twice a week, she selects a theme for every gathering. Some days, her practice is centered on a quote from the Instagram-famous poet Rupi Kaur. Other times, it’s a lesson gleaned from her own life, which she knows may not resonate with everyone.
“When you share parts of yourself, people are always going to be like, that was weird. Or that’s a dumb story.”
“The older I get,” she reflects, “the less I care.”
It was during yoga training in her mid-20s when Norby says she realized she was a bit of a people-pleaser. Now, the mindfulness associated with the practice has allowed her internally to quiet the voices of others and focus on herself.
Although she says she places less stock in others’ opinions, Norby is pursuing a career in social media consulting — an industry reliant on approval from strangers.
Last year, she turned down a full-time social media position at a start-up specializing in gut-health supplements to focus on her consulting business. She took a break from her personal Instagram account and started posting on her business page with paragraphs-long captions, punctuated by the occasional emoji and a small army of hashtags.
Being an independent consultant gives her “autonomy and freedom,” something she craves in a career because one day she plans to start a family with her husband, Ray, whom she met in high school chorus and started dating after a school trip to Nashville.
Although other women she knows in the small-business community encourage her to dream big, she says she steers clear of the myth of “having it all.”
“There’s no such thing as balance,” Norby says.
As a child, she memorized the words to songs by the Spice Girls, but to her, the “girl power” messages of the ’90s weren’t anything more than lyrics. As she grew older, feminism as a political movement seemed extreme. It wasn’t until 2018, when her friends began talking about how the world perceived them more as objects than as people that she found she could relate.
Little by little, Norby’s feminism developed. Not because of national politics, she says, but through personal experiences. She started to view these every day grievances as symptoms of society’s structural ills.
When Ray was interviewing for his medical residency, a family member urged her to support him by ironing his clothes.
“That’s not my job,” she says with a laugh. “I have a job.”
Ray didn’t hear the directive to iron his shirts, but when he found out about it later, it didn’t surprise him, he says, given the traditional mind-set of some of their relatives.
“She works on her business late into the evening every night,” Ray says. “People assume that because I’m the medical resident, I’m the one working hard. But they don’t realize how much that puts on her and that she works just as hard as I do.”
Although her feminism developed internally, outside events have forced Norby to confront other issues she never seriously considered.
A devout Catholic until last year, she has “done a 180” on her stance on same-sex marriage and has softened her views on abortion.
“I definitely support people having choices and having control over that,” she says. “I don’t know if I’m 110 percent pro-choice, but I’m not pro-life anymore.”
After news broke regarding sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, the church she used to attend in Charlottesville sent a letter to its members inviting them to join in prayer.
“It rubbed me the wrong way that the solution was to pray,” she says. “Shouldn’t there be more action? A person to call? A petition to sign?”
In 2017, when white nationalists protested the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, her home of six years, Norby was vacationing in Italy. She cried in the check-in line at the airport as she read the news. She felt angry, then hopeless.
She knew that if she had been in town, she would not have marched with the counterprotesters, as safety would have been a concern. But, she says, she wanted to learn more.
Returning to her “somber, heavy” city, she learned that Charlottesville had been one of the last jurisdictions in the nation to integrate its public schools; African American residents were pushed out of her city; the roads she drives on — now marked with signs that say “Love not hate!” — were paved through the neighborhoods of black families.
Ray recalls that when he and Jess were younger, she didn’t go out of her way to learn about politics and current events, but “she’s really into that now, and she does actively seek it out and tries to educate herself.”
She’s learning, Norby says, but she knows learning isn’t physical action. And there are so many things she is already trying to understand about herself.
“I feel like I could still do more, but this is a start,” she says.
As a child, she says, she defined adulthood by major milestones: college, work, marriage, parenthood. So far, her life has followed that traditional path. She has arrived into adulthood, even though she says she sometimes feels squarely in the middle of her “fresh, early” 20s and her “unapologetic, comfortable” 30s.
Today, she doesn’t see herself through the lens of race, faith or gender. She identifies less with how the world sees her and more with whom she wants to become: a small-business owner.
“I think when people first meet her and don’t know her super well, she comes across as a nice, put-together person,” says Ray. “But there’s more to her than meets the eye. She works incredibly hard at everything she does. … I don’t mean to put her on a pedestal, but from what I’ve seen of her, she’s all those things.”
The two hope to have children in the coming years, and at some point Ray’s job might require a big move. But regardless of which milestone comes next for Norby, be it personal or professional, she will know how to caption it on Instagram.
She is enough.
Update: At time of print, Norby is pregnant with her first child.