Forrest Jenkins saw so many people’s lowest moments as an Oxford civil defense attorney she might have crumbled under the weight of their burdens.
Instead, Jenkins started her own yoga business in 2018, Sassafras Yoga & Meditation, as a way of advocating for herself, and as a healing strategy, so that she could continue to advocate for people through her legal work and outside of it.
Her Oxford apartment is a refuge. House plants, patches of sunlight, two cats. The smell of homemade moisturizing lotion cooking on the stove. It’s a world away from the courtroom.
Her black hair, green eyes, and welcoming grin create a lively aura, along with a laid-back demeanor and casual wardrobe – yoga leggings or jeans with a shirt and cardigan.
She does not seem like a woman who once felt as though she would falter while working in a law office, defending the basic needs of people in a system difficult to navigate.
Her time spent working as a defense attorney helped shape Jenkins, who graduated from law school at Ole Miss in 2008, into who she is now.
“The cult of the individual has destroyed a lot and allowed a lot of predation on the poorest people, the most marginalized, the least able to defend themselves,” said Jenkins.
In addition to her yoga business, since leaving the law field, she advocates and educates on their basic rights related to housing affordability and social inequality. Working in a system that she said is not geared towards the marginalized, has sowed distrust.
“I really think I’d want to come back to law practice, but I know I can’t do it right now. And this is something that doesn’t drain me in the same way,” Jenkins, 40, said of her yoga business.
When she began her journey into law, Jenkins wanted to become a prosecutor. She worked as a law clerk for a prosecutor she respected for his forthright nature while a law student. However, the job did not lead her to the exact place she was hoping.
“I had a really important conversation early on with the first attorney who hired me as a law clerk. He was like, first of all, you are not going to get hired in a job like that with the types of ideals you are talking about,” Jenkins recalled.
Everything she believed about racial inequality, the death penalty, incarceration, led her to practice law, might now shut her out.
As a result of that conversation, she became more interested in criminal defense, and started working on a temporary basis in a small, family law office focused on criminal trials and appellate work, mainly for people who could not pay.
Finding a job that allowed Jenkins to pursue her ideals proved difficult. She worked for the housing arm of the civil legal clinic at the University of Mississippi Law School.
The job allowed Jenkins to fight for what she believed, and led to startling realizations. Jenkins remembers a pivotal moment leaving court once. “All I could tell my client that day was, OK, you’re homeless, now, within 30 days, you need to come up with another $180 so that I can file the appeal.”
In addition to job security, she went into law because she believed in a need for more openness, and a loving attitude towards all people. She saw legal work as a path there.
Jenkins grew up in what he described as a heavily evangelical Pontotoc, Mississippi, which helped shape her idea of public service. Over time though, she began questioning aspects of evangelical Christianity.
In her junior and senior year of high school, Jenkins attended the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, and that allowed her to meld with a more religiously, culturally, and intellectually diverse group of people.
In turn, Jenkins adopted a spirit of open-mindedness – outside the context of religion – one that she believed helped her better understand herself and others.
It was a difficult period of introspection that caused her to begin deconstructing who she thought she was, something she believes is heavily discouraged within evangelical churches.
Jenkins recalled that, even when her newfound ideas began to conflict with the beliefs that once surrounded her, she always saw lovingness and openness within her family home.
Her family showed her how to deal with serious issues with a spirit of love, and they supported her interest in yoga, which began at age 15.
Others did not benefit from such advantages, she said. Jenkins recalled defending a client in the Justice Court in Lee country who was facing an eviction from an unclean apartment.
The landlord entered court with papers in hand, evidence, according to him, of money the defendant owed and repairs he made to the house. When Jenkins asked him to read out the list, he said he couldn’t read, but still ended up winning the case. Six years later though, the former occupant was awarded $50,000 in damages on appeal.
That’s not good enough, she said of such victories. “That’s not worth the amount of fight that it takes to get there, let alone the kind of turmoil and emotional stuff that you have to go through,” said Jenkins.
Because of these and other scenarios, she believes American democracy, and society in general, has been tailored to specific groups, often with privilege.
Those living in poverty, people of color, and non-male identifying people experience the justice system in a different way and have to fight harder for their rights.
Jenkins said, “There’s been decades long campaigns to sow distrust in institutions. It is good for the profit end of capitalism if everybody believes that the system can’t possibly take on certain problems, can’t possibly handle certain struggles, and the system can’t be trusted to.”
“A lot of people with real genuine, progressive social values allow themselves to get derailed over this,” she said, explaining the disillusion that sets in when change doesn’t happen.
The roadblocks within our system, constant pressure from clients, and the inability to confide in those closest to her what was weighing so heavily due to confidentiality agreements, eventually took a toll on Jenkins.
She turned back to yoga, which had been a part of her life since she was a teenager, in order to restore that peace.
“I was dealing with all of this achievement and performance and hierarchy structure of the system I’m working within, but without some really important touchstones for me to be able to feel like I’m accomplishing what I mean to, or existing in my identity in the way that I meant to,” Jenkins said.
She believes that focusing on the mindfulness and clarity of yoga provided her the integral touchstones she lacked. Too, she is thankful for the financial security that allowed her to make this choice.
“And without that security, I would not have been able to make the same decision. The state of my health and what I would have needed to get done to maintain it would have looked really different,” Jenkins said.
Also, allowing herself to heal and refocus through her yoga business has helped Jenkins envision a healthier, equitable community.
She believes she can assist Oxford through teaching yoga.What yoga opens in turn allows for people to escape rigid social structures and expand in a calm, independent way.
“And to me, it democracy is capable of existing, it’s got to exist inside self-possessed people,” she said.
Ashlyn Hinton is a sophomore at the University of Mississippi studying Public Policy Leadership and Integrated Marketing Communications. She is also a member of the Trent Lott Leadership Institute and Haley Barbour Center for Manufacturing Excellence.