"I see myself fully as a woman, and I'm happy," Jase Cannon tells PEOPLE

By Gabrielle Olya
Updated December 21, 2015 04:05 PM
Credit: Liz Clayman Photography

Jase Cannon started practicing yoga in 2003, but despite embracing a culture that is all about physical and mental health, she was struggling with gender identity issues and drug addiction.

“Yoga came in, but at the time there was still a lot of darkness,” Cannon, 38, tells PEOPLE. “At the beginning of practicing, there was a period of drug abuse, and in that short period of time I contracted HIV. Even when there were no drugs, there was depression. I was teaching yoga and providing mindfulness and meditation, but for me, I was still struggling.”

The NYC-based yoga instructor – formerly know as the Bearded Yogi – says she had been struggling with her gender identity her whole life.

“When I came out at age 19, I came out as a gay man, but I remember talking to a friend and saying, ‘I don’t think I’m gay, I think I’m a woman,’ ” she says. “I bought clothes and I dressed up, but it was something that I did in a closed room, not in front of anyone.”

Cannon began dressing in drag, but says, “It was never to be a performer, it was the opportunity to dress as a woman as an expression.”

The fitness expert hesitated to fully transition, because her friends and family were not accepting.

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“What I’ve learned from age three is this isn’t acceptable,” she says. “For me, to wear clothes or nail polish, I was shamed. So I learned to present a self that received the most love, that was approved by others. What was a survival mechanism at one time, was really hurting me ultimately.”

This past year, Cannon decided to return to the ashram in the Bahamas where she first trained to be a yoga teacher, and spent her time there reflecting on who she was and what would make her happy. It was during this trip that she decided to come out as a woman.

“Out of all my practices, I’ve learned that the best gift is just to surrender,” says the organizer of God’s Love We Deliver‘s Big Love Weekend. “I see myself fully as a woman, and I’m happy. What I’ve felt for so many years is this heaviness. [Now, there] is an absolutely amazing flow in my life, and it is easy and effortless.”