How Forrest Yoga Changed My Life

The Yoga Diaries is proud to present the winner of the
Forrest Yoga transformation story contest:

 

Name: Kaitlin Morris
Location: Riverhead, New York, USA
Occupation: Yoga Teacher

When I was 13 years old, I was trying desperately to accept and love myself. Having determined that I was officially “too fat,” “ugly,” and generally not conforming to what I perceived to be the ideals of my peer group, I joined a weight loss group and began to exercise with my mother’s encouragement. Although my parents were loving and supportive, I interpreted their support as criticism—I had to be thinner, smaller, and quieter. I had to get better grades in school and pick up more slack around the house.

A few years passed … I lost 35 lbs by taking my weight loss plan to an extreme, sometimes eating as little as 1,000 calories a day and exercising vigorously on a daily basis. Seeing these changes in my body and attitude as positive, I made other positive changes in my life. I stopped slitting my wrists, I began to help out my parents more with the household chores, and I began to work harder at school to improve my grades.

It was about this time that I decided that I wasn’t enough. Even though I had lost weight, even though I seemed intelligent and well-adjusted, I still wasn’t good enough. Taking this painful conclusion to heart, I began to exercise more and seek out alternative ways to tone and strengthen my body, whipping it into a shape that I could accept. I tried weights, aerobics, cardio machines, and, luckily, yoga. I tried an inexpensive yoga class geared towards beginners at my library and I began to notice changes not just in my posture but also in my thought patterns. As I continued the practice, slight decreases in anxiety and stress, negativity, and improvements in my self-esteem were my surprise rewards.

I kept taking yoga classes through the years, but eventually the stress of college and other aspects of my life somehow expressed themselves as a desire to lose more weight, to go further, to seek a more distant “edge” physically and mentally. I began to lose faith in yoga, feeling bored and injured by the level of instruction and styles of yoga available at the time. I considered giving it up completely, favoring more physically challenging exercises instead to further reduce my body to a tight nub of muscle and skin.

I decided to branch out, to seek other styles, and to look for new teachers. Somewhere along the way, yoga had left me looking for something deeper, something that was missing. I was sick of checking my watch throughout class as I waited for that “yoga elevator music” and the dull, simple poses to end. I was sick of flowery language and cues that didn’t make sense. I was sick of, as a biology student, knowing more about alignment and health than my teachers. So I bought a membership at a studio further from my house and began to search for whatever it was that had become lost along the way.

On a rainy FKaitlin Morris backbendriday in October, I chose to skip my obsessive cardio exercise. Instead I took a yoga class labeled “Advanced” on the recommendation of another yoga instructor who also enjoyed a good challenge. It was here that I found what I had all but given up hope of finding—yoga that physically, intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally came together with my body and my mind and melted into my soul.

With the first round of abdominals, I was hooked for life. I could feel something, deep inside, that I had never felt before, something that no other physical or spiritual path had ever given me a touch of. I felt like I would be okay, like I was good, like I had come home to somewhere safe and warm.

The class was my first Forrest Yoga experience, and I spent the whole time alternatively laughing and crying. As I drove the long way home, I knew that I had found my saving grace.

That summer, the teacher of that class opened her own yoga studio (Good Ground Yoga in Hampton Bays, NY) even closer to my home, and I had the unbelievable opportunity to practice Forrest Yoga with her several times each week until this day.

I felt my life unfold, new opportunities arose, and I leapt at them. I took more difficult, intimidating college courses. I finished my undergraduate degree. I cried through savasana as I felt my sister’s hands in mine, healing from her sudden death years before.

My eating disorder became something that I could work through with the breath, consciousness, and the new-found courage that the practice gave me. I thought about it long and hard, and then I took the leap.

Kaitlin Morris handstand croppedHere I am, now teaching yoga myself, no longer sure that I will die any day and be better for it. Now I have the hope, strength, love, and power that only Forrest Yoga could have given me. I have the tools to not only face life with my head up, but also to carve the life I choose to live. I can recover, I can heal, I can connect, and I am capable of anything.

That is what practicing Forrest Yoga did to change my life.

Kaitlin Morris bioKaitlin took her first yoga class at age 13, hoping to ease anxiety while trying a new workout. Initially skeptical, she quickly learned to love yoga and began to use the practice to handle the stress of college, the intense grief of losing her sister, and the raw struggle of healing from an eating disorder. In 2011, she took her first Forrest class with Leslie Pearlman and was hooked for life. When Leslie opened Good Ground Yoga in 2012, Kaitlin moved in and never left. Kaitlin now teaches at GGY and several other studios. www.kaitlinmorrisyoga.com.

Do you have a story of healing or transformation through yoga? The Yoga Diaries wants to hear it. Click here to submit your story.

Follow The Yoga Diaries on Facebook here.

Advertisements

Ganesh Has Many Titles

{Winner Essay of The Yoga Diaries / Rebelle Society contest:
Did Yoga Transform Your Life?}

 

Name: Terry Schifferns
Location: Gibbon, Nebraska, USA
Occupation: Writing Instructor

Ganesh has many titles: The God of Beginnings, The Remover of Obstacles, The Lord of Thresholds, Ekadanta or Bowing to the Truth. Ganesh is never far from Mooshak, his companion the mouse. The mouse has been my totem animal for the last 20 years. But that is a different story. This is the story of Ganesh or when you are ready the teacher appears.Ganesha2009 was a difficult year for me. The year began with my blood pressure spiking and debilitating dizzy spells, a headache that lasted a month, and endless doctor appointments for endless tests, which would later (much later) be diagnosed as six TIAs, Transient Ischemic Attacks (mini strokes). On March 1st my longtime best friend Cher died and my mother died unexpectedly on April 4th. I cried a lot. I went to work like a remote control robot. I graded papers. I went to more doctor appointments. At home, I cried in the shower. I cried at night. I cried when I watched commercials on TV. I cried when I sorted through the medical bills. But I went to work every day.

I had started yoga just a year earlier. So I went to yoga. Every week I went to yoga. Every week I’d set my intention, and every week I’d end up crumpled on my yoga mat in child’s pose weeping. My yoga teacher and companions were kind and compassionate. I made it to the last day of my teaching semester, and I cried for a week straight. I went to yoga twice a week that summer. I read Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed. In the story, the main character visits a therapist who has a statue on her desk of Ganesh, “Remover of Obstacles,” “Destroyer of Sorrows.”

I remember thinking about how much I needed my own Destroyer of Sorrows.

That week I walked into yoga, unrolled my mat in the same place I’d been unrolling my mat all summer, and there beside me on the wall was the same tapestry I had been weeping beneath all summer, a tapestry of an elephant with a small mouse at his feet—Ganesh. All summer Ganesh, The Destroyer of Sorrows, The Destroyer of Obstacles, The Lord of Thresholds had been right there beside me, transforming me. That was when I first believed that yoga was the path to my new beginning.

Terry SchiffernsTerry Schifferns teaches writing at Central Community College in Nebraska. Look for her smack dab at the bottom of the Platte’s big bend in the middle of Nebraska dancing with Sandhill cranes each spring.

 

Do you have a story of healing or transformation through yoga? The Yoga Diaries wants to hear it. Click here to submit your story.

Follow The Yoga Diaries on Facebook here.

The Yoga Diaries – the Book!

Final book simulationSix years ago I was living in Los Angeles during the darkest time of my life. In an act of desperation, I walked into a yoga studio. That single act changed the entire course of my life. Over the years that followed, the yoga practice proceeded to transform my mind, body, and spirit, on every level. Profound healing occurred. Forces aligned. Synchronicity abounded. Soul brothers and sisters showed up on the same path, and I began to witness powerful transformations occurring all around me. I quickly began to see the undeniable– that yoga changes lives; that yoga has the power to heal so much human pain and suffering; that yoga brings magical connection and serendipity into our lives. I knew this was a message that I needed to spread. I knew that I needed to help others to heal and transform their own lives. I knew this was my mission. And so began a labor of love …

I am so thrilled to announce the publication of The Yoga Diaries. The Yoga Diaries brings together 30 diverse yogis, of all ages and from all walks of life, to share their stories of transformation through yoga: stories of physical and emotional healing; stories of overcoming great adversity; stories of finding one’s true purpose; stories of breathtaking, alchemical soul transformations.

The personal and inspiring stories of the brave yogis within these pages will convince you that yoga is a practice for anyone … for everyone.

Available now on Amazon.

I am immensely proud of and thankful for these brave spiritual warriors for having the courage to share their beautiful stories: B Grace Bullock, Jean Merlen, Gitte Lindgaard, Katherine Girotti, Sara Curry, Barry Hurchalla, Elizabite McGlinchey, Alexander Litvak, Alli Banks, Amber Shumake, Maiga Milbourne, Rachel Wolfe, Bridget Boland, Heather Mitchell Jefferson, Erin Lee, Colleen Millen, Desiree Rumbaugh, Rebecca Butler, Julie Peoples-Clark, Natalia Chaparro, J Brown Yoga, Krissie Penney, Ina Sahaja, Paulina Julián Colin, Nick Montoya, Ashley Herzberger, Candice Garrett, Bridget Lyons, Dagmar Spremberg.

May their stories and their inner light shine out and inspire people all over the world!

And may you be inspired to begin your own journeys towards healing …

 

Cover design by Gibran Julian.

Learning to Become a Vessel

Name: Kim Stanley
Location: Fort Wayne, Indiana, USA
Occupation: Yoga Teacher

During teacher training we were taught that we need to be a vessel for our students. Our teacher guided us through this process and the group did quite a bit of self exploration and cleansing. These exercises were specifically designed to clear out some of our own baggage and free up some space. You can’t be a vessel when you are full of your own crap, right? Practicing forgiveness, laughing, crying, and maybe a little screaming are all great preparation for new teachers.

When we accept this immense responsibility to teach others the practice of yoga, we need to be prepared for our class to bring in anything and everything: failed relationships, body issues, past or present abuse, all the garbage that we humans try to compost into our darkest places and hope that it will slowly decompose. Instead, it usually simmers just under the surface and sometimes, an intense practice gives it just the extra heat it needs to boil over. With all of this barely contained energy in the room, teachers have to be ready to catch the overflow. If we are constantly spewing out our own drama, we may not be prepared to bring in and hold still, what our students may need to release.

Fortunately for me, my particular teacher felt very strongly about our role as vessel and I had tried to listen intently as she described to us what we might have to do. However, I had never actually experienced this phenomenon for myself until last week and I was not as prepared as I had thought…

One of our students, someone I have known for a couple of years, showed up at a class I was subbing and appeared to be a little out of sorts. When I asked her how she was doing before class I was totally unprepared for her answer. She very simply and quietly told me that they had lost their child the day before. As you can imagine my heart dropped to the floor; I felt dizzy; my hands went to my face; time stoppedall of the normal human reactions to horrifying news. Once the room stopped spinning and came back into focus I thought, “Hey, this is not your pain; buck up and be here for this person!”

I don’t know how but she managed to keep it together with just a small tremble in her lip. We hugged and while I was holding her I tried to will my energy to take on some magical power to just envelop her like an opiate. But unfortunately I don’t have that or any magical power.

During class I was consumed with how I should act with this student in the room. My heart was breaking for her and on top of queuing poses, I was concerned that I would say the wrong thing and cause her to burst into tears. About mid-way through our practice, that word “vessel” finally floated into my swirling thoughts and I tried to convince myself that I was being one. I knew I needed to empty out some space to allow her room to do what she needed but I was still holding on to my own junk. I had to get rid of the idea that I had to come up with the perfect words to soothe her, or bring in the perfect pose to somehow release her pain in a physical way. I just needed to be a vessel. A container. A safe place for her to do whatever it was she needed without my own dirt, my desire to be the hero, muddying up the water.

The good newswe made it through class with neither of us having a complete breakdown; maybe a few slowly released tears and some deeper than usual sighs. The bad newsI will still struggling with making this all about me. I wanted to come up with the gesture or words of wisdom after class that would fix the problem; as if it were something that could be fixed. As I am still far from enlightenment, I tend to manipulate every event to answer the question, “how does this affect me?” But I knew, in my thinking brain, that this was definitely not about me. How did I get my heart and my gut, the non-analytical parts, to get on board? This was about a fellow yogi, friend, human suffering an unbearable loss and if I was going to help at all I needed to stop trying to be the superstar. I do not posses mystical powers of healing or clever words that answer the mysteries of life. The only skill I possess is to hold some space free and clear for my students to feel safe. That role as vessel had to trump my thinking brain’s need to save the day.

I let the student divulge as many of the details as she wanted to and tried not to press her for facts. Again, be a vessel Kim, not a siphon… She told me her family had been at the hospital all week, apparently their ordeal had gone on for a few days. After so many hours of crying and sitting in a hospital waiting room feeling totally helpless to help the one person for whom she felt totally responsible, she needed to just come to yoga. She didn’t want to go home and sit anymore. She wanted to take some deep breaths and stretch her tired body. And she knew she could come here. She knew that she would find support, a few words to calm her spinning mind, maybe a few hugs, maybe a dimly lit room with quiet peaceful music. Whatever she was looking for, she felt she could get it here.

With that I started to think about what an amazing place this is! This studio, this larger vessel, is apparently so safe and so comforting that people who have had the worst thing in the world happen to them feel okay to enter and are even drawn to be here. How incredible that this studio, and others like it all around the world, have become a haven where you can take a few breaths even after your very worst day.

The yoga community is what makes this place sacred and inviting. We are doing our small part with our little lives, in our little town, to connect to the bigger world energy. For just a brief moment, every day, we move beyond the individuals that make up this group and became something larger, that thing that is closer to yoga. We make a tiny step toward getting rid of the duality that we insist is part of our human condition and instead, share ourselves through vulnerability; maybe, in this instance, vulnerability in the knowledge that one day this could very likely be us. Tragic things happen all the time. We don’t know what’s coming next but man, it feels a tiny bit better to think that we have a vessel; a safe comforting home-away-from-home to come to if we need it.

Life is beautiful picAfter the class, I was speaking to another teacher about what had happened to our friend and we were both amazed at the student’s poise and level of control. I mean, she was clearly shaken to her core but she was still, for the most part, keeping it together. As parents, we imagined we would both be sobbing, heaving messes unable to speak to anyone let alone attend a yoga class.

Later that week the student shared with me a phrase that someone had said to her at the showing. She said, “It will never be the same but it will get better.” She jokingly added, “I want it to get better now.” We chuckled and I knew that I was witness again to what a truly strong, brave, beautiful person she is and that as usual, the student had taught the teacher. I hoped that I could continue to grow and learn to work on becoming a true vessel and that in time, I too, will get better.

Kim StanleyAfter 12 years as a student, Kim finds the most beautiful thing about yoga to be its adaptability to everyone. No matter your age, physical ability or state of mind, you can be a part of something awesome. Kim completed her 200 RYT from Pranayoga School of Yoga and Holistic Health and is working towards her ERYT. In 2012 she took a leap of faith and left a well paying, but soul sucking job as a software project manager to follow her passion and teach full-time. Yin Yoga is her true love but she also really digs Heated Prana Flow classes. She has a B.S. in Organizational Leadership and lives in Fort Wayne with her very understanding husband, two gifted children, two old dogs and two crazy cats. You can find her teaching schedule at kimstanleyyoga.com or yap about yoga with her on facebook.com/KimStanleyYoga or twitter @kimstanleyyoga.

Do you have a story of healing or transformation through yoga? The Yoga Diaries wants to hear it. Click here to submit your story.

Follow The Yoga Diaries on Facebook here.

 

Love is Stronger than Fear

Editor’s Note: I have just had the supreme pleasure of spending the entire weekend in a series of yoga workshops with master teacher, Desirée Rumbaugh, and I must tell you that in addition to being an extraordinarily gifted teacher, Desirée is one of the most vibrant, joyful, spunky, and playful human beings I have ever encountered. She is a living example of someone who truly embodies a spirit that shines so brightly from the inside out. Please bear that in mind as you read her incredible story. It is my great honor to share it here. ~ Jeannie Page

Name: Desirée Rumbaugh
Location: Southern California, USA
Occupation: Yoga Teacher

Desiree and her sonOn October 18, 2003, I returned to Phoenix from teaching a yoga workshop and was greeted at the Sky Harbor airport by my father and two brothers, with the news that my 20-year-old-son, Brandon, and his 19-year-old girlfriend, Lisa, had been shot to death while camping overnight. They were sleeping in the back of her mother’s pickup truck in BumbleBee Arizona, about an hour north of Phoenix, AZ in celebration of their one-year anniversary.

When they didn’t show up for work on Saturday morning, we all knew something must be wrong, but they weren’t discovered until Sunday. There was no robbery, no apparent motivation, and although it was broadcast to the country on CNN and America’s Most Wanted, the case was never solved.

Des kidsI am very fortunate that I have another child, Jessica, my beautiful daughter. This was a devastating loss for all of us. An unthinkable tragedy. An unimaginable pain.

My deepest sadness and fear at the time of this tragedy was that I would never again know joy. I feared that my life would always have a tone of sorrow. I set out on a mission to work in the direction of reclaiming my joy and reason for living. My spiritual journey had officially begun and after almost two years, and thousands of frequent flyer miles, landing into the open hearts of friends and strangers, I realized my son’s death could renew my own life and purpose.

I have been practicing yoga since 1987. I was certified in Iyengar yoga in 1994 and in Anusara Yoga in 1999. Since that time I have been traveling full-time, teaching yoga workshops and retreats all over the world.

I believe it has been the steadfastness and inner strength I have learned directly from my yoga practice that has enabled me not only to survive, but thrive. For the first two years, I was in so much emotional pain that I couldn’t help but share it in my workshops. I shared my grief openly with my students and many of them thanked me for being an example of someone not afraid to be real and true to her feelings.

I travel full-time teaching yoga and believe it is a healing mission for me to go out and share what I have learned about regaining joy after such tremendous loss.

Desiree dancer's poseI would like to let more people know that there is a way to mentally, emotionally AND physically transform the pain and suffering of the past and truly regain motivation and a sense of peace. My healing process was also assisted by a terrific counselor and the teachings of Abraham-Hicks’ principles of the law of attraction. After all these years, it has become clear to me that the union of the human experience with the knowledge of the Divine presence within has helped me to embody the feeling of joy and freedom that it seemed this tragedy had taken away.

The power of Yoga is immense and priceless. I am grateful.

Desiree bioDesirée Rumbaugh is an internationally recognized yoga teacher with unquenchable enthusiasm for life, love, and healing. She blends playful humor with an authentic inquiry into the nature of being to help her students discover their own power, courage, and beauty. Her passion for teaching both the art and the science of yoga is fueled in part by her own experience recovering from deep grief as a bereaved parent. For Desirée, yoga has been a life-saver emotionally as well as physically. With longtime studies in Iyengar and Anusara Yoga, she brings 25 years of experience, experimentation, and creativity to her ever-evolving, outside-of-the-box style of teaching. Desirée travels the world full-time sharing her compassion and her joy with others interested in the transformational power of yoga. She has produced a DVD series entitled “Yoga to the Rescue” and is a regular contributor to Yoga Journal, having also appeared on its cover. Desirée supports the Art of Yoga Project serving teenage girls in the juvenile justice system. She lives with her husband in southern California. Follow Desirée on Facebook here and on Twitter @desireerumbaugh.

Do you have a story of healing or transformation through yoga? The Yoga Diaries™ wants to hear it. Click here to submit your story.

Find The Yoga Diaries™ on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @TheYogaDiaries.

Yoga – The Greatest Gift

Name: Julie Peoples-Clark
Location: Burlington, Vermont, USA
Occupation: Mother, Dancer, Yoga & Dance Teacher

Ella and Julie 2Ten years ago, I gave birth to my daughter Ella. My husband and I were very excited to be having a baby. I had a wonderful full-term pregnancy. I ate right, exercised every day, didn’t drink alcohol, and stayed away from anyone who was smoking. My due date came and went and I was two weeks overdue when I finally went into labor. My labor was very hard and long, Ella went into distress and was not breathing when she was born. She was taken away from me and the next time I saw her she was in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Continue reading

How I Learned to Love Myself

Name: Erin
Location: Pennsylvania, USA
Occupation: High School Student and Yoga Assistant

I guess I never really realized how lost I was until I found myself… until I loved myself.

Yoga is the reason for my loving myself. Teenage years are some of the roughest years, the time when you are searching for yourself. But in reality, that’s silly… we are one person, we are unique, we are what we are. I don’t think it’s a matter of searching as much as it is about accepting: accepting who we are and then falling in love with the way God created us. I believe that once we can do that… that is when we have “found ourselves.”

When I was in 8th grade, I came home to a dark house and all I could hear was crying. Once I made my way to the living room, my mom told me the news that my dad had passed away. My dad had been in an out of rehab, which meant he was in and out of my life. I couldn’t control the way he acted but I knew he loved us so much. After his death I was ok as I knew that everything happens for a reason and that my daddy was in heaven with Jesus.

Looking back on grades 9-11, I realize now how I tried to control everything, especially what I ate and how much I exercised. Controlling these things was the only way I could feel good about myself. I guess I controlled those things because I couldn’t control that my dad had to go.

Over the past year yoga has become something more than exercise for me; it has become a lifestyle. I used to try to control everything about myself but then my mom taught me, “Who is there to really impress?” I guess before yoga the person who I was trying to outdo and impress was myself. I was trying to “better” myself by cutting back on food, keeping up with the latest nutrition fad so that I would look not just ok, but great. But I never achieved great. Exercising nonstop and eating all the “right” foods was never enough. There was no way I could out-do myself. I was trying to control my own life instead of just going with the flow and letting God do the rest.

After a year of practicing at Evolution Power Yoga, I started realizing a change in my life. I was not sure what it was but it was contagious. I had to go to yoga. Yoga had become a part of me.

Working at a local grocery store, I worked my butt off for a year to save for yoga teacher training. Finally it came. My training was an intensive teacher training (200 hours in 18 days, 14 hours a day). I made friendships with everyone in the training, including the instructors. I learned so much more than how to teach yoga: I learned how to listen to others and how to truly be myself. I learned that I am perfect, whole and complete, just the way I am.

Once the training was over, I fully accepted my body and myself. I was so grateful for what my body had accomplished (3-4 yoga classes a day) and the surprising ways in which my body physically changed. I now feel leaner, lighter and happier, however I believe I feel that way less because of my physical nature and more because of my self-acceptance. I am so much kinder to my body now because I am so grateful for everything that it has done for me.

It is exciting and unbelievable to me that by the young age of 17, I am a 200-hour yoga instructor and a 30-hour Budokon Yoga instructor. Yet I know that this is just the beginning of my life. I have so much love, joy and passion to share with people. I receive so much enjoyment from assisting classes at my yoga studio and I am constantly learning new things.

Before yoga I thought that all life had to offer was high school, college, marriage and then life would be over. And I wondered, “What is the point of learning new things if that’s all there is?” After being in this adult world I now understand how flawed that thinking is. Life is just STARTING! And I am so excited and overwhelmed by all the opportunities that I have. I am so thankful for the strong, flexible body that allows me to be a vessel for this beautiful practice, and I never want to stop learning. I want to keep shining the light that God has given me so that I may use it to brighten the lives of others.

Erin is a senior in high school this year. She is a certified 200-hour Yoga Teacher and a 30-hour Budokon Yoga Teacher. She plans to do more yoga training and massage training after graduating from high school.




Do you have a story of healing or transformation through yoga? The Yoga Diaries wants to hear it. Click here to submit your story.

Follow The Yoga Diaries on Facebook here.

How I Came To Yoga

Name: J. Brown
Location: Brooklyn, New York, USA
Occupation: Yoga Teacher & Writer

Photo attributed to Flickr user elycefeliz.

My mother died of leukemia when I was sixteen years old. In the months leading up to her death, I didn’t visit her in the hospital. I went once but after sitting in my car in the parking lot for 30 minutes, I left without going in. I just couldn’t. I was not capable of dealing with what was happening.

Eventually, I’d be hurried to her bedside regardless: for fear she was not going to make it through the night. I remember the nurse coming into the waiting room quickly and saying, “She’s awake!” Next, I see my mother in a hospital bed with tubes coming out of her nose. My sister breaks down sobbing and rushes to her side. My mother is semi-hysterical, crying and exclaiming, “I am not ready to go!”

At the time, I had never exhibited much poise or depth. I tended to be somewhat hyperactive and scattered. I spent a lot of time daydreaming. Yet, in this most crucial moment, something I cannot explain happened.

In a strange flash of clarity that I have been inquiring to understand ever since, I grabbed my mother by the gown, jarring her present and bringing her eyes to mine, and said, “Mom, I love you very much and I’m going to do great things in my life and make you proud of me. I’m not going to come see you in the hospital again.”

She nodded in acknowledgement and gave me a pained smile. I kissed her on the cheek and walked out of the room. That was the last time I saw my mother.

Photo by Flickr user Kathrin & Stefan.

In the years that followed, disillusionment set in gradually. I moved from Los Angeles to New York, went to college at NYU and graduated with a degree in the fine arts. After I finished school, things got much worse. At some point I got very low, so low that I felt I either needed to kill myself or find another way to live. Fortunately, I chose the latter.

Even after making this choice, I had no idea what to do. One of the only things I could think of was going to a yoga class. I’d been exposed to yoga in college and even in those most cynical of days, I could not deny how it seemed to make me feel better. I liked that it was ancient and sacred, and about things that are important.

First, I gravitated towards an Ashtanga, power vinyasa style. The intensity suited my struggling temperament. I gained discipline and some immediate gratification but was still largely hurting myself, only now with good intention.

Then, I explored an Iyengar-based approach. I became more aware and technically proficient but the emphasis on accomplishing alignment ended up playing into a lack of self-esteem in myself. There was always another variation I couldn’t do, my shoulder was never quite rotated properly, and even though I was somewhat impressive on the mat, I was still in a lot of pain.

Ultimately, I found my way to an entirely therapeutic orientation, inspired by the TKV Desikachar/Krishnamacharya tradition. By simplifying, slowing and centering my practice on the breath, I was able to cultivate a more measured and patient mode of engagement and a different context for my practice in which I was no longer trying to transcend my difficulties but rather was learning how to ease through them and just enjoy the fact that I am here.

Photo by Flickr user myyogaonline.

I didn’t know it when I started but the course of my yoga practice has been the process of reconciling my mother’s death. It’s difficult to explain how doing breathing and moving exercises can, inadvertently, carry with them the weight of facing mortality. Something about bringing careful attention to my breath and body, the most tangible expression of the fact that I am currently alive and the very thing that will be taken away from me in death, provides an experience that lessens the burdens I carry and illuminates life’s inherent worth.

From this standpoint, overcoming the difficulties that life presents becomes a celebratory endeavor and I feel strangely grateful for my mother’s passing. The pain and sorrow I feel because of my mother’s death, still just as powerful today as when I was sixteen years old, is what led me to yoga and to a deeper appreciation for life’s blessings. My life has a deeper sense of purpose as a result.

As a teacher, I get to witness others as they often unknowingly reconcile their situations and come to the same reverence for life’s majesty. Playing some role in facilitating people’s discovery of yoga and health makes me feel that I am of some use and reaffirms everything that I hold dear.

Whenever someone comes up to me after class or drops me an emotional email to tell me how much they are benefiting from their practice, I feel the warmth of my mother’s touch and I know that I have succeeded in fulfilling my promise.

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy in Practice, Yoga Therapy Today and the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. Visit his website at yogijbrown.com and find him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/yogijbrown and on Twitter @yogijbrown.



Do you have a story of healing or transformation through yoga? The Yoga Diaries wants to hear it. Click here to submit your story.

Follow The Yoga Diaries on Facebook here.

The Journey from Loss To Renewal

This week’s Yoga Diaries are being presented in honor of the 15th Anniversary of
The Atma Center of Cleveland Heights, Ohio.


Name: Nan Zieleniec

Location: Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Occupation: Human Resources Executive

Since 2008, I have experienced personal loss to include both of my parents and my husband. My parents lived long and full lives, but sadly my husband’s life was cut short at the age of 52, following a brief battle with pancreatic cancer. During this time, my priority was raising my two beautiful children, now 24 and 21. While I always considered myself a good wife and mother, I had over the years allowed my profession to greatly define who I was as a person. When I wasn’t working, I was often thinking about work. Thankfully, I also placed a high value on being strong physically and I maintained a consistent strength training routine coupled with power walking/jogging. I have also seen a naturopath for almost 10 years, focusing on building a strong immune system. Through all the ups and downs of these years, I thought I was living a happy and balanced life.

Photo by Ashlee Stewak.

In late 2011, my boss came to me to let me know that the company had decided to make an organizational change and they requested that I transition out of my role over the following two months. But for two brief maternity leaves, since achieving my graduate degree, I had never been unemployed. This news rocked my sense of self and I began to feel unbalanced. While I always considered myself a strong individual, my confidence was shaken. After some intense internal dialogue, I determined that this change was going to be a healthy one for me and that I needed to look at it not as a loss, but as a gift. I worked through the transition with as much grace as possible, while also focusing on what the next chapter in my life was going to look like. One thing I knew for certain was that I needed to engage in something life-changing to mark the end of an intense professional gig and it needed to be physically and emotionally demanding to stimulate renewal.

At the beginning of 2012, following some intensive internet research, I decided that I would travel to Laguna Beach, California for a six-day yoga, hiking and cleanse retreat. I had never engaged in a yoga practice and while the ashram indicated that I didn’t need prior yoga experience, I felt I would be most comfortable with a little background and practice. Where to go?

For years, I had driven by the Atma Center as I frequently patronize the businesses in the area. I visited their website and stopped in to explore. As soon as I walked in, I knew this was the place for me to learn in a non-competitive environment, something that was important to me at the time. I left there with a one-month unlimited pass. I shared with the staff my goal to become familiar enough with the yoga practice to be comfortable on the retreat. They assured me that one month would give me a good grounding and they recommended that I read Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati. In addressing the relevance of yoga today, Swami Satyananda remarks that “Physical and mental cleansing and strengthening is one of yoga’s most important achievements.” This resonated with me.

I approached this month of introductory yoga practice with zeal, attending class 3-4 times per week. I began tracking all of the various poses I was learning. Studying with a variety of instructors, I listened intently to their explanations of the physiological connections between mind and body. I began standing taller with my heart high and with my shoulders down my back. Unsolicited, my massotherapist remarked that I was standing taller and more aligned. I was feeling ready for the retreat.

I left my job of seven years the last week in January and attended this retreat the first week in February. The retreat was one of the most intense experiences I have ever had and was transformative for me indeed. The physical challenges of the hiking and yoga coupled with the mental challenges of the cleanse took me to a place I had not yet visited in my lifetime. The cleanse evoked a great deal of emotion for me and I then began to understand what Swami Satyananda meant when he said “The body and mind are not separate entities, although there is a tendency to think and act like they are. The gross form of the mind is the body and the subtle form of the body is the mind. The practice of asana integrates and harmonizes the two.”

I left the retreat in a very harmonious state. I returned home at midnight one night and despite the time difference, by 9:00 the next morning, I was in the yoga studio at the Atma Center. I felt a craving for the yoga practice that is hard to describe.

I now do yoga 3-4 times a week. I do high-intensity strength training at least once a week and I power walk/jog twice a week. Both my strength training and my aerobic activities have been intensified by my yoga practice. The core strength I have gained from yoga has allowed me to engage in my strength training in a way that was not possible before and the results are palpable. In addition to the physical training, I have changed my nutrition to include a move toward a more plant-based diet.

I believe all of these changes have contributed to a mental acuity that I was missing. My heart is open. I feel balanced, renewed, rejuvenated and happy. My kids tell me I am aging backwards. I was given a gift and I now know that out of loss can come renewal.

Nan Zieleniec is a human resources executive living and working in Cleveland, Ohio. Professionally, Nan focuses on helping companies create and sustain workplaces that allow the human capital of the firm to optimize their productivity and contribute to the success of the organization. Nan is currently in transition and seeking her next leadership opportunity within an organization that promotes work-life balance and recognizes how the company benefits from an energized workforce. In addition to yoga and other exercise, Nan enjoys live music, gardening, cooking and the warmth of family and friends. Nan has been active in the non-profit and civic community as she believes that giving back and helping to repair the world are obligations each of us has as we occupy our place on this Earth. Nan’s two children are a constant source of pride, inspiration and joy. Nan can be found on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/nanzieleniec.

Do you have a story of healing or transformation through yoga? The Yoga Diaries wants to hear it. Click here to submit your story.

Follow The Yoga Diaries on Facebook here.

There Is No Such Thing As Paradise

Name: Alli Akard
Location: Buda, Texas, USA
Occupation: Yoga instructor / mom / adventurer

It was the summer of 2005 – fresh out of college and a new love on the rise. When I met my now husband that fateful day at a coffee shop, he ordered coffee, black. Never in a million years would I have dreamt that that simple cup of coffee would forever change the course of my life. I was a fairly typical college student, semi unsure of the future, but with big dreams and aspirations…and little direction. As the weeks evolved and the friendship blossomed, the two of us decided it would be a great adventure to drive from Texas to Panama in search of surf and new beginnings. We starting planning immediately and before we knew it our car was packed with basically everything we owned and off we went, heading south.

I had always had a love for yoga. It started out as a form of exercise when I was fifteen. My mom had convinced me to take a class with her and I remember my very first adho mukha svanasana (downward dog). It was a sensation I had never felt before. I always considered myself an athlete, having played various sports in high school and of course, surfing, but nothing could prepare my muscles or my mind for that first downward dog. It was as if it flipped my whole perspective upside down. As I grew and evolved from a scrappy teen into a free-spirited adult, I took my yoga practice with me. During college I even took yoga as an elective to gain a deeper understanding of all eight limbs of yoga. I remember writing my Sanskrit on note cards in preparation for my mid-term. Virabhdrasana is still one of my favorite words to say.

As I set out on our ‘Summer of Love’ tour with my new romance and a wild spirit, I remember thinking, “Thank God for yoga, I can do it anywhere.” I would use the asanas at night in our dinky motel rooms, mediation in the long car ride and my karma with the many people that scammed us along the way.

Well, since this is an essay and not a life story, I’ll skip all the epic, amazing adventures that we encountered along the way and I’ll fast forward six years. That summer of love tour turned into a new way of life. Once we arrived in Panama we decided this was the place for us and the Universe agreed. We ended up creating a business for ourselves in real estate and development. We built our own home, perched on a mango-filled cliff right in front of the Pacific ocean, where we watched the sun dip into the water every night. Some would call it paradise. Our business blossomed and so did our family. We eventually married and had three beautiful jungle babies to add to our paradise.

I always said that our home in Panama would be the ideal spot for a yoga retreat. I would wake up in the morning to do sun salutations and sit under the mango trees to meditate. How could so much beauty and peace have found me? Or did I find it? Either way, it didn’t last long.

On August 27, 2009, my world changed in an instant. I was on my way home from a long overdue personal vacation. I had been a wife and mother, living in the jungles of Panama for over four years. I treated myself to a night in Panama City, were I wined and dined, indulging on sushi and expensive perfume. I had never been away from my children and I felt slightly guilty, but the prospect of a king size bed, clean sheets and A/C all to myself was more then I could deny. It was paradise.

When I arrived home that evening, I noticed a car parked down the road from our house. I thought it strange, as we live miles from anyone, but figured it was a local person coming for a visit. We were somewhat of a novelty, being gringos with small children and all. As I walked into my living room and saw my small children sitting on the floor, my husband was nowhere to be found. At that point a man in a mask ran out of my room pointing a gun right at my face. Everything went in slow motion. It was like I was watching the whole experience from overhead. I was hyper aware of every movement, every thought, every breath.

Over the years I had spent a good amount of time reading about meditation and self awareness. If there was ever a time that knowledge was to come into play, it was in that moment. I was in survival mode and I decided right then and there that if my family and I were going to die, we would do it with love in our hearts. Through the whole ordeal, I never took my eyes off my eldest son’s eyes. I just kept telling him I loved him and that everything was going to be ok.

The whole robbery lasted roughly fifteen minutes, but the stress it had on us as a family took years to get over. We eventually, with great sadness, sold our house and decided it was time to move back to Texas. Over that course of time I completely lost any passion or drive for life. I was depressed, severally stressed and suffered anxiety attacks on a regular basis.

Time had passed and we were living a new way of life, just making it through each day. Yoga had taken a far back seat to Xanax and I no longer cared about being inspired. I didn’t know who I was anymore, but I knew I was a far cry from the free-spirited girl that had taken a chance on love and adventure seven years earlier. Then one day I figured I had nothing to lose, so I decided to try a yoga class. But I assumed it would be a waste of time and energy and I hated leaving my kids and felt selfish every time I did. I lived each moment as if it was the last time I would see them.

I laid out my 15-year old mat, the same one I had used when I took classes with my mom. We started moving through a vinyasa. The instructor’s voice was like a soft bass that moved through my whole body. I felt a sensation welling up inside of me as I moved. It felt like I was reconnecting with an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. By the time we were in eka pada kapotasana (pigeon pose) on our mats, I was soaked in tears. I knew without a doubt that I was right where I needed to be in my life. Dare I say, it felt like paradise. In an instant I knew I had all the answers inside of me. All I had to do now was set out on the path to discovery.

My adventure in this discovery this past year has evolved just as beautifully and profoundly as a lotus flower itself. I have since completed my yoga training and am well on my way to opening my own studio and retreat center in Panama, where I hope to share my love and passion for yoga with my community. But more importantly, I have evolved in ways beyond comprehension. Yoga taught me to mend broken relationships with myself and others, to deeply and unwaveringly trust my Self and manifest all of the great things this world has to offer. I went from having zero passion in life to more passion than this Universe can hold. Yoga has been the greatest gift to me and every time I step onto my mat, I am reminded there is such a thing as paradise, and it’s in my heart. Namaste.

Alli Akard is a wife, a mother, an adventurer and a yoga teacher. Her journey with yoga connected her with her true self, and then when life unexpectedly met her with a time of darkness, it was the yoga that brought her back home. Alli and her husband own and operate Panama Coast Property, a real estate and development company in paradise, on the coast of Panama. They are currently working on developing a yoga studio and retreat center, so that they may share their paradise with others. Alli can be found on Facebook here.

Edited by Jeannie Page.

Do you have a story of healing or transformation through yoga? The Yoga Diaries wants to hear it. Click here to submit your story.