Camp Rockey

Name: Jill Weiss Ippolito
Location: Los Angeles
Occupation: Founder/Executive Director of UpRising Yoga

uprising-yoga-pic-1I was warned when we got the call to teach yoga at Camp Rockey. “It’s the worst of the worst. Really. It’s where they dump the kids, the staff…it could really use some yoga and meditation.”

“Okay, I said hesitantly. Where is this place again?”

Camp Rockey is a Boys’ Correctional Facility located in San Dimas, up in the mountains across from a Girls’ Group Home we had taught at a couple months prior. I was told “it’s not that far” from Pasadena on a good day. Neil was a matter-of-fact Program Director who sought us out after hearing about UpRising Yoga, a program I started which brings yoga to juvenile hall and at-risk communities, where people cannot easily get to a class, let alone pay for one.

Of course I was intrigued and had a yoga teacher in Claremont that was eager to go. Neil explained what we were up against: a pretty rough group of rowdy kids, disengaged staff in the middle of nowhereforgotten about. I liked Neil’s spirit and set a date to go teach three yoga classes with Nikhil, who had been teaching with UpRising for a while.

Once we arrived, we met Neil in the parking lot and lugged piles of new mats I had just bought from Marshall’s that smelled like plastic, much better than the used stinky ones I get donated from generous yoga studios around town. Nikhil, Neil and I juggled piles of mats in the scorching heat of the mountain desert weather. I swore I hear rattle snakes shaking in the fields. After being screened thoroughly, we walked across football fields of grass, through clanging doors and gates. Menacing barbed wire fence circled our heads above the vicious blue sky, so crisp and pretty this daytaunting freedom and beauty, but eerily caged, we walked on.

For a half an hour, various characters that may or may not have had the ability to open the door fumbled with keys trying to get us into the gym. It felt surreal. After little success, we walked another great length to a classroom. Nikhil was in awe of some giant screen in the middle of the room and glided over enamored.

“Wow, that’s a projector board they have in colleges, man, that’s nice! You can barely get this high technology in boarding school!” He went on to explain the fancy stuff this thing does and how hard it is to get in classrooms, while we moved the desk and chairs setting up mats and preparing for our students. Once ready, we had all the mats laid out, so pretty with harmonious colors. Some had corny quotes that said stuff like “Find Your Bliss” or such. We had smiles and were ready to start.

The next thing we knew, the door opened and a crowd of rambunctious boys came tumbling in with a short, loud woman behind them yelling at them to “Get in there! It’s yoga class!!”

I saw Neil talking to the officer who would be “watching” us. He was a hundred and ninety-seven years old and looked more punished than the kids. I started to worry.

uprising-yoga-pic-2“Hi, welcome to yoga! Hey there, I’m Jill and this is Nikhil. Please take your shoes off and hop on a mat,” I tried to say cheerfully. Shaved heads, baggy grey prison clothes, slouched shoulders, tattoos, posturing with glares, snickers, laughter, and boisterous behavior so undisciplined I wondered how I was going to offer my gift, the seeds of yoga healing I hoped to share. I moved into the authority role and started to barrel through like a commander. When it got loud, I got louder.

“Ok, class, how many of you have ever had yoga before?” One hand out of twenty-two went up. He was the shy, quiet one in the back. I thought of my training at UCLA when teaching kayaking to the mentally challenged…find the alpha kid,win them over and you got it…ok, not this guy!

“Anyone injured?” 82% of the hands went up. “Miss, miss, look! Here’s where I was shot!”

“Check out my shoulder, my knee. I just had three surgeries, they took some of the shrapnel out. You know how a bullet explodes? I get more taken out when I get out of here.”

So many little boys had bullets lodged in their bodies. Pain. Suffering. Gang members acting tough. Rows of boys on pastel mats hitting each other through the class I stumbled to teach, some seeking attention trying to get it right to show me, most too distracted by the sight of a female.

Nikhil taught the next two classes and one of them went surprisingly great. We had a sense of order and curiosity and there was a definite interest in yoga, the postures, the history, but most of all they noticed that they felt better at the end of class than when class first started. That magical shift happened. Yoga’s healing worked and the boys left calm, and tranquil and they thanked us for coming. It was so inspiring and hopeful.

The last class was so awful that I had to go get extra security and pull Nikhil out of there. You never know what is going on with kids in juvenile hallwhat sticks or what doesn’t.
I know that teaching yoga to a group of kids who are locked up for something, helps. Across the field next to us, we saw one boy that was being transported to somewhere else in handcuffs. He looked over at us, smiled and said, “Hey, Namaste.”

I know that bringing yoga to that one boy provided just a little bit of peace that he can take with him in his heart forever.

THAT brings me a little bit more peace too…

jill-ippolito

Photo Credit: A+B Photography

Jill Weiss Ippolito is the Founder & Executive Director of UpRising Yoga. She teaches trauma-informed yoga in the juvenile hall she was once detained in. Jill authored UpRising Yoga’s training manual. She is a contributing author to the Yoga Service Council’s book series, “Best Practices for Yoga With Incarcerated and Court Involved Peoples” as well as a contributing writer for LA Yoga Magazine. She is embarking on memoir writing after being told “you should write a book” a million times! You can connect with UpRising Yoga on Facebook here and on Twitter here.


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I Was Completely Unprepared for Cancer

Name: Esther Sadie Brandon, M.S.Ed.
Location: Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, USA
Occupation: Education Consultant

breast-cancer-survivorI am now a breast cancer survivor. In early spring 2015, I was diagnosed with an early-stage carcinoma that was surgically removed. After surgery I had a course of radiation treatments. This was not a journey I would have chosen, but it has brought me gifts. During this time of diagnosis, treatment, and healing, practicing mindfulness and yoga has offered me a container to lean into and, at times, a container to surrender to.

In late April during the first days after the diagnosis, the words of Rabbi Alan Lew came to me during a sitting meditation: “This is real and you are completely unprepared.” They’re from the title of his book, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. Rabbi Lew’s writings drew on stores of Jewish wisdom, as well as a profound psychological awareness borne of his work as a spiritual leader and counselor.

Rabbi Lew’s phrase, “completely unprepared,” really strikes a deep chord. It names something deep and pervasive in the human psyche. Although we’re not often in touch with this feeling, deep down we all feel unprepared. If we look at our lives honestly, the events that really shape us, that really make us who we are, are the events we didn’t prepare for, or we couldn’t prepare for: a serious illness, the loss of a loved one, the failure of a relationship—these are the things that really shape our lives.

So, what do you do? What is the next step forward? From a mindfulness perspective, a way to respond to life, including those moments when we feel “completely unprepared” is to simply take slow, deep breaths.

I have had a yoga practice for some 30 years. Through that, and through my work in teacher preparation, I began learning about and using mindfulness practices in my life. In yoga practice, for example, simple forward bends both standing and seated can be calming. During this traumatic time when waves of fear would arise, I would feel distracted and not easily able to focus. Practicing simple forward bends and reminding myself to breath would begin to settle my mind and body and the fears would begin to pass, giving me some space.

seated-forward-fold

Photo attributed to Flickr user: tarnalberry

Many moments followed when constructive choices and decisions needed to be made, and I would feel overwhelmed, almost as if I was underwater and not quite able to reach the surface. In those moments, sitting and following my breath would help me come to the surface. I could imagine my activated amygdala coming to quiet, and soothing energy being sent to my prefrontal cortex, calming my body and helping me to begin to think and make decisions. When I felt clear and more able to hear my own voice, I would gather myself to take the next step.

In my yoga practice, the following simple intentions have informed my practice: move into the pose, be in the pose and reflect on any thoughts or sensations coming up, and then surrender as you hold the pose—and then, with grace, repeating the cycle, using the tool of repetition to quiet any distracting thoughts and to give room for any strong sensations to ease. These intentions were helpful to me in managing the appointments with doctors, undergoing the surgery, completing a course of eight weeks of daily radiation treatments, and now healing. Sitting in a chair waiting for an appointment or for treatment, I would take slow intentional breaths, moving into a seated posture with my feet firmly on the floor, my back straight, my belly soft, creating space for my breath. I would notice any sensations in my body, if my heart was beating quickly or my stomach was churning. I would notice if my mind was jumping from thought to thought. I would breathe in and out and would notice the feelings, sensations, or thoughts settling like waves gently breaking on the shore.

I am now more easily able to mindfully feel both the difficult and the pleasant emotions of this journey: the uncertainty, the worries and the fear, the relief as I recover, the acceptance of a new normal, and noticing my strength and resilience—each informing the other. Writing about it now I see that having experienced cancer brought with it some gifts: a new sense of integration, a new sense of knowing myself, grounded in the present, with hope for the future.

Story appeared in Lion’s Roar, April 2016.

Esther Brandon headshot.JPG
Esther Brandon has practiced yoga and mindfulness meditation for 35 years. After retiring from Lesley University in 2012, Esther completed the Yoga 4 Classrooms® Licensure Program for Trainers, and she is in training to become a CARE (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education) facilitator. She has begun presenting an introduction to CARE for the Yoga 4 Classrooms IMPLEMENT™ Leader Training program focused on empowering schools to use teaming and in-school leaders to sustainably integrate yoga and mindfulness school wide.

 

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Exploring Softness Within My Strength

Name: Kristi Johnson
Location: London, England
Occupation: Forrest Yoga Teacher

I remember my first yoga teacher training like it was yesterday. I didn’t feel like I was flexible enough to be a yoga teacher. I was struggling my way through the morning intensives, surrounded by ex-dancers, flinging themselves in and out of everything without a decent warm-up. My body chugged and screeched alongside them as I muscled my way through. Signing up for the training felt like a decision I had made against my own best judgment.

At some stage during the training I was called to the centre of the group and asked to demonstrate Chataranga. I went in and held it, strongly. As everyone ooohh-ed and aahhh-ed I continued to hold it. My muscles were pumped and my mind determined to keep the shape for as long as it took, to demonstrate “perfection.”

It was in this moment that I acknowledged my “strength,” and identified with it as my driving force.

Kristi Johnson photographed by Karen Yeomans, specialist in Sports, Fitness, Health, Well-being and Yoga Photography. Based in London.

Kristi Johnson photographed by Karen Yeomans, specialist in Sports, Fitness, Health, Well-being and Yoga Photography. Based in London.

Within my first year of teaching, I was partaking in a class and got badly injured. The teacher stood on my back leg in a lunge, pressing down hard and fast, which resulted in a herniated disc in my low back. I was in absolute agony. I couldn’t even stand up straight in the beginning. Every footstep sent nerve pain down my entire left leg for almost a year.

Being so firmly routed in my quest to be strong, and hold everything together, I pushed myself through it. I was teaching on average 22 yoga classes per week, practicing intensely every day, and indulged in spinning classes, boxing classes, and boot camp classes several times a week as well.

My practice sucked. I would grit my teeth through Wheel Pose after Wheel Pose, as my teacher barked at me to use my legs more, tuck my tailbone more, to trust him, it was the only way to heal. I was feeling pretty burnt out, in my practice, in my teaching, and in my life. I literally felt like I was on a treadmill, running hard and fast, but going nowhere. I knew that something had to change, and I truly questioned whether to go on and hone my skills as a teacher, or walk away from teaching all together.

Many of my friends and fellow teachers had studied with Ana Forrest and raved about her. I wasn’t convinced that holding a pose for a long time, being still, and breathing into my genitals was really my thing. Regardless, I took their advice and signed up for her Advanced Teacher Training in Hong Kong, where I was living and teaching at the time.

On day one of the Advanced Teaching Training, I introduced myself to the circle of trainees in such a bubbly, confident, and convincing manner; even I was fooled. As soon as I began to share my injuries with the group I fell apart, unexpectedly, into a puddle of tears, while mildly hyperventilating. Everything that I had bottled up, even my fear of crying in public, came to a head all at once. I went from not having cried for a very long time, to a blubbering mess for nine days straight.

I can’t explain exactly what happened, but something had shifted, in a big way.

My journey from then on became an exploration of softening—a huge learning curve for all things in my life. Forrest Yoga was a pillar of support in this sense, and as I have discovered, feeling supported plays a crucial role in my ability to soften and be vulnerable. The intents woven into the Forrest teachings like “Work Struggle Free,” and “Feed Your Spirit” became solid building blocks in my quest to embrace and honor softness and vulnerability.

I had always seen softness and vulnerability as a great weakness.

Kristi Johnson photographed by Karen Yeomans, specialist in Sports, Fitness, Health, Well-being and Yoga Photography. Based in London.

Kristi Johnson photographed by Karen Yeomans, specialist in Sports, Fitness, Health, Well-being and Yoga Photography. Based in London.

Forrest Yoga being strong, grounding and intense, fed the intensity junkie in me, but required deep feeling breath, and an element of softness to hold the poses for any length of time. Without these ingredients, I found, it is just a great big struggle.

Simple exercises like sitting on the side of my bed each morning as soon as I had woken up, with closed eyes, and a deep breath, were golden. To feel into what my spirit needed that day, reconnected me with my intuition, and knitted my spirit back together—a spirit that felt like it had been left somewhat in tatters.

Moving on, my personal mission to embrace softness and vulnerability, has shone a great big light on the immense power that comes from weaving in these elements. I feel super strong, but in a different way.

I can hold a solid Chataranga, but that strength no longer fully defines who I am.

I feel my power, and know that it lives in my spirit, my intuition, my heart, and in my vulnerabilities as much as it does in my legs, arms, or abs.

Finding softness within my strength is still a daily practice. I move much more slowly, in all areas of my life. I teach much less. I don’t numb myself out with ridiculous amounts of exercise, and I am no longer getting burnt out from my teaching. My teaching feeds me greatly, and I am hugely grateful that I did not walk away from it.

The place where my softness and strength meet is where I am committed to sharing from right now. I feel stronger, more grounded, and more vibrant than I ever have and I’m committed to empowering others in the same way.

Kristi Johnson Bio picKristi first discovered yoga in her native country of New Zealand. She traveled to Hong Kong and China in 2003 where she explored more deeply the physical, emotional, and spiritual practice of yoga. Kristi taught at PURE Yoga in Hong Kong, gathering a rich amount of experience teaching group classes, privates, and workshops, while furthering her training with teachers from all over the world. She experienced her first Forrest Yoga teacher training with Ana Forrest in 2010 and from then has never looked back. Kristi currently lives and teaches in yoga studios in London and Europe, and assists Ana Forrest in trainings and workshops around the world. You can also find Kristi’s Forrest Yoga classes online at Movement For Modern Life. Connect with Kristi here:

Website: www.kristimaeyoga.com
Blog: www.kristimaejohnson.tumblr.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/people/Kristi-Mae-Yoga/100011147582087
Instagram: www.instagram.com/kristimaeyoga/

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How Yoga Helped Me View Pain As a Gift

Name: Natalie Edwards
Location: London, United Kingdom
Occupation: Life Coach and Certified Forrest Yoga Teacher

Natalie Edwards namasteOur pain is a great teacher. It tests our resilience and endurance, something that anyone with an injury, physical limitation or condition has to have in abundance on their journey through life. And that’s really how I’ve learnt to view my scoliosis through yoga. It’s a journey on which I have had to learn to navigate and love my curves, even when they are giving me the most excruciating pain, and learn to listen to the many messages my pain has brought me over the years.

My first memory of back pain was around the time that my parents’ divorce became particularly turbulent. I remember thinking that I was partly responsible for their break-up and the chaos that followed. At the time, I made no connection between shouldering that responsibility and my pain as I was just 12 years old. But over the past few years, every time I’ve been to see a specialist in search of more help with my pain and alignment, the first question they’ve all asked me has been, “Was there something else going on in your life at the time you were diagnosed?”

Once told by osteopaths that my scoliosis was idiopathic and directly related to a growth spurt, I’ve since found out that my condition was congenital, meaning I was born with it. After studying baby pictures with my Rolfer at the time, Jennie Crewdson, and uncovering more trauma after discussing the difficult events of my birth (my mother nearly died in childbirth, I was in an awkward position in the womb for most of her pregnancy, and I was born breech and yanked out into the world with forceps when I should have been born by caesarean), there was no doubt that the scoliosis had been there all along and had gone unnoticed. I experienced a huge amount of sadness, anger, and frustration at this news because I’d only just found out at the age of 30 that I’d had this condition in my body since birth. So why had no one noticed it when I was little? But something I had to begin to do was start to learn to love my spine rather than continue to get frustrated by it, whatever new information I found out. To appreciate it and accept it for the way it was meant using it as a guide and a gift rather than fighting with it or continually looking for someone to ‘make me straight,’ and although it’s still a work in progress, my yoga practice has helped me achieve this.

I let my scoliosis define who I was for a long time. It was almost as if it was the main facet of my personality. For years, I was living in that same constrained, frustrated, and hyper-vigilant state that I entered the world in as a baby. I was often scared to participate in things or worried that certain movements would aggravate my back, and I was even told to avoid yoga when I was younger, becoming more and more frustrated and locked in my body and for many years using drugs and alcohol to numb that frustration out even more. But slowly, I began to become aware that my violent internal negativity towards my spine then in turn made the physical pain worse, and from no one did I learn this more truthfully than from my teacher Ana Forrest.

Natalie Edwards arm balanceBefore my teacher training, I hadn’t realised how much I had been ignoring myself and treating myself in such a disrespectful way. I had become an expert in not only suppressing my daily physical pain and a huge emotional backlog of crap and trauma that I had exhaustively tried to submerge with drugs, partying, a job I hated, and pretending to be someone I wasn’t, but also in the self-deprecating way I had been talking to myself for years. I was the queen of apologising for not being good enough, not being strong enough, and not being worthy enough.

I discovered Forrest Yoga via one of my first teachers, Charlotte Speller. She made me realise that my scoliosis was a gift rather than a curse and suggested that I use it to help other sufferers. Even at that stage I was still making assumptions that having scoliosis meant that I couldn’t take on big physical challenges. During my training, something that came up for me that I wasn’t expecting was anger. I’d had no idea how angry I’d been at being in pain all those years and part of me was angry that I hadn’t been able to articulate that pain when I was younger or express how it had left me feeling on an emotional level. I was also angry with myself for abusing my body the way I had up until I’d discovered yoga and how to feel again. Ana Forrest’s teachings helped me begin to explore that anger and made me realise that if you’re fully committed to healing yourself and coming face to face with your dark side, anything is possible.

Her focus on relaxing the neck instead of holding it up was like a coming home for me. Until my first Forrest class I’d had no idea how much habitual tension I’d been holding in my neck, the point in my body where the second curve is most visible. One day Ana whispered, whilst tractioning my neck, “she needs to relax; she doesn’t have to carry everyone else’s problems anymore.” Studying Forrest Yoga also helped me to realise that scoliosis is not just about the spine. When we’re having a bad pain day, we tend to pour all of our frustrated and hateful energy into that one area, but our body is a whole and we need to work with it that way. And so I was completely unaware of the tension I had been carrying in my hips and jaw until beginning a yoga practice. Now, keeping my hips open and supple is essential to managing my back pain, as well as doing regular backbends, which is something I didn’t think my body could ever do or was even ‘allowed’ to do after being told to avoid them. Ana’s intelligent sequencing showed me how to move into them safely and now they are one of the most therapeutic, rejuvenating, and loving things I can do for my spine.

Through Forrest Yoga I’ve learnt to heal parts of myself that I didn’t know were broken, emotionally and physically. But most importantly of all, Ana taught me how to reconnect with and heal my broken heart. My lack of love for myself ran deeper than just my disgust with my spineit was in my very core, and I had forgotten how to be kind to myself and be grateful for my body. I now have a toolbox that has helped me to re-frame and manage pain and I’ll be forever thankful to Ana for that.

Whilst away on my training, Ana held a signing for her book, Fierce Medicine. Inside my copy she wrote, “Dear Natalie, navigate the curves with awe and fascination.” I invite anyone with scoliosis, or anyone who is experiencing and being limited by any kind of pain, to do the same.

Natalie Edwards bioNatalie Edwards is a transformational coach and Forrest Yoga teacher. She specialises in working with women with the same negative body image issues and feelings of low self-worth which held her back in her life and career for many years. Fascinated by the body-mind connection, through powerful mindfulness, yoga, meditation, and health coaching, she helps people reconnect to their bodies, uncover the hidden parts of themselves, and come back to a more inspired and truthful way of living. You can find out more about Natalie at www.natedwards.co.uk.

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/nataliecatherineedwards?ref=hl
Twitter – https://twitter.com/NataliecEdwards
YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCI_Avs5iIkzbdQApFPYNlAQ

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I Ain’t No Expert…

Name: Emma Todd
Location: Sunshine Coast, Australia
Occupation: Artist, Mama and Student

Emma Todd raysMy new neighbour is a yoga teacher, “or almost,” she says, with laughter shining from her being. I could not only see the sound, but I could feel it in every atom of me, the moment she threw her head back and laughed. Looking back I realise that was when I was first hit by her invisible positive power … her yoga rays. I’ve been infected ever since that moment.

Not that I’m any stranger to yoga. For over 20 years now, I’ve been a haphazard practitioner of Sun Salutations and other asanas featured in magazines I’ve happened to flick through in various waiting rooms. These gorgeous, glossy pages would magically find their way into my bag and have become a little worn and creased and faded, like me. The pages remained in my possession like talismans even though the asanas are memorised by my body and soul. Extended periods of disciplined practice, when I swore to yoga like a new love that this could and would not ever end (because it felt so darn good), were followed by long bouts of yoga droughts where the only practices were hedonism and procrastination in all things. Eventually, with a flabby mind, I shyly hobbled or skulked back to my mat and breathed through each position with love and acceptance and surrender—and always, yes always, within a day or two, I wondered where on this Earth I’d been.

Something mysterious happens the moment I step onto my mat, even when I feel a little tired or uninspired. But every time I finish, I am awake, renewed, and present again. Perhaps the times when yoga disappears from my life in the physical form are just as important and necessary as when it is present, like yin and yang, light and shade, sweet and sour. I can never appreciate something fully till it disappears; I can never see something properly when it’s always the same. Balance has been a dance on a tightrope, filled with high drama, danger, and safety at some point off in the distance. If only I could get there. I’ve come to long for some gentle and sustained harmony, just as I begin to redefine what freedom is.

Emma Todd balanceSo I guess I don’t know all there is about yoga, and I don’t profess to be an expert or highly skilled at it—but with the likelihood of sounding very, very corny, it makes me want to be a better person.

When I’m breathing, I’m alive. Once I begin yoga again after a hiatus, I realise it’s like I haven’t been breathing at all.

When I was told that I had to stop yoga for a period after surgery on my eye, suddenly, despite being sloth-like in mind and body, I was deeply alarmed that I would never be able to do downward dog again. My, did I protest too much. The idea that I may never practice yoga again EVER was inconceivable. I realised how profoundly important yoga is to me and that I needed it in my life.

I guess yoga hasn’t really transformed me. It is transforming me continually, and as time passes and years come and go, I want to embrace yoga more and more. As this slow-moving journey continues, I find I want to go deeper and deeper, not through knowledge gained, but through the greater freeing of my mind—freedom through the physical expression of my body, freedom of my soul through the return to my body, to the return of being present, here and now. Freedom, always, freedom.

A life spent roaming, often fleeing darkness, the promise of hope somewhere new, this time starting over, again and again. The profound dream once had of horses galloping across a broad, unfolding terrain, feeling the earth creating itself, rumbling up through my bare feet, my heart beating hard and fast; feeling the pounding of the earth as the hooves of a hundred brumbies spill out across that wild terrain, mains flying and nostrils flared, getting closer and closer, my ridiculous joy rising with the chorus of their galloping and I long to run with them. I ache to join them running through this place, this world being born, and everything reaches a crescendo of bliss as I experience the beauty of freedom.

“This is freedom,” my soul says, throwing her horse head back and laughing as she runs, her mane flying like kites and I know this is it.

And I don’t know why, but I turn my back on this magnificent scene, and hop into a black plastic garbage bag, with a rectangle cut out for my eyes to see only the clouds in the sky, and I begin to suffocate.

The dream has haunted me. Full of unparalleled bliss and profundity, and a sour ending where I choose to rob myself of breath, I have tried ever since to avoid suffocation, only to seemingly meet my destiny on the path I choose to avoid it. Yet yoga is the path I consciously take now to walk, dance, run in any way to freedom, and it has come from being still and breathing deeply. And it is here I find myself, each day now, breathing, nostrils flaring as I arch my head back and my hair falls down my back and I search for that place in my dream, and occasionally I think I glimpse it.

I choose to hop out of that plastic bag and run with all the wild horses.

 

Emma Todd bio photoEmma Todd lives with her daughter near the ocean where every sense is magnified. Although flirting non-committally with yoga since she was a teenager, last year saw her having to confront her eye health head on and undergo major eye surgery to attempt to stop further loss of sight. A bridge she never wished to cross, ultimately it has been a beautiful awakening that has set her firmly on the path of continuing self-awareness and taking care of her health and well-being. Yoga is now an established part of Emma’s work-in-progress life. Emma is dedicating herself now to her art, wishing to “inspire creatively and be creatively inspired,” as well as commencing the journey to become a Hawaiian Massage practitioner this year. You can find Emma and her art here: https://www.facebook.com/boheme.em.

 

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My Journey Back to Myself

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

 

Name: Leah Johnson
Location: Colorado, USA
Occupation: Yoga Teacher

Costa Rica BeachA little over two years ago my life started again. I had moved to a small jungle town in Costa Rica thinking that I would only be there for three months to learn some yoga and Spanish—but little did I know what the Universe had in store for me.

I was always curious about yoga but I could never seem to get myself to take a class. It wasn’t until almost five years ago that I began to know the value of my body. As most people who go through life and the motions that come with it, I had some injuries growing up but never anything that would make me think twice.

In March 2010, a bus ran a red light and hit me in my car. With adrenaline rushing through me, I had no idea how my life had just changed. I sustained injuries to my leg, shoulder, neck, and a hell of a lot of whiplash; but the biggest doozy of them all was my mild traumatic brain injury. I couldn’t handle going to dinner with friends or hearing my mom walk into the house with her heeled boots on. I couldn’t walk without my leg shaking for more than five minutes, and at any given moment I would forget what I was talking about with people. I was very proactive in my treatment and the Universe was definitely looking out for me because it brought into my journey people that helped guide me in the right direction. Without them I am convinced that I would never have been brave enough to take a chance and ultimately start my yoga journey.

After two years of solid treatment and more or less starting to take chances on myself again, I decided to make up for my lost study abroad opportunity. I found a small vacation school in the jungle beach town of Montezuma, Costa Rica. I decided to study Spanish and yoga. Honestly the yoga was my way of maintaining all of the hard work I had put into my physical health. I had no expectations of what this thing called yoga was and in the end I am thankful for that. I couldn’t hold downward dog for five breaths without my shoulder screaming and all I could think was, “What the hell did I get myself into?”

Slowly but surely I kept at it and I couldn’t really put my finger on what it was I liked about the practice. My body was aching, I was tired, but I loved my teacher, Dagmar Spremberg, and our conversations after practice, so I kept going back. Then one day we were in the middle of a sequence and I remember so clearly her giving a cue to Warrior II when all of sudden I had a clear image of myself teaching yoga in a park back in my hometown in Colorado. I felt empowered, strong, and curious. I told Dagmar what had happened and her response was simply for me to do a yoga teacher training. The next thing I knew I was doing a month-long immersion program and once again the Universe had been conspiring all along.

Leah Johnson wheel croppedI can’t explain what it feels like to be broken down and built back up all in one breath, but I know how it feels and my teacher Jaqueline Chiodo (with whom I did my 200-hour teacher training) did just that. Chakras, chanting, Ayurveda—my whole world was opening up and it felt right. I felt connected and I felt as if I had tangible words to describe things I had felt my whole life. Suddenly I was a teacher. What? Me? This is crazy. I returned home after being gone in the jungle and while I was trying to figure out my next steps, I offered up free classes to finish up my certification. Free classes led to privates, privates led to being busier, and low and behold I got a job at another studio, and I had students with whom I was connecting just as I had done with my own teachers. And here we are two years later. When I say “two years,” it seems like a long time but then when I play back everything I am amazed at all that has happened! I’ve led retreats in both Colorado and Costa Rica, and I can’t seem to get myself away from trainings because I’m a nerd at heart and love to learn, and am continually a student.

As it has for many, the physical practice was what brought me to my mat, but it is not what has kept me there. It has helped me to reconnect with myself and every day I ask myself how it is that I can take my practice off of my mat. How can I find my breath in the midst of the chaos? How can I appreciate the fact that I GET to do this practice, not that I have to? I am walking, breathing, living so yes, I GET to move, to breathe, to flow, and what a beautiful thing that is. The truth is, yoga has brought out so many why’s for me. Why it is I don’t do well around negative people. Why when I haven’t been to my mat for too long or I have stopped taking five minutes for myself that my injuries flare up and I feel clouded and frustrated. It all comes back to my breath and being able to connect. The connection, the held space for change and transformation—that is what my journey with yoga has brought me so far. I know I’m still just at the beginning of it but what a journey it has been. I am forever grateful to my teachers and my students for the lessons I learn every day.

I love to teach. I love to connect. I love that I have the privilege of seeing the other side of yoga, both on and off the mat. I love that I have found a foundation to come back to when I feel like I’m in chaos. And I love that I always have my breath. Lord knows I am still working on my transformation, but my mat is a tangible place to go when I need it—to take chances, to trust that every practice is different from day to day but in the end it is worth every single breath I take.

Leah Johnson bioLeah was born and raised in beautiful Colorado where she has the privilege of teaching and connecting with people daily. Although she has a travel addiction that sweeps her off to the jungles of Costa Rica or to visit friends whenever she can, she loves that Colorado is her home. She is a RYT 500 Vinyasa yoga teacher and hopes to have her own wellness center one day. When she’s not teaching she is with family and friends and most likely having a few laughs and a dance party.

 

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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.

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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.

Former Infantry Marine Finds Peace in Yoga

Name: Alexander Litvak
Location: Brooklyn, New York, USA
Occupation: Yoga Teacher and Founder of Namaste Warrior Yoga

Alexander Litvak MarineLiterally in the same month that I was honorably discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps, in September 2001, my body came undone. I was physically broken from multiple injuries suffered from years of punishing Marine infantry training, always pressing my body to its limits and beyond. I further compounded my injuries with additional trauma from my beloved hobbies of body-building and running. These sports, plus rigorous military training, had left me dealing with a badly dislocated shoulder and chronic muscle knots in my neck and the muscles running along the right side of my spine and scapula. With time, unbeknownst to me, the cartilage in both of my knees was worn out as well. By the time I was discharged from the Marine Corps, I was in urgent need of surgery for three major joints of my body and no amount of physical therapy was going to bring back the quality of life I enjoyed back when I was a healthy Marine.

I remember complaining bitterly to the head of the orthopedics department at the Veterans Hospital, about all of my various problems and my struggles to find a way out of my predicament. I was on heavy joint pain medication at the time and unable to participate in any athletic activity – I was only 21 years old. The doctor, after hearing me out, in response suggested I try ‘power walking’ as form of daily exercise. POWER WALKING?!!!! This is what my life had been reduced to?!

When the news hit me, for a long time I was depressed and disillusioned with life. I could not come to terms with being disabled to such an extent. I didn’t want to hear that I had to give up all the sports I loved: bodybuilding, swimming, snowboarding, bike riding, etc….and assume the role of a disabled person. As far as I knew, life was over; power walking could not deliver me into the freedom that a healthy, young, adult male should enjoy at my age.

Luckily, I had become a resilient person, determined not to give up on myself. The Marines taught me that. I decided to seek medical advice elsewhere and to find ways to improve my health, no matter what. With post-military medical insurance, I started physical therapy and sought out other medical opinions, settling on taking the risk of going through a series of reconstructive surgeries. The procedures offered some relief, but I developed arthritis in both knees and the shoulder and I still had trouble going to the gym, lifting heavy weights or engaging in any other sport with repetitive motions, as they caused me tremendous discomfort, including chronic pain and swelling in the affected joints.

This struggle to get back into shape and live pain free went on for four long years. I felt like I was never going to get back to looking and feeling good again. Slowly, my hope waned and I lost my motivation to find the answer to personal fitness; I gained weight and tried to find solace in other areas of my life. That is until one day when a friend recommended that I try a beginner’s yoga class. When I first started practicing, I noticed drastic, immediate pain relief in the arthritic joints, and less inflammation from the workouts, something that was a problem with all of my other sports. The yoga postures (asana) left me feeling stronger and more self-empowered, and the tendons and ligaments which had tightened during my period of inactivity began to loosen up and became toned and more pliant. I was starting to lose the fat and build muscle again, and specifically those muscles which supported and helped to stabilize my damaged joints, thus decreasing my pain. I felt stronger and more enthusiastic each time that I practiced, which I was doing 2-3 times per week.

Alexander LitvakAfter a couple of years, with the help of a private yoga instructor, I was able to strengthen the damaged parts of my body and I was able to resume some of the other sports that I had so missed and craved. I also noticed the stress-relieving benefits associated with a yoga practice; the calmness I felt deep in my soul, the centering, and the increased energy I felt after each new class. Furthermore, as I stayed with my practice, I learned that yoga was an ancient Indian science with an unparalleled variety of postures, self-healing techniques, and a spiritual practice for self-realization and enlightenment. I had learned effective stress relief and had achieved a lightness of being from the varied breath control (pranayama) practice. That, coupled with the art of alignment in postures and the yoga philosophy of life all intrigued me, and soon I was hooked on the entire system – the Ashtanga Yoga system, and the Eight Limbs of Yoga.

As the years went on, I immersed myself in the yogic studies; in classroom, through books, DVDs, workshops, and retreats – I loved it all! As my practiced excelled and I became more advanced, I felt it was time to share my yogic knowledge and secrets learned, signing up for my first teacher training at Yoga to the People in Manhattan, New York in June 2010. My next teacher training was in 2012, and took me to an exotic island of Koh Samui, Thailand to Vikasa Yoga, where for a month we trained outside in sweltering 90-degree heat, every day, for up to five hours per day. Since that time I have continued to study and continue to seek out and study with living yoga masters, gurus and teachers; learning their methods and techniques to stay current, and to evolve my own understanding and practice of what is ‘yoga.’

My body may never be 100%, and from time to time I still have to visit physical therapists for maintenance. And I still feel pain following a long practice or sport activity, which is of course inevitable considering the extent of my injuries. Yoga is not magic; but it is a science, and armed with its techniques I now have the tools which help me to enjoy the highest possible quality of life. Additionally, I have learned to express myself through my practice and I have found peace and self-comfort. And there could be nothing more satisfying than reclaiming control of your life…. and keeping it.

Alexander Litvak mermaidAlexander Litvak is a former Infantry Marine, who left his military service with a series of chronic injuries and little hope of ever being able to enjoy the sports he loved. But then his discovery of yoga led him to not only healing his injuries, but to finding inner peace and calm. Now a yoga teacher and founder of Namaste Warrior Yoga, Alex’s classes are informative, humorous, and draw on the Hatha Vinyasa Yoga tradition, with focus on alignment, understanding of the pose, and attention to deep breathing and concentration. Alex’s goal in every yoga class is to help his students to feel safe while discovering their own true potential and the power of yoga. He wishes to impart the knowledge and wisdom that has helped him so immensely in his own recovery and journey through life. Follow Alex on Facebook here.

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Yoga and Heart

Name: Steve Abel
Location: Louisville, Colorado, USA
Occupation: Senior Technical Writer and Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT)

“Your next heart attack will be your last.”

Drugged stupor, lying in a hospital bed – still, I heard that.

And I wanted to scream, “NO!”

But, I didn’t.

Quiet – I learned to be quiet.

“We need to operate – you may only have two or three more years unless we operate, ” Delivered in the professional doctor voice.

Of course, if that is the choice.

And, the picture changed.

An afternoon of heart surgery, doctors swearing, drugs making me float.

And, the picture changed.

Stent out of the groin, finally; still pain in the leg and the back, and then:

“You are lucky – you have collaterals. Only about 30% of heart patients do, you grew your own bypass. And you are too healthy for bypass surgery. So – lose the weight, start a regular exercise program, take the meds, manage your stress. And come back in five years. You should have five years. And we will have better tools, we will do the surgery again, we will fix you up.”

I leave the hospital, with five years at least.

I am numb, sick, depressed, and- I go back to work. I have to work. I have to take care of my family: three children, wife, and… I will not relive grandfather’s story.

I know how bitter children can be when growing up without a father.

I know my Dad.

So I start cardiac rehab: exercise, diet change. One other patient there, my age, 34; my buddy in rehab, so young, to be so sick — but — I am.

And thank God for nurses, for priests, and for a priest that pushed me into therapy. Because although the the heart disease lived in the heart –  it began in the mind.

Depression, repressed anger, anger turned inward, grief, fear, loss – loss of who I was, and – I was not happy there.

Working, always working, never enough money for the family, never good enough for the job – I can do more, I can take on more, and then — I cannot.

Now — the — work — is — to — heal — this — disease.

I — HAVE — to — HEAL. So – I start more work, now on me, and

The picture changed.

Reversing Heart Disease, by Dr. Dean Ornish – a book of hope: Low fat diet, exercise, yoga, and support for the emotional journey.

And she listens, my therapist. The first time, the FIRST TIME in my life, that I felt heard, that I felt cared about- warmth of an embrace without touch.

And she says, “You need to take care of yourself, to continue to take care of others.”

And that carries me a while longer. For – if I care for you, will you care for me?

Of course, it does not work that way, sometimes. Perhaps – ever. Perhaps…

So what does taking care of myself involve? And – there is this yoga, maybe a teacher can help me with the shoulder pain, the back pain, the hip pain, the …. pain. And I go for a few lessons, and I learn. No, I begin to learn

To breathe.

And – I take breath into my fervent prayer — Just let me live until my youngest gets out of high school.

So – my children kept me alive, you see. The therapist’s question, as we were talking about suicide, “Is there anything you care about? You really, really care about?”

Yes – my children. My children saved my life – and — I breathe.

And I practice, a few poses — for years. And — I begin — meditation.

Stress relief — and — more…….

Steve Abel sunsetFor me, blessedly more. I am reaching up and out, on my knees, and

A touch comes, a taste of the infinite, and

The picture changes.

Pushed into exploration for ministry, the question “Priest or deacon?” And I frustrated my priest – I could not, would not choose…Until four years later, a new priest, and he says, “Your first ministry is to your family.”

And – I go with that, to serve family.

You give to children with no expectation of return, as father – hah – and even more as grandfather.

And – the picture changes.

Dean Ornish workshop, 15 years later: instead of doctors scoffing now, I have become mainstream: Yoga, restorative yoga, every day for a week, and I am hooked. First time, easing the back pain, easing the hip pain, easing the shoulder pain…

I am hooked.

What can yoga offer? I begin to read, and seek a yoga therapist, and

The Secret Power of Yoga, by Nischala Devi, and

I go deeper.

And – the picture changes.

I touch – new joy, new insight, new frames of seeing, of thinking, of moving.

And – perhaps – I should explore teaching? Share this, with other cardiac patients. But I am not flexible, I am not strong, I am not….. And, a yoga therapist’s words —- “You have the heart for it.”

And — I begin, and stop, life interrupts forcefully, and then – begin again.

Dad is gone. I may not have much more time.

And – complete teacher training, in tears, with tears, and — I am getting stronger.

And

I have a teacher in me.

Needs practice, just keep

Practicing

Keep showing up, and

See – where it will lead.

The journey – is finally – starting to get

Exciting.

I am glad to be here

Now.

Just here, just now

Is enough.

Breathe.

The picture changes.

Yoga – is the uniting of consciousness in the heart.

Breathe.

Steve Abel bioSteve Abel began his yoga journey with a commitment to ahimsa and Ishvara Pranidhana in his teens, although he would not have used those terms at that time. The next big step was his diagnosis of stable angina and severe coronary artery disease in 1988. That began a healing journey with yoga, starting with a few restorative poses from his first teacher, and breathing and meditation, practiced for 15 years. The journey deepened further with guided practice for a week (2 restorative classes a day) and a layoff in 2003. That led to a move and a new teacher, and she led him to the sutras (The Secret Power of Yoga, by Nischala Devi). Steve began teacher training in 2007 and completed a 200-hour program in December of 2012. His list of teachers on this journey continues to grow, and he is grateful to them all. Steve now teaches restorative classes and just completed training in the Yoga of the Heart program. His intention is to work with cardiac patients and others dealing with serious illness; to share the love, joy, and peace that he has found through regular, sustained yoga practice.

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