Yoga Helped Me. Now I Help Others.

Name: Stacie-Saraswati Dooreck
Location: San Francisco Bay area, California, USA
Occupation: Yoga Instructor & Author

Photo attributed to Flickr user dietmut.

I was blessed to be born into a family that was already introduced to yoga as it came to the west. A dedicated yogi, my father took a yoga teacher training with Swami Sachidananda (Guru of Integral Yoga), he was involved with Siddha Yoga, and when I was young, he took us to meet Swami Muktananda for ‘spiritual awakening.’

My mother and father became full vegetarians after learning of its health and non-violence benefits from the Gurus. They ate no meat, poultry, or fish by the time I was born, so I was also raised vegetarian and I have never tasted meat or fish in my life. This upbringing planted the seeds for a lifelong journey of teaching and practicing yoga.

My introduction to Hatha Yoga (the yoga of postures) began when I saw my father doing shoulder stand in his meditation room as I grew up. But my own practice did not begin until I needed it, at the age of 17.

In high school I developed chronic neck pain from working out in a gym and waiting tables. My chiropractor actually suggested yoga to treat my pain. I tried a 30-minute yoga video and by day two of doing the video, all of my neck pain was gone; no MRI needed, and I was hooked. The feeling of deep peace and relaxation I felt at the end was like nothing I had experienced before. I did that video daily throughout my senior year in high school and also as a freshman in college.

Photo by Doug Beasley, http://www.dbpics.biz

The next thing I knew, I signed up for a Sivananda teacher training, living for a month at the yoga ashram in Canada. The experience was challenging and ‘different’ for a 20-year old, but it was life-changing too. It planted additional seeds for my lifelong practice and eventual teaching of yoga. I saw yoga as something that put you on a spiritual path, gave you discipline, and was a tool for wellness and balance of body and mind.

I felt that I had to share this amazing gift with others. Soon after I returned to my college dorm, I started teaching yoga to my friends and conducting relaxation workshops for my dormmates. I watched with fascination to see how yoga helped others as it did me, and my passion for the practice grew deeper and deeper. Ever since, the learning and sharing continues.

Stacie-Saraswati Dooreck is a Certified Gentle Integral Yoga Instructor, Certified Sivananda Hatha Yoga Instructor Since 1995, and a Certified Kundalini teacher, bringing a wealth of knowledge to her classes. Stacie used chair yoga while healing from an illness and continues to share with others the benefits of chair yoga. In 2011 she was featured on CBS Ch. 4 News Healthwatch teaching “Yoga for Seniors.” In addition, Stacie is a Certified Fall Prevention Trainer for seniors and trained as an Enhanced Fitness Instructor (evidence based chair exercises and fitness for seniors including cardio, strength training and stretching). She created and leads SunLight Chair Yoga Teacher Trainings in the US and The Bahamas. Stacie is the author of the book SunLight Chair Yoga: Yoga is for everyone!, a book designed to to teach those with chronic illness, injuries, in wheelchairs or at a desk (Yoga at work) how to modify yoga so all can benefit. Stacie can be found on Facebook at facebook.com/sunlightyoga and on Twitter @sunlightyoga, @yogainchairs and @yogainsf.

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

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YOGAMOMS… Where Karma Meets Drama

Name: Carla Berkowitz
Location: Miami, Florida, USA
Occupation: Yoga Teacher & Producer

Editor’s Note- Today’s Yoga Diary will take a slightly different variation on a theme from our previous entries. Miami-based yoga teacher and producer, Carla Berkowitz, has been collecting stories of transformation and healing through yoga from within her own yoga community. She is producing and presenting these stories in a web series titled YOGAMOMS. In an effort to continue to spread the word about the healing power of yoga, we present to you an introduction to Carla’s work.

Follow the journey of modern-day yogis as they live their lives, all the while trying to reach enlightenment! On YOGAMOMS, we’ll be chronicling Miami yogis as they navigate the tricky balance between material and spiritual, at the same time trying to stay centered. With many of the yogis having had difficult challenges at some point in their lives, they all found that yoga was the road back to physical discipline, mental clarity and turning the most difficult challenges into opportunities to master.

Yoga comes in many forms and styles, however, they all have one thing in common: the ability to combat the stress of any situation, whether it be previously destructive lives, divorces from abusive husbands, or not so dramatic situations as simply wanting to tap into one’s intuition or spirit. YOGAMOMS deals with work, family, love and drama. When they leave the studio is when the real challenge comes…to stay centered and graceful in the real world and to practice off the mat what they have learned in their “practice” on the mat.




Carla Berkowitz is a Yoga Teacher, an Audio Engineer and Music Producer and she has Produced 11 fitness DVDs, 3 of which are APPS. Her classes offer a “Music Driven” yoga experience: Lose your mind… but find yourself in it. Carla believes that the combination of yoga, breathing and meditation pumps the creativity, balances the body and strengthens the power of your mind. Carla’s classes specialize in balancing our opposing energies by turning obstacles into opportunities. 

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

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Blessed to Be Me

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


Name: Almitra Hakeem (spiritual name, Shantibindu)

Location: Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Occupation: Yoga Instructor

I’m writing on this beautiful summer weekend as I spend time with my personal Sadhana (practice) which includes nurturing all of the forms of my being: spiritual, mental, physical, emotional and energetic. All of my tools are valuable instruments: sound, breath, awareness, movement and stillness. With regular classes and yogic studies I have learned and remember that the wisdom of Satyananda Yoga® teachings is exactly what is needed in my life, learning and teaching circles. I’m feeling very blessed to be me right now.

The place to which God sent me, after a loud inner cry for help, was Atma Center. I’m grateful to have a long-term relationship with teachers who hold space for me to grow, and I’m living in a space of awareness that growth doesn’t happen overnight but rather little by little, over time.

“No one else can do your growing up work for you,”  Swami Atmarupa would say, all these years giving me a gentle nudge forward. I wouldn’t be living in the space of grace without my teachers at Atma center, teachers who have introduced me to and taught me how to use our awesome God-given inner tools: awareness, breath, life force, meditation, subtle movements, sound, and many more.

Over the last fourteen years, my yoga practice has moved me from being 75% insane, 70% in pain, 80% physically blind, and an emotional basket case, to being a more calm, less stressed person with normal vision. And from my teachers I have experienced unyielding patience; they have never given up on me, they have invested in and had faith in me, and they have always seen in me that which I thought could not awaken. This has brought me great healing. I continue to learn, to grow and to improve every day. I see this. My heart is full of gratitude. Om.

Shantibindu has worked in the movement arts for years, with extensive experience in dance and Tai Chi. She first encountered yoga in a book store in her early twenties and remembers it as something “that looked weird and made me feel really good.” Shantibindu led programs in dance and movement for children in local libraries, and this experience makes her particularly effective at teaching yoga to kids and teens. When asked why she teaches yoga, Shantibindu responds that she has “an unyielding desire to assist myself and others in attaining greater awareness of living a harmonious life. Satyananda Yoga® practices move each practitioner closer to that awareness.”

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

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A Yoga Transformation Journey: 30 Years and Beyond

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


Name: Mary Baird (spiritual name, Mantram)

Location: Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Occupation: Yoga Instructor, Atma Center Yoga At Work Coordinator.

Photo by Flickr User whalt.

It all began in my 40’s  once a week yoga. I found yoga sometime in 1979-80. Back then, I hung onto that weekly class as my “oasis,” a welcome relief from job stress. My work was physically and mentally challenging – carrying ladders, climbing poles, running wire, repairing phone lines, and dealing with skepticism and isolation as the only woman on my crew for nearly two decades. Not exactly experiencing total transformation at this point, I would say that yoga “saved” my life! The transformation process, a process that still feels “never done,” began then as I learned to use the basic tools of yoga (asana and pranayama) to develop my capacity for self-healing.

Off the mat – yoga at work. In those “early yoga days,” it got easier to maintain my “cool” in the face of  constant verbal challenges and put-downs like “You’re taking that job away from a man who really needs it!” Or, “Who’s coming to help you with that ladder?” Using relaxation and breathing techniques to support my mental health, I’d find myself spontaneously stretching and re-positioning my body to counteract the often taxing physical demands of the job. I can remember the relief of stretching into “downward dog,” gripping the bottom rung of my ladder and breathing deeply for a few moments after too much time up the ladder, leaning out over the cable to test and connect lines in the terminal – maybe holding a side stretch in the opposite direction to balance the stress on my spine.

Developing awareness – inward bound. Though I used my yoga as “first aid” for survival, I had no daily or formal “home practice” during the first 20 years of my journey.  I did, however, develop a keen awareness that I had never before experienced — an awareness of the “state of my mental and physical self.” (It took many more years for me to become aware of my awareness – to realize how AWARENESS itself is yoga’s most fundamental gift!) In my early adult years I was very busy and externally focused on the demands and problems of the world and the people around me. A key aspect of my evolving transformation was a slow but steady shift from external to internal, beginning to experience the more subtle, deeper benefits of yoga. Knowing and healing myself became a priority. Still an activist on behalf of women and workers, I began to incorporate a broader perspective. After all, how could I change the world if I couldn’t maintain my own health and inner strength?

Moving from an early retirement at the phone company in my mid-50’s, I continued my weekly yoga – a great support as I embarked on graduate studies and other career pursuits. One thing I noticed as I approached 60 was an increased awareness of chronic aches and pains, especially low back ache and joint stiffness. I knew I needed “more yoga,” to work with my aging physical body but also to explore more deeply the philosophical and spiritual aspects of this awesome “life science.”

In the 80s and 90s I had taken classes with two excellent teachers near my west side home and kept getting their message, “There’s more here for you!”  I just didn’t know how to go about finding it. I still had not connected with the idea of a daily home practice or the personal motivation to begin.

Beyond bending and stretching Enter Satyananda Yoga® & the Atma Center on the “other side of town.” I was working with Hard Hatted Women, a nonprofit I helped start, developing school-based programs to expose children to nontraditional careers. This brought me into contact with many wonderful people. An amazing, dedicated teacher who has since become a close friend told me about this great yoga center she had discovered and suggested that I try it and that it would be worth the drive. And it was! What a great 60th birthday present, discovering a whole system of yoga, Satyananda Yoga®, deeply rooted in tradition, right in my back yard!

Daily practice and the resulting benefits. My first taste of the fruits of daily yoga took place not at “home,” but at the Atma Center where my eagerness for the “more” saw me attending classes nearly every day! The rest is history: This wonderful decade (2001 – present) has helped to solidify my deeper personal experience with a style of yoga that continues to be well-suited to my needs as an aging practitioner and spiritual seeker. The practices of meditation and mantra chanting have helped me to anchor and still my busy mind and explore my mental habits. “Freedom from the bondage of the mind” is the meaning of my spiritual name, Mantram, given to me a few years ago by Swami Niranjananda. Yoga Nidra has become a new and deeper form of relaxation to counter the stresses of life and aging and Pawanmuktasana practices have began to work on my “sluggishness” and joint pain.

Photo by Daniel Levin.

Somehow during those first few years under the tutelage of Swami Atmarupa and the other wonderful teachers, my chronic low back pain disappeared! Using my new-found intuitive wisdom, I added regular strength training sessions to my routine, combined with daily yoga to reverse diagnosed osteoporosis in my lower spine. I’ve experienced and survived accidents (one falling on ice and another “crashing” onto my tailbone in roller blades) without fractures and with only temporary aches and pains, letting me know that stronger muscles are indeed protecting my bones. Developing body awareness and a confidence in my ability to strengthen and heal myself has been an important transformative aspect of my yoga journey.

About a year into the wonderful physical and mental benefits of daily classes, I found Yogic Studies, enrolling in the first “Yoga Patha I” course offered in the U.S. Doors opened to an understanding of the roots and multi-layered components of this amazing “life science.” Finally, I received the guidance and structure I needed to begin my own home-based daily yoga practice that continues to sustain me today.

Teaching yoga – my most transformative experience. Before long, I enrolled in the first official Satyananda Style Teacher Training course, also based at The Atma Center. I thought it might be a way to “give back” some of the benefits I had received. It took me several years to complete the whole series of Yogic Studies and Teacher Training courses, but the effort taught me a great deal: (1) It’s never too late to take on a new challenge. Believe me, it has been a challenge  – not unlike enrolling in a PhD program as a senior; (2) Learning begets more seeking begets more learning; (3) The experience of teaching is the greatest teacher of all. Meeting the diverse needs and interests of my students has been a living impetus to continue on my yoga path and to continue my yoga education for as long as I am able. My motivation is enhanced by their penetrating questions, their stories of struggle and success, and the insights they acquire and share as they embark upon their own yoga journeys.

Photo by Flickr User ojoqtv.

Add to this transformational decade, the opportunity to travel to Swami Satyananda’s ashram in India where I met him and experienced his divine energy face to face. It was there that I developed a deep appreciation for the Bhakti aspect of Satyananda Yoga®. Seeing his astounding example of giving and serving others at the core of a fulfilling spiritual path, I rejoiced in an opportunity that opened for me here in Cleveland to give where the need is great. Along with two Atma Center colleagues, I volunteer to teach yoga at a center for women recovering from addiction. We use their feedback to refine our approach, finding new ways to tailor the practices of Satyananda Yoga® to the urgency of their need for tension release, balance, peace of mind, and a self-nurturing attitude. Teaching and learning in this and other classroom settings has become one of the most satisfying, shared processes.

I am eternally grateful to Swami Atmarupa, the Atma Center, and Satyananda Yoga® for offering a community-based program that has nurtured my growth into my “later years.” In the end, it is the ongoing process of deepening awareness that comes with continued practice, which constitutes the spiritual support for navigating each day with the clarity and insight that I need at this stage in my life. And the transformation continues…

Mary Baird has been practicing yoga for over 30 years and credits yoga with saving her life, during her 17 years of working as a phone line repair and installation technician, by helping her to manage the physical and emotional stresses of her job. A yoga teacher for nearly a decade, in addition to her passion for instructing yoga, Mary has had a variety of other teaching roles: Peace Corps English teacher, elementary Career Education Specialist, tutor in adult literacy, class designer and teacher at a local women’s prison among others. Mary is now an avid volunteer: she instructs for the nonprofit Yoga Academy of North America, teaches yoga to women in addiction recovery at Orca House, prepares and serves holiday meals at Orca House and annually participates in the Stand Down for the Homeless through Interact. In her free time, Mary enjoys creative writing, biking, gardening, and visiting her adult children and their children.

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

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Lead Me

Name: Nicole Chemi
Location: Haverton, Pennsylvania, USA
Occupation: yogini, mom, brain aneurysm survivor

Asatoma Sat Gamaya
Tamasoma Jyotir Gamaya
Mrityorma Anritam Gamaya

Lead me from the unreal to the Real
Lead me from the darkness to the Light
Lead me from the temporary to the Eternal

~Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

Photo by Flickr User cdrummbks.

Without fail, every time I read the Upanishads I cry. It’s not a sad cry or a mad cry, but a joyous heart-felt recognition cry. When I hold my copy of the translation by Eknath Easwaran, it feels like I am touching truth with my very own human hands. Throughout my almost 16 years of yoga practice, I can always bring my mind back into balance by simply opening my well-worn copy and reading whatever passage that catches my eye. To me, the most beautiful words ever written come from the Kena Upanishad, “The Self is the ear of the ear, the eye of the eye, the mind of the mind, the word of words, and the life of life.”

Each year when we cover The Upanishads in our 200 hr. Yoga Teacher Training course, I read the Kena, out loud to the class. And each year with a lump in my throat and tears streaming down my face, I get through to the end, my heart filled with joy. I am never sure how many of the trainees get it, how many of them think I am insane, or how many of them feel the same tenderness in the center of their chests. But each year, with great anticipation, I read and cry and feel intense love for all creatures.

Early on in my yoga studies, I found it extremely challenging to sit in a meditative posture and try to concentrate my mind. I know this is common for many beginners, however I have always been the model student, perfectionism plus. So try and try I did and the more and more frustrated I became. With years of practice and finally putting into practice the concept of detachment, I started to make some progress in meditation. After asana and relaxation, I would sit still; sometimes observing my breath and sometimes just watching my body and its stillness. I can remember when meditation switched from being a chore to being something I looked forward to; a time for me to stop doing, moving, being, trying to attain, trying to teach, trying to fulfill someone’s needs turned into a time to witness, observe, watch and be quiet.

Photo by Flickr User Honeyquilts.

I attended a wonderful workshop on meditation at The Himalayan Institute, and Rolf Sovik gave very clear concise instruction that I followed for years. Meditate on your breath or utilize the So-Hum universal mantra. I still teach this to our students today. I am not sure when or how this changed but at some point in the last couple of years, I began to meditate on a mantra, for me a prayer from the Upanishads. “Oh Lord, lead me from the unreal to the Real, from darkness to the Light from death to Eternal Life.”

Sometimes, spontaneously, it would run through my mind in Sanskrit; at times driving in the car, waiting somewhere in line, waiting for students to arrive, waiting for the school bus, just me and the mantra. Communicating with the Divine- “Please lead me from all this suffering to what is Real. Make me a true yogini, help me practice karma yoga, free me from these bonds I have created for myself, rescue me from this negative thinking, free me from the past, teach me how to live in the present moment, make me a better mother, make me a better teacher, show me love, take away my loneliness, relieve my sadness. Please.”

Friday, October 14, 2011, New York City

7pm. An evening with Thich Nhat Hahn, Vietnamese Buddhist monk and enlightened being. The beloved teacher and prolific writer floats out onto the stage and takes his place on a cushion in lotus posture. His smile lights up the room and warms my heart. I immediately begin to tear up as he speaks. One of the very first things he asks us to do…“Close your eyes and draw your attention to your eyes. Take the time to consider your sight. Be grateful for this gift and be thankful for something you take for granted every day.” “Now,” he instructs, “Open your eyes.”

Tuesday, November 1, 2011, Springfield, PA

Image by Flickr User Pierre Willemin.

For the past two weeks I have been experiencing pain in my left eye. As a 43-year old yoga teacher, I am used to the occasional ache or pain. No big deal. It will go away on its own. I have recently moved and sold the home where my ex-husband and I lived when we moved to Pennsylvania. I was in that home as a single mom for 10 years, and with the poor economy and the 30 minute commute I had driven to the yoga center for the past 7 years, it was time to move on. One of my dear friends, a student at the yoga center, suggested that I get the eye looked at. At the ophthalmologist’s office I explain that it feels as though I have been punched in the eyeball. He examines me and tells me that there is nothing wrong and it is probably a headache. However, with the other odd symptoms I have mentioned to him, he suggests seeing a neurologist, just to be sure.

Thursday, November 3, 2011, Bryn Mawr, PA

Meet the neurologist. Explain symptoms: Headaches, dizziness, fatigue, pain in the left eye, vision issues, “oh yeah, and the time I was blind in my left eye for about 20 minutes following a massage.”

Next Day

MRI. Brain. Neck. With and without contrast. Very loud banging in that tube- but I was calm content and relaxed. Thank you yoga practice.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011, 1:30 pm, Bryn Mawr, PA

“99% of the times we do this test we find nothing, however, you have an aneurysm in your Internal Carotid Artery behind your left eye. Here is the number of a neurosurgeon in Philadelphia. You should call as soon as possible and get an appointment.”

15 minutes later, home, Google, bad news.

“A ruptured aneurysm is a medical emergency. In about 30 percent of cases, ruptured brain aneurysms are fatal.” Mayo Clinic.

Thankfully I have an aneurysm that is intact. It is on the large side, 7mm. I call University of Pennsylvania Hospital and Thomas Jefferson Hospital. Both hospitals are 30 minutes away and have some of the best doctors in the country. I am so lucky to live here. Two appointments scheduled- Monday and Wednesday.

Bright and early Monday morning, Philadelphia, PA

I meet my surgeon- Dr. Michelle Smith, young, petite, pretty; soft-spoken but smart and confident. She explains to me and my boyfriend, Joe, that this is serious. I am young and very healthy. I should live a long life, however if this aneurysm were to rupture, my chances of fulfilling that destiny are slim to none. One thing I have neglected to reveal; my daughter Meredith is my whole life. As a child from a dysfunctional family, the one thing that meant the most to me was to have a family of my own. I would do better. I would right the wrongs. I would always put my daughter first. Her dad left when she was just over a year old. Since that day, she has been my world, my best friend, and my reason for waking up each day. Sometimes, of course, this is great for Meredith. And, of course, sometimes this hurts her deeply.

Monday, November 21, 2011, Philadelphia, PA

Photo by Flickr User Vectorportal.

Let me speed this up for you. Angiogram= catheter into femoral artery, past the heart, into the neck. Dye injected into the brain. Pictures, pictures, pictures. “Nicole, hold your breath!” more pictures. “You did great!” By the way, having an angiogram really sucks. They put you into a drugged out state where you are half-asleep and half-awake to get through the ordeal. In recovery, the drugs wear off quickly and you have to keep the leg, where they inserted the cath, still- Completely still, for six hours. Thank you yoga practice. I have had three angiograms since this original one. How do normal non-yogis deal with the pain and discomfort?

While I’m still groggy and in a drug-induced fog, the doctor says to me, “I am so sorry but we cannot treat this with coiling (a semi-noninvasive procedure done with catheterization). You will need to have a clipping and craniotomy.“

“NO. No. NO WAY Joe. I am not ready for that. I am not doing that. I am not telling Meredith that I need brain surgery. No way. What the hell? I am not doing that.”

“It’s fine. Only like 1% of these things rupture anyway.”

In my mind I’m thinking, “GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE. Are you kidding me? I am the healthiest person I know. This is not happening. What a cruel joke.”

Friday, December 16, 2011, Philadelphia, PA

Image by Flickr User Hey Paul Studios.

Today I underwent an 11-hour brain surgery to clip off the pesky brain aneurysm with a titanium clothes pin. My oldest brother was there from Northern New Jersey. My mom flew in from South Carolina. My boyfriend (of 10 years) was there. My daughter was cared for by her dad. That morning, I arrived at the hospital in my favorite royal blue sweatpants, an East Eagle Yoga tee shirt, and a comfy, over-sized sweater. We went through admissions, I smiled and laughed and told my mom, bro and partner that I loved them. I took a moment to experience who I was before, as I had no idea what would become of me after.

I don’t remember much. I know my student and friend, Kate, came to bring food to my family and when I saw her I made some idiotic remark calling her my baby girl and blurting out the year of my birth “1968!” The next thing I can remember is being in ICU. I met with the on-call nurse who was immediately my enemy asking the name of my husband. “I don’t have one of those. B*tch!” I think to myself.

I was in a stupor. 50+ staples in my shaved head. Hospital gown. PAIN. LOTS of pain. I shook uncontrollably. I was inconsolable. I cried. I hyperventilated. I was pissed off. Majorly pissed off. I have been under the care of a psychiatrist for many years, and for years I have been on medication for my struggles with anxiety and depression. My anxiety meds have been increased over the years, however they had not been updated in the “Penn Medicine” online charts, and now these doctors were giving me a significantly lower dose than what I needed. All of a sudden, I am a drug crazed fool. My mother is flipping out when I explain to the on-call docs that I need more ativan. “You people have been giving me .5 mg per day when I regularly take 4x that amount.”

Within 45 minutes of my morphine dose, I am screaming, shaking, convulsing. When my mom and boyfriend are not in the room with me in ICU, I press the call button over and over and over. Clearly I pissed the nurse off. She could care less. I start to cry and weep and plead…“Someone help me please. I need to use the bedpan. Help me.” For a second I realize how pathetic I am.

I haven’t eaten in days. A sick vain side of me thinks that maybe I will lose a few pounds. Seriously? Am I that shallow? This ridiculous thought quickly fades and all I want to know is when can I get out of this bed? Mom shows up with Joe. They feign happiness, excitement, positive thoughts. All I can think about is my daughter. I call her on the cell phone and try to be as upbeat and happy as possible. When I ask her today, she doesn’t remember how she felt or what she said. My scariest concern wasn’t all I made it out to be. Guess a mother’s love and fear are stronger than what is real.

The day I leave the hospital is one of the scariest moments in my life. “Who am I? I am not my body. I am not my mind. I am not my relationships, my job, my home. I am not a liberal, I am not a vegetarian, I am not a yogi, a parent, a girlfriend, a sister, a daughter. I am not my bank account. I am not an animal rescuer. I am not a yoga teacher. I am not a damaged and treated brain.”

“The Self is the ear of the ear, the eye of the eye, the mind of the mind, the word of words and the life of life. Rising above the senses and the mind and renouncing separate existence, the wise realize the deathless Self.”

Thankfully today: Sunday, August 5, 2012

Photo by Flickr User Kelly Loves Whales.

I have learned so much. What I wished for came true. My prayers were answered. Obviously not the way I had expected them to, but isn’t that life? I asked the Lord of life, the Lord of love to transform this broken, sad and lonely girl into a yogini and my prayers were answered. As I have read over and over in the yogic scriptures: The two things that are required for success in yoga are practice (lots of it) and detachment. I am still learning. I am still a beginner. However, I recognize that what I asked for was provided; maybe not in the way I had expected or preferred, but in the way that would count. My left eye sucks. Maybe 60% vision. I get tired very often. I am hyper-sensitive to sensory input. I am forever an HSP- (Hyper Sensitive Person). Oh, well, me and my quirks! Sounds crazy, I realize, but I am grateful for this experience. For me. For my daughter. For my students. For my partner. For my mom and my brother Bobby, and last but not least for my pups of the heart, sweet Blue and charming Linus.

Nicole Chemi took her first yoga class at the age of eleven while attending a performing arts camp. After her daughter was born in 1997, she came back to yoga as a way to center herself and reduce the stress of being a first time mom. In order to deepen her yoga practice and study of yoga philosophy, In 2001, Nicole studied and was trained as a teacher at Yogalife Institute, an affiliate of The Yoga Institute in Mumbai, India. She is currently enrolled in an advanced course for teachers at The Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. 

Nicole has taught classes on yoga postures, meditation, and philosophy for adults and children at all levels of practice. In 2005, Nicole was able to fufill her dream of opening her own yoga center, East Eagle Yoga, in Havertown, Pennsylvania, with her best friend and partner, Joe Finnerty. As a writer, Nicole has been published nationally in Lillipoh Magazine and was a regular columnist in Yoga Living Magazine. She has been featured in Philadelphia Magazine. Nicole is a member of The Yoga Alliance and The Himalyan Institute Teacher’s Association.

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

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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Name: Rachel Wolfe
Location: Winnetka, Illinois, USA
Occupation: Artist and Gallerist

Nearly every aspect of my current life can be attributed to practicing yoga. The sheer presence of my being on this planet owes a deep debt of gratitude for those who channeled the yoga asana, the dhyana and pranayama practices, those who shared their knowledge, those who brought yoga to the west and to the teachers that have touched my life.

I was born into life a vivacious and curious child. But early on, the first bouts of digestive woes and sleeping trouble began disrupting my bliss. I can recall feelings of unregulated currents of energy running through me. I was easily overwhelmed, exhausted and frequently moody. Around my transition from childhood to adolescence, I encountered a two-year span of insomnia. The insomnia doubled the effects of the mild anxiety I carried, resulting in panic attacks that would lead me to believe I was dying. This trifecta was compounded by the deep depression that grew from the darkest spot within my soul. All of this happened before the age of 16.

During this time, a therapist suggested I try yoga and meditation to help me sleep at night. I was also encouraged to keep up the writing and art I had begun doing as a means to even tolerate being in my body. While it seems dramatic to me now, this story was an intense reality for me at the time.

Photo by Flickr user Mokarta Graphic.

I was always looking for a way out, a way out of the feeling of wanting to die, the feeling that dying was a better option than feeling, and I got that way out. I was placed on medication and careful observation after my family found out I had been cutting myself. The medication numbed every inch of my being.

I was attending yoga classes at the local park district and I was loving how I was able to achieve the postures with ease. I felt good at something, and therefore good for something, despite feeling nothing. And if it wasn’t for the yoga, then I might very well be medicated now, but something inside of me was speaking up and asking me to clear out my body. I’m glad that I listened.

Coming off of my meds threw me into a high that I have yet to ever experience again. Yoga became a means to keep my muscles soft after the daily six-mile runs, as well as a philosophical pursuit to satisfy my insatiable appetite for theory and life understanding. The breathing techniques allowed me to sleep at night without waking. As I felt better and more balanced, I realized later how fast I was running away from everything, including food. The disordered relationship that developed resulted in a thinner than thin body and worried my family, yet again. At this point, I fancied myself living off of air or ascending into some spiritual realm. My yogic studies were one sided, as I had yet to discover the grounding qualities of a yoga practice.

I’m not sure how I was able to balance myself out after existing in the lowest low a person can go and swinging up and nearly off into the stratosphere. The only mainstay besides my art and writing practice was yoga. It was always there for me. Later I would discover that my family and the entire Universe were rooting me on the whole time.

Signing up for a Yoga Teacher Training was the catapult I needed to ground me, balance me and ultimately bring me to the bliss I remembered as a very young child. The training taught me that all those years of self-study were actually worth something. I was more knowledgeable than I thought I was. As I began to share my knowledge and experiences with others, I quickly learned that I am more capable than I thought I was. Yoga brought me from the depths of suicidal depression and anxiety, through the highs of mania to a place of balanced empowerment, that at one point I was assured I would never have. But here I am, living proof that yoga can heal some of the deepest and most challenging wounds to heal.

Bringing my full attention and awareness to this training must have set off some deep ripples in the Universe because during and after the training, the positive and exciting transitions grace my life. The serendipity, the synchronicities are astounding and daily. I used to dream of living a life like the one I live today. And on this day, it occurs to me what happens when I practice yoga, or when anyone does for that matter. Yoga changes the stories you tell yourself. Any experience I have encountered in this life has been centered on emotion and feeling. Simply by reinterpreting or rewriting my story, I can then feel that story and therefore live that story. There’s no amount of obsessive thought that can effectively do this rewiring. Yoga does the work, as long as I bring my full awareness to the practice. The more attention and intention I have drawn inward, the richer my experiences flow outward.

Some days I find myself wanting to run away from my mat or let my hips flop open when I know I need to hug them in. These indicators are reminders of the shadow life I once led, the story of despair I was telling myself. It is an incredible feeling of empowerment, triumph and ceaseless desire to share my new story as I feel every part of my being and life experience, through yoga. We are everything we need, and yoga is the guide.

Rachel Wolfe was raised in a small town outside of Chicago. She completed a Bachelor of Art in 2006 and a certified Yoga instructor in 2012. Rachel has been exhibited and published nationally and internationally as a photographer and writer. Her second publication is in progress. Rachel is currently based on the Northshore of Chicago, traveling for assignments, commissions, study and fun. You may connect with Rachel on Facebook. Learn more about her projects at www.rachelwolfe.com and follow her artist process on Howlya, her blog.


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The Yoga of Weight Loss

Name: Jean Merlen
Location: Dunkerque, France
Occupation: Pharmacist

First, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Jean, I am a French pharmacist, and living in a country with a very rich food culture, I have struggled with weight issues for years. So, when an old friend of mine introduced me to Bikram Yoga, I could not imagine how much my body would be transformed in only six months.

My first introduction to yoga, prior to my Bikram practice, was with a really inspiring Anusara Yoga teacher in my hometown. That first yoga experience was very surprising to me, as I felt so good after classes, something I had never felt after any other sport classes.

Later, when my friend invited me to join her for a Bikram Yoga class, I asked around to find out more about the practice. Few people had heard of it, and among those who had, I heard some negative impressions about the heat, the franchise concept, etc. But despite any negative feedback I received, I decided to trust my friend and give it a try. She thought I’d leave the hot room (aka “the torture chamber”) after a couple of postures, but I stayed! And even better, I made it to the end of class and then enjoyed savasana… What a shock!

At the end of class, my friend came over and gave me a hug. I then went into the shower…and I cried, a lot. They were tears of joy I guess. As I sometimes say, my body realized way before my mind how much this yoga was exactly what I needed at this time.

Before the experience, I was 308 pounds. My friend and I took classes four days in a row, and as a beginner, I was quite proud! But once I returned back home, I waited a couple of weeks to repeat the experience, mainly because of lack of time (there is no Bikram studio less than 1 hour from my home). But once I did it again, the benefits were so great, that I tried to make the journey to the hot room at least once or twice a week. Six months later, I had lost about fifty pounds. And I’ve done this with only Bikram Yoga and by eating healthier food. I did not do this with any fad diet, medicine nor with surgery.

Hatha Yoga, Anusara Yoga, and most of all Bikram Yoga really allowed me to understand the true meaning of “union” (after all, that’s what “Yoga” means right?). The yoga really helped my body and mind to reunite. It helped me to simply remember that I was strong. With six month of regular (but not intense) practice, I’ve lost weight, I have gained much more balance and flexibility, and my mind is much clearer than it was.

Bikram Yoga is just yoga, no more no less. Maybe it’s not everybody’s yoga, but it’s exactly the yoga I needed. In order to avoid dehydration from all of the intense heat and sweating, I learned to drink more water than I ever had before. And all of that sweating helps to rid my body of unhealthy and unwanted toxins.

I wanted to share my personal experience, especially for people who might have weight issues, because it is clear to me that yoga helps you to drink more water, to eat better (I now crave fruits and veggies instead of sweets and fat!), and to get back into balance and comfort in your own body. Weight issues create discomfort, then you get used to dealing with frustration, and the judgment of others makes you judge yourself in the worst possible way. Bikram Yoga has helped me to get rid my life of all of this negativity and to regain my confidence.

I have so much gratitude for the dear friend who introduced me to this real life treasure of Bikram Yoga. Please friends, always remember you ARE strong, much stronger than you think. You deserve the best for your health, and even if you have no other issues than a couple of extra pounds, I encourage you to give it a try. And keep in mind Patanjali’s lessons: loving kindness, compassion and joy! Have compassion for yourself and be patient with your transformation. Don’t let frustration get the better of you, as frustration is a block to transformation! And most importantly, love yourself and remember that we all have beauty and strength inside… sometimes we just forget it.

Edited by Jeannie Page.

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A Bhakti Story

Name: Margaret Bacon
Location: San Francisco, California, USA
Occupation: Writer

Photo by Flickr user Nick.Allen.

Walking to yoga one morning, I was dismayed to see the sidewalk being torn up, right outside the building I was entering. “This is nice for yoga,” I commented to my friend, Takako, over the jarring drone of a jackhammer.

Inside the studio where Angela Pashayan was leading a class in the Yoga of Devotion, the jackhammer penetrated the walls, rising from the street below. It might have been dulled from its two story climb, but it was still loud enough to be annoying and Angela had to raise her voice as she led us into meditation.

There was no ignoring the aural distraction outside the window, yet remarkably, without yelling, Angela was able to speak loudly enough for us to hear her. Instead of competing with the grating noise from below, she encouraged us to use the vibrating sound as a tool of focus; to break up stuck thoughts in our minds and loosen tightness in our bodies.

As we progressed into asanas, Angela guided us to “jackhammer” away resistance. The imagery was empowering as I imagined petty worries turning into dust. I felt the stiffness in my right shoulder being chipped away, dissolved to bits like the cement on the sidewalk, the ache eased and no longer of service. In warrior, the jackhammer’s steady plummeting actually helped me sink into the powerful pose, drawing strength from the incessant hum, breaking through my own self-defensiveness.

When we reached savasana, the jackhammer suddenly stopped, as if in reverence to the dead of corpse pose. Tears of release flowed as I lay on my back through meditation. Like the old, stuck cement, I was able to break up and throw out old aches and pains, resentments and frustrations that needed to go. Everyone agreed that the class had indeed been a powerfully moving one.

Photo by Jason Wyman.

In her classes, Angela often talks us through affirmations in the unique Bhakti practice that she has developed. She encourages us to set our intention in prayer pose, to acknowledge our past when looking back in twists, expressing gratitude for where we’ve been. Reaching up and out in warrior, she guides us to look forward and reach out for our intention, to see it and realize it at our fingertips. And, just as the jackhammer was a tool to tear up the sidewalk, that day Angela used it as an instrument in her teaching. What would normally have been an annoyance in any yoga class became the sound of healing. In parting, Angela encouraged us to use all external distractions as implements in our yoga practice.

One of the things I most appreciate about Angela’s classes is the imagery and visualizations she presents which work as affirmations for me. Two years ago, I was diagnosed with coronary artery disease and had to have a procedure to remove and prevent further artery blockage. I saw Angela soon after I got out of the hospital, tired, bruised and a bit depressed. I also felt somewhat defeated that, as an advocate of holistic health and a physically active vegetarian, I had to undergo such drastic treatment. I was also angered by all the medications I’d been prescribed. In addition, I wondered if, despite all my efforts to live a healthy lifestyle, the arteries would again become clogged. My cardiologist had explained that my condition was hereditary and that my liver produced excessive cholesterol.

Angela gave me a CD of “healing music” and visualization. Knowing my background in swimming she told me to visualize myself swimming through my arteries to keep them clear. Hers was some of the best medicine I took. I continue to listen to the CD, I continue to use the visualization and I continue to practice yoga. I’m feeling very well these days and have been able to cut back on medication. My cardiologist told me that if all her patients practiced yoga she’d be out of business.

The metaphor of the jackhammer from that class has stayed with me for a long time, just as yoga stays with me long after I have come out of an asana. For that reason I am devoted to the Yoga of Devotion.

Angela Pashayan is the founder of Yoga of Devotion, a philanthropic yoga organization serving the needs of children worldwide. For more information, please visit www.yogaofdevotion.org.

Margaret Bacon is a writer of Okinawan and Anglo (English, Irish, Scottish and French) ancestry. She was born in Okinawa, Japan and grew up mostly in Southern California with bouts in Florida, Mississippi, Singapore, England and Scotland. San Francisco has been her home longer than anywhere else and she continues to reside near Ocean Beach with her family which includes four cats. In addition to writing, Margaret is the co-founder of 14 Black Poppies, a community arts and wellness organization. She also knits, practices yoga, works with clay, and tries to garden in the fog. You can reach Margaret at margaret@14blackpoppies.com.

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The Yoga of Change

Name: Ina Sahaja
Location: Boulder, Colorado, USA
Occupation: Yoga Teacher

Photo by Flickr User mailumes.

One of the most beautiful and practice-affirming experiences I’ve had with modern yoga is through the healing process. Once you’ve been practicing for a number of years, you’re bound to go through your fair share of life phenomenon. The unexpected happens and you find yourself in transition. Be it a job change, a physical change (like pregnancy) or an injury, change is the only constant. It’s just natural. And, thankfully, modern yoga is diverse enough that it can accommodate all of these shifts in our life rhythms.

I will be the first to admit, I used to be a die-hard asana junkie. In my teens, it was all about the physical practice. Yoga was primarily a great way to stay fit, while sustaining my inner inkling for spirituality with little nuggets of wisdom. Yoga asana was my life-crutch. Heavy asana practice was always there for me, waiting for me just around the corner, in the next Ashtanga class.

At 21-years-old, I went out on a limb and moved to a ski resort in Utah. My native-Texas bones and skin dried right up, and less than a week into my new stint, I broke my arm snowboarding.

I was devastated – Absolutely devastated. Moving my arm felt like shaking a coin purse. Clink Clink. It felt like I would never do a down dog again, let alone a handstand or peacock pose.

All I could do for weeks was lie on my back and breathe.

Photo by Flickr user shawnzrossi.

I had studied pranayama before, but had yet to truly integrate the subtler forms of breath ratio and intent into my personal practice. Around week three, post-injury, I decided to go for it. Even if I never rocked a big, peak pose again, I knew I had to start somewhere. And what better place to begin than right where I was?

I dove into Gary Kraftsow’s book, Yoga for Transformation, and let the lineage stream of integrated yoga therapy guide my practice. Through his words and guidance, I discovered new methods for practicing asana and uncovered deep contentment with my situation.

Although, at the time, I was a total amateur of therapeutic yoga, starting with my own practice eventually gave me the confidence to work with my other mountain-dweller friends. Many of them were in pain from mountain sport injuries, too: ACL-s, necks, wrists, knees… the whole kit and caboodle. From their enthusiasm (and from my own!), the way I perceived the whole paradigm of impermanence began to shift.

Just because your practice needs to change, it doesn’t mean you’re no longer practicing. It simply means it’s different. From my personal experience, I now see that the evolution of our sadhana, our ongoing yoga practice, is far more satisfying, healing and empowering than all of the arm balancing poses in the world. The more we find freedom in the evolution of our own yoga practice, the closer we come to embodying the ultimate freedom that yoga itself represents.

Finding the courage to let my perception mature, along with the evolution of my practice, gave me the depth and strength to offer the healing power of yoga to others. And for this gift of being able to serve from a place grounded in experience, I am eternally grateful… Even if I never again rock a killer handstand.

Ina Sahaja is a committed yoga student, teacher and friend along the path. Along with teaching weekly classes in Boulder, Colorado, she travels to lead workshops and retreats. She is the founder of Yoga for You!, a phone-led beginners’ series for rural communities, and Embodied Sanskrit, her signature course for yoga teachers and practitioners; de-mystifying the ancient language of yoga through a unique somatic learning experience. She is a passionate kirtan artist and is writing her first book based on her thesis, about embodied ritual in modern yoga. She blogs regularly on her website, www.yogawithina.com. You can also connect with her at www.facebook.com/ina.sahaja and https://twitter.com/inasahajaa.

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Open to Grace?? Are you Serious?

Name: Bridget Lyons
Location: Victor, ID, USA…or on the road teaching in the inter-mountain west!
Occupation: Yoga Teacher, Studio Owner, Blogger, Connector and Seeker

I was just 30 years old when the pain in my back started keeping me up at night. I could “deal” as long as I was doing my thing – which, at that time, was carrying an 80-pound backpack, rowing an 18-foot whitewater raft, and shoveling snow for hours on end to build an igloo to sleep in. I was working full-time leading 30-day wilderness expeditions for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and hard physical labor was the name of the game. So was grinning and stoically bearing pain and discomfort…which I was starting to feel a lot of as soon as I stopped working and lay down at the end of the day.

So I took an office job. I bought a $1,000 mattress. And I showed up at a beginners’ yoga class in this little, concrete-floored converted office in a small town in Wyoming. I had tried yoga a couple of times in college, and to be frank, I had been bored. I left feeling frustrated about having wasted an hour that could have been better spent doing “real training.” Nevertheless, ten years later I figured I’d better give it another try since it seemed like everyone and his brother had a story about yoga alleviating mysterious back pain.

I went to class weekly, and I actually liked it. Being athletically gifted, I was able to follow directions well and get my body into a variety of different positions. And being stubborn and goal-oriented, I liked class even more when I couldn’t do something. At the end of that year, I moved from that small town in Wyoming to an even smaller town in Idaho. Ironically, this podunk mountain community had a regionally-famous Anusara Yoga studio with a Certified Anusara Instructor and a staff of other highly trained and passionate teachers. I was new in town and wanted to meet folks, and I sure wasn’t over the back pain yet, so I started hanging out there. I liked the consistency of the teachings, the specificity of the directions, and the seemingly endless challenge of new pose after new pose: Backbends! Arm balances! Handstands! And transitioning between them all – yeehaa!

Except…..these folks chanted – In Sanskrit, no less! And they kept talking about this whole “grace” thing. I wasn’t so sure how I felt about that. But, whatever, my back was getting better and I was having fun, so I just kept showing up. One class a week turned into two, two became three, and before long I was attending the invitation-only teachers’ practice – not so much because I “got it,” but because I was lucky enough to have a strong body that did as I told it to and I worked darn hard.

Somewhere in there something happened. I really wish I could pinpoint the day that transformation occurred so that I could mark it on the calendar as “my yoga anniversary.” But I can’t. Like so many shifts in life, it happened gradually, and only looking back can I identify a distinct and radical change in myself.

What happened? It’s actually hard to describe…but I think the best phrase I can provide is “I softened.” My mountain-toughened edges melted. My bitterness dissolved and left spaciousness in its wake. My New Jersey born-and-bred, type-A drive mellowed into a vision of a co-creative life purpose. I became a strong-boundaried and open-hearted friend. Checkers at the grocery store started smiling at me, and I genuinely enjoyed engaging with them. For the first time in my life, people sitting next to me on airplanes wanted to chat, and men in bars wanted to buy me drinks. Maybe it was the chanting – which of course I started to love (I should have known something was happening when I started listening to kirtan CD’s in my pick-up truck). Maybe it was the poses themselves tenderizing my physical body with their steady tough love. Maybe it was the fact that I simply stuck it out. But in all likelihood, all that “Open to Grace” hoo-ha had a lot to do with it. Once my raised-Catholic-and-ran-away-screaming self got over the occasional use of the word “God,” the little girl in me who was insatiably curious about everything spiritual resurfaced and drank up everything yoga philosophy had to offer.

Included in that offering was the idea that embodiment is amazing: That we are divine essence that has chosen to become human in order to experience the wonder that is this world; That our bodies are amazing and do amazing things; That we are “purna” – perfect, not lacking – just as we are; That life is not a problem to be solved but a gift to be celebrated; That grace is our birthright and is always there when we stop to notice it, and breathe it in; And that the practice of showing up on your mat each day is your opportunity to remember all of this and so much more – as long as you open yourself to it.

So I delved deeply into these teachings, which are just the tip of the iceberg of the exquisite and profound school of philosophy that we call Tantra. I became a Certified Anusara Yoga Instructor – a process substantially more challenging than getting my undergrad degree from Harvard. I learned to do some crazy hard poses. I bought a yoga studio – the one in the podunk Idaho town I waltzed into ten years ago. I started making decisions from my gut – and they were right. I took risks with strangers. I laughed more. I definitely cried more. Really, I just out-and-out FELT more.

Most of all, I gave myself the freedom to be nothing other than me, and the knowledge that I am simultaneously a beautiful, smart, sarcastic, bike-riding, art-making, rock-n-roll loving, 5’8” green-eyed yoga goddess AND a spark of divinity, just like everyone else. And that feels oh-so-good.

Oh yeah — my back pain is long gone too…

Bridget Lyons is a Certified Anusara Yoga Instructor and co-owner of YogaTejas in Driggs, Idaho. She began studying yoga twelve years ago in order to recover from chronic back pain caused by guiding numerous backpacking, kayaking, and skiing expeditions. In addition to healing her injuries through yoga, she unexpectedly discovered a way of connecting to grace. Bridget loves the combination of athleticism and spiritual exploration offered by the yoga practice, and her teaching and practice reflect her commitment to a strong body and an open heart. She teaches weekly drop-in classes at her studio, weekend workshops throughout the inter-mountain west, and Yoga Alliance RYT-200 trainings for students looking to truly commit to yoga.

Recently Bridget has been offering courses and trainings online as well; you can practice with her free videos and take her 7-day Yogi Superheroes Intensive at www.bridgetlyonsyoga.com. To read more of her musings on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on the mat, go to www.bridgetlyonsyoga.wordpress.com. Connect with her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pages/Bridget-Lyons-Yoga and Twitter @BLyonsYoga.

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