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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From Postpartum Depression to Yoga

Name: Lindsay Farnworth
Location: Utah, USA
Occupation: Mother

Farnworth and baby17 months ago I gave birth to my first child: a beautiful, blue-eyed little boy with serious eyebrows pulled in toward the bridge of his nose and a scrawny body. As I held him in my arms after a quick but difficult natural birth, I didn’t feel the way I expected. Watching the movies and hearing stories from other women, I thought I would feel this overwhelming attachment and love for my newborn babe. Where was that magic feeling to connect us for eternity?

A few weeks went by and emotions ran high for me. I felt myself tumbling toward a dark chasm and while my fingernails scraped on rock to avoid it, the fall was inevitable, and I found myself tumbling into depression. It wasn’t constant, but every time I felt my feet fall out from under me, I was lost.

And I couldn’t figure out why. My son was healthy. He smiled at me. He knew my voice. He obviously loved me. I loved him too, but it was a love that grew over time. It wasn’t immediate the way everyone says it is.

I learned very quickly that I was experiencing postpartum depression: a very dark, terrible place that I could not escape. I received counseling but refused the meds. Medication is not a bad thing, but I felt this was a journey my soul was crying for me to experience, not to numb.

Every day, I felt the desire to do yoga. I ignored it. Then, a few months into my suffering, I decided I was worth it. I got up early, found a great yoga practice on Hulu, and did it. It was focused on the heartbeat.

My heart felt at peace. The movements were sometimes impossible, especially without a teacher there to help me, but I used the difficulty to challenge myself to be present. I had to focus on where I was at that particular moment. Meditation afterward also brought me to the moment at hand—not thinking about the kitchen that needed to be cleaned or the bottles that needed to be washed. I was just me lying on a sticky mat in the corpse pose, palms facing upward, legs relaxed, feet hanging loosely.

Doing yoga has improved my flexibility. It has made it possible for me to breathe better. Before, I could barely do a moderate hike; this past weekend I hiked twice and only lost my breath once going uphill. My body is changing. Where fat once hung, I can feel muscle peeking through. It is an awesome feeling.

But above all, doing yoga has improved my sense of being. It has healed my broken soul. It’s almost as if yoga and meditation have given me the ability to climb out of the dark chasm and into the blue sky—a sky that matches the color of my son’s eyes. Eyes I adore the way only a mother can.

Lindsay Farnworth yoga matYoga has healed me. The journey is not over yet. In fact, it’s only just begun, but I am getting closer and I will continue to cherish the way the sticky mat embraces my lonely feet.

Lindsay Farnworth bio1Lindsay Farnworth currently lives in Utah with her husband and son. She has a degree in Creative Writing, enjoys gourmet food, cooking as well as eating, and is a novice yogi. She is discovering new ways to enjoy life every day on her blog, http://livingromantically.wordpress.com.


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A Journey of Remembrance

Name: Natalia Chaparro
Location:
Bogotá, Colombia
Occupation:
Yoga Teacher & Health Coach

Natalia arm balanceThroughout my journey I have encountered amazing teachers, beautiful beings, and challenging situations. Even though at many times it was difficult to perceive, it has all been part of a journey towards my own heart; a path of recognition of the Divine in all of its manifested forms; a process that has been teaching me to dance the full spectrum of life’s rhythms: sometimes joyful, other times melancholic and sad.

Now that I have the chance to reflect on all that has unfolded, I see gratitude arising towards circumstances and people that I used to consider the source of my wounds. I can see that the people and situations that I used to blame were actually the ones who pulled me to this path. Perhaps without the presence of painful experiences I would not have had the need to look for something bigger. “Life shakes us to wake us,” so today I appreciate all of the pain and fear that I experienced in the past.

In order to provide some understanding of how I feel now and the meaning that yoga has in my current life, I will start from the beginning of my story. It could have been different- in the end it does not matter. But my story is yet one more example of what yoga and its magic can do!

When I was born my mother was a flight attendant. She traveled the majority of the time, so I grew up spending most of my time with my father or by myself. I have three brothers and being the only girl I always had a feeling of responsibility: I was clearly the feminine, loving caring figure at home.

Many times I felt (still do) like my mother’s mother, which was somewhat awkward and sometimes difficult. But nevertheless I got used to it and that was how I grew up.

When I was seventeen years old, my parents got divorced. It wasn’t a mutual agreement, nor a peaceful and mature decision. Quite the opposite. To my eyes it seemed a chaotic situation, full of pain, crying, and disrespectful words. At that point I felt like my world was ending. My ground felt shaky and I was really scared! I wanted to be there for both my mother and my father. I felt the need to take care of everyone, except for myself.

Photo by Flickr user h.koppdelaney,

Photo by Flickr user h.koppdelaney,

In reality it probably wasn’t that bad, but at that point my system collapsed. I started having a lot of dark and negative thoughts. For months I spent most of my time sleeping, trying to deny my pain. I remember that I never told my friends or spoke a word to anybody about my feelings. I had a deep desire to die, and my body clearly read the message, so it started executing my orders.

I got very sick. I lost almost 20 pounds and as I would only eat sugar cookies, my pancreas started to fail. I was diagnosed with insulin resistance, which doctors described as a very serious condition. I was so weak that I remember I spent hours lying in my bed, feeling how small I was, how little space I occupied and how much I wanted to completely disappear.

My parents forced me to go to a psychiatrist which didn’t had any impact on me. I just went to listen to her speech without being touched by her words.

One day, one of my aunts, who has been a yogini for a long time, told me about a very nice and wise Swami who was visiting Colombia and she suggested that I meet him. For some reason that I still don’t understand, I agreed and went. I just went with no expectations at all. It was a Kriya Yoga weekend workshop. When I first arrived, the smiling people and the peaceful and joyful ambiance seemed very far from my inner reality. But I stayed anyway.

We did some chanting and a lot of guided pranayama. All of a sudden, something inside of me shifted. It was like a recognition of something, of an inner light. I felt touched by pure love, and for a moment, my sense of isolation and fear vanished. It was as if in my breath, in my silence, and in the pulsation of my heart I could hear the sound of life- the music of creation inviting me to keep being part of it. Everything happened really quickly and I didn’t even have the time to fully process the experience at that moment. I just went back home, but it was evident: something was different. I was seeing everything through a different lens. I suddenly realized that life was beautiful just as it was and that I really wanted to be a part of it.

After that experience I started a very intense and dedicated sadhana (spiritual practice). It was as if my practice was food to my soul. All of the pain, the fear and contraction started to slowly move, allowing me to keep walking with more ease.

My whole system understood that I was safe and so the connections with life became stronger. My insulin resistance improved. Contrary to what I had been told by my doctor, I got well without the use of any medicine other than yoga and healthy food.

In the beginning I thought that yoga would be a solution, some sort of medicine and the answer to all of my questions. Actually I was quite wrong. As one of my teachers says, “yoga does not give any answers, just better questions.” I can actually say that it hasn’t made my process any easier, just more intense and profound.

If you ask me if yoga has changed my life, I would say that not only did it do that, but it continues to do so every day.

Natalia Chaparro hanuman beachEvery time I step onto my mat, there is a new revelation, a new opportunity to experience the embrace of something bigger, the ocean of pure consciousness of which I am part.

My practice is a consistent reminder to embrace life fully- an everyday invitation to be engaged and grounded in the present moment just as it is. It’s not that yoga fixes nor changes my reality. What it shifts is my way of perceiving and being part of that reality. It gives me the tools to face obstacles. What I do on the mat empowers me to take responsibility for myself and most importantly to remember who I really am.

For me, this path of constant awareness has been a journey towards my own true self. Through this journey, I have been able to establish an intimate relationship with every aspect of who I am. My mat has become a sacred space where both my light and shadow get to dance and unfold.

Natalia Chaparro seatedNatalia Chaparro, a native Colombian, began practicing yoga over a decade ago. Her consistent and intensive practice was combined with her veterinary studies, both of which left her motivated by her immense love of animals and her fascination with the magic of the living organism. Upon finishing her veterinary career, she met her yoga teacher B.J. Galvan, who introduced her to the world of Anusara Yoga. Since that time the flow of Grace has brought to her path marvelous beings who have left their mark on her with their powerful teachings. The opportunity to learn and share the light with teachers such as John Friend, Sianna Sherman, Douglas Brooks, Kelly Haas, BJ Galvan y Tulku Tsori Rinpoche, has ignited Natalia’s desire to serve and follow this path of learning. Natalia recently graduated from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and is now working as a women’s nutrition and health coach. She is currently living in California, where she has been studying Tantra with her teacher Laura Amazzone, and completing her 500-hour teacher training with Noah Maze.

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Yoga – The Greatest Gift

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

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

Uniting the Facets of Who I Am

Name: Amber Shumake
Location: Fort Worth, Texas, USA
Occupation: Yoga Therapist / Photographer / Writer / Lover

Photo by Flickr user ups2006.

Photo by Flickr user ups2006.

For several years as an English teacher, I taught To Kill a Mockingbird, to my 8th grade students. My passion for the prose, I poured into the teaching of this classic. I’ll never forget the year that a student – one of my favorite suns {a pun used to describe the endearing male students who brightened my day} did the unthinkable: having read ahead of the rest of the class, he blurted out the ending, shouting, “Tom Robinson gets shot!” My mouth dropped in dismay because I was disappointed, certainly, but more so because I thought I was going to have to restrain the other students in the room from lynching him. Continue reading

Yoga Saved Me. More Than Once.

Name: Rebecca Butler
Occupation: Yoga Teacher, Writer & Mother
Location: Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Rebecca Butler crow poseI started practicing yoga right after graduating from college. I was in Austin working at an advertising agency next door to the global headquarters of Whole Foods, where they were offering classes upstairs. I had no idea what to expect. I figured it would be granola and easy. I was shocked when I broke a sweat.

A few years later, I was a runner. My knees were killing me though, so a friend, who
was very fit, suggested that I join her at Bikram yoga. I went. I loved it. The end. I hung up my running shoes and never looked back. Within a yearʼs time, I was modeling for Lake Austin Spa, busting out dancerʼs pose at the waterʼs edge during sunrise.

Iʼd always had really bad female problems – debilitating cramps, extreme moodiness
during PMS, and an irregular cycle. I started noticing that after every class, I would be
miserable with cramps. So I went to the doctor. They did a sonogram and discovered I
had uterine fibroids. The doctor removed them. It was a surprisingly complicated
surgery. During this time, my marriage was suffering. My husband was a little bit older
and he wanted to have children. I was on the fence about children, but we had tried a
couple of times to no avail. After surgery, because of the extent of dissection required to
remove the fibroids, the doctor said, “Letʼs not discuss fertility until you are ready to
really give it a go.”

Photo by Flickr userJLM Photography.

Photo by Flickr user
JLM Photography.

And then, 9/11. Ok, up until this point, I had been partying – i.e. cocaine, marijuana, and booze galore, mixed with live music. And this had been going on for quite some time since, um, basically high school. See, I grew up in a household with a paranoid
schizophrenic sibling hell bent on killing me and not a single parent, or adult for that matter, who wanted to help me as that meant admitting that something was wrong with our seemingly perfect family. So my solution was: act perfect, be perfect, look perfect, make perfect grades, make boys happy, girls mad, and ‘who cares what you want cause youʼre their only hope.’

Drugs made all of this not feel so horrible. So did yoga. But in different ways, although I wasnʼt yet conscious of the difference. However, I did make this comparison often to my friends. Iʼd be standing in line at some concert, chewing my lips off on x, and my friends would ask me why I liked yoga so much. Iʼd say, “Cause itʼs the closest feeling there is to this right here (meaning the drug high) and smile a 1,000 megawatt smile.”

As 9/11 approached, I began an affair with my and my husbandʼs mutual best friend.
This was not something I was proud of, but it was part of my spree of self-destruction
that was necessary for evolution. The result of said affair: getting divorced, fired, and
pregnant.

In early 2002, I was in a new apartment, working at a new job, and starting to build a
new life – one that had depth and meaning. I realized that my pregnancy was a swift kick in the rear, from the Universe, to get it together. I became instantly sober. Up until this point, I had been living my life to make others happy. Becoming pregnant was my chance to do something to make me happy. Once I became pregnant, I realized how much I actually wanted this baby and I realized how much I had been partying to numb the pain of not being able to do something perfectly for once.

During my pregnancy, I practiced prenatal yoga the entire time. I was single, working in corporate America, and pregnant. I was working alongside beautiful married women. We would enter a conference room together. They would be barraged with questions about their pregnancy; I would be ignored. This blew my mind and severely hurt my pride.

Yoga to the rescue!

On my mat, I could shed my tears. On my mat, I could connect to my baby and feel the
serene happiness that I knew was in store for us, even if my father had begrudgingly
asked me, “Who do you think you are? Madonna?!“ upon realizing that I was
proceeding with my pregnancy, even single. On my mat, I was free of fear, free of
sorrow, and full of love.

For six more years, I toiled away in my career. For six more years, I paid the bills and
hired a sitter several times a week so that I could go to yoga. For six more years, I dreamed of quitting my job and becoming a yoga teacher. Then one summer, I went raw. My raw diet combined with my yoga practice yielded some revelations… Namely:

1. What I wanted in life did matter. And what I wanted was to be closer to my family so that I could both give help to my beautiful mother, who was suffering from ALS
(unbeknownst to us), and receive help from my family, as single motherʼs often
need. What I didn’t yet realize was that I also wanted to be closer to the Divine, and
this was the first step.

2. I wanted to teach yoga instead of selling my soul to line someone else’s
pockets; I wanted to stop pimping myself out in an effort to control the power of
the outside world. Little did I know, I was being called to wake up; I was being
called by my soul to create a life of passion and dedicate myself to a vocation
rather than a career.

3. I actually could make this change. It was not as impossible as I’d led myself to
believe. All of those fears that I had allowed to trap me were exactly that – fears. I
vowed to myself that I did not want to live a life based on fear, but rather, one of
love.

And that is where yoga has led me- to a life of love. Iʼm now remarried with a ten-year old boy and a one-year old baby girl. I teach yoga for a living and I write with passion daily.

Rebecca Butler bioRebecca Butler lives in Fort Worth, TX. Here, she fancies herself in a community that is
at the genesis of change. By day, she is a self-proclaimed-intensity-junkie yoga teacher,
serving as the lead teacher at a local donation-based studio known as Karmany Yoga, a
mother, and a wife… By night {when the house sleeps}, she is a writer, a dreamer, and a
poet. Her most meaningful moments are sometimes spent pushing a stroller, listening to
her latest muse {from Dr. Wayne W. Dyer to Caroline Myss}, and picking up poop from a
90-lb silver lab puppy named Gunner. Her mother passed from ALS (Lou Gehrigʼs disease) in early 2012. Through this journey, Rebecca learned more about life, love, and laughter than any book could have possibly taught her. It is in her memory that Rebecca chooses to live each day in Joy… Joy for life – the ups and downs, breaks and bruises, and the glory. Oh, the glory. You can find out more about her teaching & writing at www.rebeccabutleryoga.com.

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Enter the Lion: My First Steps in Forrest Yoga

Name: Colleen Millen
Occupation: Forrest Yoga Guardian Teacher, mother, graduate student
Location: Northern California, USA

I had envisioned a yoga class on soft supportive bolsters – different variations of lying over things, close to the floor. After all, the workshop was called something like (one might call it “mislabeled”) “restorative yoga.”

Instead, I found myself at one point in a lunge lion – a lunge hugging the back foot in by the sit bone and stretching the tongue out to the chin releasing a seismic roar out the mouth. Dripping with sweat, I went for the sound full-throttle. The burning from my thighs seemed to explode like lava from a volcano out of my mouth until I felt every cell in my body was popping with rage. We released and flowed to the other side. I noticed my thoughts: “This teacher sucks! It was supposed to be restorative yoga! This whole conference sucks! What the hell am I doing here?” I whipped forward out of the pose and onto the ground panting.

Then it hit me – this was my anger. This feeling had nothing to do with this teacher I had just met. For the first time in my life I had just tapped into a layer of feeling so intense that a part of me was working overtime to project it onto everyone but myself. I knew this anger was mine. And the truth of it – even though I had to hit the proverbial brick wall in the pose to find it – actually helped me to breathe deeper. I just had to move past the feeling of smacking into a brick wall of my truth.

After class, somehow I had the hootspa to march right up to the teacher and without preamble I announced: “I spent almost the whole class being pissed at you. It was the most rewarding yoga experience I’ve ever had.”

Ana Forrest looked at me, I thought equal parts shock and amusement on her face, and said: “I’m doing a teacher training in Chicago in the fall. You should come.”

***

The yoga mat has been my doorway to healing. At first, it was mostly a place where I could move my body without physical pain. I found that I could build strength and fluidity of movement without wincing or favoring one of the multiple injuries I had suffered as a collegiate athlete with bum knees.

Most importantly, the mat has been a place I could delight in my body and celebrate it – which has been a challenge after years of raging eating disorder, depression and anxiety (later I rename my experience Complex PTSD). My mat has unlocked feeling, courage and presence – especially when bouts of depression would make me want to curl up and disappear from the world. It has been an altar of sorts where I have both named the fluctuations of feeling that form my emotional world and touched my spirit, which is imbued with gold and as fluid as water. This yoga mat is a home where my body, mind and spirit meet.

And, while all this sounds almost romantic, please don’t misunderstand – on the yoga mat it’s not all roses. I’ve stumbled, cried, wailed, snotted, farted (yes, it happens for all of us one time or another), raged and hid on my mat. It’s because I’ve had the full spectrum of human experience on the mat, that I’m able to say that in yoga I’ve built a home for my soul to play.

Colleen Millen, E-RYT-500, is a Forrest Yoga Guardian teacher and mother of two who lives in Northern California. A former journalist, her advanced asana currently is completing her master’s degree in somatic psychology on track to be a licensed therapist. Recently, her paper “Development of Awareness: Language and Breathing as Essential Elements in Somatic Therapy” has been published in the Journal of Holistic Psychology. You can reach Colleen at contact@bluebuddhayoga.com and read more about her at www.bluebuddhayoga.com. Find her on Facebook at Blue Buddha Yoga – Colleen Millen.

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Held by the Whole

Name: Maiga Milbourne
Location: Southern New Jersey, USA
Occupation: Yoga Instructor

Photo by Flickr user GO INTERACTIVE WELLNESS.

Yoga created me.

My Mom had three children and was a stay-at-home care-giver at age 38. She had begun practicing yoga and offering classes for others informally. She’d even begun eating vegetarian, as well as juicing, at various points in the month. Her body was cleansed, causing alarm bells to ring when she suddenly began craving cheesesteaks. She delivered me when she was 39 and my Dad was 48.

I remember being little, maybe four years old, and watching her teach uddiyana bandha (a breath technique to hollow out the abdominal cavity) to my then 12-year-old brother. When I was 16 she took me to a class at the local gym. I remember that the class was offered by candle-light, that thread-the-needle pose soothed my sore neck and shoulders, and that child’s pose felt like a refuge.

During those teenage years I suffered from a profound depression. Emotionally, I was responding to significant amounts of imbalance and abuse. I was hospitalized twice while in high school, and remained on pretty significant anti-anxiety and anti-depression medications until my senior year. I remember searching through my Mom’s bookshelf to find books on yoga. I went to my room and practiced asana. When my feet reached over my head in halasana, or plow pose, I truly felt hopeful. My body cooperated – I hoped that maybe one day I could find the same sync in my emotional world.

I then came across a book of meditations. I have no idea of the source, but I vividly recall a visualization of myself in the Tantric web of the universe. The book suggested that you watch yourself glow with an inner rose light. As the light shines brighter, the Tantric web around you becomes clearer. The meditation allowed me to feel held in all life, and to feel connected to it. My depression caused me to feel so alienated and worthless. This meditation offered me a stark contrast – that I was an integral part of all life. No better, no worse. Intrinsic. Valuable.

I began to once again see the world as vast, and the possibilities for life within it, as enticing and exciting. I went to college in Massachussetts at age 18. Living in New England, a few states away from my birthplace of the Philadelphia ‘burbs, and off of the mood stabilizing medication, I began to see my own depression and abuse as lessons in compassion. I had suffered, but I knew that others in the world suffered far worse. I began to study history, politics, and sociology with the goal of understanding others’ experiences more intimately. The first year after college I interned at a Union for Legal Aid Attorneys in New York City, where I catalogued instances of police brutality.

My own experiences began motivating me to align towards healthy communities, policies, and practices. I studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, studying Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo and Argentina’s relationship with the IMF and World Bank. The following semester I studied abroad in La Habana, Cuba, learning profound lessons about the human cost of embargoes and living under a punitive foreign policy.

I became a human rights activist. During this time I continued to practice yogic breath work, or pranayama, but wasn’t able to sustain a regular physical asana practice. I began to realize that I would burn out from this demanding work if I didn’t exercise self-care. I came back to the mat, slowly and steadily. I found a studio that immediately stoked my curiosity towards the physical possibilities of the practice. In these classes I encountered poses I’d never previously imagined! I joined other adults in losing ourselves in sweat, fantastic music, and smart, skilled instruction.

I wanted to be a part of that community, but I still felt odd. I felt that lingering sense of alienation that had built itself into my personality as a depressed adolescent. As a young adult, my activism work still lead me to feel on the fringe. I hadn’t figured out how to belong within my own skin, let alone within a larger network.

I saw that my favorite studio offered a teacher training program. That sounded like heaven. As a full-time activist I felt fulfilled and purposeful but also consistently time-starved with no savings. It seemed a pipe-dream that I would be able to afford a teacher training program.

The following year my grandmother became fatally ill. She was the only member of my family of origin with whom I was still close. I was named after her and visited her as often as I was able. I spent that Christmas by her bedside in intensive care. Shortly afterwards, she passed on.

It was a huge blow to again feel so untethered. I continued practicing yoga and engaging in social justice work. One day I received an unexpected phone call from my Mother – she was dividing my grandmother’s inheritance among her children and I would receive some money. I was dumb-struck. I was grateful for the money but also unsure about how to use it in a way that honored my grandmother. I certainly had debt to pay off, but I wanted this money to build something in her memory. I realized I could use some of the money to pay for teacher training. In this way, every time I moved onto the mat, or offered a class, it would be in gratitude for her.

Photo by Flickr user Nikhil Kirsh.

As I began the teacher training program, so many pieces of my life coalesced. I began to allow myself to embrace the community at my yoga studio, and to be enriched by these beautiful people. I was able to dedicate my teaching practice to my grandmother, and in this way find a healthy tie to a fractious family history. I also was able to offer yoga to other activists and advocates so that they too could benefit from the sustaining presence of this practice. In my first year of teaching I went on-site to area organizations and offered seva classes. I currently build community with other instructors who are activists, organizers, and advocates so that we can support one another, as well as our collective work.

Yoga has always been the piece that created me, healed me, made me whole. My Mom practiced yoga while I was in her womb. Her practice illuminated my presence early on. As a teenager, when trauma and depression nearly destroyed me, yoga showed me that glow of hope within. As an activist, yoga reminds me that if I believe in healthy communities for all people, I need to keep my own life sound. And yoga gives me the tools to do just that.

Passionate about healthy bodies, relationships, and communities, Maiga Milbourne E-RYT teaches vinyasa yoga to groups and individuals. Yoga offers so much to each student: physical health, mental well-being, ease, and community. In reflection of the broad benefits of yoga, Maiga has created a range of services to provide to her clients, all seeking to help each one realize their fullest potential. Learn more at maigamilbourne.com.


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How I Came To Yoga

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

Photo attributed to Flickr user elycefeliz.

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Flickr user Kathrin & Stefan.

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Flickr user myyogaonline.

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

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

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

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

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



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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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