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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Discovering the Inner Truth Through Yoga

Name: Bridget Boland
Location: Dallas, Texas, USA
Occupation: Writer, Forrest Yoga Guardian Teacher, Shaman, Doula

Photo by Flickr user AlicePopkorn.

“Button your lip.” Whenever I expressed dissatisfaction or some other “negative” emotion, this slightly more polite version of “shut up” is what my father would say. It was meant as a warning; if I didn’t quiet down I could expect to be sent to my room or swatted on the backside. I even recall having my mouth washed out with soap once or twice for talking back.

My father isn’t a cruel man. He simply parented me and my siblings the same way my grandparents had parented him. How many of us are all too familiar with the adage, “Children are to be seen, not heard?” My father had taken the advice to heart.

As the first of five children, I suffered early on from what I call “perfect oldest child syndrome:” I wanted everyone’s approval, especially my parents’ and others in authority, such as teachers. I was proficient at empathing – feeling what other people wanted from me – from a very young age. I was so good at this that I met their expectations time and again without considering the cost of ignoring my own wants and needs.

This method of relating to the world left me docile and polite. I excelled in school and by my mid-twenties had landed a job as a medical malpractice attorney, fulfilling my family’s dream for me. On the outside, I was the model of success. On the inside, however, a maelstrom of emotions had built up. I had stuffed them further and further down in my body for decades. I was miserable in my career, depressed and lonely in my personal life. And I couldn’t shake the nagging sense that somehow, despite all my accomplishments, I was a fraud.

Photo by Flickr user dkshots.

By the time I found my way onto a yoga mat, I was an emotional time bomb. And explode I did. My time on the mat opened up my body, and try as I might, I couldn’t suppress the backlog of emotions any longer. I’d feel great as I unwound in the opening sequences and strong and steady in the standing Warrior poses. But when I settled down for savasana, something mysterious would happen. All those old, unexpressed emotions bubbled and churned, then erupted in a rush of tears. My arms and legs shook, my nose ran, my throat and jaw ached from the effort of holding back sobs and wails. The phrase “much weeping and gnashing of teeth” occurred to me at the end of many a yoga class.

I tried giving myself a stern talking to inside my head, replaying my father’s “button your lip” over and over. Sometimes it worked and I’d hold back the tears, the frustration, the worry. Other days though those emotions spilled up and out, leaving me reaching for one of the Kleenex boxes my teacher kept around the studio for just this purpose.

Then I started practicing yoga with someone whose mission is to heal life’s emotional wounds, Ana Forrest. “Breathe deep, connect into your core, and feel the Truth of your life. Acknowledge that truth to heal from your wounds and to create the life you most want to live,” this inspiring and powerful yogini instructed in the first workshop I attended with her.

I wanted so badly to follow her instructions, wanted her approval just as I had sought out the approval of all the other teachers and people I looked up to in my life. But there was one problem: this teacher didn’t want something particular from me; there was no right answer I could glean from her cues, from a textbook or my classmates. The answer was inside me and couldn’t come from any other source. To some students this might have been an exhilarating exploration into the mysteries of their own desires. But when I looked within, I found myself facing a seemingly impenetrable brick wall. I had no idea how to feel my internal truth. I’d spent so much of my life seeking what other people wanted that I’d lost my ability to recognize and say what felt true for me.

For several years, I had to take Ana’s instruction on faith. Every time I breathed, every time I did a posture, I’d close my eyes for a moment and check inside: what did I feel? For the longest time, I felt nothing. Just a numbness, an absence of any connection into my body beyond the stretch of tendons and ligaments or the burn of holding a pose long enough to make a muscle protest.

Then one blessed practice, something changed. I was performing uddiyana bandha breathing, tugging my navel back toward my spine at the end of my exhale and feeling inside for even the tiniest bit of sensation. I let go of the pose and took a huge inhale. Something shifted, moved up and out of my abdomen, creating a sense of more spaciousness. I took another big breath, right into all that newfound space, and felt a delicious tingle move from my pelvis down both legs.

Pearl S. Buck wrote, “The truth is always exciting. Speak it, then. Life is dull without it.” Her words get to the heart of the matter. When we dim our truth, our lives dull as a result. Truth is exciting because it is constantly changing; growing and evolving as we do. Our yoga practice also grows as we grow. Excitement was what I felt the first time I connected into my core and my truth, excitement and exhilaration.

That first glimmer of connection was fleeting but when I told Ana about my experience, she encouraged me to hunt and stalk it. The next time I practiced, I set an intention: I wanted to seek out my truth, no matter how far underneath the pile of my unspoken emotions it was buried. I had a great set of tools to help me. These included: kapphalabhati and meditation to connect me to my center or hara, backbends like camel, bow, and wheel to open my heart, neck stretches to improve communication between my brain and my body, and lion’s breath and brahmeri to unstick old emotions and give expression to my feelings. Today, I’m thrilled at the new rapport I have with my own spirit, my own self. I’m committed to living from the inside out – in every moment, with every breath.

Bridget Boland’s work has appeared in Conde Nast Women’s Sports and Fitness, YogaChicago, and The Essential Chicago. Her debut novel, The Doula, was published by Simon and Schuster September, 2012. Excerpts from her work have won the Writers League of Texas Memoir Prize, and the Surrey Writers Conference Nonfiction Award. Ms. Boland teaches writing classes on fiction and memoir, coaches other writers, and offers seminars on yoga, energetic medicine, and writing as life process tools. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a JD from Loyola University of Chicago, and is the recipient of five residencies at The Ragdale Foundation for Writers and Artists. She lives with her son Liam in Dallas, Texas. Find Bridget on Facebook at www.facebook.com/bridgetboland and follow the latest about her book at www.facebook.com/thedoulanovel.

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Under Armour Every Day

Name: Colleen Palmateer
Location: Ellicott City, MD, USA
Occupation: Yoga Teacher & Administrative Assistant at the Yoga Center of Columbia

 

Photo attributed to Flickr Creative Commons User Ozan Ozan.

Many years ago I went through a tumultuous time, as I grieved the loss of several people close to me, through death and broken relationships. I had two young children, and was struggling to find my way. My response to this enormous amount of stress was to put on some protective armor by closing myself off. I clung to my grief, anger, and fear. Emotionally, I shut down, and physically, my body became constricted and hard. This went on for some time, and my world became very small.

Through God’s grace and with the help of family and friends, I came to understand that this stressed-out, closed-up person was not the real me. It was just someone that I created to try and cope with a very rough patch of life. I gradually learned to trust, breathe, move forward, and take off that hard shell of armor I was wearing. I found new ways to cope, reaffirm my faith, and step back into the flow of life. I learned that sometimes holding on hurts more than letting go.

Yoga brought me home to my real self — and even now, whenever I struggle, the mat is a place of safety. My strength enables me to maintain the integrity of a pose, and then I layer on softness by using my breath. Where do I need to let my guard down a little, and where should I be more assertive? It’s a dance between the two. I love feeling the strength that the standing poses engender, the heart-opening of a beautiful backbend, a delightful twist, and finally, finally, softening into relaxation.

Photo attributed to Flickr Creative Commons User myyogaonline.

As babies, we are joyful and open, and we thrive when we’re nurtured well. Growing up, we learn that boundaries are appropriate and necessary, and a few shields go up. As life goes on though, sometimes circumstances beat us down. If we overprotect ourselves, we can lose that person we once were, and we become hardened both emotionally and physically. The harder we become, the more we withdraw. If we can break this vicious cycle and learn from it, we can recapture our true selves and maybe even a little bit of that childlike joy that was once so natural.

We need boundaries and softness. I can’t help but think of Under Armour Clothing – it protects athletes from extreme heat or cold, and yet is soft and allows free movement. It provides just the right amount of protection. Maybe we should all wear Under Armour every day!

Colleen Palmateer found peace and health through her yoga practice. She is a certified yoga teacher, registered with the Yoga Alliance at the 200-hour level. Colleen is pursuing her passion of helping people get out of pain through Doug Keller’s Swatantrya yoga therapy certification, and will pursue the 500-hour certification in 2013. Colleen is passionate about sharing yoga with others to help them relieve pain and live more joyfully. Her students learn good alignment, healthy breathing techniques, and how to relax. They also develop a greater awareness of the body-mind connection. In Colleen’s classes, students laugh, open their bodies, and find peace and rest. Colleen wishes to engage her students with the idea of having a strong body, sound mind, and open heart. Visit Colleen’s website and check out her blog! Colleen can be found on Twitter @colleenyoga.

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