The Accidental Yogi

Name: Michael A. Stusser
Location: Seattle, Washington, USA
Occupation: Free-lance Writer, Playwright & Game Inventor

Photo by Flickr user chooyutshing.

Photo by Flickr user chooyutshing.

There was a time—and not so long ago—when I thought yoga was a bizarre circus routine where sinewy, limber Indian contortionists in need of a shower bent themselves into pretzels to the beat of Sitar music. Not that there’s anything wrong with being sinewy, from India, or a contortionist, mind you, it’s just that these misconceptions almost caused me to miss out on one life’s more sublime experiences.

My entire yogic experience to date has been in an Intro class at the 8 Limbs Yoga Studio in Seattle. I’ve been a beginner for several years now, and have no intention of moving on to intermediate or advanced classes (where they actually do twist folks into pretzel-like positions). You see, I’m perfectly happy where I am—in the moment—a difficult lesson to learn in this age of multi-tasking, and one of the basic tenants of yoga. Continue reading

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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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Mind Over Back Pain

Name: Sara Curry
Location: Portsmouth, New Hampshire, USA
Occupation: Yoga Teacher & Studio Owner

Image by Flickr user neckandback.

In 2001, after a history of throwing my back out, I was diagnosed with 2 herniated discs. I had endured long periods where I couldn’t move or perform the tasks of daily life for a few days or even weeks. But in 2001, it became worse than ever. The pain was constant and I couldn’t find relief with any activity. Moving hurt, but so did resting. I couldn’t lie on the table long enough to get a massage. I thought chiropractic care would help, but after some sessions, I was in too much pain to even get into my car. My husband had to tie my shoes for me, he had to bring in the groceries and change the cat litter, shovel the walk, weed the garden, and anything else that required lifting, carrying or bending.

I had just started practicing yoga at Bikram Yoga Burlington, Vermont, when the pain became really acute. I called the studio and asked what I should do. My teacher, Aimee, told me I could take a couple of days off if I really felt I needed it, but to get back in the studio before a week had gone by. I visited a spine doctor that week and got my diagnosis. “Cortizone shots, pain killers and surgery,” he explained, were my only options for pain management. Notice that I didn’t say “rehabilitation.” He had nothing to offer long term; no way to heal or rehabilitate the area. Instead he offered a way to just cut out the bulge and take drugs so that I couldn’t feel it.

I knew there had to be another option, a better option. The yoga had been making me feel great in so many other ways, that I decided to trust the process. I listened to my teachers. I practiced almost every day for over a year. In my poses, I worked on creating traction for my spine to take the pressure off the compromised discs. I limited or skipped forward bends all together. I worked to deepen my backbends in order to improve my spinal alignment and to develop soft tissue strength to support the weakness in my inter-vertebral discs.

I shed a lot of tears on my mat in that hot room. Tears from the pain. Tears because I felt sorry for myself. Tears because it was hard and sometimes I felt hopeless. When you are in the depths of that kind of pain, it is hard to see that there might be a relief someday. When everything hurts, from brushing your teeth to sleeping, it is hard to imagine that your life won’t always be focused on your pain, even in your sleep.

There were many days that I pulled into the parking lot, drove around the back of the building and right out the other entrance. Sometimes I did that circle three or four times before I would park my car and drag my aching back through the doors of my yoga studio. Many of my classes were very painful, but I always felt worse if I didn’t go to class.

My biggest breakthrough came when I took a class with Rajashree Choudhury in Los Angeles at Bikram Yoga International Headquarters. I wanted to speak with her before class to give her a disclaimer about my back and to ask her for any help or modifications. There was a long line of students waiting to speak with her, so I never got my chance. Before she started the class she told us that many students had asked her about modifications for back pain, “Just do your yoga,” she told us.

And I did. Within 11 days, I was pain-free and terrified. I was terrified that it wouldn’t stick, that the pain would come back, or that I would do something to hurt myself again.

I still face that fear some days.Thankfully the days are now few and far between, but it does come up from time to time. Each time it does, I get better at dealing with it. I tell myself that moving my body is not going to damage it. I remind myself that I have learned to heal myself with yoga before and that I have the tools to do it again.

Owner and Director of Bikram Yoga Portsmouth, Sara Curry is a 500-hour Certified Bikram Yoga Instructor. Sara found her way to Bikram Yoga after years of rugby, weightlifting and running left her with two herniated discs and debilitating back pain. Faced with a choice from her doctors between surgery and a lifetime of cortisone shots, Sara chose Bikram Yoga instead. With just the 26 postures, she was able to return to a pain-free life. She has been inspired by her own recovery to share this healing series with others. Sara has given birth to two children naturally, with no back pain during either pregnancy. She has returned to snowboarding and hiking and can carry her 5-year old up Mount Agamenticus, on her shoulders, without any pain. And all of this knowing there was a time when she couldn’t roll over in bed at night without searing pain. In the words of Bikram Choudhury, it truly is, “Never to late. Never too bad. Never too old. Never too sick to start all over from scratch.”

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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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Mind and Body Connection

Name: Nancy Gilbert
Location: Clayton, North Carolina
Occupation: Yoga Instructor, Owner of Tittibha Prenatal Yoga School

Photo attributed to Flickr user EEPaul.

I have spent my 47 years being active: riding bicycles, running, hiking, canoeing and now kayaking. So imagine my surprise when I was diagnosed with having exercise-induced asthma at 22-years young. It really never slowed me down, however, until I reached my late 30s and I started noticing some changes in my level of endurance.

Photo by Flickr user Kukhahn Yoga.

I needed a form of exercise that I could enjoy and that was indoors (since I moved to the allergy capital of North Carolina). I discovered yoga at a small and intimate studio near my home. Voilà! Because of the pace of yoga it was a very doable form of exercise for an asthmatic. I can only remember having one attack in the seven years of practice. What I have learned from yoga is to breathe better and to be more focused on the way in which I am breathing, which in turn gives me more control over my asthma. Yoga itself did not cure any illness, but it did make me aware of how to better control the triggers for the illness.

Since discovering yoga, I have now started to study the yogic texts and have uncovered the deeper meanings of the life of a yogi. And by doing so I have grown in my knowledge of myself, my career and in my personal relationships. While I would say that the asana alone did not fix any aspect of my personal life, it did help direct me to a way of deeper understanding through the many years of studying the yogic texts.

Yoga is not just a physical practice. It is a connection between the mind and body. My journey with yoga will continue as will my discoveries about the connections of the mind and body. We are what we put into our body.

Nancy Gilbert 200 ERYT, RPYT, is the owner of Tittibha Prenatal Yoga Teacher Training School and has studied yoga for seven years with local and national instructors. Nancy’s desire is to stay true and authentic to the yogic traditions in her teachings. With special interest in the yogic texts and prenatal yoga, she currently teaches two prenatal classes and two body and breath classes at The Yoga Connection, Smithfield, NC. The prenatal yoga school keeps Nancy’s weekends busy providing training all over the east coast. Nancy feels truly blessed to be able to share the prenatal yoga with others who desire to teach to expectant mothers. Please visit Nancy’s blog, Pre-Natal Yoga.

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