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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True Knowledge is Miraculous

Name: Om Prakash Singh
Location:
New Delhi, India
Occupation:
Project Sales Manger

Durga Puja- Photo by Flickr User Matthias Rosenkranz.

My name is Om Prakash Singh. At the young age of four I was sent to live with my maternal grandparents for my studies. I would return home to my birthplace once a year to visit my parents. Even as a child I had a strong inclination towards worship and prayers. Being Indian, Durga Puja was celebrated with great enthusiasm at my grandparents’ house. My grandfather was a high profile person in administration and my grandmother was a generous householder with a strong sense of spirituality. Though she was not educated, she was the one that taught me my morning prayers. 

I enjoyed my life living with my grandparents and I acquired a solid education. I graduated from St. Paul’s School in Begusarai, Bihar, India with good grades and I then moved from Begusarai to Patna to further my education. I passed my Intermediate exams and went on to graduate from Magadh University in Patna. At a very early age I married a beautiful lady named Vandana, but as I had no earnings, it became difficult to support my small family. To earn money, I began teaching English and science to the students. But in the midst of all of this, bad relations began to develop with my maternal uncles and it completely altered my way of thinking.

ISKCON Temple Delhi- Photo by Flickr user wieland7.

Seeking answers to my personal struggles, one day I went to Delhi and I visited the ISKCON Temple. There I listened to a lecture given by the Chief Editor from The Telegraph. After listening to him and the way he answered questions, I was motivated to learn his way of living. But, I had fallen into a bad drinking habit of whiskey and wine on a daily basis. At this time I had a business working with architectural glass, but that began to fall apart with my lack of awareness and my increased indulgence in alcohol. After coming into dire financial hardship, I began to move from place to place in search of money, but my drinking habit continued.

After struggling for a very long time, I finally retreated back to ISKCON Temple and started listening to the lectures given each week by different saints. I started chanting the Mahamantra. In the beginning that was very difficult. I put all my work on hold for three months and dedicated myself to practicing chanting and reading spiritual books on a regular basis. Gradually, I began to enjoy the chanting and I learned to practice chanting by myself and did so day and night for several months.

Mantra chanting became my habit and I continued this for a long time, getting deeper into the practice. To complement my chanting practice, I began practicing pranayama, specifically Anulom Vilom, at night. While everyone else was asleep, I would practice my pranayama from midnight until 3:00 in the morning. My intuition became powerful and I began to see visions. My thoughts began to reveal truth and my knowledge of spiritual Indian scriptures became stronger and stronger. I began to understand Karma Yoga and Dhyana Yoga. My practice and my faith became stronger and stronger and my body and mind began to purify. I could see the burning candle of my soul.

One day, at the age of 31, I was in my village of Raillie with my parents. At this point my mind was fully submerged with thoughts of the Almighty. Everything seemed beautiful. I could find no wrong. Everything was right. I could see that everything was created by my Lord, the Almighty. I began to love all living entities and worried of even treading on the ants beneath my feet. In search of the divine, I went to the ancient village temple and I prayed for my soul to be revealed to me. 

Photo by Flickr User exper.

That night when I came back to my house I went to sleep on the top floor, beneath the open sky. I started chanting on beads and gradually began to practice pranayama. All of a sudden I was lost in great meditation. Someone came near me and pulled my hand. I felt the touch and my eyes opened. I saw that I was standing in front of my body. I was afraid and wanted to shout for help to my mother but my whole body was like a log, lying there and watching the incident. As I tried to move, I suddenly disappeared and my body became normal again. I quickly got up; I felt fresh, rejuvenated and young. I was so excited with this out of body experience that my practice grew even more intense.

Then one day I was traveling by train from Patna to Delhi. That day the train was delayed for six hours at the station at Mughal sarai. It was night time and there were many passengers in sleeper class. My body began to heat up and I developed a fever. The faith was so strong within me that I started chanting mantra on my beads and just after one hour my body temperature was normal.

From that point on, I began practicing this healing method on myself. Now I never get ill and I am able to feel the functioning of my whole body organ. If any pain arises, I can feel the organ where the pain resides. I concentrate on that organ for some time for it to be healed with vital forces and become healthy again. And I can feel the results.

This is all the power of mind. So, pay careful attention to your mind and try to discard all negative thoughts, and instead infuse your mind with the knowledge and wisdom of the Vedas.  You will start loving this world as it is.

Born in Begusarai, Bihar, India, Om Prakash Singh was nourished physically and mentally by his maternal grandparents. Wanting to lead an independent life guided by his feelings, his grandparents helped him to understand the laws of nature and how they apply to human behavior. He ultimately decided that the mind has the power to create the future person. Om Prakash Singh is a graduate from business administration and is currently working as a project sales manager in the architectural glass industry. His ambition is to seek peace for all mankind.

Edited by Jeannie Page.


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