Yoga and Heart

Name: Steve Abel
Location: Louisville, Colorado, USA
Occupation: Senior Technical Writer and Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT)

“Your next heart attack will be your last.”

Drugged stupor, lying in a hospital bed – still, I heard that.

And I wanted to scream, “NO!”

But, I didn’t.

Quiet – I learned to be quiet.

“We need to operate – you may only have two or three more years unless we operate, ” Delivered in the professional doctor voice.

Of course, if that is the choice.

And, the picture changed.

An afternoon of heart surgery, doctors swearing, drugs making me float.

And, the picture changed.

Stent out of the groin, finally; still pain in the leg and the back, and then:

“You are lucky – you have collaterals. Only about 30% of heart patients do, you grew your own bypass. And you are too healthy for bypass surgery. So – lose the weight, start a regular exercise program, take the meds, manage your stress. And come back in five years. You should have five years. And we will have better tools, we will do the surgery again, we will fix you up.”

I leave the hospital, with five years at least.

I am numb, sick, depressed, and- I go back to work. I have to work. I have to take care of my family: three children, wife, and… I will not relive grandfather’s story.

I know how bitter children can be when growing up without a father.

I know my Dad.

So I start cardiac rehab: exercise, diet change. One other patient there, my age, 34; my buddy in rehab, so young, to be so sick — but — I am.

And thank God for nurses, for priests, and for a priest that pushed me into therapy. Because although the the heart disease lived in the heart –  it began in the mind.

Depression, repressed anger, anger turned inward, grief, fear, loss – loss of who I was, and – I was not happy there.

Working, always working, never enough money for the family, never good enough for the job – I can do more, I can take on more, and then — I cannot.

Now — the — work — is — to — heal — this — disease.

I — HAVE — to — HEAL. So – I start more work, now on me, and

The picture changed.

Reversing Heart Disease, by Dr. Dean Ornish – a book of hope: Low fat diet, exercise, yoga, and support for the emotional journey.

And she listens, my therapist. The first time, the FIRST TIME in my life, that I felt heard, that I felt cared about- warmth of an embrace without touch.

And she says, “You need to take care of yourself, to continue to take care of others.”

And that carries me a while longer. For – if I care for you, will you care for me?

Of course, it does not work that way, sometimes. Perhaps – ever. Perhaps…

So what does taking care of myself involve? And – there is this yoga, maybe a teacher can help me with the shoulder pain, the back pain, the hip pain, the …. pain. And I go for a few lessons, and I learn. No, I begin to learn

To breathe.

And – I take breath into my fervent prayer — Just let me live until my youngest gets out of high school.

So – my children kept me alive, you see. The therapist’s question, as we were talking about suicide, “Is there anything you care about? You really, really care about?”

Yes – my children. My children saved my life – and — I breathe.

And I practice, a few poses — for years. And — I begin — meditation.

Stress relief — and — more…….

Steve Abel sunsetFor me, blessedly more. I am reaching up and out, on my knees, and

A touch comes, a taste of the infinite, and

The picture changes.

Pushed into exploration for ministry, the question “Priest or deacon?” And I frustrated my priest – I could not, would not choose…Until four years later, a new priest, and he says, “Your first ministry is to your family.”

And – I go with that, to serve family.

You give to children with no expectation of return, as father – hah – and even more as grandfather.

And – the picture changes.

Dean Ornish workshop, 15 years later: instead of doctors scoffing now, I have become mainstream: Yoga, restorative yoga, every day for a week, and I am hooked. First time, easing the back pain, easing the hip pain, easing the shoulder pain…

I am hooked.

What can yoga offer? I begin to read, and seek a yoga therapist, and

The Secret Power of Yoga, by Nischala Devi, and

I go deeper.

And – the picture changes.

I touch – new joy, new insight, new frames of seeing, of thinking, of moving.

And – perhaps – I should explore teaching? Share this, with other cardiac patients. But I am not flexible, I am not strong, I am not….. And, a yoga therapist’s words —- “You have the heart for it.”

And — I begin, and stop, life interrupts forcefully, and then – begin again.

Dad is gone. I may not have much more time.

And – complete teacher training, in tears, with tears, and — I am getting stronger.

And

I have a teacher in me.

Needs practice, just keep

Practicing

Keep showing up, and

See – where it will lead.

The journey – is finally – starting to get

Exciting.

I am glad to be here

Now.

Just here, just now

Is enough.

Breathe.

The picture changes.

Yoga – is the uniting of consciousness in the heart.

Breathe.

Steve Abel bioSteve Abel began his yoga journey with a commitment to ahimsa and Ishvara Pranidhana in his teens, although he would not have used those terms at that time. The next big step was his diagnosis of stable angina and severe coronary artery disease in 1988. That began a healing journey with yoga, starting with a few restorative poses from his first teacher, and breathing and meditation, practiced for 15 years. The journey deepened further with guided practice for a week (2 restorative classes a day) and a layoff in 2003. That led to a move and a new teacher, and she led him to the sutras (The Secret Power of Yoga, by Nischala Devi). Steve began teacher training in 2007 and completed a 200-hour program in December of 2012. His list of teachers on this journey continues to grow, and he is grateful to them all. Steve now teaches restorative classes and just completed training in the Yoga of the Heart program. His intention is to work with cardiac patients and others dealing with serious illness; to share the love, joy, and peace that he has found through regular, sustained yoga practice.

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The Dance of Breath

Name: Paulina Julián
Location: San Francisco, CA
Occupation: Yoga and Spanish Instructor, Writer, Life-long Student

paulina dancing warriorAt 17 my life was pretty full. I was a high school student, editor in chief of a literary magazine, a professional ballet dancer, a college applicant, a seeker of romance, a perfectionist, a daydreamer, and an anorexic.

My life felt like a fast freight train, going at full speed with a ticket to a destination of which I was unaware. I woke up in the mornings with a highly altered pulse, ready to jump up and take on the world in a rush.

It seemed my mantra at that time was “do everything, say yes to everything, and do it quickly, for you might run out of time.”

On one of my high school summer breaks, I decided to advance my ballet career by attending an intensive ballet camp, with rigorous teachers and other professional dancers. I felt a deep passion as I set out to class each day, and I relished the rush of adrenaline every time my body moved in unison with the piano music. And yet, along with this passion, there was also the accompanying urge to achieve a perfect ballerina’s body, a compelling drive to attain more in life in order to feel satisfied with who I was. I constantly looked at myself through the eyes of one for whom nothing is enough, and for whom there were plenty of reasons to be unsatisfied. I compensated by taking more dance classes outside of my regular schedule, practicing extra hours, and making more plans for advancing my dance career.

My body finally gave in. It was during a rehearsal for an important performance. My dance partner lifted me, and as I landed, my foot twisted and my Achilles tendon tweaked. I cringed for a moment, looking worriedly at my foot, and impatiently at my body for not keeping up with the beat.

Art by Gibran Julian (www.gibravo.com)

Art by Gibran Julian (www.gibravo.com)

“Just keep going,” said the teacher. “This is not the time to stop.” And so, I did. I kept going on my fast train, as my pained body and self-disappointed mind danced along.

Finally the time came when my foot could no longer hold me up on pointe shoes. I reluctantly went to the doctor and after a thorough checkup and x-rays he said the words I had been dreading all this time: “You need to give yourself time to rest and slow down.”

In panic I asked, “But, will I ever dance again?” I felt my entire life and self-image crumbling down to pieces.

“Maybe, maybe not.” said the doctor. “But for now, it’s time to stop.”

I cried endlessly for the next month, as my sore foot and leg lay immobile in a cast, and the life I had planned for myself started to turn in front of my eyes. For years I had taught my body the art of dance. It taught me, in generous return, the art of surrender.

When enough time had gone by that I could walk again, something had shifted inside. I had given myself (or life had pushed me to give myself) the time to look at my life from a quiet -and physically still- standpoint. There was an unexpected sense of serenity in letting go of my expectations. Beyond the fear and nervousness, a deep longing for “something else” was slowly arising.

A good friend of mine saw the sudden change in my passionate drive, and out of compassion (and a bit of worry for my suddenly quiet state), invited me to a meditation and yoga retreat. I figured I that I had nothing to lose. So I packed up my bags and headed for the weekend retreat.

As I sat down to meditate for the first time in my life, I felt myself “arriving” in my body. I felt my healing foot, the sore muscles on my back, even my worked- up brain. Although I had been a dancer for many years, it was like meeting my body for the first time. It was my own body, not the body I had been urgently trying to fix and improve. And then I came upon a long-time companion, so present and yet just now meeting for the first time: my breath. A turning point.

Now, looking back at myself as a teenager, I realize I am not that much different. I treasure art, dance, writing, seeking new vistas, growing, overcoming limits, and seeing things from new perspectives. I am still passionate, and I am definitely still a perfectionist! And yet, yoga has allowed me to let go of the extra baggage that shrouded this passion.

Paulina yoga pose As I move through asana, my ballerina self is present, however she now follows not only an outer music beat, but also the inner, quiet rhythm of breath. Although I never achieved the ultimate perfect body of a ballerina, yoga inspired a new respect and gratitude for my body. Although I didn’t get into the Ivy League college that I wanted, I met the love of my life at my second choice college. And, although things usually don’t turn out exactly the way I plan them to, yoga teaches me every day there is a sacred flow in life: filled with surprise, with wonder, with love.

And during those moments of rush and stress, I now catch myself in the old freight train. Yoga reminds me that I can ask for it to stop; I can step off, pause, and reconnect with my heart: where I can be, where I am enough, and where all is perfect, in its own perfectly unexpected way.

Paulina bio with Dan and kittyPaulina Chandani Julián, originally from Guadalajara Mexico, recently moved to San Francisco with her dear husband and lovely kitten. She is a dedicated yoga and meditation practitioner and loves to write and learn. Above all, she cherishes family, friends and Nature with all her heart, and is a firm believer that life is a cool, rare, and sacred gift.

Paulina shares her inspiration at Now is the Time for Yoga, and she teaches Yoga in Spanish at Yoga Garden, San Francisco.


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The Ascension of my Messy Mind

Name: Tammi Truax
Location: Portsmouth, New Hampshire, USA
Occupation: Historical Interpreter, Writer & Mother

Photo by Flickr user h.koppdelaney.

Photo by Flickr user h.koppdelaney.

I’ve been a student of yoga
for five full years now,
and my daily practice
is to me, like breakfast.

Truly drawn to its healing
of mind, body and soul, all of me
has come a long way, sometimes
I even say – yoga saved me.

Physically, I am advanced.
My dog has never been so down,
my warrior so strong and solid,
and recently I stood upon my crown.

Sadly, I remain an amateur
because I cannot quiet
what master yogis call
“the monkey mind.”

I’ve worked at meditation,
the very purpose of the postures,
but in this area I don’t progress.
Mine the noisiest mind in the universe.

I try to meditate,
but I tend to ruminate.
I really want to meditate,
but I’ll secretly start to speculate…

about work I need to do, or
some guy I’d like to agitate.
Even with extreme effort,
I always deviate.

I focus on the breath, but soon
my monkeys start swinging
and away I go – – chasing
bananas instead of bliss.

My third eye wanders,
takes off on a walk about really,
sneaky and insolent,
my mind has a mind of its own.

Feeling like a freakish failure,
whose essence is clearly a mess, I have
vowed to conquer my wicked westernness,
believing it the way to true peace.

But it occurred to me early today
during my concentration’s dissolution,
that my clamorous cranium
isn’t full of pollution … but of poetry.

So with the acceptance
of the Buddha,
I acknowledge that
I will never be a
quiet and contemplative monk,
but I will always be
a very flexible poet.

I am That.

Namaste.

Tammy TrauxTammi Truax writes freelance from a bungalow not quite by the sea in Portsmouth, NH, where she also raises organic vegetables, flowers and children, with limited success. She also works as a historical interpreter at a local living history museum. When not reading and writing, she can be found in a local coffee shop, yoga studio, or on a hiking trail. Say “hi” if you see her.

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Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi

Name: Brian Leaf
Location: Northampton, Massachusetts
Occupation: Author

In 1989 I was like every other insecure 18-year-old starting freshman year at Georgetown University. I was like everyone else except that, every few hours, I had to sneak off to issue myself a medical enema. Needless to say, this did little to boost my self-esteem.

I faced this plight because I had ulcerative colitis. I’ll spare you the detailed symptoms, except to say that they greatly resembled what you’d expect after drinking murky tap water at a very cheap Mexican motel.

Photo by Flickr User myyogaonline.

Luckily, though, my situation changed dramatically that year after I stumbled upon an elective: yoga. I saw that my symptoms of colitis were worse on days that I had skipped yoga. So I wondered if doing more yoga would lessen the symptoms?

I decided to self-medicate with yoga. Five times per day, I practiced four sun salutations, followed by 10 minutes of deep relaxation. Taking these 20-minute yoga breaks, five times every day, was a huge time investment. But my effort proved worthwhile, because three days later my symptoms were gone. GONE.

The symptoms stayed in remission for two years. When they flared up again, I reinstated my self-medicating regimen with four sun salutations, followed by 10 minutes of deep relaxation, five times a day. And again it worked.

As you can imagine, I was a yoga zealot after that. In fact, in the span of two years, I went from being New Jersey’s top rated high school debater to the kind of guy who shows up to Advanced Accounting class in a Mexican serape and leather sandals.

After college, instead of pursuing an accounting career, I traveled the United States, studying yoga and meditation. I didn’t hold any jobs for too long, and wherever I lived, I tutored to cover rent and expenses. I was happy with this nomadic lifestyle for several years, until, during a meditation-based psychotherapy session, my therapist suggested that I was, in fact, avoiding settling down because I was challenged by holding down a job and showing up consistently for a relationship, because I had attention deficit disorder (ADD).

I thought she was probably right, and I was miserable about the diagnosis. I wondered if my biochemistry would limit what I could achieve. Could I ever work a steady job, get married, and settle down?

Then I remembered when I had been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. I wondered if, like colitis, ADD did not represent a permanent disease or disorder but an indication that I needed to reexamine how I was living. I began searching for evidence in holistic health literature that ADD could be treated naturally through yoga, diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes.

Finally, in an article about Ayurveda, I read that a certain imbalance can cause ADD-type symptoms.

I made an appointment with a local Ayurveda practitioner, and I started taking classes. I received a wide range of advice including meditation, yoga postures, herbs, urine therapy (the daily practice of drinking one’s own midstream morning urine), and this gem: “Every morning before you leave the house, apply a small amount of untoasted sesame oil to every orifice of your body: lips, nostrils, ears, nipples, penis, and anus.” I know now that all of this is terrific advice. But it was advice that, nonetheless, I was not quite ready for.

Photo by Flickr user Hannap.

I learned that according to Ayurveda each individual is a unique blend of three proclivities, or doshas, described as ether/air (vata), fire (pitta), and water/earth (kapha). Ayurveda posits that health and vitality result from respecting the particular needs and maximizing the innate gifts of one’s dosha.

I learned that a person with lots of ether/air (me) is often very creative and funny and flexible (if I do say so myself), but when out of balance can become overly creative, overly flexible, and overly airy — basically scatterbrained, wishy-washy, and flatulent (d’oh!). In fact, vata people’s tendency toward flexibility and creativity can become unbounded and then look like the spaciness and distractibility of ADD.

I developed a personalized prescription included taking herbs, meditating, giving myself a daily sesame-oil massage, eating a certain diet, sitting for an hour every day next to a tree on the bank of a gently flowing stream, and reminding myself throughout the day to be in my body (rather than lost in my mind).

And again, it worked. After six months, I was more focused, more energized, and more present. I went from spacey, distractible, and impulsive, to attentive, focused, and mindful. Now I could hold down a job and finish a long-term project — in fact, I’ve authored 11 books.

It’s fair to say that as long as I respect the needs of my particular constitution, I don’t have ADD any more. And the same is true of colitis. If I held in my emotions, gave up yoga, and subsisted on fast food and soda, I bet I’d be back to the medical enemas, but as long as I express my feelings, exercise, and eat well, I am colitis, ADD, and enema free.

Brian Leaf, M.A. is the author of Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi. He draws upon 21 years of intensive study, practice, and teaching of yoga, meditation, and holistic health. Visit him online at http://www.Misadventures-of-a-Yogi.com and check out the book trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LcYFYjnU9Cw.

Based on the new book Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi ©2012 by Brian Leaf. Published with permission of New World Library http://www.newworldlibrary.com.

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The Journey Back From Drug Abuse

Name: Anonymous
Location: Waitakere, New Zealand
Occupation: Graphic Designer

A close friend, who was training to become a teacher, first introduced me to yoga when I was about 20 years old.

I had grown up learning ballet, so my body responded quite quickly to the stretches and I soon became a guinea pig for my friend’s teaching practice. What first struck me was the reconnection to my body, and in particular, my legs.

As a typically self-conscious teenager, I realized that I had disconnected so entirely from my body (sadly out of sheer disgust), that I had not really looked at, touched, or engaged with my legs for about 10 years. It was quite a revelation to reacquaint myself with the lower half of my body and I’ll never forget how it felt when I realized the neglect that I had subjected on myself.

I had been through seven years of drug abuse, the last three of which were pretty significant and were getting gradually more and more dangerous in regard to me finding an escape route. Without question, yoga was that escape.

The breath refocused my desires and intentions. Motion and stretching released toxins and lifted my energy. Gradual progression taught me the metaphor of steady success. Everything together gave me the clarity I needed to know there was more out there for me, and helped me to see how attainable and achievable a better life could be.

After this initial introduction to yoga, I began practicing Hatha and Iyengar Yoga, and later Ashtanga Yoga at the Yoga Academy in Auckland City. And just this year I was fortunate to have found a wonderful teacher who has brought in subtle spiritual elements that have extended my practice even further to a deeper and even more fulfilling place; drawing prana from the earth to engage longer and deeper poses, opening and closing the practices with meditation and breathing exercises. It is truly beautiful and I am grateful every day for having found the yogic path and for the methods and guidance that continue to help me along my path today.

I am a 35-year old Mum of four incredible children living in Waitakere, New Zealand. I am married to a beautiful, awesome man and we have a cool dog. I am an artist and work part-time as a graphic designer, but love getting involved in voluntary community work wherever I can. Yoga is an important part of my life and although there are periods of time where I fall out of my practice, whenever I return it fills my heart with immense joy. I sincerely believe that if the world practiced this vital art, we would be a very peaceful, happy (stress-free!) and compassionate world indeed.

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My Yoga Story

Name: Elizabeth Anna
Location: Southern California, USA
Occupation: Olympic Gymnast & Medalist, Actress, Artist, Author, Entrepreneur and Yogi

I have been an athlete for much of this life, having trained in dance and gymnastics. Quite naturally, from the moment I heard of yoga, I gravitated towards it as a new form of exercise. My initial understanding of yoga was that it was a combination of stretching, balancing and holding poses, all of which I knew to provide a wonderful core work out.

I attended my first yoga class; It was a Hatha class, and there were five other people in attendance, not including me and my friend. We began with the basics and slowly moved through different asanas. As we did so, I noticed my impatience with the slow pace and the seemingly basic nature of the poses. The instructor repeatedly chose to use me as an example of the improper way to do the poses, stopping the class so that everybody could observe me doing the pose improperly. I truly never thought at the time that I could, after 20 years of training in dance and gymnastics, be used as an example of how not to do a basic downward facing dog, yet there it was. At the time I didn’t understand the finite adjustment required within the form in order for the energy and balance to flow freely within the pose.

My first experience with yoga left me feeling picked on, frustrated, annoyed and fairly stretched out. The next years saw me trying out the different disciplines of yoga, all-the-while seeking to experience the harmony and lasting inner peace that I knew could be experienced during the practice of yoga…but not yet knowing how to make it so.

Through one conscious, empowered choice, I “woke up” and life changed. I stopped smoking after many years, with no side effects, no cravings, and no desire to go back. And I realized that “Consciousness” made it so. I read a book, The Easy Way to Stop Smoking, by Allen Carr, and in the book the author asked me to pay attention to my breath. In other words, be conscious of my breath as I took a drag off my cigarette, be conscious of my thought and feeling as I breathed in the smoke and blew it out, be conscious of my thought before reaching to grab another one. All of the conscious attention on myself was causing me to smoke less and less as I read the book, until by the end I threw away the remaining pack. From that moment on I never desired another cigarette again. Consciousness is Supreme Presence, the calm poise of thought, feeling and action in any given moment. Destructive behavior of any sort shall not thrive where consciousness resides.

“Freedom of Peace”- artwork by Elizabeth Anna

I began meditating twice a day, half an hour in the morning, half an hour in the evening, ever conscious of the movement of my breath in and out. The inner peace and moments of harmony began to expand beyond my morning meditation session and well into the rest of my day. Bringing my conscious attention to the movement of my breath throughout the day brought the harmony of my meditation into every aspect of every day. I was practicing the living meditation.

It was around this time that I was introduced to Anusara Yoga by way of John Friend, the originator of Anusara. The understanding of the inter-connectivity of life and our eternal interaction with the Divine flowed through the very practice of Anusara Yoga. Anusara Yoga perfectly matched my new understanding and my evolving consciousness.

Yoga, the conscious breath, is the vehicle by which the light of God flows in, through us and then back out unto It’s Wondrous Self. The asanas help to gently guide this energy to specific areas of focus to purify, bless, heal and renew the body in that particular area.

What was first a stretching workout, that any gymnast or dancer could do, evolved into a dance with God, a celebration of unity. Now, I practice breathing through different yoga asanas every day, whether it be for ten minutes or 90 minutes. The practice of yoga allows me the experience of resting in the balance point between outer and the inner, the point from which all creation takes place, that place of total awareness, harmony experienced. I have found myself quite naturally incorporating simple asanas, and conscious breathing exercises at different points throughout the day, helping me to re-center, after or while working at the computer, or after listening to someone express anger or sorrow.

The conscious attention to the breath, applied throughout the day, whether walking, stretching, working, or sitting, is “The Living Yoga” experienced; the eternal dance with the Divine, Great Spirit, the Mighty I Am Presence, God. And it is from this glorious place of presence, of conscious awareness that life is meant to be lived. Namaste.

Elizabeth Anna is an Olympic Gymnast and Medalist, an actress, artist, author, entrepreneur and yogi. She lives with her husband and creative partner, Jacob Daniel, in southern California where they  produce music, create art and are currently writing a series of books for both adults & children alike. Two of the short stories can be found on their website and downloaded through the Kindle and Nook platforms. To check out their Wisdom Blog, downloadable art, short stories and music visit: www.OneDropWithinTheWave.com

Follow on Twitter @: EOTL_BettyOkino
Like the Band page on Facebook @:  http://www.facebook.com/pages/EOTL/310124985667090?ref=ts&sk=app_129982580378550

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Yoga Helped Me. Now I Help Others.

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

Photo attributed to Flickr user dietmut.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blessed to Be Me

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


Name: Almitra Hakeem (spiritual name, Shantibindu)

Location: Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Occupation: Yoga Instructor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Yoga Transformation Journey: 30 Years and Beyond

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


Name: Mary Baird (spiritual name, Mantram)

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

Photo by Flickr User whalt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Daniel Levin.

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

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

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

Photo by Flickr User ojoqtv.

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

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

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

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

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Lead Me

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

Asatoma Sat Gamaya
Tamasoma Jyotir Gamaya
Mrityorma Anritam Gamaya

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

~Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

Photo by Flickr User cdrummbks.

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

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

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

Photo by Flickr User Honeyquilts.

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

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

Friday, October 14, 2011, New York City

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

Tuesday, November 1, 2011, Springfield, PA

Image by Flickr User Pierre Willemin.

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

Thursday, November 3, 2011, Bryn Mawr, PA

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

Next Day

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

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

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

15 minutes later, home, Google, bad news.

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

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

Bright and early Monday morning, Philadelphia, PA

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

Monday, November 21, 2011, Philadelphia, PA

Photo by Flickr User Vectorportal.

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 16, 2011, Philadelphia, PA

Image by Flickr User Hey Paul Studios.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thankfully today: Sunday, August 5, 2012

Photo by Flickr User Kelly Loves Whales.

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

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

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

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

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