How Forrest Yoga Changed My Life

The Yoga Diaries is proud to present the winner of the
Forrest Yoga transformation story contest:

 

Name: Kaitlin Morris
Location: Riverhead, New York, USA
Occupation: Yoga Teacher

When I was 13 years old, I was trying desperately to accept and love myself. Having determined that I was officially “too fat,” “ugly,” and generally not conforming to what I perceived to be the ideals of my peer group, I joined a weight loss group and began to exercise with my mother’s encouragement. Although my parents were loving and supportive, I interpreted their support as criticism—I had to be thinner, smaller, and quieter. I had to get better grades in school and pick up more slack around the house.

A few years passed … I lost 35 lbs by taking my weight loss plan to an extreme, sometimes eating as little as 1,000 calories a day and exercising vigorously on a daily basis. Seeing these changes in my body and attitude as positive, I made other positive changes in my life. I stopped slitting my wrists, I began to help out my parents more with the household chores, and I began to work harder at school to improve my grades.

It was about this time that I decided that I wasn’t enough. Even though I had lost weight, even though I seemed intelligent and well-adjusted, I still wasn’t good enough. Taking this painful conclusion to heart, I began to exercise more and seek out alternative ways to tone and strengthen my body, whipping it into a shape that I could accept. I tried weights, aerobics, cardio machines, and, luckily, yoga. I tried an inexpensive yoga class geared towards beginners at my library and I began to notice changes not just in my posture but also in my thought patterns. As I continued the practice, slight decreases in anxiety and stress, negativity, and improvements in my self-esteem were my surprise rewards.

I kept taking yoga classes through the years, but eventually the stress of college and other aspects of my life somehow expressed themselves as a desire to lose more weight, to go further, to seek a more distant “edge” physically and mentally. I began to lose faith in yoga, feeling bored and injured by the level of instruction and styles of yoga available at the time. I considered giving it up completely, favoring more physically challenging exercises instead to further reduce my body to a tight nub of muscle and skin.

I decided to branch out, to seek other styles, and to look for new teachers. Somewhere along the way, yoga had left me looking for something deeper, something that was missing. I was sick of checking my watch throughout class as I waited for that “yoga elevator music” and the dull, simple poses to end. I was sick of flowery language and cues that didn’t make sense. I was sick of, as a biology student, knowing more about alignment and health than my teachers. So I bought a membership at a studio further from my house and began to search for whatever it was that had become lost along the way.

On a rainy FKaitlin Morris backbendriday in October, I chose to skip my obsessive cardio exercise. Instead I took a yoga class labeled “Advanced” on the recommendation of another yoga instructor who also enjoyed a good challenge. It was here that I found what I had all but given up hope of finding—yoga that physically, intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally came together with my body and my mind and melted into my soul.

With the first round of abdominals, I was hooked for life. I could feel something, deep inside, that I had never felt before, something that no other physical or spiritual path had ever given me a touch of. I felt like I would be okay, like I was good, like I had come home to somewhere safe and warm.

The class was my first Forrest Yoga experience, and I spent the whole time alternatively laughing and crying. As I drove the long way home, I knew that I had found my saving grace.

That summer, the teacher of that class opened her own yoga studio (Good Ground Yoga in Hampton Bays, NY) even closer to my home, and I had the unbelievable opportunity to practice Forrest Yoga with her several times each week until this day.

I felt my life unfold, new opportunities arose, and I leapt at them. I took more difficult, intimidating college courses. I finished my undergraduate degree. I cried through savasana as I felt my sister’s hands in mine, healing from her sudden death years before.

My eating disorder became something that I could work through with the breath, consciousness, and the new-found courage that the practice gave me. I thought about it long and hard, and then I took the leap.

Kaitlin Morris handstand croppedHere I am, now teaching yoga myself, no longer sure that I will die any day and be better for it. Now I have the hope, strength, love, and power that only Forrest Yoga could have given me. I have the tools to not only face life with my head up, but also to carve the life I choose to live. I can recover, I can heal, I can connect, and I am capable of anything.

That is what practicing Forrest Yoga did to change my life.

Kaitlin Morris bioKaitlin took her first yoga class at age 13, hoping to ease anxiety while trying a new workout. Initially skeptical, she quickly learned to love yoga and began to use the practice to handle the stress of college, the intense grief of losing her sister, and the raw struggle of healing from an eating disorder. In 2011, she took her first Forrest class with Leslie Pearlman and was hooked for life. When Leslie opened Good Ground Yoga in 2012, Kaitlin moved in and never left. Kaitlin now teaches at GGY and several other studios. www.kaitlinmorrisyoga.com.

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Learning to Become a Vessel

Name: Kim Stanley
Location: Fort Wayne, Indiana, USA
Occupation: Yoga Teacher

During teacher training we were taught that we need to be a vessel for our students. Our teacher guided us through this process and the group did quite a bit of self exploration and cleansing. These exercises were specifically designed to clear out some of our own baggage and free up some space. You can’t be a vessel when you are full of your own crap, right? Practicing forgiveness, laughing, crying, and maybe a little screaming are all great preparation for new teachers.

When we accept this immense responsibility to teach others the practice of yoga, we need to be prepared for our class to bring in anything and everything: failed relationships, body issues, past or present abuse, all the garbage that we humans try to compost into our darkest places and hope that it will slowly decompose. Instead, it usually simmers just under the surface and sometimes, an intense practice gives it just the extra heat it needs to boil over. With all of this barely contained energy in the room, teachers have to be ready to catch the overflow. If we are constantly spewing out our own drama, we may not be prepared to bring in and hold still, what our students may need to release.

Fortunately for me, my particular teacher felt very strongly about our role as vessel and I had tried to listen intently as she described to us what we might have to do. However, I had never actually experienced this phenomenon for myself until last week and I was not as prepared as I had thought…

One of our students, someone I have known for a couple of years, showed up at a class I was subbing and appeared to be a little out of sorts. When I asked her how she was doing before class I was totally unprepared for her answer. She very simply and quietly told me that they had lost their child the day before. As you can imagine my heart dropped to the floor; I felt dizzy; my hands went to my face; time stoppedall of the normal human reactions to horrifying news. Once the room stopped spinning and came back into focus I thought, “Hey, this is not your pain; buck up and be here for this person!”

I don’t know how but she managed to keep it together with just a small tremble in her lip. We hugged and while I was holding her I tried to will my energy to take on some magical power to just envelop her like an opiate. But unfortunately I don’t have that or any magical power.

During class I was consumed with how I should act with this student in the room. My heart was breaking for her and on top of queuing poses, I was concerned that I would say the wrong thing and cause her to burst into tears. About mid-way through our practice, that word “vessel” finally floated into my swirling thoughts and I tried to convince myself that I was being one. I knew I needed to empty out some space to allow her room to do what she needed but I was still holding on to my own junk. I had to get rid of the idea that I had to come up with the perfect words to soothe her, or bring in the perfect pose to somehow release her pain in a physical way. I just needed to be a vessel. A container. A safe place for her to do whatever it was she needed without my own dirt, my desire to be the hero, muddying up the water.

The good newswe made it through class with neither of us having a complete breakdown; maybe a few slowly released tears and some deeper than usual sighs. The bad newsI will still struggling with making this all about me. I wanted to come up with the gesture or words of wisdom after class that would fix the problem; as if it were something that could be fixed. As I am still far from enlightenment, I tend to manipulate every event to answer the question, “how does this affect me?” But I knew, in my thinking brain, that this was definitely not about me. How did I get my heart and my gut, the non-analytical parts, to get on board? This was about a fellow yogi, friend, human suffering an unbearable loss and if I was going to help at all I needed to stop trying to be the superstar. I do not posses mystical powers of healing or clever words that answer the mysteries of life. The only skill I possess is to hold some space free and clear for my students to feel safe. That role as vessel had to trump my thinking brain’s need to save the day.

I let the student divulge as many of the details as she wanted to and tried not to press her for facts. Again, be a vessel Kim, not a siphon… She told me her family had been at the hospital all week, apparently their ordeal had gone on for a few days. After so many hours of crying and sitting in a hospital waiting room feeling totally helpless to help the one person for whom she felt totally responsible, she needed to just come to yoga. She didn’t want to go home and sit anymore. She wanted to take some deep breaths and stretch her tired body. And she knew she could come here. She knew that she would find support, a few words to calm her spinning mind, maybe a few hugs, maybe a dimly lit room with quiet peaceful music. Whatever she was looking for, she felt she could get it here.

With that I started to think about what an amazing place this is! This studio, this larger vessel, is apparently so safe and so comforting that people who have had the worst thing in the world happen to them feel okay to enter and are even drawn to be here. How incredible that this studio, and others like it all around the world, have become a haven where you can take a few breaths even after your very worst day.

The yoga community is what makes this place sacred and inviting. We are doing our small part with our little lives, in our little town, to connect to the bigger world energy. For just a brief moment, every day, we move beyond the individuals that make up this group and became something larger, that thing that is closer to yoga. We make a tiny step toward getting rid of the duality that we insist is part of our human condition and instead, share ourselves through vulnerability; maybe, in this instance, vulnerability in the knowledge that one day this could very likely be us. Tragic things happen all the time. We don’t know what’s coming next but man, it feels a tiny bit better to think that we have a vessel; a safe comforting home-away-from-home to come to if we need it.

Life is beautiful picAfter the class, I was speaking to another teacher about what had happened to our friend and we were both amazed at the student’s poise and level of control. I mean, she was clearly shaken to her core but she was still, for the most part, keeping it together. As parents, we imagined we would both be sobbing, heaving messes unable to speak to anyone let alone attend a yoga class.

Later that week the student shared with me a phrase that someone had said to her at the showing. She said, “It will never be the same but it will get better.” She jokingly added, “I want it to get better now.” We chuckled and I knew that I was witness again to what a truly strong, brave, beautiful person she is and that as usual, the student had taught the teacher. I hoped that I could continue to grow and learn to work on becoming a true vessel and that in time, I too, will get better.

Kim StanleyAfter 12 years as a student, Kim finds the most beautiful thing about yoga to be its adaptability to everyone. No matter your age, physical ability or state of mind, you can be a part of something awesome. Kim completed her 200 RYT from Pranayoga School of Yoga and Holistic Health and is working towards her ERYT. In 2012 she took a leap of faith and left a well paying, but soul sucking job as a software project manager to follow her passion and teach full-time. Yin Yoga is her true love but she also really digs Heated Prana Flow classes. She has a B.S. in Organizational Leadership and lives in Fort Wayne with her very understanding husband, two gifted children, two old dogs and two crazy cats. You can find her teaching schedule at kimstanleyyoga.com or yap about yoga with her on facebook.com/KimStanleyYoga or twitter @kimstanleyyoga.

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How Yoga Saved Me From the Worst Mistake I Didn’t Make

Name: Ashley Josephine Herzberger
Location: Wichita Falls, Texas, United States
Occupation: Lifestyle Entrepreneur & Yoga Instructor

Photo attributed to Flickr user aadl.

Photo attributed to Flickr user aadl.

In 2009 I was well on my way to accomplishing the thing I’d thought most about for my first 21 years of life. I was going to graduate from college with two degrees, both of which were categorized as high distinction due to my 3.9 GPA.

As I was preparing for my senior year, I had done everything that I possibly could to prepare myself for a successful life in the “real world.” I’d just returned from spending eight weeks interning for a boutique public relations firm in London. I had work experience (international, no less!), a stellar work ethic, the good grades to prove it, and dreams of one day owning my own public relations firm. I was going to be a bigwig media executive.

Around that same time, I started suffering from some serious chest pain. I had started practicing yoga fairly consistently after completing a second 90 days of P90X, and I thought yoga would help me to maintain my physique. Unfortunately my chest hurt so badly that it hurt to breathe, so I knew that yoga was definitely out of the question. Having recently fallen in love with the practice, I was disappointed.

I was also frustrated and scared that I was suffering from such incredible physical pain. The doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong – they kept telling me everything was fine.

Everything was not fine, despite how it appeared on the surface. In fact, everything was wrong.

I was super stressed. My drive to succeed had pushed me to the edge, and I was only 21 years old. I remember thinking to myself that somewhere along the way I had really screwed up. But it wasn’t my fault because I was doing everything everyone expected me to be doing and I was doing it well. I was a superstar in someone else’s life.

After my chest pain (a symptom of my extreme stress and nothing more) subsided, I dove into yoga even more. I have the recession to thank for giving me a slight reprieve in finding a corporate job. I found one, but for a yoga company rather than for a big PR firm.

In a small way, yoga saved my life after just a few months of practice. The awareness I developed to listen to my body led my mind to ponder a different career path. Little did I know there was no turning back.

Ashley Josephine peacockBecause I worked for a yoga company, I had the opportunity to take a Teacher Training program at a discount. A huge knowledge junkie, I was excited to take it for myself, but also knew that it would help me to better represent the company. I was in the marketing department after all. I didn’t go into the Teacher Training with an intention to teach afterward. I went in with an open mind, willing to see what would happen.

It became quickly apparent that I was meant to be a yoga teacher. I denied it for a while because yoga teachers don’t make much money; at least all of the yoga teachers around me seemed to struggle day in and day out to make ends meet. That wasn’t the life I wanted. I was still hanging on to dreams of luxury resorts, fancy dinners, and high-profile events from my “Big Girl” PR career track.

Teacher Training certainly helped me to deepen my practice with yoga. I became immersed in the philosophy and mindset practices and some more things started to shift. Opportunities appeared in my life at just the right time to set me up for a big leap of faith, which I took in the spring of 2012.

At this time, I decided I didn’t want to work for someone else and I set out on my own as an entrepreneur. I still had my marketing hat on, but it was a major accomplishment to let go of a steady paycheck and decide that I was going to fend for myself. The old Ashley would never have done that. Yoga made me believe that I was strong, smart, and capable.

Ashley Josephine green malaIt has been almost a year since I left the safety net of society. My dedication to practice has helped me come into even more alignment with who I am and what I was put on this Earth to do. It’s not marketing.

The entrepreneurial bug bit me hard, but it would never have had the chance had I not ventured into the yoga forest.

Yoga changed my life in a profound way. My practice pointed me back home. The journey down the wrong road was causing me a lot of pain and unhappiness. Without yoga, I would never have had the strength to follow my passions and live my dream.

I strongly believe that yoga practice gives you everything you need to succeed as you. It’s the education you’ll never receive in the classroom because it teaches you about your strengths, weaknesses, passions, personality, preferences, and aversions.

Once you start to harness that knowledge, it’s up to you to show up in this world and make a difference. It’s my hope that I can do that by empowering young women to reconnect with their own souls and to live the life they deserve. It is yoga that got me to where I am today, and yoga will continue to guide my way for the rest of my life.

Ashley Josephine bio
Ashley Josephine Herzberger currently shares her love of yoga in Wichita Falls, TX, and the surrounding area, through classes, workshops, and on her blog http://ashleyjosephine.com. Her conviction for the spiritual aspects of practice have inspired her to build an online studio of women to support one another in their quest to reconnect with body, mind and soul. Sign up for her weekly Wellness Wednesday newsletter to receive short yoga videos and inspiration for living an authentic life.

 

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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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Crash into Me

Name: Gitte Lindgaard
Location: Denmark
Occupation: Yoga Teacher

It was a morning like any other. My husband was driving me to work, it was an early summer morning, the sun was shining, and the birds were singing. What I remember the most was the sudden sound of squealing tires and then the crash.

Photo by Flickr User mrJasonWeaver.

Another man was texting while driving and he hit our car at high speed. We were both taken to the hospital. My husband was fine but I was diagnosed with a concussion and later with whiplash. That morning my life changed forever. For more than six months, I was bound to my bed. I couldn’t tolerate any kind of sound or light, to the extent that I was forced to wear sunglasses all the time. I isolated myself because I couldn’t be with more than two or three people at a time. I was tired all the time, I had headaches, and I couldn’t remember any new things. I felt very sorry for myself.

The entire situation was very scary. I didn’t know if I would ever get better and I felt that I was failing as a mother and a wife. Prior to the accident, I had been so dynamic and full of life. I had always loved sports and led a very active life with my family. We all loved competing at everything and now I couldn’t do anything. I felt like such a burden. Everything was hard, even simple everyday things like cooking or even sending an email. It was a struggle to see my physiotherapist and the treatment didn’t work. I tried acupuncture, a neurologist, a psychologist, and a lot of other things, but unfortunately nothing really helped.

At some point someone advised me to try yoga. I was never a big fan of yoga. I had tried it a couple of times and it was just not for me. Even though I was well trained, I wasn’t flexible at all. I also found it to be boring because there was no competition. At the same time, I was ready to try anything in order to get better, so I decided to give it another chance.

Because I couldn’t handle being in a room with more than two or three people at a time, I couldn’t attend a yoga class. I bought some DVDs about yoga and started doing yoga for 15 minutes every day. I hated it so much in the beginning. I got so tired and I felt like I was hurting my fragile ego by being so lousy at it.

Slowly, after a month, I began to enjoy it more and more. I could see small improvements in my practice. I got better at listening to my body regarding which poses were good for me and knowing when I had had enough. Doing yoga gave me energy and it lessened my sensitivity to light, until eventually I was able to stop wearing the sunglasses. I started to make my own sequences, just by listening to my body and my intuition, and the sequences got longer and longer until I was practicing yoga for 45 minutes every day. I started to get better at it. My body began to become more flexible and at some point I could actually touch my toes. After 3-4 months I started to train in a fitness center. I still kept on doing yoga.

After a year I was declared 85% healthy. I started to work again and because it became harder and harder to make time to do yoga, I lapsed in my practice for quite a while. I started to get headaches again and sometimes my arm would get numb for a few seconds. This really scared me and it caused me to make a decision: I would commit to yoga for life.

After I made this decision and started to practice again, it was as if my soul and my body started to work together. Something magical was happening. I rediscovered myself; not the person I was before the whiplash, but the person I was supposed to be. Yoga changed from being something I had to remember to do, into something I wanted to do. It became a necessary element in my life. I made time to do yoga every day because my body and my soul simply needed it.

On my journey to rediscovering myself, I started to introduce yoga to people with disabilities at my work. Guiding them in the world of yoga just felt so right and rewarding. Yoga kept taking more and more space in my life and it felt like falling in love. I could read about it for hours on end and practice poses every available minute. Sometimes I would even do yoga while taking a shower.

More practice led to more clarity and I eventually enrolled in teacher trainings in both The United States and in Denmark. Today I teach yoga full-time to people with pain, injuries, conical illness, and disabilities. I have found the real me.

Gitte lives in Denmark with her husband and two daughters. Gitte has practiced different types of yoga and after recovering from whiplash after a car accident, she began teaching yoga mostly to disabled people. Gitte is the founder of Livets Træ (Tree of Live.) She has a degree in Nutrition and Health and specializes in empowering people to be aware and take responsibility for healthy living. Gitte believes in doing something every day of which her future self would be proud. Gitte can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/LivetsTrae and on Twitter @loveliveyoga.

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Held by the Whole

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

Photo by Flickr user GO INTERACTIVE WELLNESS.

Yoga created me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Flickr user Nikhil Kirsh.

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

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

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


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Peace Through Strength

Name: Kumari de Silva
Location: Southern Californa, USA
Occuptation: Yoga Teacher, Studio Owner

Photo by Flickr user Alan Cleaver.

In 2007 I discovered that my beloved husband had returned to heavy drug use after an alleged 15-year stint with sobriety. How did I find out? He passed out, high on prescription painkillers, while driving. He hit a telephone pole at 60 miles per hour. Via helicopter, he was airlifted to the closest emergency room, over fifty miles away. The car was totaled.

In the emergency room the doctor asked to speak with me. “Your husband is a drug addict,” she told me.

“No he’s an electrician!” I blurted out in protest.

“He’s a drug addict,” she repeated gently. She asked me if I was a victim of domestic violence.

“From whom,” I wondered. I was completely confused. What I didn’t know could fill a book.

Yes I was a victim, probably always had been one. I just had no idea. For ten days I lived in crazy land while my husband’s cover was fully blown.The emergency room morphine, mixed with the pharmacy already in his blood stream, appeared to have caused permanent changes to his brain function. My former husband is permanently irrational.

Ultimately he walked out on me. Left to cover his debt and unable to get him to sign divorce papers, I was forced to work 70 hours per week. I had one day off every 15 days, occasionally. I wasn’t eating much. Food seemed like such an easy thing to trim from the budget. The culmination of events: i.e. stress, confusion, heartbreak, huge debt, the physical component of my work, plus my age, caused a hairline fracture in my hip. I lost the ability to completely externally rotate my femur on one side and suffered nerve damage in my leg and foot.

Photo by Flickr user Macxbebe.

I had no health insurance. Now I couldn’t get it. Due to my disability I was given fewer and fewer hours at my hourly job, until I could no longer support myself. Well, who could blame them? I couldn’t perform the job. I rented my house and left the state looking for employment, still riddled with chronic pain. Along the road my dog died.

My friend base, all fundamentalist Christians, believed my ex and mostly thought that I was being “mean” when I referred to him as a using addict. The ones who accepted his addiction issues believed that if he prayed to Jesus he would be healed. They continued, albeit inadvertently, to support his addiction. They were not supportive to me. One could say everything was gone: health, savings, friends, dog, home, and job.

I moved into a room in a house with two roommates who did yoga. One had a very strong meditative practice. I learned pranayama before I did asana. The other loved the physical practice. A third friend reminded me of the few poses I had learned growing up. He encouraged me to do them again to strengthen my hip and increase my range of motion. I felt discouraged as he patiently adjusted my alignment. Thank you Shawn for your patience.

When my roommate “J” found out that I was messing around with trikonasana, he drove me to a class with his favorite teacher. I still felt neither here nor there about asana. The class seemed like a “cool kids’ club”. With my injury, I felt like a factory reject. Undaunted, J looked for other yoga classes and took me to the next community, over a 15-mile drive away. I am forever grateful to him for his persistence.

Here I met my first real teacher. “M” was a blend of encouraging, upbeat, authentic and funny. She had a deep understanding of anatomy. She had also had some experience with addicts. She soothed my beat down soul. Every class was small and mixed level. M had a gift, I have rarely seen since, for modifying both up and down to suit all of the people in the room. From the first class I continued to go several times a week, sometimes more than one class in a day. Three months after I met her she suggested that I go to a teacher training at one of the larger studios 50 miles away.

“You could start a whole new career!” She said with an impish smile.

“Who would hire me?” I replied with my tired sense of discouragement. “At my age? How long would be I be able to do it?”

“For the rest of your life,” she assured me. What she said in a quiet and firm voice touched me.

Five months after meeting M I took my first 200-hour training. The same day I signed up, M disappeared! In an uncharacteristic manner she let personal issues overwhelm her. I did not hear from her again for two years. Another shock, another loss. The only thing I knew for sure was that my hip was starting to feel better. In savasana, encouraged to set an intention, I would think to myself “I just want to feel better, please let this pain go away!” I taught myself yoga as I was learning to teach. I was at the studio seven days a week, three hours a day. I built a strong practice that supports me.

My practice includes pranayama, meditation and asana. My students are often coming off of injuries, both physical and mental. They relate to me. I found myself re-entering and yet not re-entering society. Today, I eat well, meditate and practice yoga daily. Yoga is my passion. I learned the hard way that nothing is more valuable than feeling comfortable in your body.

For those of you who would say everything happens for “a reason,” I beg to differ. There is no reason I can understand to choose death and drug addiction. If you are a using addict, I implore you to reconsider. The pain it causes you will end at your death, the pain it causes your loved ones will never end.

Peace through Strength

Namaste!

Kumari de Silva is a mild-mannered yogi and poet who lives in the Los Padres National Forest. She received a BA from the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and a 200-hour teacher training from YogaWorks. Kumari’s work reflects a perspective of re-discovering familiar. “Teach what you know” is good guidance, but even more powerful is to “teach what you know well” and this will allow the heart  to reveal a unique peace infused with universal experiences. Once the peace of yoga creates insight, the body savors recognition. The grace of this delicious mind/body connection transcends time, space, and even culture.

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Open to Grace?? Are you Serious?

Name: Bridget Lyons
Location: Victor, ID, USA…or on the road teaching in the inter-mountain west!
Occupation: Yoga Teacher, Studio Owner, Blogger, Connector and Seeker

I was just 30 years old when the pain in my back started keeping me up at night. I could “deal” as long as I was doing my thing – which, at that time, was carrying an 80-pound backpack, rowing an 18-foot whitewater raft, and shoveling snow for hours on end to build an igloo to sleep in. I was working full-time leading 30-day wilderness expeditions for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and hard physical labor was the name of the game. So was grinning and stoically bearing pain and discomfort…which I was starting to feel a lot of as soon as I stopped working and lay down at the end of the day.

So I took an office job. I bought a $1,000 mattress. And I showed up at a beginners’ yoga class in this little, concrete-floored converted office in a small town in Wyoming. I had tried yoga a couple of times in college, and to be frank, I had been bored. I left feeling frustrated about having wasted an hour that could have been better spent doing “real training.” Nevertheless, ten years later I figured I’d better give it another try since it seemed like everyone and his brother had a story about yoga alleviating mysterious back pain.

I went to class weekly, and I actually liked it. Being athletically gifted, I was able to follow directions well and get my body into a variety of different positions. And being stubborn and goal-oriented, I liked class even more when I couldn’t do something. At the end of that year, I moved from that small town in Wyoming to an even smaller town in Idaho. Ironically, this podunk mountain community had a regionally-famous Anusara Yoga studio with a Certified Anusara Instructor and a staff of other highly trained and passionate teachers. I was new in town and wanted to meet folks, and I sure wasn’t over the back pain yet, so I started hanging out there. I liked the consistency of the teachings, the specificity of the directions, and the seemingly endless challenge of new pose after new pose: Backbends! Arm balances! Handstands! And transitioning between them all – yeehaa!

Except…..these folks chanted – In Sanskrit, no less! And they kept talking about this whole “grace” thing. I wasn’t so sure how I felt about that. But, whatever, my back was getting better and I was having fun, so I just kept showing up. One class a week turned into two, two became three, and before long I was attending the invitation-only teachers’ practice – not so much because I “got it,” but because I was lucky enough to have a strong body that did as I told it to and I worked darn hard.

Somewhere in there something happened. I really wish I could pinpoint the day that transformation occurred so that I could mark it on the calendar as “my yoga anniversary.” But I can’t. Like so many shifts in life, it happened gradually, and only looking back can I identify a distinct and radical change in myself.

What happened? It’s actually hard to describe…but I think the best phrase I can provide is “I softened.” My mountain-toughened edges melted. My bitterness dissolved and left spaciousness in its wake. My New Jersey born-and-bred, type-A drive mellowed into a vision of a co-creative life purpose. I became a strong-boundaried and open-hearted friend. Checkers at the grocery store started smiling at me, and I genuinely enjoyed engaging with them. For the first time in my life, people sitting next to me on airplanes wanted to chat, and men in bars wanted to buy me drinks. Maybe it was the chanting – which of course I started to love (I should have known something was happening when I started listening to kirtan CD’s in my pick-up truck). Maybe it was the poses themselves tenderizing my physical body with their steady tough love. Maybe it was the fact that I simply stuck it out. But in all likelihood, all that “Open to Grace” hoo-ha had a lot to do with it. Once my raised-Catholic-and-ran-away-screaming self got over the occasional use of the word “God,” the little girl in me who was insatiably curious about everything spiritual resurfaced and drank up everything yoga philosophy had to offer.

Included in that offering was the idea that embodiment is amazing: That we are divine essence that has chosen to become human in order to experience the wonder that is this world; That our bodies are amazing and do amazing things; That we are “purna” – perfect, not lacking – just as we are; That life is not a problem to be solved but a gift to be celebrated; That grace is our birthright and is always there when we stop to notice it, and breathe it in; And that the practice of showing up on your mat each day is your opportunity to remember all of this and so much more – as long as you open yourself to it.

So I delved deeply into these teachings, which are just the tip of the iceberg of the exquisite and profound school of philosophy that we call Tantra. I became a Certified Anusara Yoga Instructor – a process substantially more challenging than getting my undergrad degree from Harvard. I learned to do some crazy hard poses. I bought a yoga studio – the one in the podunk Idaho town I waltzed into ten years ago. I started making decisions from my gut – and they were right. I took risks with strangers. I laughed more. I definitely cried more. Really, I just out-and-out FELT more.

Most of all, I gave myself the freedom to be nothing other than me, and the knowledge that I am simultaneously a beautiful, smart, sarcastic, bike-riding, art-making, rock-n-roll loving, 5’8” green-eyed yoga goddess AND a spark of divinity, just like everyone else. And that feels oh-so-good.

Oh yeah — my back pain is long gone too…

Bridget Lyons is a Certified Anusara Yoga Instructor and co-owner of YogaTejas in Driggs, Idaho. She began studying yoga twelve years ago in order to recover from chronic back pain caused by guiding numerous backpacking, kayaking, and skiing expeditions. In addition to healing her injuries through yoga, she unexpectedly discovered a way of connecting to grace. Bridget loves the combination of athleticism and spiritual exploration offered by the yoga practice, and her teaching and practice reflect her commitment to a strong body and an open heart. She teaches weekly drop-in classes at her studio, weekend workshops throughout the inter-mountain west, and Yoga Alliance RYT-200 trainings for students looking to truly commit to yoga.

Recently Bridget has been offering courses and trainings online as well; you can practice with her free videos and take her 7-day Yogi Superheroes Intensive at www.bridgetlyonsyoga.com. To read more of her musings on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on the mat, go to www.bridgetlyonsyoga.wordpress.com. Connect with her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pages/Bridget-Lyons-Yoga and Twitter @BLyonsYoga.

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How Yoga Changed My Life

Name: Nicole DeAvilla
Location: Marin County, California, USA
Occupation: Yoga Teacher & Bestselling Author of The 2 Minute Yoga Solution

My first introduction to yoga was a Yoga for Dancers Workshop while I was in college at UCSC. The instructor gave us stick figure illustrations of the routine. Then one of those unexplainable things happened: I began practicing the sequence, every day. I had never set out with the intention of practicing yoga regularly, let alone every day. It just happened. Depending on how much time I had, I would spend anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours practicing. I did this for at least a year.

Later, after I had graduated from college, I found myself living in San Francisco. At this time, I was not practicing yoga nor dancing and I found myself in a lot of pain and going into a downward negative spiral. After learning that I had practiced yoga in college, a colleague of mine named Cheryl (her name is now Nayaswami Lila and she went on to be an assistant and cook for Nayaswami Kriyananda.) suggested I try yoga classes at a place called Ananda.

Ananda San Francisco was offering a teacher training course and something inside of me just told me that I had to take the course, that it would be my lifesaver out of the pain. I had no intention of teaching yoga, however something was strongly telling me that it was what I needed to do for my own healing.

I was the youngest person in the class and with my dance background I was physically able to master the asanas more easily than most of the others. However, I very quickly learned that my deficiency was elsewhere. It so happened that this group was very advanced in yoga lifestyle, philosophy and meditation – probably more than the usual yoga teacher training group.

I allowed myself to be open-minded about all that I was learning; it was new and very different to me. I decided that rather than judging everything during the course, I would experiment and try all of their suggestions. Gurus and miracles, meditation, karma and reincarnation were all new concepts to me and I had to work hard at opening my mind to these esoteric ideas.

I had back pain up and down my spine and at times radiating down my arms and legs. Interestingly, practicing even some of the more advanced yoga postures helped me to feel better. However, sitting still for meditation was the most painful thing I could do – excruciatingly painful.

Among the many nuggets of wisdom taught by my teachers, Dhyana, Ram and Pranabha, was that if a person meditates on the eyes of a true guru or saint that they will be blessed – even if they are only meditating on a photograph. One afternoon I desperately wanted to meditate. Having experienced little tastes of meditation in class, I knew I wanted more of its nectar. But every time I tried, I ended up meditating on a worsening pain.

On this day I thought that if I meditated on the eyes of a saint or guru that perhaps I would be blessed to be able to sit and meditate. The only problem was that I didn’t think I had any pictures of a saint or guru. Then I realized that I had a copy of Nayswami Kriyananda’s book, The Path. His photo was on the cover. “He’s a saintly man.” I thought to myself. “I will look into his eyes.”

I set myself up for meditation, I placed the book in front of me, and I prayed and looked deeply into Swami’s eyes. I began by alternating looking into his eyes with closing mine and visualizing them as I practiced the techniques that I was learning. It took tremendous willpower to keep the focus as I sat. As it usually did, the back pain was creeping up on me. I kept willing myself to stay focused on the eyes and as I did I asked for help. After a time, something happened that I can only describe as a miracle: I no longer felt any pain whatsoever. I had transcended the pain and gone deeper into meditation than I ever had before.

When I came out of the meditation, however, my back pain was not cured. It was still there but that momentary experience of being pain free made a believer out of me. Curing the back pain altogether is another miracle story for another time.

I went on to finish the three-month Yoga Teacher Training program. Though I had not intended to be a yoga teacher, the very next day after I graduated with my yoga teaching certificate in hand, I was teaching a yoga class. Nearly 30 years later, I am still teaching yoga and loving every second!

Nicole DeAvilla lives in Marin County, California with her husband and two teenage children. In addition to living, researching, writing and teaching about yoga and yoga lifestyle, she enjoys hiking, being creative and spending time with friends and family. Having been inspired by her own mentors and having felt the support of a yoga community in her own growth, she wants to give others the same opportunities. She is passionate about making yoga accessible to all people and providing support for them through The 2 Minute Yoga Solution book, community and events and The 2 Minute Yoga Club. Find Nicole on Facebook: www.Facebook.com/2MinuteYoga and www.Facebook.com/nicole.deavilla. Tweeting at: @NicoleDeAvilla. Join Nicole for Twitter Chats #Yoga4Moms, #Yoga2DStress, #4YogaTeachers and #YogaSFBay.

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.

Living My Dream

Name: Dagmar Spremberg
Location: Montezuma, Costa Rica
Occupation: Yoga Teacher

Photo attributed to Flickr user Grand Velas Riviera Maya.

I grew up in a small town in Germany and I remember that as a teenager I always dreamed of a life on the beach, in the sun and under palm trees. Of course, it seemed such a cliché and like a very far away dream, I never thought that it might actually happen one day. But as it is with our dreams and visions, somehow we keep them in the subconscious mind and they have their own energy and power…

In 1991 I traveled for the first time to a faraway tropical land, a land like the one in dream: Costa Rica. I lived in a small seaside hotel in Montezuma which belonged to a German woman and her family and I was very touched and inspired to see that there actually are people who live this dream. But of course I still didn’t think it could ever be me. So I went back to Hamburg with my husband, back to my life and career in the music industry, which was quite exciting and fulfilling, but deep inside of me I still had that longing, I wanted something more from life.

On my 30th Birthday, I suddenly knew that it was “now or never.” It was just a feeling in my gut, but it was so strong I knew I had to follow it. So I left my life in Germany behind, quit my well paid job, left my husband and traveled with two suitcases into an unknown adventure to Los Angeles. There were at least my palm trees, the beach and the sun. I started a small agency for photographers and organized photo productions.

It did not take long before I first came into contact with yoga and found my wonderful yoga teacher Christi Minarovich. Initially skeptical, I listened to her stories and the yoga philosophies: to let things go, accept where you are, things will fall into place…a far cry from what I had learned in Germany, where I was more the type of person pushing forward rather than letting go and sitting and waiting to see what happens next. But there was something that immediately touched me deeply and gave me hope, strength and confidence and so I soon started learning to let go more and instead to rely on my intuition.

I learned to breathe, to find the beauty in life. I started to soften and surrender and suddenly more and more doors started opening for me. Yoga gave me a new view of life, a new sense of purpose and the answers to many of my questions. After three and a half years in Los Angeles, I moved to New York where I continued working for photographers and deepening my yoga practice. Here I found Elena Brower and Anusara yoga and I loved it so much that I went to yoga 4-5 times a week.

Then in 2000 I booked a trip to Costa Rica, and that is what changed everything. I went back to the place that had fascinated and touched me so much in 1991: Montezuma. Nine years later it was still there, a small fishing village, sleepy and quiet. It had not changed much. And as it happens in life, I soon fell in love with the owner of the Hotel Los Mangos. On the property there was an open pavilion that was previously used as a restaurant, but had just been closed two months prior to my arrival. Open air, with a wooden floor and overlooking the sea- the perfect quiet place for yoga! I thought about bringing yoga teachers from the U.S. and organized and booked the first retreat with my teacher Elena Brower for November 2001.

After September 11th happened, I packed my suitcases in New York and decided to jump fully into my new adventure in Costa Rica. And then it hit me: here I was, 20 years later, in my dream of living a life by the sea! Everything seemed to fall into place easily for me, I just needed to say yes to open new doors. It was an incredible feeling of Bliss!

Elena then came for her retreat and she encouraged me to become a yoga teacher myself; so I started training as a yoga teacher in New York. For more than 10 years now I have been living my dream and it is the yoga which always continues to encourage me to see the good, the opportunities, the possibilities in every moment; to trust and believe in my own power and intuition, and to breathe through difficult situations and challenges.

Yoga has taught me to be soft and to give space, both to myself and therefore also to everybody else. I’ve learned from my own experience to first shift things for myself and then everything else will shift with me. I have now found the relationship for which I had always longed, but it was not until I shifted myself that I was able to meet the man of my dreams.

It is the most beautiful gift for me to share my passion for yoga with other people in my classes and to see how fast transformation can happen: how people are calmer, happier, more radiant with yoga. It is not important for me that you can put your foot behind your head or get into difficult asanas, but rather that you feel good about yourself, so that you will find clarity, peace and strength and learn to trust yourself.

I love to empower people to live their dreams.

Dagmar Spremberg moved from Germany to Los Angeles in 1996 and began practicing and studying yoga. After moving to New York, she intensified her studies and trained with certified Anusara teacher Elena Brower at Virayoga. She moved to Montezuma, Costa Rica in 2001 and founded Montezuma Yoga and began teaching yoga and organizing yoga retreats with international renowned teachers of all styles. Dagmar is a 500-hour certified E-RYT with the Yoga Alliance and an Anusara-inspired teacher. As a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in NYC she complements yoga with her work as a certified Holistic Health Counselor and teaches lifestyle immersion programs within the Montezuma Yoga 200 Hr Yoga Teacher Trainings.

Dagmar lives with the Swiss artist and musician Daniel Gautschi, in Montezuma, Costa Rica, where they run La Candela Mountain Retreat. Daniel plays the magical instrument called Hang in Dagmar’s yoga classes and they perform frequently together in Costa Rica and Europe. Dagmar’s Yoga DVDs are available on her website as well as Daniel’s new CD “The Gaudan Project – Hold Still.” For more information please visit www.montezumayoga.com and check out Dagmar’s Facebook page here.

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.