It started back in 2000 in Hawaii when I walked into a Bikram yoga studio. Originally conceived as a sequence of poses to heal injury, Bikram helped cure my chronic back pain that had defined my life for the good part of a decade. I died a little each time I sweated in that hot room for the first two months. I would go home, panting, to lay down in waterfall pose, seat against the wall and legs straight up, to let the spasms in my low back subside. After moving my spine forwards and backwards, sideways and around for 90 sweaty minutes, my nervous system would be on high alert. Every time I’d bike from Lanikai into Kailua, the ocean to my right and beach houses to my left, I’d debate turning around. Every time I’d either catch the bus or bike home (depending on the wobbliness of my legs), I felt grateful and expansive.
After another month, I noticed the back pains subsiding. I could go deeper in the poses with stronger quads and hamstrings. The lightheadedness subsided, and I didn’t count down the last ten minutes in every class to ‘make it stop.’ I started to stand straighter, stronger. I didn’t feel at the end of every day like scrounging for a torture rack or an upside down chiropractic contraption to help lengthen my spine from where it curved down by my sacrum. I could go deeper in twists, breathe into those areas of tightness. With more opening of my spine, the more open I started to feel overall. More clear-headed, capable.
I went four times a week for six months. I lost five pounds but, more importantly, my back all but stopped hurting. I didn’t have to lean over several times through the day to loosen up the vice that held my lower vertebrae in a perpetual C shape. My right shoulder didn’t look so obviously higher than the left; my legs were the same length without the right one an inch shorter. I didn’t feel twisted around “like a washcloth," unable to walk without hinging to the left and right to find some space in my spine. The muscles on both sides of the curve were strong now, from all the backbends and forward folds. They could support the spine without collapsing.
Since first casually diagnosed with scoliosis in first grade, 20 years before, this was a revelation. I suffered through a headache every single day of the last semester in college, and at least three to four times a week since graduating. Now, I found myself going to bed without once popping a Tylenol. Magic.
Before graduating with my MA and getting ready to leave Hawaii, I tried community center, beach-side yoga, confused by the different pace and pose sequence every class. Distracted by the teacher’s lessons and sound of the surf, I longed for the more structured, rigid pace of Bikram. So I went back a few times before the last push of moving consumed us and we headed for the mainland.
Arriving in Arizona, I found a Bikram studio in Scottsdale after about a six month break. Practicing in a hot room presented a new challenge in the desert heat. I would feel lightheaded, crinkly in my joints from the dry air, but happy to note that my back muscles strengthened right back up again to support my curve. I met a kindred spirit through Brendan’s medical school and we began to practice together in her living room, making plans to attend yoga teacher training. I felt a strong urge to help chronic pain sufferers discover the healing properties of yoga and share my story.
We moved to an apartment right next to At One Yoga in Paradise Valley, where I walked a few times a week to try a variety of classes. This was my first introduction to “vinyasa” with fast, fluid movements and blood-pumping playlists, and I welcomed the change of pace. My body reacted differently to more of a flow style and I realized there was an entire universe of poses beyond the disciplined, silent , 26-pose world of Bikram. My arms felt weak every floppy chaturanga I did, and I noticed that my spine balked in downward dog until I learned to bicycle into it and ease the vertebrae away from each other.
Then, I got pregnant. I learned through Mary Bruce’s prenatal classes that pregnant women were still strong yogis. “You are not invalids - you are simply pregnant!” she would offer, demonstrating modifications and twists designed to make room for our expanding bellies, while at the same time encouraging us to keep up with our regular practice. During this time, I started to truly believe the concept that bodies are complex biochemical machines. Our bodies know what to do; the challenge is to listen to them. To clear out the cobwebs, the stubborn will, the ego so we can hear, stretch and breathe.
I practiced all the way up until I delivered Liam - through terrible late-term back pain and numb sciatica sensations the whole third trimester. After his traumatic home birth, I waited the prescribed six weeks before walking to the studio. I moved my newly squishy body through my first class, arms shaking, abs weakened, but felt that familiar charge. I had never practiced with this particular teacher, who came up after class to say congratulations on my baby. “How did you know I have a new baby?” I asked her, wondering. Willing myself not to believe that the shape of my body and the recent 50 pound weight gain gave me away. “I didn’t know, but you have a glow. Motherhood looks good on you. And yoga does too.”
I appreciated that compliment, feeling my heart space open with my practice just like it was doing at home, reveling in life with a newborn. But, things turned for the worst rather quickly and the world tilted dramatically. During Liam’s decline, failure to thrive, illness, hospitalization and diagnosis of a rare kidney disorder, I lost myself completely. I drowned every day in a sea of remorse and grief, willing myself to catch small sips of air in order to cope. While in crisis mode, all of my energy went into healing him.
During his first three-week hospital stay, I left the hospital one time, after ten days, to go home to our apartment, shower, gather some things, and take yoga. As soon as I rolled out my mat in that familiar space, that tiny knot of myself I held onto so tightly, wound up near my heart, started to loosen and crack. I had held my breath for two months and felt giddy with relief when I released it during that first sun salutation. In shavasana, I went into a space of comfort and escape, then literally screamed in PTSD terror when the teacher came over to touch my temples. I had forgotten where I was, and suddenly all the raw emotion came rushing over me. Her compassionate face grounded me into the present moment. “It’s okay,” she whispered. “You’re safe. Whatever it is, your body gives you permission to let it go.”
Later that year, as crisis mode turned to survival mode and while in medical school, Brendan urged me to sign up for YTT at Southwest Institute of Healing Arts. He had witnessed first-hand how yoga fueled me and gave me life, remembering my previous, pre-sick-baby goal of becoming certified. So, true to form, he pulled me out of my malaise and made it happen. I resisted, as the last few months had seen Liam in the hospital twice, back for dozens of blood draws, undergoing an endoscocpy, and now wearing a feeding tube as his upper GI healed. I felt fear, resistance, failure and guilt on a daily basis. But, with Brendan’s support, I drove to SWIHA to make the admissions appointment, hands shaking. That day I signed up, got my books and came home, encouraged but somewhat paralyzed by fear.
It would be the first time leaving Liam since his diagnosis of Bartter’s. Even though he was in sure, loving and capable hands, I felt a part of me wither and die. But, we rearranged Brendan’s school schedule to coincide with class. I drove into Tempe three to four times a week, leaving my responsibility and a major part of my heart behind while I found a way to love myself again. To let the healing powers of yoga philosophy, practice and breath find its way back into my psyche and spirit.
I gradually allowed myself to feel. During a guided meditation, I remember sobbing hysterically in the middle of a candlelit room when all the shadows I had been hiding behind dissipated. For that moment I saw my trauma in front of me, vulnerable and alone. Through hiccuping tears I shared my raw emotions and experience with my classmates. Their hands immediately touched me or, if they were further away, reached towards me. I’ll never forget the healing I felt in the room that night as something wounded started to slip away. In its place, I began to see myself. In recognizing that vibrant, happy, positive girl, I started to love and forgive her.
After graduation, I felt a newfound confidence and purpose. I wanted to share yoga with anyone, but especially pregnant women and new moms. I put the energy out there to become available, and opportunity knocked. I started teaching at a tiny studio near Brendan’s clinic - prenatal and mommy-and me-yoga, only after taking workshops in each at SWIHA. I trusted my instincts as a mom myself, bringing Liam to class as a prop, showing moms how to incorporate babies, their post-birth bodies, and their new selves into a complete whole. And how to take that feeling with them out into the world.
Through a SWIHA connection, I met the group fitness director at Golds Gym, and she gave me my own class. Then two: Vinyasa Flow and Kids Yoga. Through a connection through a connection, I taught Partner Yoga and Family Yoga workshops (again, after only taking weekend workshops at SWIHA) at a little studio in Ahwatukee. I felt like I was impacting new moms, inspiring families to move together, teaching something tangible based on my own experiences. Transforming my PTSD into something positive, I slowly developed confidence. I would bring baby Audrey as the prop while trying to lead class and keep an eye on Liam, running around knocking over blocks and blankets, until I couldn’t do it anymore. Until the studio went under, just when I found out I was pregnant. Again.
But Gold’s Gym kept me on. And I found a groove with five classes a week in two different locations.
Always rushing to make a class on time, wondering every time “why am I doing this?,” frazzled as the kids ate dinner en route, I dropped them off at child care with minutes to spare before class started, then sigh a huge sigh of relief. Once I walked into studio 1, I would see familiar faces and say "hello" to that most-true place within myself. I loved helping athletes find flexibility, feeling the energy shift into a place of yogic movement, no matter what weights clanged around outside the room. I established rapport with students, walking back after each class to get my kids with an expansive heart and more room to breathe.
I taught at Gold’s for three years, through Liam’s diagnosis of autism and Aedan’s birth. It helped center me during this new time of upheaval, as we wrapped our minds around his diagnosis and what it meant. I taught through it, presenting the teacher + healer + listener part of me beyond the role of caregiver, mom and wife at home. It gave me purpose, it gave me joy. And it helped me stay strong. My scoliosis never did return like before, even after three back to back pregnancies. I always shared principles from Bikram with my sore clientele, as well as the yogic value of balance. How to engage, through every pose (and into your life), the connection of strength and flexibility, stillness and movement, effort and non-effort.
As life continued marching on in its frenetic pace, I took a break from teaching once Gold’s, on a night’s notice, disbanded its group fitness program. I shifted gears to teach literature and writing at a local college, helped open our practice’s new location in Chandler, taking yoga whenever I could. We joined Lifetime Fitness and I started to challenge myself more. Try poses that I previously thought I “couldn’t do,” for whatever reason. Kid stresses tidal waved as they all navigated through school, grade to grade, yoga always hovering on the shoreline, waving me in whenever I could make it.
Through an employee, I was given the opportunity to teach again, at a small studio just opening up. Though I felt rusty after a three year break, I welcomed the chance, that familiar “fire” of inspiration. As I attempted to access the yogic principle of “mindful detachment,” I tapped into my guilt and PTSD when I wrote the first draft of my book in 2013. During the overwhelming emotional unraveling of that period, I resolved to figure out again how to remain centered. Not “disattached” or disassociated from others’ emotions, but staying “mindfully” detached in order to hold your own. True to myself, stable and strong emotionally as well as physically, letting outside forces rage without affecting my center.
No easy task for a chronic people pleaser.
I learned in counseling that the only reaction I could control was my own. Like in vrikasana, tree pose, as you ground your standing foot into the mat as a foundation and keep your leg strong and steady as you balance. From the waist up, you may move, sway, lose your balance, but in your core, you stay strong. Through that foundation, stress becomes manageable, life becomes richer, emotions become beautiful mysteries instead of defining forces.
I took up running, weight lifting, the Beachbody home workout program Insanity. I injured myself as I got closer to 40; while healing from achilles tendinosis, I rediscovered yin yoga, learning the value of stillness and breath connection. With anything but a “simple” life, I started to value quiet. As Ram Dass sagely says, “The quieter you become, the more you can hear.” I find the power in this quote every time I hold a pose in yin and release whatever tension or trauma I am unconsciously holding onto. That’s when true yoga begins. Most recently, I have turned towards meditation, to take my acceptance of silence to the next logical place. To see what magic can unfold, knowledge gained, and peace realized through sitting in silence. With my physical limitations, it isn’t easy. But what in life is?
With my trainer, I found the value in mobility work to help my body adjust to getting older. I’ve tapped back into stillness to better listen to my body. Scoliosis pain has returned, but I now have the tools to keep it at bay by giving my body what it needs. Many a time last year I would lie in shavasana after yin, accepting the sensations running through my body, letting whatever emotion that had devastated me earlier it the day - vulnerability, decentering, judgment, etc - melt away as I cried rivers of tears silently into my mat. Something about the space of a yoga room, in tune with other people’s breath and intentions, cracks me wide open on a spiritual level. In that space, I believe real healing begins.
I have taught brand newbies, rejoicing with them as they get closer to touching their toes in forward fold, their heels to the mat in downward dog. I have felt intimidated by yogis in my class who are stronger than me, braver in completing complicated balances that I haven’t tried myself. I learned that you don’t have to nail every pose with exact precision to be a good teacher; you need an open heart and a healing spirit.
My whole life, I have been petrified of arm balances and inversions, due to being the kid with a chronic stiff neck who received one too many bad chiropractic neck adjustments. A lot of fear lives in my neck area. That is, until last New Year’s when I resolved to release the hold the F word Fear has had on my life. I wrote down “nail a head stand, overcome that fear” on January 1st, and on January 2nd I began to break it down. The first time I pushed myself up, balancing on my head, feet reaching for the ceiling, two things raced across my brain: 1) I could stay here all day, and 2) What took me so long?
True yoga, both practicing it and teaching it, requires playfulness, humility, a willingness to fall and fail, meet challenges head on, and welcome imperfections. I still have a long way to go with recovering from PTSD. With two kids with a rare kidney disorder (spunky Audrey, diagnosed at six months, and, of course, Liam) and two with special needs, my life will never be easy. Owning a business, becoming a better person through therapy, healing from the past: the stresses of these things remain. My reactions to outside events may throw me off, but they do not have to define me.
There will always be stress, upheaval, challenges. My body will always be injury prone, thanks to my anatomy. But with “a heart as wide as the world” (Krishna Das), I will always have yoga. Like a compass to align my heart center with my nervous system, my spirit, my body and emotions, it will center me. I feel called to share my story of healing, both directly and indirectly, to help people seek places within themselves that desire balance, safety and centerdness in the midst of a loud world.
I feel gratitude for my healing, for yoga, the gift of change. For the light within that has been allowed to lighten up other people’s lives through a deepening and lifelong practice. And through all the experiences that brought me here. For these, I am incredibly thankful.