Yoga started teaching me how to save my own life from the first class.
I was sixteen, utterly heartbroken, and unable to be at home in my own pimply skin. My first boyfriend had literally just broken up with me, an hour beforehand — I left his house, with tears streaming down my face, to head to the bus stop. I realized that the next bus out to my town was leaving in two hours. “What the hell am I going to do?” I wondered, and the thought came to me: die. I could die, and not feel like this, like some awkward unwanted heartbroken monster. I continued to cry, looking at the storefronts around the bus station. Yoga, Grand Opening! one sign read, First Class Free! I wandered over, looked inside the window at the lithe yoga ladies in their Lululemon pants milling about. Nobody looks like me, I thought to myself as I wandered in, a tear-stained young gay boy in the middle of a group of women old enough to be my mother. On the wall hangs a photo of a kindly-looking Indian man — I walk over to it, drawn by an odd sense of belonging. Paramhansa Yogananda, a card beneath the painting reads. “Stay,” I hear inwardly — I turn and head toward the changing rooms.
“Is it anyone’s first class?” the teacher, a lean young woman named Jenya Rose asked. I raised my hand with slight trepidation. “Oh good,” she said, smiling cryptically. “Happy birthday.” I didn’t have time to correct her — it was time for Sun Salutations. Forty-five minutes later, Jenya Rose was telling us to lie still, to relax each part of our body in turn. I felt my sweaty legs and arms give in to gravity, felt myself release into the embrace of the earth. “Happy birthday,” I breathed inwardly, and understood completely what the teacher meant. I felt reborn, like I finally arrived in my body after years in utero, waiting for a chance to experience the world. Tears rolled down my face for the second time that day, but they were a different kind of tears, coming in waves like a sea of heartbreak and relief. I didn’t need to die. I was heartbroken and awkward and didn’t know what life had in store, but that was ok. In my body — in my Self — I was home.
Seven years later, I am sitting in a doctor’s office, the salt of dried tears across my face. He is showing me X-rays, taken after a car accident the day before. The doctor points with a pen at images of tendons, bones, muscles. “What were you doing before the other car hit you?” he asks. “I was coming from a Bikram yoga class,” I explained. “The other car ran a red light and t-boned mine at 45 miles an hour. I came to in a stretcher in the back of an ambulance.” “Well, Nick,” he says, uncapping the pen in his hand, “usually in accidents of this sort we see significant soft tissue and bone damage. From the images of the accident and what happened, I can say that most people would have broken their necks.” My eyes get wide with mortal fear. “However, it appears that you were both sufficiently strong in the neck and limber in the connective tissue that the damage is minimal. In other words,” he says, making notes in my medical file, “that yoga class probably saved your life.”
Four years later, I am sitting at a café with my friend Brian. When I met Brian, I knew the sort of place he was in — a kid, just coming to grips with his sexuality, drinking a bit too much, eating to quell a gnawing hunger that I knew had nothing to do with food. The man who sits before me, clear-eyed and sober, barely looks like the kid I knew. “You know, Nick,” he says, setting his kombucha tea down on the table, “I need to thank you. You have always been a good friend to me, but you went the extra mile. I remember the day you gave me that book.” “Autobiography of a Yogi?” I ask, swirling my green tea in its cup. “Exactly. And that yoga class you brought me to. I know it was years ago, but I need to tell you that it was really the turning point for me. I had no idea how far I had gotten away from myself — from my capital-s Self — until I started to taste what it was like to be my Self.” I smile at him. “I understand completely, buddy. And it’s my pleasure!” “I don’t know if you do understand,” he says, serious now. “I would say that you saved my life, but that’s not totally accurate. It was yoga. I can’t thank you enough for bringing me to the tools that enabled me to save my own life.”
I, like many in the yoga community, am sometimes prone to think of “yoga victories” as dramatic improvements. “I can do a perfect backbend!” “I found full enlightenment!” “I completed advanced teacher training!” These are great, certainly — humans like goalposts, enjoy making a landmark on the horizon to move towards. However, the incremental wins are what save lives. I have had good teachers who have emphasized that the Self is an inner state, a place and an entity that we come to breath by breath, not a distant goalpost to sprint towards. My intention as a teacher is to help my students and myself move those goalposts from distant places to a space inside, to bring the self back to the Self to dwell. Through a good lineage of teachers and a philosophy I agree strongly with, I see Evolation’s training as the perfect means to become skillful in conveying these tools to students in whatever state they may be in so that they can get to the state they naturally are. Put simply, yoga has taught me how to save my own life — and I want to give others the tools so that they can save their own lives, too.