My Yoga Journey

I found yoga, as many do, without really looking for it.

My mom dragged me to a few classes with her while I was in high school, partly for company and partly with the hopes that something, anything would calm me down. Growing up I was tightly-wound, persistently restless, hopelessly perfectionistic, impulsive and strong-spirited to the point of sparking chaos.  I was the kid my friends’ parents didn’t want them hanging out with, a fire-starter, a fighter and I was a lot to handle for both myself and others, but especially for myself. I can’t remember a time I ever felt content, calm, or at peace. Happy? Sure. But, content? Never. I didn’t know who I was (like just about all teenagers), or maybe I did, but I just didn’t like it.

Anyways, I went to class with her and moved half-heartedly through the poses every so often. I didn’t really get anything out of it at the time, but the seed was planted and that was enough.

Then I left for college and didn’t think about it for a while. Everything was new and exciting and there was plenty going on to distract me from myself. But then I declared a Pre-Med focus and everything began to change. The class load intensified and every single grade suddenly mattered if I wanted to make it to medical school. Free time was swallowed up by shadowing, medical scribing in the Emergency Department and volunteering for EMS. All this stress needed an outlet and right behind campus there was a little hot yoga studio. Since I knew what yoga was I felt comfortable reaching for it now and I went. The casual class here and there soon became a regularly scheduled part of my week and eventually a life raft I’d fight tooth-and-nail to hold onto. If I had class all day and an overnight EMT shift immediately after, well then I’d wear yoga clothes to campus, use the meal hour to sprint over to the studio and roll into afternoon classes with sweat-soaked hair and tomato-red cheeks.

Without even realizing it, somewhere along the way my yoga practice became my own. A natural progression to cope with the steadily mounting pressure of my journey into medicine. When I moved to Norfolk for medical school, one of the first things I did was try out all the nearby studios. But my focus had shifted. I still enjoyed a good workout, but the rote physical movements were no longer enough. Instead of the predictably sequenced high-energy 90-degree sweat sessions I’d been accustomed to, I settled upon a tiny cork-floored non-heated Jivamukti studio with lots of windows, but no mirrors. There were rigorous physical practices, yes, but with less of a mold to conform to and instead the inclusion of meditation and chanting and discussions of philosophy and the translation of how what we do on the mat extends to what we do outside of it. The poses were no longer means to themselves and that’s where everything shifted, as yoga became an integral part of who I am not just something I do.

What I had realized over this time is that my time on the yoga mat is time that reminds me of who I want to show up as in the world. Yoga gives me the chance to behave impulsively, to push too hard, to cower in fear, to not do it perfect, to ask what perfect even is, to demand substance from my life, to learn that all I experience is an extension of my beliefs, to tremble and shake, to squander my energy, to place it in the wrong square until I realize that every one but that beneath my feet is besides the point. It gives me the chance to feel small and big and everything and nothing. To be heard and to hear, see and be seen. To meet and move through all the things life asks of me first in a cocoon of warmth and safety, softness and compassion before I have to do so in the groundlessness of the open world. Yoga is my dry run that allows me to show up in this world highly intentionally in a way that serves–both others and myself. It provides my humanness an outlet protected from the hardness of reality, so when I do meet it, there is grace and introspection, compassion and self awareness–because the way we do one thing is the way we do all things.

Now almost a decade into my yoga practice, I wanted more and right around that time my teacher, the teacher who’d radically transformed my relationship to this practice, announced a teacher training program. When I ended up enrolling in this training I was at a low point, inside a hole so deep I couldn’t see out. It was the second year of medical school, a time when the collective morale tends to suffer because we’re neck deep in studying and stressing about the board exams, but still so far from the actual patient care that would render all the long hours, massive amounts of memorization, perpetual sacrifice and resultant isolation worthwhile. The first part of the boards exam, which is taken at the end of second year–the half-way point of medical school–is arguably the single most important thing in determining your future in medicine–where you’ll go, what you’ll be allowed to specialize in and even the quality of training you’ll receive in that residency and, as a result, the career options you’ll have from there. There’s a lot of pressure obviously, but on top of that I felt disconnected from the work, from myself, from my decision to pursue medicine. I was twenty-three years old and to be honest, I think it was too young. I wasn’t ready for the commitment and the sacrifice and the lack of freedom. I wasn’t prepared to dedicate my life to others when I hadn’t yet had time to figure out myself. There were so many days I woke up and seriously contemplated whether today would be the day I’d walk myself into the Dean’s office, confess how lost and unsure of myself I felt and announce that I needed time and wouldn’t be finishing out the year.

I wanted nothing more than to put my education on hold for the chance to rest and explore and make mistakes and just be twenty-three. Maybe I’d travel the world a little more. Gain perspective. Work with my hands. Spend time with those I love. Feel and process, write and and read. To figure out what the hell is going on in the world, immerse myself in current events and interact with people outside of this bubble of medicine. I wanted the freedom to figure things out and maybe even…you know, grow up a little?

So of course the last thing I was was “ready” to add another commitment to my plate. But I was so desperate for things to change that I was willing to try anything and yoga had up until this point been the thing that got me through. And the thing is, being ready is a myth. We’re never truly “ready”–it’s an esoteric ideal that enables us to stay stuck. It’s a way that we subconsciously self-sabotage as we hide behind the label “not ready” to avoid playing big, taking up space, living our brilliance. It’s an excuse that allows us to avoid taking risks under the veil of responsibility. Magic happens in the spaces between what we think we know and we have to move through life as if it were radically possible to transform ourselves and this world. Because it is.

So I enrolled in teacher training because if I waited till I was ready, I’d be waiting my whole life.

And it saved me–or rather, it helped me learn to save myself.

You know that really incredible feeling you have after a particularly wonderful yoga class? When you walk out the door and feel clarity and presence and deep gratitude that makes you just so stinkin’ happy to be alive? Well yoga teacher training takes that feeling and spreads it around so that it seeps out into the rest of your life, too. In fact sometimes I think about how maybe it should be re-named to something like “yoga life training, ” because the ability to teach is just a byproduct of having learned to live it for yourself.

Diving deep into the practice of yoga in it’s entirety–not just the asana (poses), but the philosophy and the rituals and the meditation–gave me this incredible sense of self-awareness, a consciousness of who I am and why I react/behave/feel/think the way I do, a knowledge of my place in the world and the radical complexities of being both everything and nothing. It reconnected me to my purpose, reminding me of the things I already knew but forgot somehow along the way. It provided clarity of perspective on what matters most and the liberation of realizing what really doesn’t. And even more importantly, discovering all of this alongside other people with the same drive to seek, understand and synthesize these ancient teachings with the contemporary realities of daily life, built sacred community, a sense of unshakeable belonging, a depth and connection to something so much greater than myself.

It made me a better human, doctor, student, and friend and so I don’t think it would have mattered if I ever decided to teach.

But of course, I did and then came Bhav Brigadeyet another prayer I didn’t know I was asking for.

Once I realized how much my yoga practice had filled me and how teacher training had given me the tools to fill myself, I decided to teach because when we’re full, our task then becomes to empty. To pour it all out, to share what we know, to spread the wealth, to give it away so that we can become receptive to more, so that the abundance of the universe can continue to be channeled through us in a way that serves this world. But when I did decide to teach I knew I wanted to do it differently. Yoga means union, Id’ learned, and if we place these teachings so high that not everyone can reach then we’re not practicing yoga because we’re not practicing union. So we took the practice back from it’s now commercialized nature in American society, focused on the heart, removed all the excess and brought it out from behind close doors using a platform we branded Bhav (divine mood, good energy, elevated disposition) Brigade--a grassroots movement that brings affordable, accessible, always-donation-based yoga out into the community to support local nonprofits and other worthwhile organizations.

This platform blossomed and thrived–you can read more about that here, here, and here. And eventually life brought me full circle, when a local teacher and studio owner, Diane Malaspina, approached me about creating a Bhav Brigade teacher training program, so that we could pass what we’d learned through Bhav Brigade to others, empowering our students to use yoga as a tool for community engagement and positive social change for themselves and training new teachers to expand this movement of affordable, accessible, philanthropic yoga far beyond what we could as individuals. The training is coming up in October and I’m so giddy with excitement I can hardly contain it.

Just like before, I’m finding myself relying on this teacher training as an outlet, like a life raft to carry me through residency in the way the practice of yoga carried me through my pre-medical education and Bhav Brigade carried me through medical school with purpose and balance and a connection to something greater. It’s of no coincidence that my journey from pre-med to medical student to physician exactly mirrored my transition from yoga student to yoga teacher (but still always a student) to teacher trainer (“See one, do one, teach one,” as they say in medicine)–one has always enabled the other.

On these days when I feel like I can’t move forward, when everything behind seems like a loss and everything ahead is out of reach, I drop into meditation, into yoga, into union. Into emptiness. Everything-ness. Nothingness. And freed of expectations I find myself swallowed up by that same gratitude. Everything is going to be okay because it already is.

There are a few things I now know to be true:

Life is as hard as it is beautiful.

Everything connects.

Nothing real can ever be lost.

We can’t “do it wrong” – everything we experience in this life happens because it absolutely needed to in order for us to wake up.

We are supported beyond our wildest dreams.

Whether it’s through yoga or not, I hope that you come to know these things too.


 

 

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