Growing up, I was a speed addict. No, I wasn’t addicted to amphetamines, but I was drawn to a very full life. I was constantly busy, with little chance to rest, and driven by a gnawing sense of perfectionism. My ego was a mule and the proverbial carrot was a merciless drive to succeed. During high school I had to have the best grades, be the best dancer, keep two jobs, a car, a boyfriend, and an active social life. This is the American way, of course, but we aren’t all built for such a lifestyle. I am and always have been a highly sensitive person and over time, this overwhelming existence did not resonate with my inner self. I started looking for outside sources to cope. Not understanding what was going on, I started to believe that I hated myself. I had no idea how to “fix” what felt so broken. My senior year, I crashed and burned, landing myself in the hospital for four weeks getting treatment for a nasty eating disorder. I hadn’t yet discovered the keys to my happiness, but this stay would give me a glimpse of what I needed to survive and find the inner peace I hadn’t slowed down enough to discover.
I remember being on floor eight, the “ED” ward of Baptist medical Center. My new private room was tiny, but after two weeks with a chatty roommate, I was able to have some time to myself in my own space. I remember having so many feelings, but they were overshadowed by an all pervasive sense of numbness. There was this thick cloud around my firing neurons and broken heart. It was partially formed by the previous months of starvation, but mostly formed from the heavy doses of medication I was administered daily. I already had a very shaky sense of autonomy, being a teenager, but in the hospital I was to give up every sense of control I had so clumsily put together in my life. It was at once freeing and suffocating. I was cold, lonely, and not allowed any exercise. In my heart, through the fog, I knew I was there to get better and find healing. I was to replace my ill-formed coping mechanisms of starvation and exercise with ones that didn’t threaten to ravage my mind and body as well as hurt those who loved me. I enjoyed those few moments of relative peace, after the morning weigh-in and before our daily routine of self-exploration and therapy.
That day, a Sunday, I was first exposed to yoga. Everyday was a strict routine, but Sundays were just a little more lighthearted. I clung to my withering faith and attended chapel on Sunday mornings. Then we would have arts and crafts, followed by a special class or treat. Sometimes it was dog therapy, where we got to play with therapy dogs dressed in silly costumes, but this Sunday it was yoga. I felt a small twinge of excitement. Prior to my hospitalization, I danced seven days a week. I had a focused yearning to be a professional dancer and I was so close, but I unfortunately wanted it too badly. The driving hammer of perfection banged on my mind and body until I believed I had to hurt myself to get better. My mind and body became twisted and weak, preventing me from doing the one thing I believed that I truly loved. Maybe yoga was a chance to test those waters again.
We met in the multi-purpose room. Drab and clinical, its grey walls were tacked with the occasional yellowing motivational poster. It had a few comfy old chairs and a pile of old board games in the corner. This place was constantly taking on new meaning. It housed activities ranging anywhere from tear-filled group therapy sessions to the occasional game night. Two things remained constant: the air was always filled with the stale scent that seems especially reserved for clinical settings and the walls absorbed all sounds, annihilating every hint of an echo, bringing forth the undeniable feeling that yes, you are stuck in this present moment. However, the energy room felt vastly different as I stepped in on this Sunday. Candles lit and lights dimmed, it seemed almost ethereal and inviting.
My favorite nurse, Joanna, also happened to be a certified yoga instructor. She sat at the front of the room in her grey scrubs with a serene smile on her face. She asked us to be seated in a cross-legged position, close our eyes, and just breathe. Following her simple request, I started taking long inhales and exhales. I was a classically trained singer, so breathing exercises were nothing new to me, but this was the first time I had ever just sat and focused solely on the beauty of my own breath. For so many months prior, I was intent on slowly killing myself, but at this moment, I felt the exhilaration of life within me. The breath was the essence and every inhale and exhale an urge to live. We went through some very basic asanas, or poses, with a heavy emphasis on mindfulness of the breath. There are many different types of yoga, but I would come to know this gentle, relaxing, and slow form as “restorative.” Breathing and stretching, I felt more free and alive than I had in months. I let my mind go and for that moment, gave up the nagging, repulsive feelings that had taken over for so long. I didn’t know it at the time, but every yoga class ends with savasana, or corpse pose, where you lay on your back and breathe. Nothing else is expected of you but to be in the moment. Suddenly, I wasn’t stuck in the present, but free to enjoy the delightful now-ness. Although subtle, I felt my perspective change and felt a sense of peace that was authentic. As we ended class and said “namaste”, I knew this was something healthy I’d seek in my life again.
Twelve years later, after a very long road to recovery, Yoga has become an anchor in my life. It’s more than a coping mechanism, but a compassionate way of life that bleeds into everything I think and do. Learning to take the time to stretch, breathe, and be mindful in the present has saved me from self-destruction. Although my life is still quite full, I no longer approach it with attachment to perfectionism. This has freed me to pursue my passion of teaching yoga and I am now beyond happy that I am now able to share this gift with others. I know that the experience of yoga is different for everyone and we all approach it for different reasons and under a myriad of circumstances, but knowing I can be a catalyst for change in others, as Joanna was in my life, makes my own suffering worth it. We can all change ourselves, and gradually change the world, one breath at a time.