My life before yoga was chaos. I owned a website development company back in the days of the web’s wild west. In 1996 I was 26 – making a lot of money, drinking at happy hour every day, and quick to lose my temper. When the movie Devil wears Prada was released, I recognized a little bit of myself in the character of Glenn Close. While I did not own the fabulous outfits and sassy high heels, I was quick to reprimand, and even fire staff, without giving them solid feedback or the opportunity to improve.
This old version of myself used made me cringe, but now I see her with compassion. I was young, ambitious and ignorant. A woman in a man’s world, I had a chip on my shoulder. Additionally, I took on a huge responsibility – employing people – and it scared me. I wasn’t the worst boss in the world, but I sure could have done better.
To mask my stress, I was causing great harm to my body. I slept a little and drank a lot. It was only after I had gone too far that I learned I had a stress-related illness called shingles. I contracted chickenpox my senior year of college, and they say adult onset makes you more prone to shingles. My nurse practitioner told me that this was likely a result of the intense stress in my life. She gave me some pills, but told me I needed to get my stress under control. Her advice?
A few weeks later, I stopped at a bookstore in Richmond on my way to North Carolina for Easter week at the beach with my mom, stepfather, and beloved dog Brandy. I picked up a book on yoga, and read through most of it in one night. It recommended a vegetarian lifestyle, discussed meditation, and provided illustrations and instruction on basic yoga postures. While I wasn’t ready to give up meat completely, I was at the beach, and was comfortable with committing to fish and vegetables for the week, just as an experiment. I also committed to practice yoga for an hour each morning that week.
By the time I returned home, I was hungry for more yoga. I signed up for a week long program at Kripalu in Massachusetts called “Fully Alive with Kripalu Yoga,” taught by Martha Abbott. I loved it. I went back for more, this time diving deep into the yoga sutras with Stephen Cope and Patricia Walden.
One night during that retreat, I signed up for a Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy session, not quite knowing what I was getting into. I thought the practitioner would stretch me out, kind of like a Thai massage, I would feel great, and that would be the end of that. What I didn’t know was that 90 minute session would change my life.
Lori, the Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy practitioner, explained that during our time together she would stretch my body and coach me to be present with any feelings, thoughts or sensations I was having. She suggested I share with her what I noticed, and let me know she would reflect back to me what she heard me say, so I could witness my own experience. She also let me know that she would not stretch me beyond what I could handle, and gave me permission to let her know if I needed more or less of anything at any time.
Lori placed me in child’s pose, and I cried like I hadn’t cried before. I felt safe, protected, and for the first time in a while, I sensed that I did not need to do or be anything. I could rest. Just rest. I didn’t know how exhausted I was.
I had a conversation with my own body for the first time since I was a child. By turning inward, I discovered how my body had been holding on to so much fear and stress. Not only was my body suffering from my recent work related stress, I recognize that as a ballet dancer I had detached for my body years before in an effort to avoid the physical pain and emotional judgment that resulted from my daily practice in front of a mirror.
Lori flipped me onto my belly, and gently lifted my arms, opening my chest into a beautiful cobra pose. And then it hit me. I had been working so hard to be the person I thought I was supposed to be. In the process, I put that same expectation on my employees and my friends. I crafted a delusional image in my mind that I was the star of the show, and everyone should fit the role I assigned. First I felt nauseous. I hated seeing myself like that! What a monster. But then the judgment melted away, and my heart opened.
I began to ask myself questions: Instead of telling people how they should be, what would happen if I simply encouraged them to shine? What if I could do that for myself? A whole new world of possibility opened up in that moment.
By the end of the session, I knew I would be selling my business. I knew I would become a Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy practitioner. It was an epiphany, a felt sense that I knew in my bones and muscles.
That was 2002. By 2003, I sold my business and was certified by the Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy school, for whom I now mentor. I have witnessed a lot of transformation happen over the past decade, both in myself and in others. This practice of holding space for myself and others to witness exactly what is happening in the moment is infused in every aspect of my life.
I am human, I am not perfect. But I am wiser. More awake. Happy as I am. I don’t know what would’ve happened if I chose a different path, that I am so grateful for the person I have become.
Heather Stang, M.A. is the author ofMindfulness & Grief and the Frederick Meditation Center founder. She holds a Masters degree in Thanatology (Death, Dying, and Bereavement) from Hood College in Maryland, and is a certified Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy practitioner. She has led mindfulness-based grief workshops for organizations such as the National Fallen Firefighters Association and Hospice of Frederick County, and is a member of the Association of Death Education and Counseling. Heather’s mission is to help people who are grieving to stay healthy and benefit from the transformative experience of grief, using mindfulness-based practices, relaxation, and expressive arts. She has an established practice offering Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy sessions, day-long retreats, and 8 Week Yoga for Grief groups. She is based in Maryland. You can find her on Google +
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