Monthly Archives: October 2015

MY YOGA STORY – WENDY WESTMORELAND

From my previous entry, Breath is Life: My first Bikram yoga class was in Feb. 2002, and I became certified by Bikram to teach in June 2006. Yoga teaches me daily (on and off the mat) concepts like discipline, determination, concentration, faith, patience, strength, flexibility, balance … really, all just other words for “awareness.” For me, the most important lesson is to breathe. Yoga teaches me to breathe in what I need and breathe out what I don’t.

Breath Is Life part 2

For me, yoga just kind of “showed up.” During the same week in 2002, I had three different friends on three separate occasions tell me about a “new” yoga they discovered. It was called “Bikram.” A 90-minute class, it was practiced in a HOT room, with humidity. It was the same 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises, done in the same order every time. I had never been to a yoga class. I was curious about the yoga, but mostly intrigued by the coincidence.

My first class was like so many others’ – I was hot, I sweat more than I thought humanly possible, I was nauseous, I was exhausted, I was overwhelmed. Despite all of that, I distinctly remember looking around and feeling, rather than seeing, that the other people in class knew something that I didn’t know. I wanted to know what they knew. So, I went back. By my third class, I was hooked. I went another 3 times the next week, then 4 times the next week, 5 times the week after that. By the end of my first month, I had signed up for the 60-day challenge; 6 days a week for 10 weeks. Holy cow, what a challenge! The deep detoxification process revealed something I was not previously aware of. It was anger, massive amounts of anger. I would twitch, and itch and scratch, and toss and turn. I would do anything I could to avoid feeling what I was feeling. I had never felt so much anger and it scared me. I worried. What if I scream? What if I explode? What if I yell AT someone?! I would panic and hold my breath. Fortunately, I had very patient, kind, observant AND firm teachers. They would tell me “Wendy, breathe”. They would remind me, “you have a choice; you can panic and head down the road of emotion or you can breathe and let that energy go.” E-motion is literally energy in motion, after all.

Fast-forward to July 10, 2005. I was rounding out three years of solid practice. I was averaging 5 classes a week. I’d completed two additional 60-day challenges during that time. I’d attended 3 posture clinics and even spent a weekend in L.A. with Bikram and 1,500 other crazy yogis at the Yoga Expo. The practice had changed my life, cleaned me out, and I had my sights on teacher training.

Then came a day that I will never forget. I was in my home office, working on a project. I heard a loud buzzing sound. I thought it was coming from my computer. When I stood up to look behind the monitor, I was hit with a wave of vertigo. I felt dizziness so intense that I fell to the floor immediately. This is where my memory gets spotty. I know I felt exceptionally disoriented, but also felt a strong need to get to my bedroom. I tried getting up, but my body wouldn’t work. I couldn’t get my arms or my legs to move. Somehow, I managed to stumble and fumble and crawl to my bedroom. When I reached my bedroom, I collapsed, thinking “this is good enough.” My roommate was home at the time. I heard him come out of his bedroom and I tried to yell for him. My mouth wouldn’t work. No words would come out. No sound would come out. I couldn’t use my tongue. I kept trying to make noise but all I could produce was a quiet little buzzing breath, not even “haaaaaa.” I laid there, basically immobile. I listened to him walk down the stairs, pick up his keys, walk out the door, start his car and drive away. I still had no idea what was happening to/with me but I also knew it wasn’t good. All I could think was “I’m alone.” I could feel panic rising in my chest, up through my throat. A voice came to me “breathe” and I inhaled. “Breathe” and I exhaled. “Breathe” and I remembered my yoga classes. “Breathe” and I remembered all that anger. “Breathe” and I remembered all the panic. “Breathe” and I remembered I had a choice. “Breathe” and I chose to breathe. And then I passed out or fell asleep – I’ll never know.

I don’t know how long I was out, but when I woke up, I couldn’t see. My eyes were crossed and blurry. Half of my face was numb and limp. Most of my limbs were like boneless chickens – flimsy. Long story a little shorter: I managed to knock my phone off my side table. I called my friend using my nose. I made vague words and strange grunting noises curious enough that she decided to come over. After medical attention, I found out I had a stroke. After extensive testing, I found out it was the likely result of a birth defect. I had a hole in my heart. Days went by and I had limited control of the left side of my body. I lost a significant portion of peripheral vision on my left side as well.

At the time, I could not explain why but I felt that an integral part of my healing would happen in the hot room. I insisted that I go there. I called in favors, asking friends to drop me off and take me home. The lack of balance and mobility did not stop me. There was little that I could actually do. I was convinced, however, that I needed to get blood to my head as soon, as often, and as much as possible. Not just any ol’ blood either. I wanted fresh, oxygenated blood. I knew the most effective way to do that was with that series of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises. I became particularly aware of any and all postures that gave me the benefit of head-below-the-heart. I focused most of my attention on those postures. I was diligent, making sure I was breathing before, during and after each posture. My brain depended on it.

Over time, moving at my own pace but with consistent practice, my coordination returned. I was also able to reduce the size of the blind spot on my left side. I had a talk with my neurologist and told her the story of that day. She later commented that it was highly likely that my choice to breathe in those critical moments saved my life. Hearing her say that convinced me that I had to find a way to get to teacher training, sooner or later. I remain convinced that part of the reason I am still on this planet is to pass along the message of how important it is to learn the power of your own breath.

The hole in my heart is fixed. I now have titanium plugging it up. That’s another story for another day/blog/post. It’s a good thing I live in Nashville – Music City. Eventually, I will write a song about a titanium heart.

By |October 12th, 2015|Yoga Story|2 Comments

MY YOGA STORY – LESLIE HINSON

One of the most consistent themes throughout my arts education was Creation from Chaos. Out of the debris left over from trauma or turmoil or pain rises the universally desired phoenix: art. Art is a response to the suffering related with the human condition. Once all of our problems are solved, we will be so comfortable on our fluffy pillows and piles of money that we’ll lose that friction that strikes the match of inspiration. Right?

In college, as I began to grow into my adult personality, I struggled with a strange dichotomy: a naturally Type-B personality coupled with a newfound perfectionism. I have always been a person who could easily become obsessed with a subject or activity, such as listening to the same song 40 times in a row or reading the same book every few months, but my obsessions had never manifested into diligence. Somehow I became addicted to making 100% on every assignment. Not A’s. 100% specifically. That takes many, many hours of memorization. So I became obsessively diligent about my schoolwork, and a whole mess of issues ensued. I worried. I didn’t sleep. I became extremely anxious and thought I had every disease I ever heard about. At the same time, I was more creatively inspired than ever before.

I had heard of yoga before, but resources were limited in central Alabama. The only experience I had with it was doing a beginner’s yoga DVD with my dad when I was in high school. I remember the instructor (Rodney Yee) saying, “Relax your eyes…” in a very chill voice, which sent us both into a fit of giggles. How could you relax your eyes?!

One day during my sophomore year of college, my music theory professor announced that his wife would start leading a twice-a-week yoga class that would be free to students. It sounded like something I needed, so I went. It was literally right next to the pool in the gym. I was surrounded by the sounds of gasping, arms and legs slapping the water surface, my mat was peppered with droplets from a rogue kick and all I could do was make to-do lists in my head, but somehow, I felt better after 45 minutes of just being on my mat. I started allotting myself two hours a week for yoga. I knew immediately that I wanted to be a teacher, and before doing any other yoga besides the poolside class, I began to offer short yoga classes to my fellow theatre students. I would work at the coffee shop from 5:30-8:30 AM, then go to the theatre building to teach yoga on stage from 9:00-9:30 before our classes started. I loved teaching and looked forward to it constantly, even though it only happened once a week or so.

As the benefits began to emerge, I worried. What if finding peace from my snowballing thoughts kept me from being struck with the lightning bolt of inspiration? Some of my best writing happened when I was pacing my apartment at 3 AM.

I pocketed that fear and went on to graduate and moved to Chicago the very next day. The city was cold and grinding, so naturally, my artistic life was thriving. I immediately started doing improv at The Second City, joined a comedy team, and started playing keyboards in a band. Life was as hectic as I thought it should be, and yoga was a tiny memory by then.

I noticed a consistent steeling of myself against other people. Maybe it was the North frosting me over or maybe it was the fact that I was still slinging coffee for a living, but I began resisting having meaningful interactions with most people. I became paranoid and hyper-vigilant, even to the point of thinking that coworkers were conspiring against me. My insomnia increased. Having anxiety or panic attacks was part of a normal week. I threw myself into ridiculously strict diet patterns. I worked, went to rehearsal, went to band practice, and watched a lot of movies on Netflix instead of sleeping. That was the way life was supposed to be. It pretty much sucks, and then you create something.

Erika (my bandmate and now roommate) called one day and invited me to take a free week of yoga with her at a studio in the South Loop. I went. Long story short, we were both hooked. We did a work/trade to keep going to yoga after our free weeks ended. I was not strong or flexible at all, so the flow classes proved to be a huge disappointment for me. I started with Hot 26, which was difficult yet attainable. I remember the first time I found my own eyes in the mirror during Tree and saw that my face was hardened. I softened my jaw and relaxed my eyes. Ah ha, then. Thanks for planting that seed, Mr. Yee, even though it took me 7 years to understand you.

I started sleeping better (i.e. actually sleeping). I started softening towards other people. I began to hear between the lines when someone spoke to me. This was the first thing that made me realize I was becoming a better artist. I noticed more. I was able to see bigger pictures. My writing seemed more cohesive and infinitely more relatable. I really felt like I was moving back into my childhood home in a good way. I was returning to a sense of self that had been gone from me for a long time. By losing my me-against-the-world mindset, I was allowing myself to truly experience unbridled joy and honest gratitude once again.

Later, I would come to understand my problem as being an imbalance of the ayurvedic dosha vata. When someone has too much vata, he or she becomes cold and anxious, is prone to insomnia and paranoia, and is very scattered.

I took Abnormal Psychology this summer to fulfill a prerequisite requirement for the graduate school program I will soon be applying to. Basically, there is a widespread notion that artists are crazy, and that the craziest people make the most brilliant art. However, that is not actually the case. To sum it up, while a person who has a psychological or emotional disorder may create more artistic output when in a state of disturbance, the quality of the output is inferior to the work that same artist does when he or she is stable.

Now I see the importance of balance. I see the importance of what we refer to as “your edge.” Recognizing your edge and staying close to it is an important concept to growing in your yoga practice on the mat, but off the mat it translates into the choices you make. Living close to your edge means that you are constantly reassessing what works and what doesn’t work. You are changing, growing, strengthening, welcoming challenge, and thereby welcoming change. Diligence, while certainly a virtue, is also a part of balance. You can overdo diligence to a point of just setting fancy rules and not really listening to yourself.

Now, I am very much looking forward to reentering the world of academia with a little more self-awareness and a few more tools under my belt. The thought of taking a giant leap deeper into my understanding in my field of study is exciting, not daunting. I have a loose plan for the future, but I don’t really know what it will hold. What I do know is that I will forever be a student of yoga.

By |October 5th, 2015|Yoga Story|0 Comments