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I walked into my first yoga class at 19. It was strip mall yoga. I remember being told to relax and breathe while in poses where breath, and relaxation were the last things I imagined possible. “WTF” was muttered under my breath repeatedly as I contorted myself into painful poses I’d never done before. I worked hard and tried to keep up with a flow that felt like it was created by a sadist. When the class was over, I remember feeling really angry and hateful. No bliss. No peace of mind. I walked away from my first experience of asana wondering what the hell my straight-edge, vegan friends getting into yoga and joining the Hari Krishnas were thinking. Nuts. They were nuts.
Why I ran from yoga
But like many ultimately great relationships mine with yoga started with distaste and confusion. What the hell was this practice that pushed my buttons so deeply? Why would I want to chaturanga 20 times and then hold down dog while watching my brain spin? Not willing to quit right away I tried out some DVDs by yoga-lebrity teachers and disliked those too. Some were too fitness class like, some too New Agey. And just like the woman who runs from that guy at the party who sips seltzer and challenges her mind with interesting thoughts rather than telling her how hot she is, I ran from yoga.
What on earth is Kripalu Yoga?
Flash forward by 9 years. My back hurt. It hurt bad. I had herniated discs during labor and the road to recovery was filled with intense lightning bolts of pain. Every doctor I had encouraged me to try yoga. “It’s good for a bad back,” they said. “It’ll be relaxing,” they said. With my initial experience of yoga with the sadist and boring DVDs it was hard to believe what I was hearing so I ignored the advice. After a year of limping through physical therapy, cortisone injections, and ever more pain I saw a flyer in my town for free yoga classes… this yoga had a weird name… Kripalu Yoga. Incredulous. Exasperated. I decided that I would try this yoga with the strange name.
I walked into the tiny rec center with a stinky carpet and cardio machines jammed against the wall and my tiny chunk of hope shrank even smaller. There were 10 or so people jammed into a room that only 6 people on yoga mats would fit comfortably…I was about to leave when my teacher Laura immediately sprang to help me find a spot. Everyone shifted a little left, a little right, and suddenly there was a place for me…it felt nice. My hope grew a smidge.
There was gentle chanting playing from a tiny radio. She had a sweet little altar with sacred objects I didn’t recognize and this little chime that she struck right before she began to speak. After the chime sounded everyone stopped stretching and the room fell silent. We were old, young, fit, and fat people all gathered together. Looking around the room I felt a sense of ease. I felt that we each belonged there on that mat, in that place, with each other. I felt myself settle.
This is yoga!
When Laura spoke her voice resounded through the small space, sounding like warm honey tastes…nourishing and sweet. She encouraged us to turn our gaze inward and sense our breath and body as it was in the moment. Then for about 10 minutes we breathed and noticed that practice. We began simply, just filling our bellies with breath, then breath moved up a bit higher, all the way to the collarbone. We exhaled generously, squeezing the belly. I felt my self sink deep into my body, felt my busy mind slow way down. I felt the muscles in my body soften a little, felt peace beginning to bubble up from inside. Suddenly my heart and brain screamed from inside of me, THIS IS YOGA!
Finding the true potential of yoga
Though the rest of the practice was challenging and again I found myself in poses I didn’t know that I could do and breathe simultaneously, again I felt angry about my body’s limitations, however there was a big difference between that night and my other experiences. This time I had space for it all. With my teacher’s gentle cues, encouragements, and lots of reminders to notice and accept the thoughts and sensations I was having I made it through the 90 minutes of yoga without letting my frustration sweep me away, off the mat and out of the class.
At the end of class I felt a sense of accomplishment, and my body felt better. Tensions were softened. Tissues lengthened. Though the flow was intense I felt like I was learning something beyond exercise for a sore back, I was learning something really important about noticing my experience and not letting it carry me away.
The beginning of a mad affair
That was 11 years ago and I haven’t looked back. I’ve been practicing Kripalu Yoga ever since. Not to say that this mad affair has been all wine and roses, true yoga practice isn’t. I’ve cried, sweated, blown apart, come back together, blown apart again and got back on that mat many times. I’ve learned that what I experience on my mat I can take into my life…noticing the hard feelings and not becoming overtaken by them. Bringing acceptance to my limitations, celebrating my growing ability to become conscious of feelings and thoughts.
The impact of a good teacher
Over the past decade I’ve had the opportunity to study with a number of yoga teachers, some true masters of Kripalu Yoga but none will ever capture my gratitude and heart like my first teacher, Laura Lin. Thank you Laura, wherever you are now. Your spirit lit the candle in my soul and I will be ever blessed for that. Jai Bhagwan!
Heather Bilotta is a passionate believer in the healing power of self-expression and the importance of connection to community. Her Shake Your Soul®, Kripalu YogaDance, Kripalu R&R classes, one-one SomaSoul® and Divine Sleep Yoga Nidra® healing sessions are infused with heart and creativity and are an opportunity to bring light and acceptance to your whole, unfiltered self. She truly provides a supportive no-judgment zone. Heather teaches at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, Cranwell Golf Resort, and beyond. She is continuing her studies in Body-Centered, Subtle Energy Healing in the Professional Training Program at Hartford Family Institute.