The following is my story with how yoga saved my life, in support of a charity yoga class with atlasGo + Prison Yoga Project + me on June 20th. More information can be found here.
To understand my relationship with yoga, we have to go back a few years.
I was born and raised in San Diego, CA and moved to San Francisco for undergrad at SF State in 2006. I moved for a short period to Honolulu, Hawaii, after graduating from SF State in 2010 to pursue a Master’s in Linguistics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Despite graduating undergrad on time, I took two separate semesters off and managed to graduate within 3.5 years.
Why the semesters off? Rewind back to high school.
We can all relate to and remember those awkward teenage years, where we are trying to find our footing in life, figuring out where we fit in. I didn’t know myself well enough, lacked the self-respect and dignity to pull away from things that were negative influences on me. Feeling lost, I turned to drugs and alcohol — all a facade to mask and quiet the internal confusion within me. Triggered by the dissolution of a relationship, the rejection led me to self-harming thoughts and the desire no longer live. With an attempt at ending my life, I remember being on the phone with my mother who was overseas in Taiwan where there was nothing she could do. The police showed up at my door, and my dad and sister were shocked, distraught, and escorted me in my dad’s car with my sister next to me asking why I would want to do this to myself, all the way to the hospital.
I spent several days in the hospital, forced to answer questions I didn’t want to, and talk to medical staff I wanted nothing to do with. In order to be released, I realized I had to play the part, obey the rules, and do what was asked of me so I could be left alone. It was only a band-aid that did not heal the emotional wounds that were very deep.
Once released, I struggled to reintegrate back into my teenage life, now with the added stigma of being mentally ill. Was I crazy? Yeah, I must be, if I landed myself in a supervised mental facility. My dad didn’t understand, and felt I could snap out of it because when he grew up, mental illnesses didn’t exist. My mom went through postpartum depression, and vaguely understood but kept her distance and drove me to my psychiatric appointments. I saw therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists and had to confront the reality that my brain was not well, just like any other internal organ within my body.
My ego prevented me from moving towards the path to “normalcy.” What if my friends knew I had to see a psychiatrist? What if they knew I had to be on antidepressants? They would think I’m mentally unstable and treat me as someone who is fragile. My own internal dialogue lacked compassion; I refused to acknowledge I was mentally ill and punished myself for being so mentally weak.
I eventually connected with a psychiatrist who was both goofy, completely human (unlike the sterile, matter-of-fact medical professionals I had previously been exposed to). He made me realize that I should give as much attention and care to my brain — arguably the most important organ in my body — as any other part of me. I convinced myself to frame it as a chemical imbalance, or deficiency, justifying the need for medication and continued therapy. Once I was able to accept my current situation, a switch flipped. I felt guilty for putting my family through the stress and worry that I caused and vowed to do better by them.
After graduating high school, I moved up north from San Diego to attend college. College can be a huge culture shock and transition for most people, and I felt like I adjusted pretty well throughout my first year. Sophomore year, though, was a different story. I moved into a dorm where three out of the four people living in there were already friends, and grew up together. As the odd person out, I was not privy to their previous lives before then, and felt isolated. One of the girls was a bully to me, and I didn’t know how to confront her or deal with the anger and frustration I felt towards her. Instead of reaching out to someone, I internalized all that I was feeling and wasn’t able to just feel. To compound with that situation, a friend of mine had passed away and I was feeling that loss. The bully I was cohabiting with kept a passive-aggressive attitude towards me, and I didn’t understand why the other two girls weren’t seeing what was happening, or saying anything in my defense. As far as I was concerned, I was trying to share the same living space as her, respect her as a fellow student, attend my classes, and live my life.
Suicide attempt number two came up as swallowing one too many pills I shouldn’t have. College had to be paused, and my parents had to withdraw me from all of my classes. I was back to the same situation as I was in high school, but this time with a longer hospital stay.
I found myself back to the same psychiatrist I had seen earlier, who made me feel like everything would be okay. There was a newer class of antidepressants that he prescribed to me, and in conjunction with consistently seeing him with some added movement like yoga, I attribute those things to saving my life from any future self-harm for good.
Things I’ve learned:
– Depression and mental illnesses are just as valid of a condition as any other injury, disease, or disability. There is no reason to feel any shame for any diagnosis you may be given.
– It’s important to be compassionate to yourself and let yourself feel the emotions you may be feeling in any given day. While it’s vulnerable, it’s undoubtedly what makes us human.
– You matter. Everything you do, from waking up in the morning, to showing up to that overdue coffee date with your friend, has an impact whether you want it to or not. It is said that as individuals, we will have impacted over a quarter of a million people in our lifetime (let that sink in…that’s NUTS). So yes, you matter, and your life is worth living.
– Along those same lines, don’t underestimate the impact you have on someone else’s life. I didn’t realize how much hurt and pain I was causing my immediate family, not to mention the time and financial strain that I caused. Sometimes it can be easy to put blinders on and only see what’s immediately in front of you, and not what’s around you.
I couldn’t stay away from San Francisco and left Hawaii in 2014 and entered the tech world within two weeks of moving back. To deal with emotional stress and trauma from the past, I decided to take yoga seriously since a studio conveniently opened across the street from my office. Also if I’m being honest, any kind of cardio is unappealing, although I try to cross-train and encourage cross training for my students. I first went at the behest my psychiatrist, and for the physical benefits of yoga, but it eventually morphed into an emotional and spiritual practice that has forever altered my life and outlook on life. Now I teach for a living, sharing my love of the practice and the community it fosters with everyone I cross paths with.
On the mat, I am forced to be with whatever it is I have brought onto it. This includes the emotional stuff, working with physical ailments, and being really attuned to my body and where it is in space. Through the years, my yoga practice has expanded from more technical yoga asana to the (at times) esoteric philosophies that yoga offers. It has taught me to be a kinder, more compassionate person; to understand suffering and how to better cope with it; to understand the power of observation and patience. Most importantly, yoga has taught me how we are all one in the same--despite our physical, cultural, aesthetic appearances--we are all human and all want to be seen, heard, accepted, and supported.
Someone had shared a post online about how the Prison Yoga Project was doing a trauma-informed yoga training in Oakland, and it immediately piqued my interest because of my feelings on the US prison system and my belief in how yoga truly has the power to transform someone. I went through this training shortly after earning my 200-hour certification and walked away with new skills and new perspectives on meditation and asana practice. Something as simple as closing the eyes can be triggering, or body placement in the room during practice, and being mindful of that is something I wouldn’t have considered otherwise.
PYP serves to provide mindfulness-based yoga programs into prisons, both domestically and abroad. Trainings have now expanded globally and also include trainings for incarcerated juvenile populations. Founder James Fox has authored a book titled Yoga: A Path for Healing and Recovery that is sent to prisoners who request who request a copy. All of these services cannot be done without the help of its surrounding community, which is why I hope you will join me in supporting our event on June 20th, either in person, or virtually.