Meant to Be: Me and Yoga, An Unexpected Love Story

I walked into my first yoga class at age 19. I remember being told to relax and breathe while in contorted poses where breath and relaxation were the last things I imagined possible. I worked hard and tried to keep up with a flow, but when it was over, I felt angry and hateful. No bliss. No peace of mind. I walked away from my first experience of asana wondering what my straight-edge, vegan friends getting into yoga were thinking. Nuts. They were nuts.

But as with many ultimately great relationships that don't start out so great, I somehow couldn’t let go of yoga. What was this practice that pushed my buttons so deeply? I tried out some DVDs by yoga-lebrity teachers and disliked those, too. Some were too fitness-y, some too New Age-y. 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.

Flash-forward nine 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. Given my initial experience of yoga, 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. I decided to give it a try.

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. It didn’t look like there was room for me, anyway. I was about to leave when the 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.

Gentle chanting played from a tiny boom box. She had a little altar with sacred objects I didn't recognize and a 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.

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 just as they were in that moment. For about 10 minutes, we breathed and noticed. We began simply, just filling our bellies with breath, then moving the breath up a bit higher, all the way to the collarbone. We exhaled generously, squeezing the belly. I felt myself sink deep into my body. I felt my busy mind slow way down. I felt the muscles in my body soften a little. I felt peace beginning to bubble up from inside. Suddenly my heart and brain screamed inside me, THIS IS YOGA!

The rest of the practice was challenging—again I found myself in poses that I hadn’t known were possible to do while also breathing, and again I felt angry about my body's limitations. But there was a big difference between that night and my other experiences. This time, I had space for it all. With Laura’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 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. 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.

That was 11 years ago, and 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 gotten back on the 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 being overtaken by them. Bringing acceptance to my limitations, celebrating my growing ability to become conscious of feelings and thoughts. Over the past decade, I’ve had the opportunity to study with a number of yoga teachers, some true masters of Kripalu Yoga, but it was Laura who first lit the candle in my soul, and I will be forever blessed for that.

Find out about programs with Heather Bilotta at Kripalu.

Heather Bilotta, RSMT, is a Kripalu YogaDance® teacher, Kripalu faculty member, Shake Your Soul® instructor, SomaSoul® practitioner, and Registered Somatic Movement Therapist. She has been on staff at Kripalu for almost 10 years. This essay was originally published on her blog. 

Heather Bilotta, RSMT, is a Kripalu YogaDance® teacher, Shake Your Soul® instructor, SomaSoul® practitioner, and Registered Somatic Movement Therapist.

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