Jessie’s Yoga Journey

12 Apr

In September of 2006, I was diagnosed with a Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).  My doctor informed me, as he handed me a script for my prescription medications, that I would be on anxiety and depression meds for the rest of my life.

At about the same time, I was introduced to yoga in an unlikely place—my Freelance Applications course, in Columbia College’s Fiction Writing Department, taught by author Michael McColly.  He opened each class with a breathing exercise and a few simple postures we’d do beside our desks in jeans and shoes.  The shift that occurred in our group of busy-minded writing students after just ten minutes of breath and movement was palpable in the room, and we were able to forget the dramas of the day and focus more clearly in the moment.  On days Michael might skip yoga, we would demand: “Just ten minutes, Michael, please!”  I found myself lingering after class to talk with him about this yoga.  He told me that yoga was how he helped cope with being HIV+.

Later, in July 2007, to celebrate Michael’s 50th birthday, we co-organized an event called Prostrations for Peace

I was shocked—Michael was the most fit, healthy-looking forty-nine year old man I knew.  He was an inspiring teacher, intensely dedicated to the craft of writing and to his students.  I figured if yoga helped him, it could help me.  I found a studio near my apartment, The Temple of Kriya Yoga, and for $10 a practice, I attended as much yoga as I could afford—usually two classes per week.

The effect yoga had on my anxiety-ridden mind was more immediate, lasting, and more invigorating than the drugs.  I tried the Xanax my doctor prescribed “as needed” one particularly anxious evening, and felt like I’d been mowed over by a bulldozer: I couldn’t see straight, I felt dizzy, my limbs were weighted to the floor.  It scared me.  I took the bus home and dumped the pills into the toilet.  I followed a vegan diet at the time, and from a health perspective, I didn’t like being on medication.  I just didn’t know that there were alternatives.

I tried talking to my psychiatrist about other options, and he seemed annoyed.  He kept reiterating that I needed these drugs.  I didn’t like that answer.  I switched doctors, and my new one said he couldn’t help me if I wasn’t willing to take my medication.

Meanwhile, I got more deeply involved in yoga.  Michael expressed that he wanted to teach a course combining writing with yoga.  I got to work, petitioning students and developing a proposal for the chair of the Fiction Department.  The class, The Writing Body, was offered the following semester.  I enrolled in The Writing Body in addition to a yoga course taught by Shaker Cohlmia in the Dance Department at my school.  I was ready to take the plunge.

A Writing Body field trip to the Indiana Dunes. That’s me leading a sequence in front of Lake Michigan.

After being on medication for over a year and experiencing little improvement in my symptoms, my doctor said we should up my dosage–again.  Something about that felt very wrong.  I saw myself into the future: continuing to increase my dosage in a repeating cycle until I was so drugged I didn’t know who I was anymore.  I wanted to break the cycle before it started.

I researched herbal remedies for anxiety and depression.  I found out about St. John’s Wort, GABA and 5-HTP.  I stopped seeing my doctor and gradually weaned myself off my meds.  Yoga became a daily practice for me, sometimes twice a day.  If I didn’t practice, I knew I would be in for a possible panic attack or a debilitating bout of depression.  But I was empowered: I could control these mood disorders as long as I dedicated time to my practice.  The Temple of Kriya became my sanctuary.  I never socialized when I was there; my emotions were too high for me to even form sentences at times.  But after practice, I felt lighter, clearer, motivated to go home and get my writing homework done, excited to wake up the next morning, light a candle, and practice along to a yoga DVD I bought at Barnes & Noble.

Time flew by and I began to feel an increase in drive and motivation again.  Michael’s Writing Body class taught me to listen to my body not only for the breath, but for stories, for voices, for inspiration. “We are recording our own physical history,” Michael said, “Your body is a wise old grandma.”  There was so much to learn!  I began to listen.  I learned that my anxiety was not some genetic disposition, but a result of me being out of touch with my deepest, most Authentic Self, of denying and ignoring my body.  Yoga set me on the journey to find that Self again.

The following semester, a new yoga friend and I founded a club called Creative Body, introducing different forms of bodywork to students through free workshops.  We held meditation, Reiki, dance therapy, yoga, and trance dance workshops, to name a few.  I enrolled in a Yoga II course with Katrina Ryan, who introduced me to the deeper meditative aspects of yoga and the power of intention and affirmation.  I medicated myself using my herbal supplements and a daily yoga practice.  I still suffered from anxiety and depression, but less frequently, and had new tools for riding the waves coupled with a newfound hope for the future.

Katrina Ryan deepened my practice through her Yoga II course at Columbia and through her loving support as a friend

I signed up for the Teacher Training program at the Temple of Kriya Yoga and looked to the future with more excitement and expectation than I could remember.  I saw my emerging life as a yogi; I became attached to the idea of becoming a certified teacher.

But Life had something else in store for me.  In October of 2008, I experienced some major financial setbacks and not only did I have to humbly ask for my Teacher Training deposit back, but I had to move out of my apartment in Chicago, back in with my parents.  It was embarrassing and disappointing, and broke apart my identity with becoming a teacher.  How could this be?  I could barely believe that I’d graduated with honors from an upstanding art school and I couldn’t figure out how to make a living.

I fell again into a depression, and had to confront some deep questions of self: Why am I here?  What do I want to do with my life?  I resonated with the adage: “Now that you can do anything, what will you do?”  This was almost as debilitating as my initial anxiety diagnosis.  My yoga practice was sometimes the only reason I got out of bed in a day.  Through a lot of talk therapy, unconditional support form my parents, and deep self-study, I came to the answer soon enough.

Eventually, realizing that I needed to let go of my attachments to my life in Chicago and follow my deeply repressed dream of living in the West, I found myself in the mountains of Colorado, with its abundance of sunshine and space for an expanding soul.  I was surrounded by positive people, spent most of my days outdoors and most of the hours of my days on horseback, and I discovered that I no longer needed even my herbal supplements.  I was, finally, drug-free.

One of my coworkers in the Outdoor Education program was yoga teacher certified—a title, at the time, that I envied and admired.  We woke up at 5:30 each morning to practice together before our busy day of leading hikes and teaching kids about nature.  She encouraged me to lead our practices—preferred it, even, which was a huge confidence boost to non-certified me—and it was there, guiding Sam and I through practices in a small cabin in the woods, that I found my teaching voice.

Using yogic techniques to teach campers how to connect with their horses

More and more of my Ourdoor Ed peers wanted me to teach them yoga, and I eagerly dedicated time to this cause, refining my vocabulary, giving in to the flow of practice, and building my confidence as a teacher.  As a wrangler over the summer of 2009, I began to use yogic metaphors to teach children how to connect more deeply with their horses.  It was a natural fit, horse and rider benefited mutually, and it affirmed that yoga is definitely something to be taken “off the mat.”

When a friend on the ranch asked if I would be interested in teaching yoga classes in an official setting, I could barely believe it.  My belief that I needed to be certified to teach yoga was proven wrong.  This was my dream come true.

Being a yoga teacher is educating me in more ways than I imagined.  Watching my students unfold as I offer them the gifts that yoga has bestowed upon me is the most rewarding, meaningful experience I could ask for.

As I taught and lived in Colorado, the journey continued.  I moved to Fort Collins and found Om Ananda Yoga.  The teacher training was utterly transformational.  The group of yoginis I met and the deep connection to spirit I gained permeated every facet of life.  I began teaching free classes in Fort Collins the moment I became certified, and haven’t looked back!

Living the Dream!

Teachers who have had a profound impact on my journey are first and foremost Michael McColly: he introduced to me the transformative healing potential of yoga, and he taught me how to listen to and interpret the language of the body.  Michael continues to inspire me today.  Agnieszka Miskiewicz at The Temple of Kriya Yoga taught me how to truly slow down and helped me to refine the art of alignment-based movement through yoga.  Shaker Cohlmia’s voice is still in my head when I teach; he helped build my foundation of the physical practice of the asanas.  Katrina Ryan revealed to me the power of intention and empowered me to manifest my dreams.  Kim Wilcox reinforced my love for a slow, deliberate practice and provided a yogic respite on weekends I spent working in Chicago (crashing on a friend’s couch) after I’d moved home.  Kari Cotton saved me in the months I lived in my parent’s home during the transition period between Chicago and Colorado: she introduced me to my “inner teacher” and proved to me that yoga at a suburban gym can be as authentic and powerful as yoga in a prestigious Chicago studio.  Sam Allen gave me the courage to find my own teaching voice and is probably why I am teaching yoga today.  Sarada and Shivaji Erickson of Om Ananda Yoga empowered me with knowledge and by sharing their deep connection to spirit through friendship and an incredible Yoga Teacher Training.  Mimi Houston paired with me to teach Yoga For Nerds and I learned patience, flow, and to lighten up! from that partnership experience.  I am grateful each of you for your incredible impact on my yoga and my life.  You are why I am here today.

Namaste.

And the story continues … please visit my blog to read the latest chapter in Jessie’s Yoga Journey!  Thank you!

. . .

The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne, Ph. D. was also a helpful tool for me in overcoming anxiety.

Click here to download a pdf of Michael McColly’s article The Body as Poet: Using Yoga to teach Creative Writing

This is a video created by Columbia College Chicago film student Lexi Tierney (my youngest sister) about the experience of living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder:

Jessie is currently enrolled in the Shambhava School of Yoga.

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