My Journey Into Yoga


photo cred Jess Leonard Photography

"The Hardy Heart" monthly blog - August 2017

One of my main yoga teaching positions is at a therapeutic boarding school for teenage boys called the Gateway Academy. My brother Skip and I are the fitness team for the school. There are two groups of fifteen boys that switch off Monday through Thursday morning between yoga and circuit training. It has been a very challenging and equally rewarding job. Inside of the groups there is a mix of those boys that enjoy yoga and those boys that would much rather not be doing yoga. There is open enrollment at the school so we have boys graduating and entering at different times throughout the year. We recently began our fall term and I have a tradition of starting each term out by taking the class period to try to get the group on the same page by contextualizing the practice. We'll identify where yoga comes from, the language it is written in, how it was passed down, how the yoga postures and breath fit into the larger picture and why the school has chosen to have the boys practice yoga as part of their fitness regimen. As I walked into the dining hall converted into yoga studio to teach the first class of the term I was met with a new student who had a really upset look on his face and defensive body language as if someone was trying to corner him. The day staff brought the boy over to me and explained that he did not want to participate in yoga. I took a second to ask the student why and could not get a very convincing answer. I told him it was okay and to grab his mat, take a seat and that we would just be discussing the background of yoga. His face grew even more distressed as he let out a frustrated sigh and stomped over to slap his yoga mat down. I got my personal mat arranged to teach and called the room to attention. Before my mouth opened it dawned on me that I had never quite told my personal story of how I came into the practice of yoga with these boys before. I avoid giving too much personal information out to the students, but this morning I opened that door up a little bit wider. "Ok gentlemen I am really excited to be here this morning with you and get to - Hey can everyone follow my previous prompt and please sit up on their mats? Yup, everyone. Awesome. Eyes on me. Ok cool. So I want to tell you about what got me into yoga." Here's a little bit of a longer version of the the story that I told my class... At seventeen years old the summer before my senior year of high school, my mom, Carlie, convinced me to come to yoga with her because she said it would help me in the upcoming LaCrosse season. She led me into one of the fitness rooms in the Body Tech gym under foothill village in Salt Lake City. The room was dimly lit and I don't remember too much of what happened other than that I did not like it and it was kind of weird. Mainly, it just hurt. It hurt to stretch. I had been experiencing low back pain for a couple of years to the point of not being able to lie flat on my bed at night and the moves that we were holding were so uncomfortable. It was a good effort on my mom's part, but I did not make a point of returning to yoga with her. Flash forward two years to the fall of 2003. It is the first semester of my sophomore year of college at the University of California Los Angeles. I am in a bit of a funky depression. Things at home are getting rocky with my family and there is some financial uncertainty being brought up on phone calls. On top of that I am feeling in a bit of an existential crisis about my life path. I enrolled at UCLA as a history major, but really chose to go to school in Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. I spent most of my freshman year figuring out how to squeeze my way into the highly competitive Theater Department and am now a declared play writing major. My insecurities are flaring. I am battling with a general feeling that I am not enough. I'm not exactly sure how I found out about it, but with my mom's blessing I enrolled in a yoga class at the UCLA Rec Center on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. The room that the class was held in looked to me like what I thought a martial arts dojo should look like. There was super soft lighting, wood floors and sliding, paper screened walls. I can't tell you how many times I have wished I had kept the contact info for that yoga teacher to thank her. She was an asian american woman probably in her mid thirties with a gentle voice, caring demeanor and an amazing amount of body strength and flexibility. It wasn't a flow class, but a more slow paced, hatha yoga class where we would hold and breathe into some power postures and then a lot of deep stretching postures. I was not very comfortable with my body at this stage in my life and I remember it was difficult to be in a room full of peers (especially this one really cute girl!) and learn how to move my body in the motions and postures that are now so every day to me. At the end of each class I would walk out into campus at dusk and walk back to my suite relaxed and calm. I began to be able to lie on my back during the final resting pose savasana and finally found myself able to fall asleep on my back at the end of the night. You'd think from these type of results I would have been doing yoga on a weekly basis, but after that semester I left UCLA and returned home to be with my family through some difficult times and began taking the majority of my finances into my own hands. It would be another few years before yoga would come back to me. In the summer of 2006 my older brother Judd was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Leukemia. My older sister Erin and I moved back to Salt Lake into an apartment with Judd while he underwent chemotherapy at the Huntsman Cancer Hospital. Several months into the treatments, as the effects of chemotherapy became more apparent, we began looking for things that would help stimulate Judd's health and vitality. A friend pointed us to a free yoga class being offered at a local studio Centered City Yoga that was geared towards cancer patients and cancer care givers. I remembered how much the yoga class at UCLA had helped to boost my spirits and made arrangements to take Judd to the class. There was an old creaky staircase lined with students shoes that we climbed to the second level of a building off 900 south and 900 east in Salt Lake. The odor of pleasing incense was burning and mixing with the feint, musty smell of sweat and feet. We made our way into a dimly lit, beautiful room with an old hardwood floor, exposed brick and a couple of large, wood framed windows facing an alley with big flowing trees. The instructor for the class was a welcoming, bright and beautiful woman named Amy Conn (Amy has since become a really good friend and is now a fellow co worker). As it goes with cancer, there were people of all shapes and sizes, all at various stages of treatment and recovery in the room. Amy led us through a very peaceful and grounding yoga experience. It was one of the first times in a long time that I had been able to get quiet and sit with my breath, body and emotions. My intention going into that class was simply to hold space for Judd's healing, but at the end of it I realized how much I needed it. I purchased a five class pass to Centered City and after a little searching landed on a flow style class on Wednesday evenings taught by another bright, beautiful and grounding instructor named Kimmy Warren (also someone who became a really good friend and a fellow co worker). This class became my jam for a number of years. Through Kimmy's poetic, and passionate style of teaching I began really opening up into my practice. I found myself at home using a spare hour to crank up the tunes, roll out my mat and get lost in the postures and breath. Through these years we saw Judd into remission and helped relocate him to Hawaii. I weaved my way through working as a server at California Pizza Kitchen and the Melting Pot, supervising teenage boys in treatment as a day staff at the Gateway Academy, working as a barista at Coffee Noir, teaching guitar lessons, gigging with my band the Brumbies and completing my History degree at the University of Utah. Through all of this yoga was a core part of my weekly routine and life. The summer before my last year at the U of U, I was at yoga at Centered City and heard about a summer teacher training that was opening for enrollment. The first thing that went through my head was that if I completed the training and got a job teaching yoga I would no longer have to pay for yoga! I picked up two classes a week after completing the training and not only did I get an unlimited pass, but a new career path began unfolding in front of me. It took me a few years to get to the point where yoga and music could sustain me. One of the big turning points towards that end was when I added to my schedule teaching yoga at the Gateway Academy. As mentioned, I had worked there previously as a day staff and was really excited to return in the new capacity of yoga instructor. The first day I showed up the boys were all on their mats waiting for me. However, they were not attentively waiting for the instruction I was so ready to give. Rather, they were sitting there playing cards and games and reading on their mats. When I told them they needed to put the cards and books and games away nothing happened. I gave a second prompt and some of the staff and boys began removing the items. One boy in particular took this as an opportunity to stand up at the top of his mat and deliver a passionate speech of how unjust it was that I was demanding he put his cards away and do yoga. By the end of this boy's stay, he was leading his entire group through a forty five minute yoga experience. In much less detail, this is essentially the story that I delivered to my students on the first day of the new term. Some seemed engaged, others not as much. I was stoked when one of the boys approached me the next day and told me how he had never heard me tell that story during his whole time at the school and how cool it was that I had shared it. This one comment of course meant the world to me. You never know what telling your story and sharing your passions will do for other folks, but as with all seeds, with the right amount of water and light and care, growth does come. Thanks for hearing my story. Much Love, James

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