Reflections on Nine Years of Yoga

Yoga. Ok. Write down every image that just popped into your head. Pay attention to the feelings that rise with each image. Whose images are those anyway? Now, consider how you define “yoga”.

Alright. Consider this, Yoga is union with Life. Yoga is being in the river’s flow and being happy about it. Yoga is embracing the here and now with all its wonders and terrors. Yoga is knowing it is not a matter of “Being here” but that “You are already here”.

We like to say there are many paths to the same place. Sure, I can jive with that. But if you are thirsty, do you wanna to walk to the river or away?

Nine years ago, I walked into a Yoga class because my cousin PJ challenged me to 21 days of Hot Yoga. At first I scoffed. Why would a popular fraternity boy waste time with yoga? My hobby was getting as high as I could and laughing about it. PJ did not back down. She upped the ante and said I probably couldn’t do it anyway. Boom. You’re on, cuz.

I knew little about yoga. The impressions in my mind were of sexy women sweating and stretching surrounded by mirrors on a wood floor and rubber mats. When I walked into the studio, high as a kite on marijuana, the heat smacked me in the face and I shook my head to remember why I was here. The smell of human sweat hung like a wet blanket. The carpeted floor didn’t help the odor much. I was the only male, except for the teacher who was clearly comfortable with expressing the goddess within. Also, clearly, I was not comfortable with the goddess within—remember fraternity—beer, weed, cocaine, stare at boobs, watch other dudes tackle each other, yell war chants, repeat?

The sweat began beading down my forehead before PJ and I even unrolled out mats. PJ had the good idea to put me next to the wall, and her on my left. The teacher started slow but soon we were charging through a vinyasa routine. His ongoing pep talk could make a Zumba instructor blush. The music was yoga electronica and some pop. I mimicked the best I could. The teacher said don’t give up, so I stretched harder. PJ seemed to move effortlessly. I gave it at all I had. No pain, no gain. My legs shook and my arms shook. The talk about ujjayi breath wavered in my consciousness but let’s be real--I was breathing to survive. I was 24 years old, fresh from graduate school, in my first hot yoga class, and I felt like I’d walked into the toughest exercise class of my entire life. Boy, did I reek. The smell flooding out of my pores was intense. Mostly, it was the smell of fresh ganja, but beneath it was the smell of innumerable toxins from the past year of drug abuse. I definitely had never sweat so much in my life. My body and mind space was electric with endorphins.  Every child’s pose felt like a gift from God. Eventually, I took my own child poses. My skin felt like the surface of the sun. I wondered when it would all end. I sent silent prayers to the teacher that it would be over soon. How long is 90 minutes anyway? Suddenly and miraculously, we were told to lay down on our backs for the final Shivasana. I was never so thankful to lay down. I lay there in a daze. A river of sweat seeped from my body into the wet towel and the now wet carpet around my mat. All too soon, it was time to sit up. Getting up from the floor was strange. I felt like my whole body had been wringed out like towel. I felt weak. I bought two coconut waters from the studio cooler and drank one before I made it to my jeep. I was loopy. Definitely still high, but different. Very drained, too. What the hell was that all about? What did PJ get me into? This was way different then your typical desk bound day or weight lifting at the gym. After my second coconut water, and maybe another gallon of well water, and a nap…I felt fantastic. I felt cleaner. Cleaner than I had felt in years. So I went back. I went back for 19 days, 90 minutes each day. I missed one day, so I made up for it with two in a day and finished out with 21 classes in 21 days. At the end of the challenge, I was hooked. I hadn’t felt so good since before I was 19, the year I began drinking alcohol. Yet, what was I hooked on?

The sweat was good for me. It cleaned me out. The stretching wringed me out. It took deep breathing just to survive the class, so the breathing felt good. I got more flexible. I felt stronger. There was an endorphin rush from the intensity of the physical effort. I lost fat. I felt better about myself. I just put in the most serious effort of my entire life. I changed my habits. Before the challenge, I’d already decided I needed to clean myself up and stop doing drugs (I didn’t count weed in that--though I did want to make big reductions in alcohol). The Challenge was my first real step in that direction. It shifted my subconscious patterning. And damn…. I felt reaaaaaaaalllly good after 90 minutes of maximum effort vinyasa flow. I also adored the hot yin yoga classes.  

At home, I began to practice vinyasa. I did my best to achieve the postures demoed by the teacher. I pushed myself hard. I was all masculine. For the next two and a half years, my practice was a static no pain no gain vinyasa. Yin was absent—I found it too difficult to stay still without someone telling me to. In vinyasa, my breath and movement began and ended at the same time. I rarely practiced sober. Marijuana was a daily part of my life. I was addicted to the feeling of the high lifting from my mind during the height of the practice. I’d get stoned just to get unstoned. Even now, I laugh about it. You have to.

In Madrid, my yoga practice declined with the rise of my drug habit. When I moved to Washington D.C., I told myself I was going to clean up again. I got back into my daily vinyasa practice and threw in cross fit and parkour. I dated a yoga teacher while I was working in Congress. She taught yoga with dumb bells. I initially took her class because she was really pretty. I didn’t like the addition of dumb bells. It was too much on top of my cross fit and parkour workouts. But, she did get me hooked on coffee right before yoga class. Weed, plus, caffeine, and vinyasa. My body was tripping out. However, my effort to clean up did not last. I still didn’t consider alcohol to be  a problem and it led back to everything else. I was still drinking booze to numb myself to my feelings, particularly images relating to the self and society and whether other people viewed me as cool or not. During my time in Congress, I fell into the deepest part of my drug addiction (the rock bottom was thankfully enough to get me to drop it for good). My Character also found its lowest point, thanks to the derangement of dugs on my psyche. The double whammy woke me up and I left for home.

In Deland, I kept up my yoga practice at the local studio, the Yoga Shed. Here, I found a totally new yoga concept. Emphasis on alignment. Slower pace. Emphasis on breath. No music. In a word, steady. The effect was profound. I actually found myself smoking less weed and for the first time in my practice I began going to class sober, with only the occasional high practice. Yet, my psyche was still badly damaged. I hated myself for how I acted in Washington. I refused to accept full responsibility and saw myself as a failure. I did not have full faith in myself. I was self-medicating on weed and a couple beers at the bar after work. By now I was rarely drinking enough to be drunk but the copious smoke more than made up for that. About a year later, still steeped in self-hatred, I started being an asshole. Mostly just to my mom and dad. Sometimes to my brother. Sometimes to my girlfriend and even to her dog. I had a short temper. I was back in a downward spiral. I started smoking more. The weed numbed my sensations.

One week was particularly bad. I’d not gone to yoga class for a couple weeks. I had temper tantrums at the Dally Bistro, my mothers place and where I worked. Mom asked when the last time I went to yoga class was. She said I needed to go back to class. She said I was better, happier, when I was going to class. Her words slapped me awake. I went to class that evening. I wanted to find out why I was happier after yoga. That’s when I realized it was the breath. It was the deep breathing that changed me. It wasn’t the physical posture; it was the breath. Four years into my practice, I was beginning to open the door into yoga. Of course, I was still very masculine in my practice. I still wanted to achieve the perfect book posture. Sometimes I’d pop out 101 sun salutations in a row. Then, five years into my practice, I began sitting still and breathing. What is commonly referred to as meditating. My Medicine teacher however would say that meditation is when you listen to God, prayer is when you speak to God. By now, my yoga mat was iconic in my psyche. It was my place of practice. It was also my bed, I literally slept on it, on the floor. It was during this phase of my practice that I realized I needed to discover why I was here. Why was I alive on Earth? I need to shake things up.

Less than a month later I was living in North Carolina, on the banks of the Nantahala River, training to be a whitewater raft guide for the Nantahala Outdoor Center. My family used to vacation in these mountains and raft down these rivers with NOC. The river and mountains were familiar and friendly. I felt at home. My practice was now vinyasa flow with some seated breath meditation. The river became my daily meditation. I got up for early morning runs, went down the river, and rode my mountain bike in the evenings. The Wilderness was becoming the space I needed to heal. I wanted to stay on the Nantahala where I might get involved in teaching Wilderness Medicine, but the Creator had different plans. NOC didn’t want me on the Nanny. They wanted me to guide the Chattooga.

The next three years on the Chattooga challenged me to the uttermost limits. For the first time in my memory I found the courage to do express myself. The Chattooga is no joke. She is both a lazy summer river and a raging torrent of whitewater. You cannot succeed there if you don’t find the commitment within. The lady was the space which encouraged me to grow. The river and the forest spoke to me. I began to believe and understand how my thoughts affected my reality. I saw how the river responded to my fears and my hopes. I talked to a tree. I saw people reinvigorated by Mother Earth. I saw kids see a river and a forest for the first time in their life. I saw adults relax. I saw people come to within mere feet of what was likely certain drowning. I saw my ego take control and I saw myself take control back. I saw my weed habit grow and subside and grow again. I saw my drinking habit shrink to one beer a week or less. Yet, my yoga practice intensified. My physical activity intensified. I was rafting 6 days a week, running most days, mountain biking, slacklining, playing on the rock wall and whatever. During my second year, my body began breaking. My flexibility decreased. One day, I remembered the hot yin yoga six years past. I bought a book on yin yoga. My body responded positively. Yin became my daily practice. My flexibility increased.

In between my second and third years (at the Chattooga) I read Autobiography of a Yogi. I became obsessed with the concept that I was less than perfect and only serious Yoga meditation could perfect me into a god-realization—super human powers and everlasting happiness. This concept began to haunt my life. I now began criticizing myself for not being able to sit still and meditate for five hours. Gotta laugh about that.

During my third year, the near death experiences on the river shook me up. Were we rafting for the guests or for us? Were we going into the Five Falls near the cut off because it was for the guests best interest or because our ego fed off the thrill? Rather than feel my feelings and learn from them, I sought to avoid them. I dove deeper into weed. I was irritable when I wasn’t stoned. I felt the alcohol and weed abuse at the river were preventing my friends from realizing their true potential. How could they achieve Yogananda’s self-realization if they drank every night and took shots of whiskey after scary experiences on the river? I began to withdraw myself from social gatherings by the fire circle. I developed a severe ache in my left hamstring and glute.

That year I also began dating Gloria, now my partner and wife. She is also a yoga teacher and her relaxed presence drew me like a magnet. I knew she would be one of my teachers. My interest in Gloria spurred me to enroll in a five-day Kundalini immersion training (Gloria was incorporating kundalini into her practice). Kundalini yoga moves energy. A lot. Still, I scoffed at much of it. I developed a slight fever and half-heartedly joined the chanting. After the training, I left the river and moved to Conway with Gloria.

I didn’t have a job, so I dove deep into this kundalini yoga. The practice is highly structured. You do A to receive B. I practiced for at least three hours a day for months. I held myself to the strictest standards. My flexibility did not increase. I still hated myself. My short temper returned. When would I achieve this yoga? Family drama did not make things easier. Gloria was my shining light. I knew she could help me heal myself if I told her everything. So, I did. She said I needed to forgive myself. I cried. I forgave myself. She told me she was not convinced that we needed enlightenment. What if we already are, she asked?

This was now eight years into my yoga practice. I was also in the first year of my apprenticeship to my Medicine teacher, Craig. He didn’t have high regard for so called self-realized yogis. He has met a few “self-realized” yogis and said they were mostly just full of themselves. My intuition told me that Craig was the real deal. A healer. He seems to have extra-sensory perceptions. In many ways he is the opposite of Yogananda. He smokes tobacco and has few physically healthy practices. However, he doesn’t encourage rigid structure and he always advocates for listening to your soul and to spirit. I was trying to figure out how to reconcile the two. Either we have to meditate and stretch to perfect ourselves, or we are already perfect. What the fuck are we supposed to do?

Now, nine years into my practice:

What is Yoga? Some teachers say yoga is union with the infinite consciousness. Others say yoga is one- pointed concentration where all else fades away. Is yoga union with self? Is Yoga union with life?

The idea that we, as humans, are less than perfect is not unique to contemporary yoga. Christians believe that too. However, it is not a concept that resides in ancient yoga, rather it is concept which began to bleed into yoga after the development of Hinduism. The concept is prolific among world religions. If you want a bunch of people dependent on an organization, it helps if you get them to believe they need you and your teachings if they ever want to get into heaven or to experience the kingdom of god.

Ultimately, all I can say is what I have experienced. The moments when I have thought that I had to perfect myself to reach an idealized state that will catapult me to a god-realization…I was miserable. I’ve let that go. I let it go because it became obvious that it was self-defeating. If you believe you have to perfect yourself, if you believe in Original Sin, you are implying that you are dirty. In effect, do not totally love yourself. It will always be self-defeating.

It is curious that within the belief system of Christianity is the concept that humans are at once guilty of being human and also blessed with the kingdom of god within. Which is it? Why the dichotomy? Who put it there? My point is that the concept that we are flawed likely affects you whether or not you consciously subscribe to a religion. It has seeped into society. It is often the basis of advertising. You have to have this product to be happy, to look good, to feel good, to be strong, to be whatever.

We have to let it go. We are Creation, we are Life. We are in deep in the flow of the cosmic river. Embrace who you are. Don’t run from yourself, don’t run from your past, and don’t hide from your future. Let it go. Why struggle to hold onto that which is? We are who we are. We are of the stars. Wondrous in our differences. Who are we to say we need improving? Embrace who you are and live a life in full and free expression thereof. That is enlightenment. That is Yoga. That is Medicine

Dear Friends, I’ve let it go. It didn’t happen all at once. There may still be flareups, but I know I have the tools to deal with it. Are you still with me? If you believe you are already perfect, you are implying that you are perfect. You can now heal yourself and be your own Medicine. We don’t need to be anywhere but here.

Nine years into yoga, I’ve thrown the door wide open.

A great thankyou to all my teachers.

Good vibes and big love,

Alex Perryman Novaa