By Chelsea Roff
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me about your yoga journey, Melanie. I wanted to start by learning a bit more about how you came to it to begin with? What was your first yoga experience like?
I took my first class in 1996, back when yoga had not become the cultural phenomenon it is now. Studios were very few and far between and you didn't see copies of Yoga Journal or the equivalent in your local stores. My younger sister, Natascha, asked me if I wanted to sign up for a yoga class with her through the local community college's extension program.
As it turned out, our weekly yoga class was a Kundalini class and we did a lot of, what seemed to me, odd physical movements accompanied by chants. I was intrigued. My sister and I giggled through much of the class and surely exacerbated our teacher, but we didn't stop and we signed up time and time again.
But Kundalini isn't your regular practice now… what made you branch out?
I wanted to practice more consistently. I asked my good friend, Marla if she knew of any studios. She told me about a guy in Santa Monica teaching classes on donation basis and said I'd probably really like him and his style of teaching. That's when I was led to Bryan Kest's class above Radio Shack. The old brick building with the weathered wooden floors appealed to me immediately and I connected to Bryan's honest and raw sensibility from the moment he opened his mouth.
His class rocked my world. It was no Kundalini class. I left wrung out and completely "high," "stoned on oxygen," as Bryan would say (and continues to say). And I loved it. I felt open, connected, and completely alive. The physicality of his class was appealing given that I was coming from a major gym obsession. Eventually, I cancelled my gym membership and that was the start of liberating myself from some incredibly toxic behaviors associated with an abusive and disrespectful attitude toward my body and replacing it with a nourishing and loving yoga practice.
What about yoga was nourishing for you?
It's all nourishing to me - breath, movement, state of mind and heart. I feel completely emotionally, spiritually and physically fed by my practice. It has taught me how to practice forgiveness, compassion, gratitude and mindfulness. Yoga has allowed me to get to know myself in new and mysterious ways and it's helped me create a strong community. All those things have remained consistent over the years.
You've been practicing for over fifteen years now, during which time I know you've endured some huge life changes… becoming a mom, for example! Did yoga help you through any particularly difficult times - grief, loss, adversity?
Yes. My practice became a place of solace, healing and consistency. Four years into my practice, an ex-boyfriend that I had just rekindled a relationship with died of a drug overdose. I was devastated and inconsolable. Within two weeks of our reunion and our discussions of a shared future, I got a call from a friend of his letting me know he had been found dead in his bedroom and that my number was next to him on the night stand. It was surreal. There were days I could barely peel myself out of bed, but I'd drag myself out of the confines of my covers and practice daily.
I needed to. I had to. And I did. The space of the studio and the safety that the teacher - Caleb Asch, one of Bryan's protégés - provided in his classes, along with the practice itself, was a saving grace. Yoga provided a level of consistency during a time of major emotional turbulence. One thing I could count on everyday was Caleb's class and time on my mat.
Losing your boyfriend sounds an incredibly difficult experience, and I can only imagine how raw/vulnerable you felt in your practice at that time. What do you think it was about Caleb's class at that time that provided that safety, solace, and comfort? Was it the yoga? Was it something that teacher specifically was saying/doing in his class?
The practice itself was comforting and healing. While everything around me felt chaotic and uncertain, I felt that I could count on the sound of my breath and the mat under my body. The practice allowed me to connect to my grief in a way that I wasn't able or allowed to in other areas of my life. I could feel it in my body, I could let it be and after waves of pain rolled through my being, I could let it go because I had been completely connected to it.
The physical space itself was also beautiful - the studio was nestled in the foothills and after an evening practice I'd walk out to the sound of frogs in the creek nearby. It wasn't as jarring as walking out onto a crowded boulevard. And then there was Caleb. He's a warm and inviting person with depth and heart. Plus he is a skilled yoga teacher that doesn't just teach asana. I got to dive deep into my practice with his guidance.
MelanieWhat about when you became a mother? Did your yoga practice change during and after your pregnancy?
Oh, yes! It changed drastically. I gained 60 pounds during my pregnancy and had an emergency c-section. After my son was born, I could barely recognize myself and my old body image issues resurfaced with mad intensity. I was in a state of deep despair, depression and body hatred.
I couldn't accept that this was me and I had just created and given birth to a new human being! It was a terrible place for me mentally, emotionally and physically. I should have been basking in the joy of my new son, but I was primarily affected by my expectations of what I used to look like, what I should look like, what my birth should have been like.
Pregnant and new moms are under intense scrutiny for their weight these days and where I live, in Santa Monica, many new moms look like they didn't have a baby 5 minutes ago. I didn't even practice for a year after he was born, aside from a few minutes here and there at home.
What made you stay away from the mat when those body image issues were coming up? I mean, many people would argue that yoga helps with body image issues. Do you think that's true, or did yoga in some ways seem like it might exacerbate them?
I agree. Yoga absolutely has the ability to assist with distorted body image issues. Yoga did that for me the first ten or so years (I've written about that process quite a few times and have an extensive chapter about the relationship between my body image journey and evolving yoga practice in the forthcoming anthology, 21 st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice). But after my son was born, I was so completely jarred by the pregnancy and the intensity of the birth (in other words, nothing that I had expected or planned for) that I spiraled into a bit of depression and I was in a type of denial.
I wasn't ready to go on the mat and face myself physically or emotionally. I knew that my practice had the ability to ease my negative feelings about my body because I had experienced that previously. But to emerge on the other end, well, it requires a tremendous amount of dedication and work…part of that work is the courage to meet yourself and deal with what you find. I was exhausted, depleted and felt defeated at that point and unable to bring myself to the first leg of the journey, the willingness to begin. So I avoided it.
It wasn't until I was complaining about the disconnect with my body when my friend, Vytas, asked if I had been practicing. I sheepishly admitted I hadn't practiced in over a year. I'm so grateful for that gentle nudge from him. As a result, I returned to class and started practicing at home on a regular basis.
melanieIt was like starting all over again. I had to truly tap into the forgiveness and acceptance. Physically, I could barely do anything. I lovingly allowed myself to return to child's pose over and over again. I returned to class time and time again, replacing my must-do-it-attitude and you-must-be-this-way expectation with "this is what is." Slowly I was able to connect the fragmented pieces of mind, body and heart. I also really understood Bryan's rhetoric...you know, hey, not everyone is going through the same thing emotionally, mentally or physically.
Why would we expect our bodies and our practices to look the same?
It was the first time in my life I felt this way physically and it was sobering and awakening.
I also came to terms with my age. I wasn't and I'm not 26 anymore. What I needed from my practice then is not what I need from my practice now. I also can't go to a 90 minute (to 2-hour class if Bryan is teaching all the time. I have a son and a career and tons of laundry to fold. So I go to a led class when I can and practice at home. Whether it is 5, 20 or 60 minutes, I practice. Sometimes I practice asana for 10 minutes and then sit in meditation for 50 minutes and I feel amazing. At 30, I would practice asana for 90 and maybe meditate for 5 minutes. I love the evolution. It's a beautiful thing and my practice is just as nourishing, if not more so, than it was 16 or 10 years ago.
How did you come to yoga? How is yoga transforming your life? How are you sharing the benefits of your practice with your community? Whether you're on your mat, living your life, or loving those around you, Manduka wants to hear from you! Fill out this short questionnaire about how you're living YOUR yoga to receive 10% off Manduka gear and a chance to be featured on their website or blog.
The YOU Series features in-depth conversations with yoga practitioners and teachers from around the country. The goal of the series to chronicle stories of how people came to yoga and how the practice is transforming lives and communities. To read inspiring stories from yogis we met at this year's Wanderlust Festivals, check out these blogs: