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I think there are defining moments in each of our lives. Moments that change us forever. Moments that challenge how we view the world, and how we view ourselves. That moment in my life came six years ago when I ended up in an abusive relationship. I reached out to family, did research online about abusive relationships, and finally got the strength and willpower to leave. I packed everything I could into my Mini Cooper and tried to forget it all.
I could avoid the thoughts and memories for a while, but my body would not let me forget. I did not recognize my body. I definitely did not feel safe with my body. In fact, I was completely terrified of my body. I remember the first time I had a panic attack. I was at work, counting my drawer to get on a shift to serve, and could not breathe. I thought I was having a heart attack — at 23. I asked a friend of mine to drive me to the hospital. I sat in the parking lot with him and cried. I did not know what was going on. I felt crazy. I felt scared. I felt helpless. These fears became so severe that I ended up secluding myself in my apartment for three months and was scared to leave for fear that I would have another panic attack in public. I was ashamed.
Healing began for me on the yoga mat. One of my closest girl friends asked me to go to a yoga class at a local gym. I had never gone to a yoga class before. I walked into the first class and walked out trying to understand how this was exercise?! Why did people do Downward-Facing Dog? I don't even know what a downward dog is! And this cat, and frog, and gorilla stuff? I don't get it. I left laughing, thinking I would never go back. A couple hours passed, and I felt so good. A couple days passed, and I realized I had not had a panic attack since that yoga class. So I went back.
I have practiced all different kinds of yoga, at all different studios, with many different teachers. While all these experiences may be different, the one consistent aspect of them is that I walk through those doors, take that hour or so for myself, and face me — face the good and the bad — on the mat. I see myself. I see the excuses I make when I am in plank too long, or how I glaze over after a teacher talks too long in a pose, and forget to be present at times when my mind wanders all over the place.
The biggest lesson I have learned is how I can heal myself on the mat. I have had my heart race when on the mat, reminding me of a panic attack, making me scared again of my body and the sensations that I feel. Then I go into Warrior 1, get into my pose, into my body, and learn that I am in control. I find confidence on the mat that I can work through these sensations, and that I am ok, I can trust myself. I have learned that when I hold my breath in my chest, like I do when I have panic attacks, I am not breathing correctly and can't help myself through what I am feeling. I go into Child’s Pose and focus on feeling the warm breath go out, on feeling my stomach expand, and on my ribs. I find power over what my body does, and I find control.
Power is what was taken away from me when I was abused. I was controlled; I didn't have a choice over what happened to me. I have learned that while I was an abused woman and have had some hard memories and feelings left over from it, that I can face it, I can be strong, I can be in control, and I can overcome my fears from it. I have learned to be empowered through yoga. I am so humbled to say that while this has been an ongoing journey and is never complete, I know myself more today than I ever have. What I have learned on the yoga mat has been translated into all areas of my life. This abuse does not have to define me. When I walk out the doors of the yoga studio and walk back into life, I can define how I am in every situation and carry my yoga practice and lessons with me.