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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

YOGA IS A JOURNEY: Personal Stories of The Path

Sep 01, 2022 06:00AM ● By Mila Burgess
Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.—The Bhagavad Gita

Most yoga students walk through the studio door marked “physical” when they first begin their yoga practice. They hope to gain strength, flexibility, mobility, stability and/or endurance. Once they establish a regular practice, though, students often begin to realize that yoga reaches far beyond the physical. As they continue to return to their mats, they notice other benefits, such as the power of the breath, the ability to concentrate and ultimately, for many, the practice becomes far more than exercises on the mat; it becomes a way of life.


Whether one is a first-time participant or a veteran practitioner, yoga is a journey that often takes the student from a physical practice, through a breath-centered practiced, to a heart-centered practice eventually that becomes a way of life. Several Atlanta-area yoga practitioners shared with us their unique yoga journeys.

PHYSICAL-CENTERED PRACTICE

Shannon Whiting has practiced yoga on and off for 20 years and took her first yoga class while pregnant. She was suffering from sciatica and found that yoga helped relieve the pain. Although she loved her yoga practice, she was a busy, working mom, and she fell away from it. But in 2019, Whiting’s world was turned upside down when she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. Realizing she needed to return to her practice, she built a small yoga studio in her basement and, over the course of the next year, she practiced—through chemotherapy, multiple surgeries, and COVID-19. In 2021, Whiting returned to in-person studio classes. The physical practice is most important to Whiting now, and she has a deep love for it. Yoga is helping her regain the strength, endurance, flexibility and balance that was impacted by her illness and treatment. The cancer-fighting medication she takes causes bone and muscle pain, stiffness and mental fog, and she feels that practicing yoga is a valuable tool for managing these effects. Today, Whiting feels stronger and more fit than she has in two decades, and she is cancer-free.
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After burning out from years of hardcore kickboxing workouts and the subsequent closure of her rock-climbing gym, Laura Jones realized she wanted to find an activity that enabled a continuous progression and could be done anywhere. Yoga was the answer. During the pandemic shutdown, she found a teacher she enjoyed on YouTube, but it was only when she took her practice to a large group setting in a studio that she started to connect more deeply to it. Jones feels the greatest lesson yoga has taught her is that her body can do anything. She has scoliosis and rods in her back, which she had seen as a hindrance. She thought yoga was only accessible to “pretzel people” and didn’t feel she would be able to do it. She also believed her physical pain was coming from the rods, but she has since learned, through yoga, that muscle imbalances and postural issues were causing the pain. 

Looking around the yoga studio, she couldn’t help but notice that everyone has asymmetry in their bodies, and she is reminded that it’s normal. While some poses are harder for her because of her unique body, her long arms make balance poses easier. “Who knew scoliosis would actually give me an advantage?” she says. Jones also loves the sense of community she finds in in-person classes. “We sweat together, we push ourselves together, we help each other.” She feels a bond with her fellow yogis and is happy to discover the positive energy they create together. 

BREATH-CENTERED PRACTICE

Yoga provided Shari Gayda with a sense of calm in a tumultuous time in her life. She began practicing yoga 20 years ago, and, although her practice has evolved since then, she acknowledges how impactful it has been to find her breath on the mat. Yoga taught Gayda to pause and take a breath during difficult moments on the mat, but more than that, it taught her that the breathing practice works just as well when facing challenges of everyday life. 

When Gayda first started her yoga journey, she was using a daily inhaler, which she hasn’t had to use in years. She credits the change to her breathing practice. Learning to quiet the mind by focusing on her breath has helped her become more present for her family and friends. She’s gained physical strength through her practice, but she feels “the true magic of yoga” when she seals her practice in savasana, or corpse pose. It is then when she is “simply breathing, and the universe offers a perfect moment of bliss.”

Growing up in South African apartheid, attending a strict, private, girls’ school, and living in close quarters with 16 of her relatives, Mayuri Mulji was overcome with depression and despair when she was a girl. “I hadn’t been equipped with an owner’s manual about how to function and find fulfillment in this world,” she says. Eventually, Mulji began to feel a strong pull toward meditation. At school, she would find quiet places to sit in meditation. Meditation became an especially helpful tool that helped her deal with being teased and bullied for being “one of the few brown girls” there.

Mulji continued to come back to meditation as a grounding force in her life since then, and 12 years ago, a friend invited her to practice yoga. Her practice quickly evolved, and she eventually became a yoga teacher. She likes to quote T. Krisnamamacharya, saying, “If you can breathe, you can do yoga.” 

Yoga is breath-centered; not only does the practitioner focus on the breath to maintain concentration, the breath is used to move energy through the body, too. “The goal is to stay with the breath for as long as possible, coming back to the rhythm and flow of the breath whenever the mind wanders,” says Mulji. “The breath is the current of life, connecting body and mind. It helps to have a focus for attention, an anchor line to tether you to the present moment and guide you back when the mind wanders. The breath serves this purpose.”

HEART-CENTERED PRACTICE

In January 2014, Will Thomason was “fried” from life, career and family responsibilities. Determined to restore and realign himself, he took a one-year sabbatical and set a goal of completing 100 yoga classes before the end of the year. He began with Yin and Yoga Basics classes and finished his 100th class in early September. He never looked back. 

Today, if it’s 10 a.m. on a weekday, odds are good Thomason will be on his mat taking Vinyasa Flow or Ashtanga Remix classes. In the beginning of his practice, he says, the power of the breath was “a great concept, poorly executed.” He aspired to meditation and could breathe with intention but struggled linking breath with movement. When it finally clicked for him, he was able to take his practice beyond the physical. 

Thomason sees his yoga practice as an important part of his lifestyle. He believes in creating systems to achieve one’s goals; yoga has become a foundational system that allows him to accomplish physical, spiritual and emotional well-being. Yoga has also taught him that it’s never too late to start something new. He invites other men to attend yoga classes and is grateful for the connections he’s made in the yoga community in which he practices. 

Precious stumbled into a yoga class when she was starting her fitness journey. She unknowingly signed up for a very challenging 90-minute class. “It was a total disaster!” she says. “It was like the game Simon Says, except I had no idea what Simon was saying.” She didn’t return to yoga for six months but did some research and decided to take a more foundational yoga class, which she stuck to. 

What began as a part of her fitness routine slowly began to transform Precious from the inside out. She became more centered and focused and grew stronger mentally, emotionally and spiritually. She says she had no idea yoga was what she needed to put herself back together after her mother’s death, but she could feel that yoga was healing her. It became a central part of her life for self-healing and for developing and fostering friendships, community and life experiences. She eventually became a yoga teacher but then fell out of her yoga practice during the pandemic. “Like dominos,” she says, “everything else seemed to topple out of place.” In hindsight, after resuming her practice, she believes that the break helped her realize just how integral yoga is to her life.

Brian Early believes that yoga is a life changer, and that the world would be a better, more loving place if everyone practiced it. 

Early began his yoga journey nearly three years ago while going through a divorce and trying to find a place for healing and growth. Encouraged by another male yoga student, he decided to give yoga a try, and he found the classes inspiring and the teachers kind and supportive. Initially, his goal was to understand the movements, and he has seen his physical practice grow, but he ultimately discovered that the union of mind and body is powerful. He loves the focus on breath and awareness and the ability to quiet his mind; he finds peace and joy in the practice. Now, Early practices yoga daily and says he feels less balanced if he has to miss a day. He enjoys daily meditation, breathwork, exploring tai chi and diving into reading materials focused on energy and spirit. He values the strong connection of like-minded, heart-centered souls in his yoga community, and even met his girlfriend in a yoga class. Early says he is a yogi for life now. He takes every opportunity to encourage others to start and experience their own yoga journey. ❧

Mila Burgess, E-RYT 500, YACEP, teaches at LifePower Yoga in Sandy Springs. She is the owner of Metta Yoga, offering workshops, private lessons, virtual classes, teacher trainings and retreats. Contact her at [email protected]
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