My intellectual inheritance with Forrest yoga.
Ana Forrest’s book, Fierce Medicine, writes its way through the spiritual importance of a yoga practice. There are ways to do this—memoir, the self-help book, the new-age informative book. For Forrest, the decision is never made, and so the book is at times too indecisive and at other times, by melding multiple genres together, seeks to write a new philosophy.
Mostly, the book sings when she tells her own life story, or the story of helping her clients find truth and beauty in their own life. Forrest’s life necessitates the creation of philosophy, (which, of course, is the foundation for any new sect of a movement, like, say, yoga), and by studying her life next to her evolving understanding of yoga, the hardship and need that comes with self-discovery is made luminous.
Forrest faced multitudes of abuse from her very early childhood. Bullying from her mother and classmates, sexual abuse, self-abuse—everything we use ahimsa, or non-harming, to battle is made use of over her lifetime. The outcome of all the abuse and violence she faced led her to wild places. Her experience with yoga was very compelling, but for me, the way she began to utilize the literary devices of yoga served as more insight into Ana Forrest the woman and into the way Forrest yoga works.
At the onset, we see her taking the kind of pain she was born with physically in her legs and turning it into power. It’s not always a quick process, but the asanas are the foundation for this long process. Further, the efforts Forrest makes from childhood on to both end her life and make sure she does not end her life, are woven with very nuanced and volatile understandings of self-worth. Where on the one hand her anger and stubbornness allow her to work with horses at a young age (and be numb to physical accidents that happen at the stables), her low self-worth simultaneously leads her down suicidal paths.
The moment where Forrest was alone and chose where she was going to kill herself was unbelievably powerful to me. The sheer horror of detail causes any reader to have a visceral reaction. This is a woman who has already (by the ripe age of about 18 at this point) survived everything, and yet, she suffers from herself. Like many people who try to commit suicide, Forrest’s attempt is failed. She lived through it. And in her case, it seemed to be only the work of a miracle—a 35 foot jump to jagged rocks with her waking up hours later on a pile of sand that was (to her knowledge) not there to begin with. At that moment, I believed she really had survived through anything imaginable.
Even though she did survive, being able to really live was quite hard.
I was compelled by her work with Native American studies—becoming a healer, and shifting from her mode of fire at a young age into a seer, a real healer for those around her. Nature and the sublime prove to be an important shift for Forrest. In yoga, we do asanas that come from the strength of things in nature—strengths we want from those things (strength and balance of a tree, strength and enigma of a scorpion, grounding of tadasana, etc.). But, for Forrest, the relationship to nature is not just the way in which the human can access the self. For her, the animals in nature are kindred spirits. This shift is the most crucial in understanding how Forrest becomes a leading healer in the yoga world and how her habits of yoga (her own school) attempt to unveil different modes of expression and release from those who join her.
The outcome of her time in nature and with Native Americans was tremendous. We see right away how it seems so simple for her to later guide her followers through intense breakthroughs and breakdowns. Further, I think it makes Forrest herself a kind of troubadour in the Western yoga world. She will take the most hated of the goddesses—Kali—and beckon her to make rid of lesions.
For Forrest, the work of healing is never casual. I found that really inspiring and authentic. In general, I find myself taking a lot of things seriously—my studies, my writing life. It was refreshing to see a leader so invested in the emotional importance that yoga can have for some people. That truth feels very real to my own practice.
One of the most important things I took from this book was my experience with The Death Meditation.
Forrest begs the reader to reach for the notebook and follow her blueprint for facing your own death. I was pretty wary about doing The Death Meditation but decided that it might, if nothing else, convince me of the Forrest way. The hard thing about self-help books is that there is too much broad talking that is made to accommodate all kinds of readers. I went into The Death Meditation thinking that it might be too broad, that since I’m a writer I wouldn’t write anything new, or that because I’m wired to be hyper-aware that the prompts would lead me to usual topics of divorced parents, breast cancer, dead friends in my youth, and so on. I was shocked when all of this evaporated immediately.
To go to the page alone—this is the goal. I mean it metaphorically, too. In yoga, it’s the mat we must go to alone. And all of this aloneness has to do with how we are to access the self. As I began to write The Death Meditation, a lot of ghosts of my past appeared in a way that I hadn’t seen them before—things I thought I had let go of over time, on the mat, in poetry and in therapy, proved even more complicated.
I was writing to someone I love who I hadn’t allowed myself to be in love with. I wrote to my younger brother, which surprised me because he and I haven’t had any gripes (not large, anyways). I wrote about a friend of mine who I had long ago let go of in a way that made me unbelievably depressed. I wrote to each of my parents, but not in the usual way. Even a professor of mine who made me feel uneasy appeared in a deeply disturbing way on the page.
All of it began to weave a history of my own sadness and fear. It’s the narrative I thought I had a grasp on—I’m a poet, after all, and though the medium of poetry is voice, the material is my own suffering.
Forrest made me really rethink a lot of my life again. I think so much about everything, but I don’t let it out this organically. And the order in which things and figures arrived was really crucial to finding out about my own inability to feel compassion for myself. The most immediate person is the one I’m in love with, and I began to think long and hard about why I’m really a writer.
There are two truths about writing that exist within me simultaneously and it’s important to have both: that writing is voice and voice is important and all of it (reading and writing) has to do with accessing the self in different kinds of landscapes and conditions. On the other hand, I constantly wonder if writing is, in itself, action. I thought for so long that it was. But looking at The Death Meditation I had just written, I wondered how much of my desire to write has to do with my fear to live out the narratives—nothing happens in my life, so I have to create it on the page.
This extremity might seem dangerous—to have gone into ones own darkness is never a short journey. Prior to reading Fierce Medicine, I found myself drawn to Lynne Begier and Nicole Clark at Back Bay Yoga Studio (I did my teacher training with Lynne and a mentorship immediately following with Nicole). They both studied with Ana Forrest.
This might sound like a casual endeavor or pragmatic structure of education, but on the contrary, the seriousness with which Ana and her disciples understand healing is so vital to when and why people are drawn to Forrest yoga. Though I myself haven’t done a training with Ana, my mentors have given me compassion and strength that comes from the Forrest landscape. And I found myself in the space of their yoga rooms when I needed healing the most.
If we are going to heal, we need to acknowledge all parts of ourselves, both light and dark. An important part of my yoga inheritance already has to do with the philosophy of this brilliant leader. The title of the book speaks, loudly, to her practice itself: its atmospheric severity like that of blustery wind, its piercing way of unveiling the core, and primarily, its ability to heal.
Lisa Hiton lives in Boston where she is a professor of literature, yoga instructor, writer, and filmmaker (translation: voracious reader, old soul, relatively homeless, lives on lentils). She completed her MFA in Poetry at Boston University. Lisa has poems and essays published or forthcoming in the Indiana Review, 491 Magazine, The Poetry Dress, among others. This green tea enthusiast/Madonna fanatic can be found on Facebook and Twitter and lhitonphotography.com
Editor: Sara McKeown