August 11, 2013

Cheese Fries & Late Nights: How I Became a Yoga Teacher. ~ Jen Niles

Five years ago today, I was downing my eighth Coors Light of the night.

Okay, let’s be real—there were three or four rounds of shots (Café Patrón) mixed in with those eight beers. And, sprinkled in between those shots and beers, a pack of cigarettes. And, after leaving the bar at 2 a.m., a New Jersey diner run was always a given. Cheese fries, egg and cheese sandwiches and mozzarella sticks.

This was a typical night for me in my pre-yoga teaching days.

I spent four to five nights a week for several years in that New Jersey corner bar. But I wouldn’t necessarily call myself an alcoholic during that time. I was more like a very committed and dedicated party girl/binge-drinker/binge-eater/chain-smoker. Despite my self-destructive ways, I did manage to hold down a pretty lucrative corporate career.

My philosophy was: work hard, party harder. I was very committed to that vision.

If someone were to tell me that five years down the road I would be retired from “corporate America,” living in California, teaching yoga and preaching health and wellness, I probably would have laughed so hard that I spit my Patrón in their face.

I mean, maybe it wasn’t that far-fetched. After all, during that time, I was practicing restorative yoga for a whopping 30 minutes once a week to a DVD in my bedroom. That counts for something, right?

This wild, party-filled chapter of my life went on for a good 10 years—before yoga changed it all for me.

I originally started yoga as a way to manage the high levels of stress and anxiety that came with my career. I definitely accomplished that goal, but my practice quickly evolved into something much more. Never did I think my practice would lead me to where I am now.

As soon as I started practicing yoga two to three times a week, my views on everything began to change.

First, I became a vegetarian almost overnight (and never looked back). I even dabbled with being vegan for a while (but my insatiable need for drunken cheese fries overruled that one).  Next, I gave up my daily pot of coffee and chose green tea (with no sweeteners) instead. Then, it was only organic vegetables and fruits. I even traded in my too-long Jersey Shore-style acrylic nails for a shorter, more natural look (which really helped my yoga practice). The list goes on and on.

My entire being as I knew it just started to melt away as this foreign (to me and everyone around me), health-conscious, semi-yogi personality started to emerge.

If only I could give up the binge drinking and smoking.

So, you might wonder, how was yoga the catalyst for all of these changes?

Yoga taught me how to stop listening to that self-destructive voice inside of my head. I began to focus on my breath and live in the present moment. Yoga also taught me how to turn my attention inward, and how to let go of the negative thoughts that were holding me back from stepping into my true self.

Before yoga, I had this whole warped vision of who I thought I was, how I was supposed to act, because of my conditioning and how I was raised. My life experiences turned me into an anxious, stressed out, unhappy, unhealthy, party girl who was trying to drink away her problems instead of facing them head on.

Yoga made me realize what my issues were and then actually taught me to do something about those issues, instead of living in denial about my harmful lifestyle and the toxic people that I associated with.

I can’t tell you how many times I have cried on my yoga mat over the years.

At first, I had no clue why camel pose made me burst into uncontrollable tears (at least once a week). I had no clue why I was in excruciating back pain, and subsequently found myself in the ER after attempting wheel pose for the first time.

After that ER trip (the doctor told me there was nothing wrong with me), I went home with my extra-strength Excedrin and started googling “yoga and crying,” “yoga and lower back pain.” That’s when I learned about the chakras (the central energy points in our bodies), and how yoga is designed to correct the energy imbalances in the chakras that are caused by our unique life experiences.

I was amazed to learn that my physical symptoms were indicative of my emotional issues. My lower back had been killing me for a month straight because I was suppressing all of my emotions.

At the time, I had some pretty serious unaddressed issues with several people close to me, but I always held everything inside, never voicing my feelings. Yoga helped set me free from those negative feelings. It allowed me to address those issues and then cut the toxic people and habits out of my life accordingly.

Despite all the enlightening lessons that I learned through my practice, I shocked even myself when I made the big announcement.

I decided to stop frequenting my local dive bar, boycott alcohol altogether, leave everything behind, and move to California to teach yoga under the palm trees.

Honestly, the main reason for my self-imposed prohibition was because I was 85 pounds overweight, due to many years of binge drinking and early-morning cheese fries. I knew the weight had to go. That’s when my Power Yoga obsession began.

At the time that I decided to go for my certification, I was far from healthy and far from qualified to teach yoga. But one day I woke up and just knew that I was supposed to teach. It was a sign from God. There was no talking me out of it. I had no choice but to follow this path that he put me on. As insane, ridiculous and unrealistic as it sounded to everyone I knew (and myself), I knew in my heart that this is exactly what I was meant to do with my life. God gave me a sign and I blindly followed.

But I had a lot of work to do before making it a reality.

So I quit drinking, smoking and eating cheese fries at three a.m. Instead, I filled that void in my life with my daily Power Yoga practice, meditation and a strict vegetarian diet. I lost the 85 pounds and never felt better.

During my “weight reduction period” I stayed home every weekend, socked away all of my money, planned and researched my future California relocation, found an apartment, found a job, found a teacher training program…and patiently waited for moving day.

When that day came, I headed West with my cat, Molly (who was an awesome road trip buddy) and never looked back.

Flash forward to present day—almost two years later. I am living in beautiful southern California and teaching yoga. Sometimes I even do this on the beach under the palm trees! In spite of all the obstacles, my crazy dream came true.

If you let go of your ego, follow your heart, have faith, work hard and stay dedicated, everything else will fall into place. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you anything different! You can do anything you put your mind to.

I am grateful for every amazing, divine moment of my new life. I am also grateful for every minute of my life that wasn’t so great. Those moments are what make this present moment so special. When I think about how far I have come due to prayer, yoga and commitment to my goals, I am filled with extreme gratitude.

I am exactly where I am supposed to be, and for the first time in my life I feel at peace. Not because my life is perfect. But because I know that no matter what obstacles come up, the universe is behind me as I travel down this path of healing and wellness.

Once you step on that yoga mat, there is no going back. Be prepared to leave behind your ego, or who you think you are, and make room for your higher self to emerge. Be prepared to give up cheese fries, chase your wildest dreams and move across the country to teach yoga under the palm trees, if that’s what you desire!

Let your yoga practice empower you to leave behind the things that no longer serve you, and become who you were really meant to be. Namaste.


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Assist Ed: Dejah Beauchamp/Ed: Sara Crolick

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