Cleveland: Where Yoga Failed Me.

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Nick Brilla

I found my practice in Lakewood, Ohio the day after I filled a 13-gallon garbage bag with the gas from 100 nitrous oxide canisters, or “whippets,” and tied it around my head and neck.

I was supposed to die on that bed, quietly, deservingly, as the gas put me to sleep and the plastic suffocated my unconscious body.

See, I had spent the previous years of my life satisfying a few morbid curiosities that had racked up a list of criminal charges, ranging from misdemeanor assaults and trespassing to felony child endangerment, and the pressure of addressing that life had finally brought me to the edge of a total collapse.

The alcohol and opiates had won. I calmly filled the bag, consciously tied it around my neck, and sat in the corner with not a single tear or fear or regret.

I only remember the pain of my left sinus being partially torn as the bag ripped away from my face with a force that I couldn’t explain, and then seeing two feet running over the filthy, vomit-colored shag and into the hallway of the two bedroom apartment that was flanked by entry doors. Then a slam. Then an argument. It was my landlord, Steve—and he had just gotten caught having the affair he’d been having for the previous year. He thought I was at work and was cutting through my unit to get to the front of the building so that he could stall his wife and allow his mistress to escape out the back door and into the alley.

Him stopping to help me cost him everything. For some reason, I still felt nothing. No sadness, no regret, no anger, no shame or joy to realize that I was still alive—nothing.

I wiped the blood off of my nose and started walking to anywhere that wasn’t covered in that wretched shag. I walked down Madison, barefoot, until I hit 117th and realized my feet had been bleeding from the glass I encountered in Birdtown, turned North until I hit Detroit, then meandered back to the end of my street and sat on the stairs of the library, trying to separate my familiarity with the terrain and the sensation of feeling completely lost.

It was that staircase that changed everything.

I saw a person walk past with what I thought was, a gun across their back. I thought to myself “what an odd place to be carrying a rifle.” Then another person from the other side of the street had a gun too. It was a bit bigger, and pink. Then a third gun came across Detroit and I had to see where they were all going, so I got up and followed them into the alley of the first yoga studio I had ever seen. I felt a bit creepy being in that alley with my face and feet both covered in now dried blood, so I walked around front to look inside. They unrolled their weapons, one by one, exposing the colors that I would come to associate with healing.

I needed one of those rifles. I needed that space.

After one class with Maria, I decided that I would teach yoga one day. Then one day became the day, and I quit my job, cashed in my 401k, and started looking into teacher training programs.

It had been 540 days. 540 days of practicing every day, waking up and falling asleep within feet of my mat. It was 540 days of no opiates. No pills, actually. Not even ibuprofen. No sex. No meat. No lying. It was 540 days of recovering the pieces of me that I had been drowning and numbing for whatever reasons that people drown and numb pieces of themselves, and I felt, for the first time, completely alive.

The following week I took my first class at the local “hotspot” studio that everyone talked about. I remember feeling as if I had just been spoken to, directly. Feeling as if the other 45 people in the room, weren’t actually people in the room as much as they were bundles of molecules that were whirling around in their own space until it was time to expand and grow and collide with the bundle of molecules in the space to either side, above, and behind themselves, then retract back to the safety of their own mat. There were zero days over the next five months that I didn’t think about that space. It was winter, but it felt like June when I closed my eyes and went there in my mind. There was only warmth. Only sunshine.

I’m skipping those next 18 months, because I feel like they all felt the same and I don’t want to bore anyone, myself included. I had access to my complete power and honestly can’t remember a moment of my teaching experience that felt bad—until it did.

There’s an underbelly to anything. There are pockets of secrets and details that most people will never see or experience. There simply isn’t pure magic. There’s always the point at the base of the magic where an explorer can find the trick. To a fault, I’m drawn toward that exploration.

During the year and a half that I was teaching, I spent time with some wonderful people, and had the honor of acting as a sounding board for a few folks that I would, very honestly, consider to be geniuses or saints in their own right.

There’s a sad contrast to that time, though, where I was forced to allow people around me that I would, in no circumstance, ever let in my close, personal circle. One of those people was a male teacher, who from the first moment that I met him, made me feel extremely dirty. His presence, alone, spiked my awareness, and I knew that there was something in him that was dark and horrible.

Over the course of a few months this man developed an obsession with me that turned, and still turns, my stomach as I recall the middle of the night voicemails about how “I don’t pay enough attention to him” and how he “was going to end me.” There were many text messages about how he was “going to destroy” my career, and one where he actually threatened to take my life if I didn’t stay away from the studio where we worked. I addressed this with the teacher that I was assisting and was told that “[He] just seems to have demons that he can’t control. And [he] gets obsessed with men who threaten his comfort level.”

In the spirit of what I was doing, I tried to be sensitive to the guy’s needs and started making it a point to say hello and ask how he was when I saw him. That small amount of kindness quickly proved to be too much, and I was shocked at the stories he would tell me about his female students and how he pressured them into sleeping with him, then threatened them if they felt like talking to the studio about it. Even admitting at one point to having sex with a woman who was unconscious from alcohol, because it made him feel powerful to “take what was his.”

Addressing this with my contact person, I was told that, “[He] is trying to work on himself, and his classes are always full, so maybe I needed to move along if I didn’t feel comfortable around him.”

That was the moment that I realized that there was no more magic in the studio practice. The studio practice is all about the money.

After that experience, I began paying closer attention to the people that I held space with. I withdrew from the community that I was working with and crossed the valley to start over with a whole new group of people that I was sure wouldn’t allow their yoga to be infected in the way that it was on the other side, but quickly realized that, maybe, I was trying to see yoga for what it meant to me—and not what it actually was. I found the situation to be pretty similar, actually, with harsh amounts of judgement about students—the way they dressed, smelled, practiced, spoke, who they dated, and whether or not they even belonged in a class at all—often having to suffer through listening to students complain about the “number of n*ggers in this city” and other blatantly disgusting exhibitions of racism.

It got to the point where I simply removed myself from the social structure entirely.

Now, people who are out there reading this are probably wondering why I’m discussing it at all. Why, knowing that I’m basically alienating myself from a community that supported me so openly, would I ever choose to speak about these things? The answer is: Because, before I was a teacher, I was a student. I looked up to the people at the front of the room and wanted, desperately, to believe that they were the pure magic that I was needing to see, and be a part of. I wanted to believe that they represented the message that I needed to hear. I needed them to be real, but sadly, once I was on the inside, I knew that they, and possibly I, weren’t.

I left the yoga community because I no longer believe in it. It’s as simple as that.

I no longer believe in the magic that I used to heal myself. I can only see it as a business, and caught myself no longer seeing people and faces walking into my classes, but instead small bundles of three dollars. I actually reached a point where knowing that I was behaving this way was destroying the spirit that my yoga practice had built.

It’s sad to admit, but I was a part of the bigger problem. Honestly, I’m not concerned with losing friends or letting go of the small amount of celebrity that comes along with being a yoga teacher. I’m really not. I am, however, concerned that the practice has been polluted by capitalism, and have found myself needing to move along. I’m returning to my private, personal practice, where my mat and I can figure out the parts of my life that need clarity, and the parts that need to blur.

~

Relephant Read:

The Dark & Deviant Side of the Yoga Community.

~

Author: Nick Brilla

Editor: Toby Israel

Image: Author’s Own

~

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Nick Brilla

In addition to being a long-haul Trucker, certified 200 hr Yoga Instructor, and certified Thai Massage Practitioner, Nick Brilla is a foundational Creative Team member at thrivecleveland.com, a Creative Consultant and Photographer for the Cancer Recovery programming at M-Powerment.org, and the founder of greenglowyoga.com. His mission is to channel his experience in a way that can help other people relate to, or rationalize, theirs.

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anonymous Jan 23, 2016 8:43am

Looks like the teacher in question has been fired. Nice!

anonymous Jan 14, 2016 7:13am

I am sorry for your experiences. I too am a teacher but fortunately I do not rely on it to make a living. I work in a small studio, in a quiet town with a wonderful group of woman. My original 200-hr teacher exhibited some of the qualities you describe, she has a lot of demons to wrestle & I was thankful when she sold the studio although a lot of cliental left with her. She really was able to live a double life & I feel very sorry for her & hope she can finds the peace she so desperately needs. My point is that although I see the commercial end loud and clear I have met some genuine, loving people. I became acquainted with a teacher who began studying Tibetan Buddhism 20 years ago. He is currently living in a monastery within Nepal for the next 3 years to deepen his studies. He gives me practices, books to read and has become a great mentor and friend. He lives very much like the yogis we read about from another time and steers clear of our American Yogic culture except when he is visiting the states.
Please try to keep your eyes & heart open. There are a lot of stones, some very shiny & easy to find, but hidden among them are rare jewels & I would hate for you to miss one. There is a very simple, easy read called the "Way of the Peaceful Warrior". There are deeper books but sometimes the simplest messages have the most meaning. I wish you much love & happiness during your journey.

anonymous Jan 12, 2016 8:31pm

I believe that we are always in danger when we put anyone or even any 'thing' on a pedestal. We will always end up being disappointed and disenchanted. The greatest gift my teachers have given me over the years was that they showed me their humanness and their shortcomings. The greatest gift I've given to myself is the openness to accept them for who they are and where they are at on their journey.

I've been studying yoga for over 40 years and teaching for over 25 of those years. I have studied with many teachers – locally and more internationally acclaimed. All of them have had their own issues and while I may have not always agreed with their actions, they have taught me about life on and off the mat. To say that yoga failed you because of one teacher is unfair. I agree that yoga has become a business and am saddened by it. I don't blame yoga for that. I see the damage that the western world has done to a beautiful practice and philosophy (example: Hot Yoga?!?!? They don't do yoga when it's that hot in India!). I also see far too many students become teachers far too soon. When I was applying for my first YTT, I had more than a decade of practice and study under my belt and was/still am a vegetarian. I don't see much of that now in terms of qualifications to become eligible of a teaching certification. Perhaps teachers and YTT courses don't cover Ahimsa anymore. What I do see is that if you have the money and Yoga Alliance approves the YTT, you're eligible for a certification. Yoga didn't create that. People did.

We all have our own stories and shortcomings as teachers and as human beings. I feel very fortunate that my students accept me as I am and am honored that they are willing to commit to spending one evening a night with me, particularly given today's busy lifestyles. I, in turn and out of respect, believe I need to be honest with who I am to my students.

Yoga may help with depression and addiction issues but few teachers are qualified and experienced enough to help students with them. Hours of Surya Namaskar isn't likely to get someone sober or free of depression. My own experience has been a 12 step program for continued and contented sobriety. Yoga (teaching and practicing) has complemented that. I wish you well and that your outlook on Yoga changes. The center paragraph on page 417 of the Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (4th edition) may help (FYI: you don't need to be an alcoholic to benefit from that passage – just human).

    anonymous Jan 13, 2016 2:19pm

    Well stated Heidi.

      anonymous Jan 14, 2016 8:34pm

      Thanks, Jay. My teacher once commented that we should be careful about what we as teachers post (back then it was 'print') or photos we use for marketing. The caution on photos was more about ego and the other was more about regret – it could do damage to you (the writer) and/or yoga as a whole – either immediately or further down the road. Nick's article is one that I could see being a regret. It might have been better suited for a personal journal.

        anonymous Jan 17, 2016 11:43am

        Heidi, why would anyone ever, ever, ever, regret speaking their truth? Ever. Sadly, you’re still hiding the “real you” in your “personal journals” because you’re afraid of hurting your marketability as a teacher; which means that what I’ve written here is specifically directed at you and people like you. I don’t have to hide my feelings or opinions. I won’t. Nor, will I ever regret honesty.

anonymous Jan 12, 2016 3:25pm

I agree.

anonymous Jan 12, 2016 12:55pm

This guy has clearly suffered from depression and addiction. He seems to have replaced alcohol and drugs with yoga. Then he went full force (addictive personality) into yoga expecting it to be his salvation. Then when he encountered what seems to be an asshole for a teacher, he turned against the yoga studio concept altogether. That's his story. Unfortunately, there are too many people looking for yoga – or drugs, food, alcohol, Jesus, working out, etc. – to save them. People need to appreciate themselves. To "save" themselves. To recognize the goodness in themselves. Once that happens, people can begin to feel whole. This guy may be doing good things with his life now, and he may be content to be alone on his mat, but his ranting sure sounds like he harbors ill will against what happened at that studio. Maybe someday he'll get over it. Maybe someday he'll find peace. Maybe someday …..

    anonymous Jan 12, 2016 4:34pm

    See, Jay, whether you realize it or not- you’ve just spoken very loudly to my point. You’ve read a single piece of writing, from my fairly large catalog of pieces of writing, and passed a liberal amount of judgement about who and what I am and what I’ve experienced. All the while, suggesting that because I’ve dealt, and deal, with depression and addiction, my voice is somehow less powerful, clear, and effective. Where is the yoga in that, friend?

      anonymous Jan 13, 2016 2:17pm

      Nick;
      I appreciate what you're saying. My wife, a clinical counselor wrote that reply as I asked her thoughts on the post. I thought your piece came off a tad hard.
      I apologize.

anonymous Jan 12, 2016 12:45pm

Hey. It's Cleveland. I've lived all around this city and I'm positive this happens elsewhere but Cleveland has a special way of sucking the life out of things. It's a shame that you took yourself out of this because people didn't live up to the expectations you set for them. The magic is in you, man, not the people, not the studio and definitely not in Cleveland.

anonymous Jan 12, 2016 12:40pm

Hey. It's Cleveland. I've lived all around this city and I'm positive this happens elsewhere but Cleveland has a special way of sucking the life out of things. It's a shame that you took yourself out of this because people didn't live up to the expectations you set for them. The magic is in you, man, not the people, not the studio and definitely not in Cleveland.

You will never ever be able to look to someone or something for that. People will pervert anything they can no matter how holy, magical or pure it's supposed to be. If you really love it, why not offer private classes or find truly like minded instructors who share your experiences and mindset? You can't be the only one!

anonymous Jan 8, 2016 3:00pm

It’s very sad that you had that experience. There are different types of people in all walks of life. I have met fantastic people through my yoga practice – honest and loving! I have also seen yoga teachers with huge egos!

Try not to let it put you off attending classes and teaching!

anonymous Jan 8, 2016 2:27pm

Yoga communities. Meditation communities. Teachers. They are great for learning, but the practice itself is a personal journey. I was a member of a meditation community for a long time. When I left, for various reasons, I was lost. That is when my real practice began.

anonymous Jan 8, 2016 12:04pm

Thank you for your story. I, too, have found myself disenchanted/disappointed with the yoga community as both a former teacher and student. In the past few years, I have also returned to strengthening my personal practice.

anonymous Jan 8, 2016 10:34am

I love the yin and yang of your story! Thank you for sharing so much of yourself.

anonymous Jan 8, 2016 9:40am

being from Ohio, lots of friends in Cleveland, I've heard similar stories. My friend who is a teacher is also finding it difficult to find the right studio for her practice, glad you found yours. Really well said.

anonymous Jan 8, 2016 7:55am

Have you heard of Tommy Rosen and the Recovery 2.0 community? His approach to yoga and addiction seems to me to be truly genuine and heart-based. Check them out online!

anonymous Jan 8, 2016 7:53am

Thank you for your raw honesty here. I think part of the issue (as it is across spiritual/religious traditions) is unrealistic expectations of the spiritual leaders (the yoga teachers in this case) held by both the leaders themselves and by the practitioners. While they may have some keen spiritual insights to share, they're not magic- they're real people with problems and should not be recipients of unconditional trust and faith. It gives them far too much power, which is easy to abuse and often leads to a lack of accountability. There's lots of ego involved here, where there should be more humility and honesty. This can mean inappropriate adjustments and expectations for students that do not honor their bodies and stages of development, or at the extreme end, the kinds of abuses you describe here. On a more positive note, I've found that this behavior varies by studio- as a previous commenter suggested, it's important to find your tribe. Good luck.

anonymous Jan 8, 2016 7:35am

Teach at a non profit. You will make no money, true, but bring yoga to people who need it and would not otherwise get it due to the high class fees at studios. There will be little to no drama with other teachers, staff etc. You can be the teacher you envision yourself being and the students are diverse, wonderful and thankful. Namaste<3

anonymous Jan 8, 2016 7:05am

Nick, thanks for sharing! I sadly had a very similar experience. I found a studio that I thought was a home after I moved to a new state. It was welcoming and warm, exactly what I thought I needed. I practiced there for months and did my TT there, even "worked" (for free) as a desk ambassador. When I needed to adjust my schedule, I was met with disdain and negativity, which seeped into future encounters. I started noticing other discrepancies between what they said and what they practiced. I removed myself from the situation and removed myself from yoga, choosing other methods of exercise to deal with my confusion. I kept the meditation practice, which I'm so glad for, because it led me to a new community where support is key and I can practice at my own pace.
It's so sad to me when studios lose sight of the reason we come to yoga, but it encourages me to hear that teachers like you still recognize it.

anonymous Jan 7, 2016 11:34am

I teach at one of those shiny studios, but fortunately I've had quite the opposite experience. That being said, I understand why some people are being turned off by the yoga community. I think it's like any community. You have to choose one that fits with people you consider part of your tribe and from there it is what you make of it. I believe yoga isn't one-size-fits-all. Every studio and every class is different.

Thank you for sharing. Perhaps one day you'll return to a different studio. 🙂