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January 7, 2016

Cleveland: Where Yoga Failed Me.

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.

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Relephant Read:

The Dark & Deviant Side of the Yoga Community.

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Author: Nick Brilla

Editor: Toby Israel

Image: Author’s Own

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Nick Brilla