September is National Yoga Awareness Month
By Natalie McLennan
Yoga is powerful.
Yoga saved my life.
I was born in Montreal, Canada. My mother raised my older brother and I. My father was not present in my life. I felt intense emotional pain and stress from a very young age. As a single-parent family, we struggled financially. My mother worked very hard and loved me very much, I therefore did everything I could to hide my inner pain from her and everyone around me.
As a child, I was outgoing, charming and did very well in school. As a teenager, I secretly began using drugs and acting out any way that I could. I was hurting so deeply inside and I didn’t know how to ask for help, so I made sure it appeared like everything in my life was great.
It was when I started studying theatre post-high school, at 17 years old, that I found yoga. It was mandatory and part of the theatre program and I felt so lucky to have a free weekly yoga class for the next three years. It got me through the stress of school and helped me feel better physically, mentally and emotionally. I spent those three years doing something I loved, theatre, and that fuelled me and helped me stay away from drugs and choices that could hurt me.
I then finished college and moved to New York. I performed in several Off-Off-Broadway plays but went to a different wild party every night. I did every drug under the sun. I started working as a high-end escort and then I went to jail.
Locked in my jail cell at Riker’s Island, the system kept me alive physically, but it was yoga that saved me mentally and emotionally. I didn’t do sun salutations every morning in my six by eight foot cell, I didn’t have a mat or any way to clean the dirty floor, so I sat, alone, afraid for my life and afraid my life was over. Every day in jail, I sat on my cot in meditation for as long as I could; each breath was like a prayer. Some people find religion in prison, I remembered my weekly yoga practice from my theatre school days. Every night, my uncontrollable sobs threatened to destroy the tiny thread of connection I had to my own sanity and threatened to steal my will to live. It was only the memory of my yoga teachers guiding me through different relaxation techniques that could calm me down during those long, torturous, lonely hours.
Without the stage, without the drugs and buzz of New York City, without the men telling me they loved me or the endless money, I came face to face with the life I had been living and the pain it was causing. Without my yoga practice, I don’t know where I would be today.
I made choices early in my life that had intense consequences. Yoga taught me to, and allowed me to forgive myself. Doing personal work was uncomfortable but so very worth it. Now, I get on my mat almost every day and it is a constant reminder to be grateful for all that I have. I am blessed with a career that I love, that allows me to connect in beautiful ways with incredible people. I have loving and supportive relationships with my family members and friends. I can have fun (!) because I’m free from the heaviness of the stories of my past. I can love and be loved.
Balance is so important and I invite every one of you to do some kind of yoga this month. Part of the benefit of yoga comes from taking action. Make a choice and see it through. If you already practice, add an extra class to your week. If you’ve never been before, find a class and go, or if you know anyone who does yoga, ask them if they can take you to a class. They’ll probably be so happy to know you want to connect with them and learn about their yoga practice. If you come up against any kind of resistance to making this happen for yourself, notice if you back away or want to give up; see that as an opportunity to meet a challenge and overcome it.
Here’s something you can do right now that will take less than five minutes and will help you connect and destress:
- Find any kind of comfortable seated position
- Set a timer on your phone for three minutes
- Shut off anything around you that could interrupt you (it’s only three minutes! Do it!!)
- Close your eyes and breathe in and out through your nose
- When the timer goes off, notice if you feel any different than when you started
- If yoga, meditation, and/or mindfulness is brand new to you, it’s normal for it to feel foreign. Try it a few times over a few days and then decide if you’re interested in continuing.
- If you find this breathing practice is helpful, you can gradually increase the time you sit and breathe from three to five, ten, fifteen minutes… You can also research local yoga studios or meditation groups and try them out.
- If any feelings come up like fatigue or anxiety, it might be your body’s way of telling you it needs rest or to look at your life and identify where you can make some changes and take better care of yourself.
- There are great online resources: websites like myyogaonline.com and yogaglo.com offer hundreds of online classes for a small monthly fee. There are free options on sites like YouTube and many incredible books and podcasts available on yoga-related topics.
- There IS something for everyone. If you do a class somewhere and don’t like it, check out something different.
Yoga has made me so strong that I can be vulnerable and share things that feel scary (like everything above!) because I know that someone, somewhere, might read this. My story might have a positive impact, and that gives me courage.
Whatever your personal circumstances are, it’s always possible to learn and grow. It’s always possible to turn things around. Please remember that, especially when it feels like there is no way out or that things will never get better.
Yoga is empowering, it is real. It allows you to come face-to-face with yourself. It allows you to see within and over time, come to a deeper understanding of yourself. The more I practice yoga, the more inspired I become to continually affect positive changes in my life. The more changes I make, the better my relationships with myself and the people around me have become. My life has slowly transformed in a positive way and I feel amazing things I didn’t feel for a long time: love, peace, happiness and freedom.
I invite you to look inside and connect with your best self. The person you are meant to be. Believe that you are kind and beautiful on the inside and everyone will be moved and inspired, just by being around you. <3
Natalie McLennan lives in Montreal, Canada where she teaches yoga and indoor cycling at Victoria Park. She has been teaching for over six years and is a Lululemon Ambassador. She is currently creating a yoga initiative that will provide free weekly yoga classes to teenage girls in Montreal. You can follow her journey on Instagram @mtlyogagirl and see her spin and yoga teaching schedules at vicpark.com/studio and vicpark.com respectively.
Natalie has been my spin and yoga instructor for the past year. I invite you to leave her a comment if anything above resonated for you. I am so humbled and honored that our WomenOnTheFence community is the home of Natalie’s inspirational and raw sharing. The power of story telling and story sharing is real. It is palpable. It helps creates change.