Tatiana Forero Puerta
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“Stand up,” he said. “Walk to the end of the room and back.”
I did as he instructed.
I stopped. “Your arches are fallen. Your knees hyperextend and cave in; they close off your hips. You have kyphosis in your back from covering your chest with your arms. Your past is dragging you down, and you are closed off to the world. You are living in fear.” My eyes started to tear up. “Why are you here?” he asked. “I… want to learn yoga,” I stammered.
During that first meeting with Jhon, I didn’t tell him that I’d just been released from Bellevue Psychiatric after being committed for attempted suicide and diagnosed with a number of ailments including panic disorder, depression, anorexia and self-injury. Instead, I tugged at the sleeves of my baggy sweatshirt to conceal the bandages on my arms, the ones that hid layers and layers of self-inflicted cuts. “Are you ready to commit to this study?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “Then you will come here and study with me every day for one year,” he said, and just like that, Jhon opened the door to my journey with yoga. I often say there was my life before yoga and my life after choosing to dedicate myself to the study of this marvelous and profound discipline—after I decided to practice yoga. This was Jhon’s gift to me over a decade ago: the introduction to what yoga truly is, and what it means to be a student of this practice.
Many of the ailments that plagued me stemmed from deep traumas after experiencing the death of both of my parents by the age of 14, followed by years of displacement and physical, emotional and sexual abuse as a teenager in the clutches of foster care. These traumas still haunted me into my twenties. Over the years, I’d developed coping mechanisms—disordered eating, OCD, self-injury; these were the only ways my psyche knew how to deal with the profound sorrows of my childhood and the trauma that lingered within me. All of it created a tangled relationship with my body. While in the throes of panic disorder, for example, I experienced upward of three panic attacks daily, even losing consciousness as a result on several occasions. During these episodes I convinced myself that I was going to die and then felt a confusing mix of surprise, relief and betrayal that my body was sending me signals that were obviously lies. I could not trust my body, and so I started to hate my body.
The practice of yoga requires radical presence with our bodies, and then, ultimately, with our minds. When I first met Jhon, I could barely look at myself in the mirror, let alone observe my mind. The first time Jhon asked me to sit in meditation with him, I closed my eyes and within a few seconds was assailed by flashbacks of my mother dying in my arms, and of my sexual abuser making his way onto my teenage body. These flashbacks would leave me shaken and bewildered. Jhon told me to open my eyes, to breathe and to name the objects in the room. As I came back to reality, we went back to the drawing board. This is how it began, little steps into practice. Every day I showed up at Jhon’s studio, made my way through the big red doors, took off my shoes and put myself in the hands of the practice. Every day I learned something new: a new breathing technique or a new way in which my body had been misaligned for years, or something that it had held on to that was previously outside my awareness. Every day I learned more about myself and my ability (or inability) to be with myself, with this body and with everything it had endured. Every day Jhon helped me bear witness to myself and the darker spaces within myself, and in so doing, I also began to see that for all the suffering that lived in the tissue of my muscles and the marrow of my bones, this very body, the body that I thought had betrayed me, had all along survived the unfathomable. Here I was: very much alive. Weeks turned into months, and after more than half a year under Jhon’s tutelage, I distinctly remember the precise moment when I realized I hadn’t had a panic attack in weeks. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know whether to be more surprised by that fact or by the fact that I didn’t notice, which meant that my normative way of being had shifted—I no longer expected fear to be my predominant state of being. I remember wanting to cry, to jump up and down, to celebrate normalcy.
During that first year with Jhon, I learned many things about the practice, and I developed many questions, the answers to which I’m only now truly beginning to understand more than a decade later. This is how deep the study goes, how intricate the path: as complex as we humans are—marvelously so. Yet what I learned most during my time with Jhon wasn’t fancy techniques or intricate philosophy. What he taught me was much more fundamental, much more necessary: he taught me the meaning of practice—of showing up, every day, no matter what. He taught me the importance of silent observation, the way that creating space opens a doorway into places we may not know existed; the way that learning to bear witness to what is here peels back more and more layers until we find home. Then, he taught me the importance of abiding within that home, bearing witness to the wounds that were there, and recognizing that nestled within them lay the antidote to heal them.
Tatiana Forero Puerta has taught philosophy and yoga for a decade, including her post as an adjunct faculty member at both New York University and the City University of New York. Tatiana is a recipient of the 2017 Pushcart Prize for poetry and a finalist for Blueshift Journal’s prize for writers of color. She has also received Stanford University’s Garfield Prize in Ethics. Tatiana lives and teaches in New York.