If you had told me five years ago that I would fall in love with yoga and become a yoga teacher, I would have flipped you off. I would have done a line of cocaine, smoked my cigarette, chased it with a shot of Jameson and been like, “Fuck you.” But here I am.
Sometimes you feel like life has handed you a shitty deck of cards, so you work with it. My parents did the best with what they had. My mom was in and out of prison, so I lived with my mostly absent dad and my two siblings. Since I was a kid, I’m talking second or third grade, I was taking care of myself. My dad was often gone from six in the morning until six or seven at night. When my mom was out of prison, we’d live with her—not legally, per se, but she’d pick us up and tell us kids that we were going to live with her for a while. It sounds intense in retrospect, but that was just life for many, many years.
Growing up was rough, and not just because I was young and uncomfortable in my own skin. I was always really skinny and I always knew I was gay, and it made me an easy target. I was sexually abused by some family members and a babysitter. In high school, I stuck to the books for a bit, but I also wanted to engage with people and make as many friends as possible. I started drinking and smoking weed really young. It didn’t lead to hard drugs until later in life, but it did set the precedent.
When I was 16, I came out to my dad. My mom was in prison at the time and he didn’t take it too well, so I moved out and stayed with my sister for a few weeks. I got a fake ID and started supporting myself with two jobs. I made some friends who worked at a bar, and we would go to all-ages nights at the club. You could say that my career as a drinker and partier really skyrocketed from there.
By 21, I was managing a bar in San Diego. I felt like an outcast growing up, and now I was in this place that made me feel important, like I was being seen by the world. I started pretty lightly with the drugs. By 25, I don’t even know how much cocaine I was doing. I was drinking daily, but it seemed like second nature. Everyone else at the bar was drinking, so why wouldn’t I be? I didn’t know any different, so I just rolled with it.
Then I lost my partner to AIDS. That was the first time that I really lost someone. I was crushed, man. I was broken. He was my best friend and my lover. When he died, I went straight to the bar, called my drug dealer, and told him I needed at least an eight ball. I sat there and drank for hours and did all the drugs I could.
My addiction took over and I went on a three-day bender. I don’t remember any of it, but when I got home, I was in the kitchen smashing all the plates and vases. My roommate shook me and I kind of came to; she put me to bed and the next day, we had this long talk. She told me she couldn’t do this with me anymore, that she couldn’t live with me like this. I remember thinking, I have nothing left. What am I doing here? Why do I even want to live right now? There’s no point.
At that time in my life, I wanted to die. I debated killing myself a few times and I tried to go through with it once. I put a plastic bag over my head and wrapped it in duct tape. As I was suffocating, I stopped myself and broke down in tears. My outlook on life was that everything is painful, everything sucks, everything hurts. I needed to numb it all. I couldn’t get drunk enough or high enough to make the pain go away. I couldn’t run away from it.
I had to do something different to better my life for my sake and my roommate’s sake. She suggested that I take yoga at the studio that had opened down the street. I dabbled in it when I was 18 because I wanted to fit in with my friends who went, but I never took it seriously and I didn’t really hear what they were saying. This time, I walked into the yoga studio and I was such a little brat. I came in so heated because I didn’t want to be there, yet my teacher was so kind and so compassionate and so sweet to me that I felt safe.
Yoga kind of slowed things down. I couldn’t go out and party as much because then I wouldn’t make it to yoga, and if I didn’t go to yoga, I wouldn’t have a place to live. That was part of the deal. I was just going through the motions at the beginning. But when I was finally able to feel more connected, that’s when the benefits of the practice started to wake me up, when I was able to get out of my head. I allowed things to come up from my past that I never thought I could think about, the things that would normally drive me to drink because I didn’t want to feel any of it.
Eventually, I quit one of my two bar jobs. It was at the one bar where I was partying the most and it was getting too intense. But that was part of my income, so when I quit I told my teacher that I couldn’t afford to come to yoga anymore. She said that if I scrubbed the toilets at the studio, they could give me free yoga. These people made me feel so special that they could have told me to clean up the dog poop on the sidewalk every day and I probably would have done it. I became the toilet scrubber, and then I was doing so well that they made me the head toilet scrubber. I know, right? Moving up in the world. Then they made me the office dude—I would check people in at the desk and order all the supplies we needed for the studio.
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Then they told me that they couldn’t offer me the cleaning shifts anymore. They said if I wanted to keep doing yoga, I should go through the teaching program because it offered three months of yoga for free. I didn’t realize it, but they were gently pushing me to be more. I was like, Fuck, okay, I guess I have to do it. Before the program was even over, my teacher told me they wanted me to pick up a class at the studio. I told them I didn’t want to be a teacher. He was like, Cool, you’ll teach the class on Saturdays at noon.
The first time I got up there, I blacked out. I was physically shaking and choking on my words because of the nerves. I told everyone, “Guys, I’m really nervous and this is my first time teaching and I’m glad I’m doing it with you.” Everyone just smiled at me. They were like, “Fuck yeah, guy! Do this thing! We want to do it with you!” When I was done, I felt higher than I had ever felt in my life. It wasn’t the high of, “Look at me, I’m the teacher.” It was, “Look at what I can do.” I’m worth it. I don’t have to be stuck in a bar job. That realization felt amazing.
Once I really got into yoga, I decided to take a break from drinking, and for nine months, I did. It was crazy. In those nine months I had so much clarity. I realized I didn’t want to be a bartender anymore and I moved out to San Francisco to study yoga.
But when I moved to San Francisco, I got a bar job. For nine months, I was back to drinking and doing drugs. One morning I woke up extremely hungover and felt the exact emotional and physical anxiety that I had in San Diego. It was bullshit. I couldn’t do it anymore.
I got my ass out of bed, found this tiny yoga studio around the corner from my house, and started working there as a substitute teacher. The moment I decided I was going to do yoga and stop drinking, it all just went poof, and just took off. My anxiety started going away. I got to a place where I was able to go to therapy and start unraveling my past and dealing with my mental health issues—I had no clue that I had general anxiety disorder until I was diagnosed.
Life handed me every single card that said I was going to end up in jail, that I would end up a junkie, whatever. Make a list of all the bad things that can happen to someone, and check every box, because they all happened to me. If it wasn’t for yoga, I would have continued down that path. But yoga provided me with tools and techniques to get me grounded.
Meditation is the most powerful drug in the world. It has given me the permission and the space to stop everything. I think most people think meditation means you have to sit in a cave with absolutely no thoughts in your head and start levitating after 20 minutes. In actuality, you can never get rid of your thoughts. They’re there—that’s the human condition. Meditation gives you clarity, it gives you permission to tell that little monkey brain to stop and to give it a job: You tell it to focus on your breath. And when you start focusing on your breath, the thoughts that aren’t really there drift off and the ones that really matter start to make a little more sense.
For a long time, I felt like I could never be myself. I felt like I didn’t belong and I felt like as much as I wanted to be part of something bigger, I wasn’t. I didn’t want to be part of this thing that I didn’t belong in. And because I didn’t want to feel the pain, I got drunk and high instead.
Yoga saved me, man. Anytime I walked into the studio, my problems, my past, my trauma, my sexuality—none of it mattered. It was the first time I felt accepted in a sober space. When I was drinking and partying, I felt like I belonged, but shit. I was drunk and high and so was everyone else. We all “belonged.”
When I’m doing yoga, it’s just me and my mat and this sense of peace. I don’t have to do all the hardest moves, or sit there being all zen with my eyes closed. I’ve gone on my mat and cried. I’ve gone on my mat and laughed. I’ve gone on my mat and had joy. I’ve gone on my mat and had rage.
I used to be ashamed of my story. Shame is a bitch, man. My head hung low for so many years. I realize now that I never asked for any of this to happen to me. I never asked to get molested or to have a broken home. But I don’t live in shame anymore. If I can tell my story, maybe other people will see that they can come out swinging, too. If I can show people that there’s hope, then I’m down to stand on the tallest building in the world and shout it out loud. If it’s going to save somebody and give them some strength, some courage to not put that plastic bag over their head, to put down the drugs, to step back from that last shot that’ll set them over the edge, then I’m down.
Now, here I am telling 300 students each week to be in their bodies, telling them that it’s going to be okay, telling them that we all got shit, so let’s just unpack it together. At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to walk each other home. The yoga is inside of us. It’s always there—we just have to remember that it’s there and reignite it.
Every day that I get to wake up and do this thing that I love to do, it’s a gift. I have a motto now: Exhale the bullshit. There’s a lot of bullshit out there and there’s a lot in your head. But you don’t have to buy into any of it. Don’t let that extra bullshit live in your head rent-free. Look at it, feel it, then let it go. If you hold that shit in, you’re just going to be full of shit, and then you’re going to explode because you have so much shit in you. Take a deep breath, give yourself a good, old-fashioned breath into the lungs and into the heart. Fill it up, grab ahold of whatever it is, and let it go.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.