How Yoga Saved My Life

Posted on in On Our Radar by Kathleen Holm

A Tale of 9/11 and Beyond

On September 11, 2001, I saw and heard the second airplane hit the towers from just across the Hudson River, where I was working as a graphic artist. My husband volunteered to do search and rescue on the pile those first three days after the attacks.

To say the least, we were mentally on fire in the months following. This was too much horror for the human brain to process. My husband started drinking heavily in an effort to find peace. I was laid off from my job so all I could do to help quell the fears in my mind was headstands.

I had done yoga only a handful of times. My very first class was in 1998 at Burning Man. Later that day, I walked up to a man who was the earth personified and smiled, then curtsied to him and said, “Are you going my way?” Two weeks later I moved from outside of Chicago to Seattle to be with him—20 years later we’re married and still happily together. Before I found yoga I always did odd jobs and was frustrated with myself for not figuring out what to do with my life. I had a gnawing sensation that I wanted something extraordinary from life but I didn’t know how to get it.

Life is full of twists and turns and if we learn how to be present and have a great attitude no matter what comes our way, we drive our lives toward situations and possibilities that ignite and inspire us. Even through the darkest times.

In the weeks and months after 9/11, NYC was a war zone. Tanks, soldiers, and guns at every bridge, tunnel, and subway entrance. It was so easy to be depressed, scared, and neurotic. After weeks of doing headstands I saw an ad in the paper for someone to manage a yoga studio. At my first interview they said I didn’t have any experience managing so I was rejected. But I wouldn’t take no for an answer. I went back every day with a smile on my face. I brought treats for the staff, tidied up the studio, and did whatever I could to help out. Eventually they hired me!

Each day I was completely awed by the transformations I was seeing. All these broken, sad, stressed, hurting New Yorkers would go into class and then come out relaxed and beaming with peace. Before they checked in to class, they were rude, mean, demanding, and intense. But they would leave the yoga class in such peace. Every time—all day long! The studio itself seemed to contain and express their bliss. It was like the air was positively charged. I would silently sing mantras to myself on the subway, dusted by the bliss of what was going on in the yoga classrooms, and then I’d open the door to my home and see my husband depressed, dark, and defeated. Eventually he started coming to yoga, which beat back the fears and traumas, dissolved the depression he had been experiencing, and allowed him to refocus his energy and attitude and appreciate moments of life again.

Kathleen and Steven Holm, and their children
Kathleen and Steven Holm, and their children

I declared that I would dedicate my life to this practice! I went on to become a certified yoga instructor at Jivamukti Yoga Center, where I also managed operations. I taught yoga at 25 schools on the East and West Coast, became the general manager of Yoga Tree studios in San Francisco, spoke at multiple Yoga Journal conferences about managing yoga studios, bought a yoga studio, opened a yoga studio from scratch, and had three kids. I credit my yoga practice for all the good that has come into my life, by helping me keep a great attitude no matter what came my way and maximize every opportunity I had.

Yoga helps us see the good in all things. It helps us be mentally calmer and more focused. By getting the body into uncomfortable poses while using deep breathing to override the original stress reflex to maintain a calm mind, we train our brain to be calm under stress. As a student in a public vinyasa flow yoga class, you have no idea what the teacher is going to ask you to do next, so you need to stay in the moment, think of nothing but what is going on with your body, and breathe. You learn to go with the flow—this lubes your body and naturally lubes your brain! It’s so hard to do, but just happens easily with a regular yoga practice—a new shift happens as your perspective slides into place.

The more I practiced, the more the layers of doubt, insecurity, self-loathing, and bad habits disappeared. Even the habits of drugs, alcohol, and eating disorders will shift and you’ll start choosing healthier habits. It doesn’t happen overnight and it’s not a dramatic, here-today-gone-tomorrow effect. It was like an onion for me, the layers of ignorance slowly peeling away in month after month of regular yoga practice.

Regardless of our race, age, gender, or financial status, we are all going to experience tragedy, disaster, and heartache. We cannot control what happens to us but we can control how we react to it. From the mundane to the insane moments of our lives, yoga has the power to save us by allowing us to be present with a positive attitude. This helps us move through the mud in life with more grace and relaxed breaths.

Kathleen Holm discovered Jivamukti yoga after 9/11 and eventually migrated to the Bay Area where she managed the Yoga Tree studios. Now she and her husband Steve own and operate two SF studios.

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