Taylor, can you share your background with us before yoga?
My background before yoga was primarily in the world of business. I worked at my father’s produce distribution company here in Columbus, Ohio. I was the VP of Sales, managing our sales staff and major accounts. About a year before I started yoga, I was fired from my dad’s company due to my addiction to drugs and alcohol. I was almost 24 years old at the time and my life up to that point was a drug fueled blur. I worked really hard at my job and had accumulated a lot of material stuff. But, I was a mess inside and unhappy because of the way I was living my life. I kept up appearances for a long time, but my life was crumbling due to the disease of addiction. I was really struggling to find my way. I didn't know who I was and didn't like the person I had become. During this time, I went to treatment center after treatment center struggling to stay sober. Eventually, I found myself alone as my family and friends had asked me to stay away from them. I still remember the amount of sadness and pain I experienced at this point in my life. I didn't think I was worth saving or that it was possible for me to get sober and almost took my own life because of it. I was a burden to myself, society, and the people around me. I thought the world would be a better place without me and spent my last year using trying to do enough drugs that I would die. I was unsuccessful obviously. When I was almost 24 years old, I wound up at yet another treatment center being medically detoxed from all the drugs. I was an empty shell of a person, angry at the world, and dying. As I began to detox and spent the month in treatment, the will to live came back to me. I started going to a recovery program and got a sponsor who helped me understand how to get sober. Things slowly began to change. About 6 months into my sobriety, I was introduced to Ashtanga Yoga as a way to aid my recovery. That was 9 years ago.
Can you walk us through the transition from your spark to fight the addiction and yoga? Did you immediately take to the practice or was there a period of acclimating yourself?
When I was first introduced to yoga, I was already on the path of recovery and was working a 12 step program. My personality was very rough around the edges and intense at this time. I was fully committed to staying sober and did everything my sponsor and friends in the program suggested. Every day, I would read literature from the program, prayed every morning and night, spoke with my sponsor daily, and went to meetings. I knew the success rate for drug addicts to recover is less than 10% and I did everything possible to keep my sobriety. Getting sober was the hardest thing I have ever done. It took a lot of really hard work and requires so much change.
Around 6 months into my sobriety, I ran into a friend at the grocery store and she asked me to try out her yoga class. I told her I wasn’t interested. Over the next couple weeks, I ended up running into her again and again. I would see her at the mall, the gas station, and bunch of other places. Each time she asked me to come to her class. After the 6th time of her asking me to try yoga, I called my sponsor to tell him about this lady that was trying to force me to try yoga. What he said changed my life forever. He said, if I was going to stay sober then I would have to try things different than I had done in the past. And, he suggested that yoga was one of those things. He went on to say that it seemed like my higher power wanted me to try yoga or I wouldn’t keep running into this lady. He laughed out loud and hung up the phone.
I went that next weekend to my first yoga class and hated it. I was embarrassed that I could not do any of the poses and have never sweated so much in my life. But, the worst part was, that when I practiced that first time it was like a flood of emotions was released. I still hated myself for being an addict, for hurting so many people, for all the things I did when I was using that I said I would never do. Yes, I was mad that I couldn’t touch my toes, but what I was really afraid of was thoroughly looking at my past and cleaning up the mess I had left behind. I laid down after practice and I tried to hold it together so I wouldn't cry. Now looking back I know that the yoga was working on that first day, but at the time it was uncomfortable and scary.
I wasn’t sure if I could go back to yoga ever again. I called my sponsor and he talked me off the proverbial yoga cliff. The experience was so raw and powerful. I had the whole week to think about it but the next weekend I found myself back at the class again. We did the same sequence we had done the first class, but instead of all the emotion, self-doubt, and pain it had initially brought up this time, I felt love. I felt connected to my higher power. As I laid down after practice, I remember this feeling of calm sweeping over me and tears running down my cheeks. It was the first time that I can remember when I felt love towards myself. I had been killing myself for so many years but on this day it was like a voice whispered in my ear “you are perfect just the way you are”. Honestly, I had never felt that way before. I had always seen myself as damaged goods and always struggled with how I felt about myself. For the first time in my life, I didn’t want to be someone else. I wanted to be me. From that day, I have maintained a 6 day a week yoga practice. I had found my true place in life and have never looked back.
Amazing, Taylor. On a physical level, the practice seems to wring us from a physical and also a healing/spiritual plane. Did you find the practice to be a spiritual one on your journey?
That’s all it has ever been for me! When I started practicing yoga, I was in a place where I was dying from the disease of addiction. I was really struggling. To me, spirituality is how I interact with myself and the people around me. The practice allowed me to treat others better, live more honestly, do the right things, and be more assertive, among other things. From that aspect, the practice was really cleaning my life up and bringing out the stuff in me that needed to change. I really needed to learn how to take care of and love myself. I needed to stop being my own worse enemy and learn how to be a friend to myself. The practice was teaching me all of this stuff. It reflected a clear image of how I lived my life and I could see it slowly getting better over time. Compassion, empathy, and self care are not things that came easy to me. In the beginning, the practice also helped me learn how to interact with society again. I was pretty socially awkward back then and had to relearn how to be a friend, partner, and employee. I remember reading a quote once that said, “the body is my temple and asanas are my prayers”. That resonated with me and yoga allows me to feel a deep connection with my higher power.
Can you share with us about your first trip to India?
After practicing for several years, it was suggested that I should study at the source of Ashtanga since I was considering teaching Mysore style. I had reached a spot in my practice where I needed more guidance on my path. I made a decision to go and six months later I was on a plane to India. I flew into Mumbai and had a 12 hour layover. A friend had suggested that I take a rickshaw ride around the city to help pass the time. It was late at night, but I was wide awake due to the time change. I had never seen so many people before and culture shock began to set in. It was so different than anything I had ever experienced before. I made my way back to the airport and prepared for the last leg of my flight.
I had decided to travel to Goa first before going to Mysore to help ease the transition of my first trip. I got to practice with Rolf Naujokat for a couple weeks before heading to Mysore, India. I met some amazing people there including a guy named Senol. Without him, I would have been lost. He was like my guide on that first trip showing me around Goa and helped me get acquainted with the culture. He became a close friend and showed me the ropes. After Goa, I headed to Mysore. A few other people where headed to Mysore at the same time so we all bought tickets to travel together.
The day after I arrived in Mysore, I registered to practice at the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute referred to as the shala by the yoga students who visit there from around the world. When I walked into the shala I remember getting choked up a bit. I was overwhelmed with emotion. Pattabhi Jois and his wife’s, Amma, picture were hanging on the wall and I can remember feeling like I was in a dream. How did I get here? I had this deep feeling that I had unfinished work to do here. I walked into Sharath’s office and he remembered me from practicing with him a few month earlier in New York. I was blown away by that and felt the student-teacher connection immediately.
My first practice in the shala was unreal as well. It felt so intense, but it also felt like the community of people in that room where all supporting each other. Everyone had made huge sacrifices to be there practicing and you could feel their dedication. It allowed me to go deeper in my practice because I was supported in a way that I have never been before. It was transformational to say the least. I got to meet a lot of the Ashtanga community from around the country including Aliya. We both were in Mysore without our children so it was nice to talk about that because I missed my family so much. Makayla, my daughter, was only 8 months old at the time. It was hard to be in Mysore working on my practice and also missing my family back home. The community of yoga practitioners there really comes together to support each other. I spent almost two months in Mysore on that first trip, my practice grew expediently, and it changed the course of my life.
For new practitioners, or even those going deeper in their practice, the breathing and concentration, the twisting and bending, can stir up and draw out very intense emotions. Some, not so pleasant to handle. How do you address this with your students or in your own life?
During my practice when it starts to get intense, the most important thing for me is that I continue to work through anything that might come up. I don’t shy away from those things. Sometimes, I get choked up and teary eyed, but I don’t stop my practice because emotions start to bubble up. I practice from a place of discipline and devotion. I take the good and bad in me and work on it everyday. Some days it would be really easy to not practice, but I owe it to my family and my students that I maintain the integrity of my yoga practice. Honestly, I didn't think that I was ever going to make it to my 30th birthday, and I used to joke about it during the years I was using. Nowadays, the person who I have become has a direct relationship with the practice of Ashtanga yoga and my life of recovery. Its a part of my everyday existence and daily routine, like brushing my teeth. Emotions are always going to come up during the practice, but I am a better person and teacher today for facing that stuff head on. I have done a bunch of things in my life that I am not proud of. In order to stay sober, I have had to face those things and make amends for them. Today, I simply do not listen to the story that plays in my head. Like, those feelings of not being good enough or the excuses for not practicing. I don’t let life get in the way. As a teacher, I ask my students to do the same thing. Having a community to practice in that is safe and supportive is so important. Sometimes your yoga practice can take you to dark places so its better not to do it alone.
What was your experience practicing with Sharath?
Honestly, I don’t know where to start. I was in so much pain and darkness before I came to yoga. Practicing with Sharath has opened my eyes and softened my heart. He is a beautiful human being and a great example for me to live by. He is humble, grounded, and true to his path. It’s truly inspiring to be around him and see the amount of devotion he has towards this lineage and his students. The first time I met him I knew he was my teacher, it was a gut feeling. He knows what you are capable of and pushes you to reach that potential. Each time I go to India new layers drop away and I am able to let go of more attachments. It is extremely hard to leave Mysore every trip. It is so important to have a guide and I am grateful for the time I spend in Mysore with him. Life is so simple in India and really puts your priorities in order.
Many practitioners go through phases of struggle with their practice but unlike what you have said, they weren't able to meet face their strong emotions head on. What are some tips you recommend to your students to keep the practice going during this difficult period of struggle?
When I work with students who are going through a difficult period, I try to bring their focus to a couple things. First, making sure that their intention is correct. If you are working really hard during your practice, but the intention is only about the postures then you are missing the point. The purpose of the practice is to still the mind and is a process of transformation. When difficulty arises, we have to set an intention that is healthy and obtainable. Sometimes, I find that students want too many postures especially during a hard period in their life. They are essentially running from themselves, instead of trying to work on the stuff that no longer serves them. As a teacher, I have to step in and be a force for good in someone's practice asking them to do less, but with a clearer intention. This also helps to prevent injury. Unfortunately, we are not always our own best friends and thats why I believe having a consistent teacher is so important. When a student is experiencing a difficult period, the next thing I ask them to focus on is the fundamentals of the practice. As a kid, I played sports and any time we got off track the coach would always make the team return to the fundamentals of the sport we were playing. Its not so different in yoga. When we have unpleasant emotions come up, painful memories, or just get off track with the practice, its time to take it back to the basics...the breath, bandhas, drishti, and vinyasa count. As a teacher, I am always guiding people towards the tradition and I believe these tools are essential for staying committed during difficult times.
Taylor, any final thoughts on the practice?
I think the only other thing I would like to say is that I am deeply grateful for this practice and the Ashtanga community. The practice has given me a life that I never thought I would have. Back when I started practicing, I could never of dreamed that my life was going to be like this, from struggling to find myself to teaching and sharing the practice with others. It has been a hell of a journey and it’s just getting started. I owe my life today to the teachers and students that came before me, and the invaluable guidance I receive from my teacher, Sharath Jois. As I have been reading along with the Ashtanga Parampara interviews, I realize that we are all so different, but its our love for the practice that binds us together. No one is perfect and we all have stuff that we struggle with. But, the practice allows us to be exactly who we are supposed to be. I am really grateful for you allowing me to share my story with others.
*photos provided by Taylor Hunt
*Ashtanga Parampara thanks Lydia Teinfalt for editorial support
*Ashtanga Parampara thanks Lydia Teinfalt for editorial support