Photo by Emma Jenkins
During her junior year of high school, Nadeen Ali found herself struggling at her first attempt at yoga.
Ali and her group of friends, who were dancers, decided to try the “Hot Powerful Flow” class at Inner Bliss Studio in Cleveland. It wasn’t quite what she expected.
The class incorporates heat-generating poses in addition to backbends, inversions and arm balances and is not recommended for new students. Ali didn’t play sports in high school and, at that time, couldn’t do a pushup and could barely touch her toes. She felt as if her physical strength fell behind that of the other students.
“I was absolutely dying in the first five minutes,” she says. “I was looking over at my friends who were very flexible and thinking … there’s no way.”
Then, the instructor dimmed the lights.
Mid pose, Ali was shaking. She glanced around the room and noticed she wasn’t the only one struggling. The instructor encouraged the students to hold their form, and Ali felt as if she was being spoken to directly. The class concluded with an ohm chant, and Ali left feeling empowered.
“I didn’t really understand what yoga was, but I knew that it made me feel unbelievably amazing,” she says.
She went back to Inner Bliss a few times, but continued comparing herself to her friends who were strong, slim and flexible. Ali wanted to be like that in a day. Like other yoga beginners, she would practice for a bit, notice no results, then get discouraged and quit.
That cycle went on for years. She didn’t know it then, but yoga would eventually change how she saw herself and the world around her. She just had to face a few obstacles before she got there.
During Ali’s freshman year at Ohio University, she became unconcerned with her health, both physical and mental. She developed a habit of going out nearly every night and didn’t understand how other students could be happy or have a good time without drinking.
“I got into partying too much,” she says. “I didn’t know how to balance my life out or anything. I just stopped caring about myself.”
The summer after her freshman year, Ali’s health got worse. Over the course of the year, she struggled with anxiety and depression and gained about 20 pounds. She chose to take a semester off and wanted to get back on track before returning in the spring.
The first few weeks being at home, Ali would just lie in bed, cry and feel bad about herself. She didn’t care about much else. Then, one morning, she realized she couldn’t spend her time moping around. She went back to Inner Bliss, but this time, she bought a package and went every single day. Then she began to see progress.
“It was kind of a gradual thing,” she says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’m going to make yoga my passion.’ I would just go every day and … I don’t know. It was just my getaway.”
Toward the end of October, Ali made it through an entire yoga class without having to sit down in child’s pose or take a break for water. She says it was like an epiphany for her. She wanted to make people feel how her yoga instructor made her feel.
So she went home that day, did some research and signed up for yoga teacher training at Sivananda Bahamas, a yoga retreat located on Paradise Island.
But in late November, Ali hit rock bottom.
“I stopped taking my anxiety medication, and I started having really bad thoughts,” she says. “… I didn’t even trust myself.”
Ali spent two nights in a psychiatric hospital where doctors watched over her and regulated her medication intake. The following day, she left for the yoga retreat.
Finding a Focus
On Dec. 1, 2014, Ali flew to the Bahamas and took a short boat ride to the island where Sivananda Bahamas is located. She was in awe of the beauty of the island and was looking forward to a relaxing month on the beach. Then she found out what her schedule was:
5:30 a.m. – Wake-up bell
6 – 8 a.m. – Satsang: meditation for 30 minutes, followed by 30 minutes of chanting and singing, then a one-hour lecture from a special guest or from Swami (the philosophy teacher).
8 – 10 a.m. – Hatha yoga class
10 – 11 a.m. – Breakfast
11 a.m. – 12 p.m. – Karma yoga (cleaning the ashram, dishes, sweeping, etc.)
1 – 2 p.m. – Baghavadgita class (yogi book, read it together and translate the meaning) or chanting class (learning the meaning of Sanskrit) Alternate classes every day
2 – 4 p.m. – Philosophy class for first 2 weeks, then anatomy class the last 2 weeks
4 – 6 p.m. – How to teach a yoga class
6 – 8 p.m.- Dinner/ laundry/ shower
8 p.m. – whenever – Satsang- meditation for 30 minutes, chanting for 30 minutes, lecture that would last longer than an hour or so
During her one-hour breaks, Ali would practice different yoga poses.
The days were long, but the classes were slow. Ali wasn’t used to that. She felt exhausted from all of the new information being crammed into her brain, and she rarely had time to sit down or relax. There weren’t any days to sleep in, and the staff was very strict about enforcing the rules. They took attendance, and students had to wear a uniform every day. They were not allowed out of the tents at night. No drinking. No smoking. No coffee or meat. If students were caught doing any of that, they would have to pack their belongings and leave right away.
During the first week of yoga teacher training, Ali was rejecting everything. She didn’t know anyone and felt like she was sent there to clean.
“I had ups and downs there,” she says. “Like the first week, I hated it. But then I realized what it was all about.”
She cried to her teacher, Swami, and she will never forget the words he said to her:
“Happiness comes from within. You can live on the beach for the rest of your life, but something will make you sad. You can be your perfect ideal weight, but you still won’t be satisfied. You’ll never be satisfied until you realize that nothing in the world around you can or will bring you happiness the way your heart and yourself can.”
He then explained to her that yoga teacher training is about discipline. It teaches students to find happiness even through cleaning toilets or doing other people’s dirty dishes. From that point forward, Ali changed her attitude toward the course.
At the beginning of January 2015, Ali flew back home as a newly certified yoga instructor. She was more patient than she was before she left for training and was able to be just as she was, in the present moment. No expectations. No assumptions. Nothing.
Sharing her Passion
Ali tried to get a job teaching yoga at Ping Recreation Center when she returned for spring semester, but the schedule had already been set. So she started a yoga club instead. Although there was a lot of initial interest in the club, it wasn’t as popular as she had hoped it would be.
When Ali returned to school for her junior year, she began teaching at Cre8 Wellness, a yoga/meditation studio above Fluff Bakery on Court Street. Her individually led and donation-based classes were taught three days a week.
“Sometimes I wouldn’t care because I just wanted to teach,” she says. “Sometimes I would make people pay.”
Ali charged participants $5 for the class, but it wasn’t enough to equal what she paid for the space. Now, as a senior, Ali is teaching group yoga classes at Ping Recreation Center. She teaches Power Yoga from 2-2:50 p.m. Mondays, Yoga Basics from 9-10 a.m. Tuesdays and Yoga on the Lawn from 5:30-6:30 p.m. Thursdays.
Ali had to adjust her teaching style when she began working as an instructor at Ping. The environment of the cold, gym classroom can take away from the spiritual aspect of her practice.
“At Ping, I turned off the lights and made them face the windows, because I don’t like how there’s mirrors in the front of the room,” she says. “Yoga isn’t focusing on what you look like, it’s focusing on what you feel like.”
But on Thursdays, Ali is free to run her Yoga on the Lawn class however she wants. And this time, her efforts are finally paying off.
“Today, someone came up to me and told me they felt like a different person after my class,” she says.
It’s a sunny day, about 75 degrees. Ali stands on top of a black yoga mat on the roof of the Athens City Parking Garage.
“Start taking deep breaths in and long breaths out,” she says.
With her eyes closed, Ali begins rocking side to side, stretching her torso slowly. Her friend, Anna Benson, follows on a mat beside her.
“Now, come to a standing forward hold at the top of the mat.”
Ali bends at the waist and touches her palms to the mat in front of her. Her head is down, and her torso parallels with her legs.
“Now pop into a handstand.”
She walks over to Benson and holds her hips in place as she kicks her feet up into the air. She holds for a few seconds and then lets go. Benson remains steady.
Ali does, too.