How Yoga Became My New Drug

Anonymous, Contributing Writer

I remember my first Bikram yoga class; a girlfriend talked me into going. I was the kind of guy who would never have found yoga on my own. In fact, if I had not been in a life crisis, I probably would never have gone at all.

Let me back up. I spent the majority of my 20s growing pot for a living. After all, I’m from Sonoma County, California and I graduated from high school in 2000, four years after prop 215 passed. It was a free-for-all.

Back then growers were much less common than they are now. It was a good way to make a humble living without having to wait tables, serve coff ee or move furniture—all vocations I had tried.

I’m not saying it was free money or even easy work. I worked harder and longer hours as a grower than at any other job. But it suited me. The money was good enough and the work was challenging, creative, physical and socially oriented.

This was the fruition of my adolescent fantasy. I was king of the stoners, setting up grow houses all over town. I had lots and lots of pot; I was making a lot of money. Success at last. Or so I thought.

At some point, things took a turn for the worse. I was robbed, friends informed on me and I had several houses raided by law enforcement. It seemed like the more successful I was, the more stressful my life became.

Then it happened: a task force of local and federal cops barreled into my house, pointed guns at me, put me in handcuff s, took a lot of weed, cash, phones, computers and whatever else they could get their grubby little hands on, uncuff ed me and left with no further explanation.

I had a nervous breakdown. The thought of going to prison absolutely terrified me and it dawned on me that this could be a very real possibility for my future.

For about two years I felt anxious all the time. There was a lump in my throat that I couldn’t swallow, and my teeth were clenched so badly that when I went to the dentist, she said my gums were receding and recommended a mouth guard.

I am a typical Northern Californian liberal, so naturally I’m paranoid about conventional medicine. I never tried any drugs for the anxiety and depression I struggled with. To be honest, I think there was also a part of me that felt I deserved my fate.

Somewhere along the way I was introduced to Bikram yoga, a form practiced in a room heated to 105-degrees.

“For your first class,” the teacher said before we began, “the goal is just to stay in the room.” I was already dripping sweat. I started stripping off layers of clothing until I was down to shorts. The door was closed. There was no escape.

By the end of class I wanted to sprint out of the room, except that I probably would have passed out. “Come back tomorrow,” the teacher said. There was no way.

But on my way home, I was euphoric. I felt as if the long arm of the law became suddenly shorter and less daunting and the voice of fear was quieted.

I did come back the next day and the next and the next. Because in 105 degree heat, balanced on one foot, kicking the other out in front of me with my hands clenched around it while trying to touch my forehead to my kneecap—in that moment, there were no cops lurking around the corner, real or imaginary. There was no eminent threat of prison. There was only my breath, my pounding heart beat and the sweat streaming off my body and soaking the towel and mat beneath me. If only for an hour and a half each day, I felt safe.

I looked forward to my practice. Sometimes I would go twice a day. Other days, I would run nine miles and then go to yoga. I was becoming a fanatic—it was the medicine I desperately needed.

Slowly, the teeth clenching became less frequent, and the lump in my throat subsided. I started to feel like a normal person again. There were still the dreams every night—always the same thing: either I was growing again and the cops were breaking down my door or I was getting sent to prison.

My lawyer had informed me that because I was growing for a cooperative of medical marijuana patients, I would most likely get off on a year and a half jail time and some probation if charges were filed.

In this case the district attorney had three years to file charges. They call that a statute of limitations. For almost three years, I heard nothing.

I was counting down the days on March 1, 2011, three days before the  statute would have expired when I received a letter. Charges had been filed, and I was asked to appear in court. As I read it, my heart pounded and that familiar lump resurfaced in my throat.

In the three years I waited for that letter, I learned a few things about myself. When I feel anxiety rising up in my chest, I can take control by becoming conscious of my breath and my body.

Yoga was a big part of this for me. Finally, after three years of practice, I no longer needed to twist myself into strange shapes while trying not to pass out from heat exhaustion to be present and centered.

So I took hold of myself, called my lawyer and when the time came I went to court.

My lawyer negotiated with the district attorney that if I agreed to forfeit the property taken in the raid, all charges would be dropped. I agreed to that offer.

I didn’t need the money because I knew that feeling well is not the product of a circumstance. It’s not the result of having enough money or being with the right person in the right place at the right time. It’s not having what you think you want just to find out that it’s never enough. It’s not how much people love, respect or envy you. Being well is feeling alive in your body and breathing, and once you find your way to that place, no one can take it away from you.