Why I Left Yoga and How I Returned

Yoga has been part of my life for twenty years, but I left it almost entirely for a while. I didn’t understand why until after I returned.

My yogic practice began when I was sixteen years old. But this isn’t a story of how I found yoga, and it immediately changed my life forever.

I used to wish that were the case. I would romanticize how badass my asana practice would be if I had been practicing for twenty consistent years. I’d think about how I’d be a better yoga teacher if I had stayed unwavering with yoga from the time I was introduced.

The truth is that while yoga has been part of my life for two decades, I left the practice almost entirely for a while. The reason why isn’t something I consciously recognized until more recent years.

I hesitate to share certain aspects of my story due to fears of painting someone I deeply loved in a negative light. And I fear people will see me as less of yogini amidst the societal construct of #yogaeverydamnday.

Yet, Satya (truth) is one of the principles of the yogic path, so here it is.

My Yoga Beginning

With my mother, Diane Catherine Stammer, circa 1984.

Somewhere around 1997, my mom and I were visiting my grandparents in Sarasota, Florida. My mom had started meditation in the tradition of Kriya Yoga and one of the monks she was learning from, Swami Sarveshwarananda, was giving a talk in the area. My mom asked my grandparents and me to attend it with her.

My grandpa (a Presbyterian pastor), grandma, and I set out with open minds for this experience. The swami was clad in orange garb with a long beard and hair a rainbow of gray that framed his warm smile. I wish I could remember a specific nugget of wisdom from his talk that evening, but all I remember is feeling inspired and feeling called to learn more.

Later that year, my mom took me to the ashram (spiritual center) in Florida where she had been meditating. We arrived in a humble guest house with lush gardens.

Many of the ashram’s customs were foreign to me.

  • No unnecessary talking was to be observed to move our attention inward and become more mindful of our speech. Through this practice, I began to see how much of what I used to say was just fluff.
  • Modest, loose-fitting clothing was to be worn at all times. “Yoga pants” were typically very baggy bottoms of the traditional Indian salwar kameez.
  • When we weren’t meditating, we’d contribute to the community via Seva (selfless service) in the garden or kitchen while watching our breath. It was the first time I cooked mindfully. My guru advised us not to snap “the tails” off the green beans, as it was wasteful and unnecessary.
  • Bowing down to the feet of a guru was a cultural custom that felt weird. For many years, I supported it, and then I didn’t… I still have mixed feelings on this. What I can say is I learned to open my mind to other cultural norms and mores and move outside of the dualistic thinking of right and wrong.
With my mother in meditation.

The practice of Kriya Yoga entails a few postures, but much of what I learned at that time was a meditative breath practice. I was initiated (taught directly through the lineage) during that first visit. Paramahamsa Hariharananda was the living guru who had passed the practice down to the other monks.

Swami Vidyadhishananda was the monk I took initiation from, and he became my personal guru.

One day Swami V. asked me what I planned to study in college. I said I wanted to be a social worker. He responded, “Like me?” I smiled, but I honestly didn’t have the slightest clue how he was a social worker at that time.

My mom and I returned to the Chicago suburbs after a week at the ashram continuing our meditation at home. We went back to the ashram every six months or so over those next couple of years.

Me with Swami Sarveshwarananda in circa 2000.

I found it a huge challenge to stay dedicated to meditation as a teenager. My friends were smoking and drinking…and so was I. During one visit to the ashram, Swami V. advised me to stay on the path of purity and not feel pressured by my peers. I asked him, “What if I don’t feel pressured and I actually like these things?” I don’t remember his response. I think he just looked at me funny.

A couple of years later I confessed to Swami V. that meditating consistently was a battle for me and I felt pulled between different ways of living. I told him that I woke up every morning for two months to sit for an hour, only to inevitably fall out of my practice and that I felt like I wasn’t a very good meditator.

His response was,

“Over the years, you will come and go from Kriya, but it will always be with you.”

He was right. But it wasn’t laziness or a lack of commitment that drew me away.

Why I Left Yoga

Though my mom introduced me to yoga, she also played a role in my rejection of it. You see, while she was a spiritual soul who could light up a room, there was also a darker side, as there is in all of us. This began many years before we started meditating, but during the ashram years, she was mostly stable.

Diane Catherine Stammer, my mother.

There were some trying times over the years. I’ll never know whether the mental illness or pills came first. Or maybe it was her profoundly empathetic nature who sucked up everyone else’s icky energy. Perhaps she felt so misunderstood on this earth and could never fit in entirely. I don’t know.

Some days I could feel my mom’s loving and quiet energy while we sat meditating. However, there were other times when she was utterly volatile.

And almost every kind of holistic and meditative practice got goofy with her. When I was thirteen, my mom spent nine months in bed with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. She was allegedly cured by the miracle of distant Reiki, and while she was rolled into Mayo Clinic with a wheelchair one day, she walked right out the next.

Later, her life choices were determined by a pendulum. She would give it a swing, and it would tell her if she should eat a particular food or not. It would also show her if something had negative energy. One day I came home to my grandmother crying over a box of her own artwork sobbing, “I don’t understand. How could all of these things I made with love be evil.” My mom was convincing. Her pendulum had told her that my grandma’s art was carrying bad energy and needed to go. I put my arm around my grandma, and we both cried.

When I was in college, she spent another couple of years in bed with an ailment no doctor could identify. During that time, I recall her telling me her crystals were sick because they were absorbing her illness. My grandma was causing me to have breathing problems through some telepathic means. And well… these things were not just weird and annoying, but also traumatizing.

Where I Went When I Left Yoga

Mom and I.

Life with my mom didn’t make me dislike meditation necessarily. But it did turn me away from practices I associated with her and toward a direction of whatever else I could find that helped me feel a sense of grounding and control over my surroundings.

I kept yoga in my heart but shifted to looking at the philosophy through an academic lens. In college, I took so many classes in Languages and Cultures of Asia, including Sanskrit and Buddhist Studies, that I was just two semesters in Hindi away from having a minor. I completed my Bachelor’s degree and Master of Social Work. I became an activist searching for how I could impact social justice from every angle.

My focus moved toward finding what I could do to make a difference in the world while avoiding anything that felt new-agey. Even when I traveled to India in 2006 and 2007, I didn’t study yoga. Instead, I lived with a host family and volunteered.

Yet, through those years, I continued on the path of connecting with my true nature… the meaning of yoga. I would focus on my breath every time I snapped green beans or swept my floor.

When I Returned to Yoga

My mom passed away suddenly in 2007 just before I started my second year of graduate school. It was a sudden and traumatic death for me… a huge transition.

As I prepared her eulogy, I recall having a desire to wash away all the black dye I had been coloring my hair with for seven years. I wanted my natural color back, maybe because she was blonde. Perhaps it was a symbol of rebirth I was seeking in the midst of the darkness.

In the years that followed, I began that process of rebirth…through solo travel that pushed me to the edge of my physical and mental capacity and by rediscovering yoga and various forms of healing I had turned my back on years earlier. I revisited holistic practices like Reiki, crystals, smudging, meditation, yoga, and sacred ceremony. I took a closer look at how each of these things may or may not fit me.

My yoga path then drew me to vinyasa flow to Iyengar to Ashtanga back to Iyengar and eventually landed me somewhere on the middle path. The breath of Kriya Yoga is imprinted in my mind’s eye, so when I meditate, it comes naturally.

Through my journey with yoga, I began to learn to manage the anxiety I’ve struggled with since early childhood. By tapping into my body and breath, I’ve been able to tap into my life’s experiences at a deeper level…what needs more love.

Yoga in My Practice and Teaching

My yoga practice helped me to reconnect with my mom in a way that feels real and sacred. Each time I arrive in a forward fold, I see my mom’s feet in my own. When I place my hand on my heart, I feel her warm touch through my hand. Through my practice, I am able to forgive and find compassion, which helps me to heal. In this way, I see yoga as a gift from her.

When I started yoga teacher training in Chicago, I learned some unexpected lessons. My world was turned upside down as I tried to seek answers about the correct version of a pose only to receive vastly different responses from master teachers. It was a time that I started to veer away from right or wrong, good and bad, and other false dichotomies to which we cling. By learning to let go of right answers, I also found myself letting go of the unknowns and anxiety surrounding my mom’s life and death.

As a teacher, I sometimes feel frustrated when students look to yoga as a workout or are driven by mastering a posture at the expense of their body’s well-being. But I also see the desire for asana as a starting point to allowing something more significant to unfold.

As a social worker and trauma-informed yoga teacher, I teach many students who have experienced physical and emotional trauma. And through the practice of yoga, I have the opportunity to witness my students recover from addiction, reduce pain, fall in love with their bodies, and listen to their inner wisdom.

Me teaching yoga at retreat for introverts in Mexico.

At the forefront of my teaching is creating a safe space and class design that allows students to befriend their bodies, connect deeply with their breath, and grow a curious mind. I really believe it’s from here that we have an immense capacity to heal and express our highest selves.