As a child I was a gymnast and dancer. I stopped doing gymnastics at around the age of 15 and it took about a year for me to find yoga – that’s 30 years now I’ve been doing it. I’ve always felt alive and connected when I am in movement. And that was because of moving with my breath. In gymnastics I already knew that was what needed to happen.
I found what I later realized was probably the book Light on Yoga, by bks Iyengar. I recall it being a book that just didn’t have a cover. It was old with yellow pages, and had some dude in loin cloth just doing yoga. So, there I was in my bedroom as a teenager, in my little apartment, doing these shapes. I was like, ‘yeah this feels good if I hold this for 10 breaths.’ Being a former gymnast I was able to do them. It wasn’t a challenge at all. It was a just a different way of me moving my body and feeling whole again.
Not really. I just knew it was this thing and was old. Obviously, it was from India. I joke — in Spanish my grandmother used to say, “Que estas haciendo? (what are you doing?)” And then you know being of Puerto Rican descent, we’re actually a mixture of the Indigenous Indians (Tainos) that inhabited the island, with the Dutch and the Spaniards who brought the African slaves to the island. We have indigenous Indian in us. She joked, my grandmother would say in Spanish, “Ai, mija… tu estas bien equivocada… Yo to dije que nosotros eramos or teniamos Indo per eso no son los Indios de que yo hablava. Eso Indo no son de nosotros…” (Oh, my darling… you are so mistaken. I said we had indian in us or were of indian decent, but those are not the indians I was talking about. I get it you were trying to connect but you got the wrong ones…) and she would bust out laughing sipping her coffee… “You have the wrong Indians. Those aren’t our people.” I was like, ‘I know that.’
She continued to laugh and get a kick out of me doing my poses and under her breath would comment, “ Ai, mija… No se cuantas veses te tengo que decir que esos indios no son los gente de color de nosotros. Lo gente do nosotros… buenos, somos differente.” (“Oh, my darling, I don’t know how many times I have to tell you… Those are not our Indians. Those are not our brown people. Our brown people are different”) She thought I was crazy. “Que es este yoga, yoga cosa? Que es eso? Y porque tu tienes que siempre estar de boca para bajo y asiendo maromas?” (“What is this yoga, yoga yoga thing? Why are you always upside down and doing somersaults?”) But I just ignored everybody, because I knew it felt right. I was like, ‘It’s my body, what difference does it make? I feel good. It’s what I know and have always been doing’
I was too young and wasn’t allowed to take the train into Manhattan. At that time, the only spot I knew of was the Integral Center on 21st and I was too young to go. So, I stayed doing what I would do from my books dreaming of one day going to India. Jokingly. I didn’t go to an actual studio ‘til the early 90’s when I was around 21-ish. It was some place down in the Village and I don’t even remember the name. I wasn’t impressed. I was like, ‘oh, all these years I’ve been doing it in my room and I finally can come and I guess this is it.’ I knew there had to be more.
What then drew me in was Bikram. That’s when there used to be a hot yoga studio down on Chambers street and then shortly afterwards New York Bikram opened. I liked Bikram at that time because of the challenge but at the same time, I didn’t like it because I kept saying, ‘why the hell are there only 26 poses? I do more at home. Why are they all saying the same exact script? I have the tapes. I don’t need someone to just say a script to me…’ But nonetheless, I was a devout Bikram person. Because I was a gymnast, I liked the physical challenge of the heat. So I would do doubles. I was a regular doubles person. I would come in – I had two mats, two outfits – I would literally do one class go shower, change, switch mats and move to another part of the room and do another one. It was a great physical challenge for me but it did nothing for me spiritually. That’s when I was like, ‘OK, this isn’t doing “it” for me.’
I always knew there was more because I came in already knowing there was more than what they were offering. I would say to them, ‘when are we going to do a real savasana? Where’s the meditation? Why are we stuck with these 26? Why can’t you mix it up?’ I always challenged it. I’ve always been someone to challenge things if I didn’t understand and that was one of them.
I was 29 yrs old when 9/11 happened. I’m one of the few people that will tell you that I’m actually glad it happened when I was 29 and not 69 regretting my life. It literally shifted me. I still have PTSD. You always live with PTSD when you have it. I used yoga at that time to find my soul.
I was raised Roman Catholic. I was taught, the moment you wake up in the morning you pray. You thank god for allowing you to wake up again. After 9/11 happened, it was almost as if I lost my voice. I lost my spiritual voice. I woke up and just couldn’t pray anymore. I wasn’t angry with God but I lost my words. It was a really weird, I knew the words of the prayers but they just wouldn’t come out. I would struggle with ‘how do I find that again?’ I knew through my breath and movement was when I could talk to God; that was when we used to talk and I would hear the whipsers. So I started to hit the mat hard again. No more classes. Just me, my mat in the room, with my music and hanging with God. I knew I was rendered spiritually mute but knew I could listen and feel.
What I started to do was actually the flow that created the studio. That’s why the studio is called Nueva Alma, which means new soul. I knew that I had to find a new soul at that point. (I also know if you ever take a class with me you’ll never walk out the way you walked in. I will always shift your soul.) I started to find songs of all different spiritual denominations that spoke to God. Even if I didn’t understand the language, if it was music that touched me then it got added to the playlist. One of the ones I played regularly (and still do) is The Our Father in Aramaic. I thought, ‘if this is the language that Jesus used, maybe this will get me to talk to him’ and that didn’t work. Then I started with Hebrew with the Shema Israel and Yoruban chants that I could easily find in Kundalini playlists that resonated with me with the African diaspora. I was just trying every language that I could think of.
It wound up being that even though I didn’t have the words, my body was able to pray. My body was able to express itself. I would close my eyes, move, breathe, listen to my heartbeat and literally the tears would stream down my face and I would innately weep as I moved. It was the only way that I knew we were talking somewhere in there. I did this for about 4 months. Then, one night I was out with some girlfriends. About two bottles of wine in, I got some liquid courage when one of them had asked me if I had gone back “there.” So, I went back with one of them. It was a rainy night. My brother was a police officer. So, I spoke with the police who was standing guard and told him my story and asked if he would be courteous to escort us back to the hole. I told him, “See that hole? My building used to stand right there. I ran out of that building that morning. I just want to go to that edge. Please let me go back to that corner. I need to go back to that hole and just pray. I think I left something back there.” He probably thought I was crazy but he let us go.
And literally, it’s almost as if I knew I outran my soul and that was what needed to happen. I went I sat at the hole, I started to pray and it was like a forced prayer because I still felt like an empty shell. I went home and didn’t think anything of it. The next morning I woke up and boom my prayer came back. As I reflected back, it was almost like I had to go pick her back up. Like I outran her because she needed to stay behind. Who knows. It’s all a mystery but it’s my story. It was pretty amazing that for four months I tried every language and everything and nothing made me feel whole again. But it took me to go back to find it again. It was really profound.
It shows up just by looking at me. The moment I open my mouth that’s what shows up. I don’t believe in being fake. It’s also partly why I opened my studio. I took my training, I knew who I was. I have always known who I am and have been. I have always stood in my truth and that’s one of the blessings that [my] mother allowed in me, since I was a child. But in standing in my truth, I was always acutely aware that I have never fit in a box. I saw early on that if I was going to go do yoga in these yoga studios, it was OK. But if I wanted to teach… they had this certain box, their idea of a standard they wanted you in and I just never fit in it. I was a curvy Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx. I wasn’t a thin dancer or rich white girl. Sorry, but it is what it is because that was all I saw. And if I did see African Americans, they were part of the dance community too. They still fit the tall and thin stereotype. They didn’t resonate with me. So, in class, I always stood to myself. I’ve never been one to compromise who I am for anyone else to feel comfortable.
I can only give you the tools that worked for me and if it works for you, it works and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I’m not going to sell you bullshit in my teachings. Your arm is your arm, your sternum is your sternum, your pelvis is your pelvis. There’s no magic to it. I just take out all the esoteric because there doesn’t need to be any esoteric. It’s already foreign as it is to people. It’s in Sanskrit, it’s in another language, it’s from another country. Everybody walks in with their predetermined thoughts and prejudices of what “it” (yoga) is or isn’t; especially if they’ve been religiously controlled. They (my students) don’t need any more than what they walked in with, so I’m not going to give them any more.
Yes, without a doubt. I have [people with] many disorders or conditions that come in. I even have a double amputee. I have LGBT students and teachers. I have a huge eating disorder and Narcotics Anonymous (“NA”) and Alcoholics Anonymous (“AA”). I had no idea until they revealed themselves to me and told me it was because the way I teach resonates with them and their 12 steps. Word just got around that “she’s going to keep it real. She even curses every now and then…”. Everybody just wants peace in their lives. Yoga is the tool for it. I just want to make it accessible to them and give them the tools so that they cannot only embrace it here but to actually take it off the mat and home with them too. They see that I embody yoga. I live it. That is why I don’t need to sell it.
Can’t give you a 5th one. Why? Cause I am pretty badass and I’ve been silent too long. It’s time everyone recognize that I, too, belong on that list! Just sayin’
Thanks Erica! Your spirit inspires us to move