I found yoga much by accident. Maybe, it's more accurate to say that it found me because I wasn't looking for it, and even after trying it the first time I wouldn't say that I knew right away that yoga would become as important to me as it is today. I was 21 and living in a trailer park in Morehead, Kentucky called lovingly by the locals and college kids - The Blue Zoo. It's kind of a wonder yoga and I found each other at all, me being an Appalachian mountain woman and yoga at that time being still very much an urban centered activity. It was the new millennia. It was 2000. We survived Y2K and the end of the world, but I found myself newly married, overweight, depressed, and exercising like a mad woman.
I had just been told by my doctor that my scoliosis would prevent me from my daily running from then on out and I had switched to aerobics and living off of canned sweet peas and York peppermint patties in hopes that I could find out why I was feeling so terrible and gaining weight. As every good exerciser who came into the fitness world in the 90s, I absolutely loved Jane Fonda's workout videos. I exercised with Jane (who my mother resembles a great deal) and her co-teacher Laurel Sue (who reminded me of my aerobics instructor stepmother), nearly every day. I had the routines down pat. Then, one day, Jane came out with a new VHS
I didn't come back to yoga again for four years. When I finally picked it up again, it was because I was pregnant with my first baby and I wanted to have a natural, unmedicated birth. I read in my What to Expect book that yoga was a really good prenatal exercise. So, since I already new a little, I did that. I picked up Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa's prenatal DVD. From there, I practiced yoga off and on, but fairly consistently through three pregnancies. I used yoga to lose 100 pounds after my second baby. During that period, I went to my first yoga class and had the teacher tell me that my thighs were so big that my sit bones would never touch my heels in child's pose. (They touch my heels today, and I'm still thick thighed.) It became even more of a challenge to use yoga to prove that teacher wrong. I quickly found different styles of yoga and tried a good many of them. At this point I have practiced restorative, yin, vinyasa, power, Hot, kundalini, prenatal, Barkan, and BUTI Yoga. I began collecting gads of DVDs because I couldn't afford regular studio classes while living in Louisville and then after moving back to the mountains there were no yoga classes to be found. I taught myself from those DVDs. Trial and error, again and again, listening more deeply each time to find the "real" pose.
Before too long, I understood the spiritual nature of yoga and came to know it as not only a workout, but as a tool for spiritual practice. It was a way to move the energy of anxiety and frustration through my body and transform it into something that fed my body and made it healthy. In 2009, I was diagnosed with Hashimotos Thyroiditis, and yoga along with the autoimmune protocol paleo diet, has helped me be as healthy as is possible for me at this time. I was also working as a childbirth educator and it was only natural that my first yoga certification was yoga for pregnancy, labor, birth, and postpartum. In 2010, I went with my then yoga teacher and friend, Heather Bates, who had gotten training and along with another friend Jonathan Hootman, had opened my hometown of Whitesburg's first yoga classes. Jane Anne Tager was our teacher for that certification and we took the classes at the great Asheville Yoga Center.
It was after that when I started substitute teaching for Heather and Jonathan at North Fork Yoga. My home practice had, by this time, grown to 5-6 days a week for an hour each time. Then, in 2012 when my doctor told me no more high impact exercise, I switched strictly to yoga as my form of fitness. By 2014, I wanted to start offering yoga to my community on my own as Heather and Jonathan had each moved on from teaching yoga in Whitesburg. Because I had small children and no way to come up with $2,000 and travel every other weekend several hours away for a year to receive an in person certification, I enrolled in Anmol Mehta's Yoga Teacher Training. I completed the over 600 page book and passed the 20 question handwritten essay test and began teaching both kundalini and hatha yoga in my community. While an online program wasn't ideal, I chose it because I knew my community needed yoga, and I wanted to share a practice that I know and love with them. Ideally, I will find the money and a program that works for me soon as my daughters are older now. I am fundraising for my 200-RYT currently.
Over the years, I've become about as passionate about yoga as I have been about anything in my life. I say it saves my life every single day as I battle thyroid disease, polyarthropathy, and mental illness. It has given me life more times than not, and it has made it possible for me, finally at 38, to feel at home in my body.
I've collected and read numerous books about yoga to continue my studies, and I have taught classes in Pikeville, Whitesburg, Norton, Hindman, and Isom. I've taught in yoga studios a library, hillsides, a settlement school, and in gyms to groups of 30 and parties of 1. I have fallen down on my mat crying ugly tears in the middle of a studio class, but also smiled so hard my face hurt. I have taken studio classes in various places every opportunity I have. Yoga has taken me to the limits of my body and mind and back again.
I I have held myself accountable for the yoga I teach, as I have had to out of necessity. I didn't have an in person teacher, so I found the answers in books, DVDs, online, and asking yoga teachers on Facebook. I could not share yoga in my community without being a dedicated practitioner of yoga or without caring enough about my students to be able to keep them safe and share proper alignment and modifications. While my yoga education is not the highest certification available, coming to yoga first as the student and second as a sharer has kept me in constant practice and growth within my personal practice. I share with those in my class from experience. I have a head full of cues and adjustments that make yoga accessible to most who walks through the door of a class I am responsible for. I have all the precautions in place and a heart for sharing a practice that has changed my life. My community cared enough about my continued education that they crowd-funded my newest yoga certification for the practice that has changed me so much in the last six months - BUTI Yoga. I will forever be grateful. I certified this past July with Talen Lane in Nashville, TN.
Whether or not I am the most credentialed teacher, doesn't matter. What matters is that my students and those who hire me to teach trust me. What matters with yoga is one's dedication to practicing and being a student. Am I willing to read all I can? Am I willing to practice 1-2 hours six days a week? Am I willing to say, "I don't know, but let me find out for you," if a students asks me a question I don't have the answer for? Am I willing to continue my education formally as opportunities present themselves? Am I willing to invest monetarily in my yoga classes and education. Those things matter. Do I love my community more than my ego? Am I willing to be open and sincere? Yoga asks us all the hard questions. To truly practice, we have to start to lose the competition we're always in with ourselves and meet ourselves right where we are, wherever that may be.
In the 16 years since I started with Jane Fonda's yoga, my yoga practice has become an expression of my faith. It gives me my fullest life. It is a gift from Universe even on the very tough days. It demands that I don't stop, but I come to the mat just as I am. It asks me to listen to my body, to the world around me, to the voices of all the members of my community. It requires of me compassion and mindfulness. It fosters in me and attitude of service. It has helped me embrace my womanhood, sexuality, and Divine Feminine. Buti Yoga has given me a tribe of truly supportive women who call ourselves - butisattvas, to encourage and uplift me. Yoga has become a friend, a tool, and a medicine. It would be wrong of me not to share what I have learned so those I care for can know this journey too.
Kelli Hansel Haywood is the mother of three daughters living in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. She is a writer, weightlifter, yoga and movement instructor, chakra reader, and Reiki practitioner.