For Your Own Sake
Larry Sherman had survived a lot: substance abuse, a near-death experience as a naval petty officer in Desert Storm, and a divorce that left him with the responsibility of raising his children. But no problem seemed as insurmountable as his weight, which at his heaviest exceeded 540 pounds. Through yoga, Larry found the inner strength to turn his life around.
Larry's overeating began as a way to cope with loneliness, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder. "I refused to go back to alcohol, so food was it for me," he says. "And I ate with a fury. I would wake up in the morning and go to the bagel place and eat two or three bagels and drink a cup of coffee. On the way home, I'd purchase two or three dozen doughnuts. Then I'd drive straight to the China Buffet and eat there for two hours, and then go home and eat my doughnuts. I was sick and tired, and I couldn't breathe. I was spending every night waiting to die."
Larry had been in and out of food-addiction programs over the years, and in 2006, at age 47, he decided to try again. "I knew I had to make the decision to either live or die," he says. "I chose to live." But he knew that just changing his eating habits wouldn't be enough. One day at a health fair, he met a yoga teacher who encouraged him to try yoga. Larry started attending classes at Yoga Shelter in Detroit, where his teacher and fellow students had to help him into the poses at first by supporting his arms and legs. "I couldn't walk. I couldn't even stand for long periods of time," he says. "And here I was, 480 pounds, and doing a Half Moon Pose." He kept going to classes and, to his disbelief, found himself doing Pigeon Pose, and then Boat Pose.
His size made the poses difficult and sometimes painful, but his teachers urged him to keep practicing. "Each time I did, I got more flexible and wowed myself with what I could actually do if I breathed and tried and never gave up on myself," he says. As asana became a regular part of his life, Larry discovered that his body was capable of moving with grace, and even of providing him with moments of pleasure. He found his self-confidence increasing—and with it the will to stick with the food-addiction program, something he hadn't been able to do in the past. Over the next six months, he dropped 100 pounds. "You don't want to abuse your body when you know how good it can feel," he says. "When you have felt the magnificence of your body in a vinyasa class or a slow flow class, then you know that you're making a bad choice when you eat 10 pieces of fried chicken or half a pizza."
Today Larry weighs 180 pounds, and works in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation hospital, where he mentors young adults. "Yoga teaches you how to parent yourself, to take care of yourself," he says. "I was in the military, so they teach you to be disciplined for them. But I learned to do yoga for me, to discipline myself for my own benefit."
Discover The True You
At 40, Rachel Eliason is a registered nurse, a budding writer, and the loving mother of a 12-year-old son. But just four years ago, she was living her life as someone she wasn't—someone named Richard. Yoga and meditation gave Rachel the insight to connect with the truth of who she really was, and the courage to embrace living her life as that person.
Rachel was born a biological male and as an adult had gotten married and fathered a child, but she had struggled all of her life with confusion about her gender identity. After her divorce five years ago, she tried living life as a gay man, but still felt unsettled. "It was obvious that this wasn't the answer," she says. "I was still dealing with someone else. I wasn't dealing with me." Rachel had had a regular yoga and meditation practice for years, but she began spending more time with her practice, seeking answers and trying to connect with who she was. It was in meditation, she says, that she was able to see herself as a woman for the first time. "One day, I was sitting in Lotus position with my eyes closed," she says, "and I saw someone sitting in front of me, looking back at me. It was a beautiful woman. And I thought, 'Oh my God, is that who I am?'"
The vision wasn't as much a surprise as it was confirmation of something she'd always known subconsciously, but it was the realization she needed to move forward. "It had always been in the back of my head, but it was something I very consciously tried to avoid for a long time," she says. "I realized that maybe this was not just some fantasy. Maybe it was real. Maybe it could happen." Rachel's asana practice kept her connected to her body and helped keep her mind clear and free of judgment as she began the long and difficult gender-transition process, which at first involved changing external things, like her name and her clothing, as well as taking hormones.
"I spent too much of my life trying to get around a lot of issues by being intellectual about them—like thinking that my feeling like a woman wasn't real. Yoga helped me to inhabit my own body and just be myself," she says.
Her practice also helped her become comfortable with the way her body naturally wanted to move and express itself. "As a man, I had always held my hands together when I talked, to keep them from moving about, because it looked feminine," she says. "I had learned to control the way I walk because my natural tendency is to have a more feminine walk; rather than building a new female persona, it was more a matter of letting go and allowing my body to do what it felt was the most natural thing. And yoga was a huge help in just that."
Today, as the gender-transition process continues, Rachel is enjoying relief from the confusion that once overshadowed her. Her yoga practice is a constant reminder that achieving the truest expression of herself takes time.
"After you've done yoga for a while, you start to enjoy the process and realize that it's not just about the end result," she says. "People think a sex change is something you do. But we call it a 'transition,' because it's a process. Nobody wants to go through months of being on hormones and getting ready to have surgery. But you have to start with where you are and what you've got. You have to be patient and let the process unfold."
Karen Macklin is a writer, editor, and yoga teacher living in San Francisco.
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