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Life is full of transformations. Five years ago, Yogi Kim Stetz wrote about her transformation from Party Girl to Yogini. Today, at 48 she owns her own yoga studio, Savasana Station in the East Village. Time may have gone by, but the story remains the same. We, as human beings are truly undefined. How does one go from a party girl to a yoga teacher? The forward progression of being.
My body hurts, I am broke and broken, 43, been "single" for seven years, no health insurance, no savings, no IRA. If I’ve had enough of “out here” or can’t afford to live as a yogi “out here”, my ten-year plan includes knocking on the door of Gampo Abbey, a Western Buddhist monastery in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Vajrayana Buddhist teachings say to stay out here and continue to learn. We’ll see how that goes. These are not complaints. With each of those perspectives I can also say my body is phenomenally healthy and in fine physical shape, I have wealth beyond what money can buy and I don’t need fixing.
I look 33, my lovers are in their 20s. A team of chiropractors, massage therapists, and acupuncturists doctor me for ailments if they arise, spend money as quickly as I make it – can’t take it with me, had an IRA and emptied it for more schooling, more certifications, and lastly tomorrow will come soon enough and I am as prepared as any for that day. I drive my parents nuts with the way I live my life. I would go nuts if I lived any another way. I don’t ask for much. I don’t want much. In fact I teach the motto Want Nothing. Receive Everything. If you receive everything then you will have all that you need and want for nothing. This comes from living from a place of abundance. You already have all that you need. I didn’t always think this way. What I have experienced though we are not our thoughts, thoughts lead to actions.
I’ve been teaching yoga for 12 years mainly privately and practicing for 20. I did teach in studios, but only for the first two years of teaching. Financially I couldn’t afford to teach classes because they paid so little ten years ago, as in max $45 for a one hour 45 minute class. That’s if the class was full. I could be paid $15 for the same class. Either way teaching privates or classes, you are running yourself all over town and exhausted by the end of the day. This is not just the experience of a full time yoga teacher. Pretty much any of the fitness trainers out there are busting their butt especially if it’s a full time gig.
For the past seven years I have lived in the East Village, Manhattan, in a rent controlled apartment. I call it a yogi Karma apartment because I managed to jump to the head of a friend of a friend’s sublet waitlist ten people long just at the right time – dumped at 36 after a three year relationship by the boyfriend 9 years younger than me that I was madly in love with. We had talked about marriage and “happily ever after.” Marriage and family hasn’t been in the cards for me. In fact, I get the Devil card often. Despite what you may think, the Tarot Devil Card isn’t scary.
“Perhaps the most misunderstood card of all the major arcana, the Devil is not really "Satan" at all, but Pan the half-goat nature god and/or Dionysius (Bacchus). These are gods of pleasure and abandon, of wild behavior and unbridled desires. Sometimes, this card says, it is good to dance with Bacchus, surrendering control, or be Bacchus and manipulate. Too much restraint can hold you back and keep you from achieving important things.” ~ Aeclectic.net
"You are an endless pit of desire. You can put that on your business card.”
Come to find out after having my astrology chart professionally read by Zen Monk and life coach, Lawrence Grecco, my moon is in Scorpio unaspected, which is kind of a double whammy. Not only is the moon not comfortable in Scorpio, but when a planet is unaspected the effects are even more severe. Sylvia Plath’s moon sign was unaspected. That planet has to work harder and in my case, the moon is in a very intense sign that it doesn’t like to be in. When Lawrence described what it’s like to have the moon in Scorpio, he said, “Though you come off as pretty light and happy and cheerful and positive, your emotions run very (and his voice dropped an octave) very very deep, very extreme. Scorpio people are very intense. This makes you very driven. It’s a challenging place for the moon to be.”
Then he disclosed this fun bit, moon in Scorpio unaspected makes you ravenous. On the upside this situation makes me extremely loyal and can handle being there for someone where others can’t. On the downside, because of the ravenous part, I never feel like I’m getting the loyalty in return. Then he said, “I’ve never said this to someone. You are an endless pit of desire. You can put that on your business card.” We laughed our heads off. Having your chart read can help you understand much about why you feel the way you do and are affected by some things that seem like other people can just shrug off. As well as what you can just shrug off while others are up in arms. Lawrence told me things that were so dead on with dates in the past and events, it was freaky. He told me that in May 2005 a dramatic shift happened and started a whole new lifecycle for me. That was the month when the relationship with the aforementioned ex was done DONE. With these readings, I’m left with the understanding that I have some deep ravenous desires and I don’t mind dancing with the Devil. Perhaps an innate yearning for balance (I’m a Libra) and to figure out what this ravenous endless pit of desire is about brought me to yoga 20 years ago. Confusion and the need to understand the truth of suffering and why we suffer is what brought me to Buddhist studies ten years ago.
Zombie living to being awake in the world.
I drank a lot in my 20s. I know I had two black out nights and many blurry nights mostly in college and just out of college. Everyone drank in college and drank excessively. I was no exception. Smoking pot was never my thing and I didn’t experiment with drugs. I can count on two hands how many times I used cocaine in my early 20s and at 23, in NYC, I was “old” when I first tried it. I haven’t touch the stuff in 17 years. I never bought drugs. You knew who had them and they were always willing to share. People who drink and do drugs excessively like to have buddies to plunge into the rabbit hole. They are more than willing to share, especially the well heeled.
This is not a story where I’m going to say I had a rock bottom moment or friends and family did an intervention, found God and now want to save the world. None of that happened. What has happened and what is happening are small shifts in perception, consciousness, so slow, and one might think so boring you might as well be watching paint dry. My view now is to bring on the paint and the meditation cushion. I’d love to just sit and watch paint dry.
Our society is so sped up, we don’t know what to do with ourselves if we’re not rushing off to the next thing even if that thing is taking a shower, preparing a lunch or going for a run. We’re rushing to run and feel guilty if we don’t get all our stuff in. No wonder we’re a society so out of touch with self, that people are lonely, anxious, afraid, unhealthy, dissatisfied, angry, disconnected, addicted to porn rather than cultivating real relationships and mostly confused.
If you’re just going through the motions, what’s the point? And more importantly how does one wake up? You know there’s something more, but you’re too scared to do something about it. That would be really hard. Changing behaviors is harder than being miserable because misery loves company and like I said before, there’s always someone out there who wants you to be as miserable as they are. Just as there are people out there who want to show you the way to some sort of relief. Those are the people I find in my wake and in my ever-expanding circle of friends, the Sangha, people who follow the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha. I also have Kula peeps, these are yoga friends who are your community of the heart. Kula and Sangha are Sanskrit words for your like-minded friends who are figuring it out just like you on the path of mindfulness with help and guidance from a spiritual community. This community is comprised of all kinds of people from different professions and religions. Not everyone one knows everyone. Just like all celebrities don’t know each other, neither do yoga teachers.
When I lived in NYC in the early 90s, my first taste of being in a production was in the movie Party Girl a film by Daisy Von Scherler Mayer starring the unknown actors Parker Posey and Liev Schrieber. Omar Townsend, a friend who wasn’t an actor, played a lead role in the film as well. I met Parker through Omar when we went out for dinner during the shoot. Parker was fun to be around as you can imagine. We were literally in the party scene of NYC and we were party girls. If you’ve seen the movie, Parker’s character Mary has a transformation from fun loving party girl to a sassy, intelligent Librarian. We were not acting out any of the library scenes the night we were at Au Bar. Some how or another, I ended up saying a one liner in the movie, a scene where Omar’s character mistakes me for Mary for a second and is terribly disappointed when he sees that I’m not. I worked as an extra for 5 or 6 days for free. Non-union low budget film extras don’t get paid. Not only were the extras not paid, I do believe I remember having a conversation with Liev that he was going for “points” rather than salary. No clue what that meant at the time. My story with Liev is for another time, in a memoir that I am currently penning.
Also at this time I took my first yoga class at a brand spanking new gym called Crunch in the village. A friend of mine invested in Crunch and had all kinds of passes to give away. In checking out the assortment of fitness classes, I came across a yoga class, I think the only one on the schedule and chances are it was simply called Yoga. I decided to try this yoga thing having absolutely no idea what to expect. The workout room with mirrors, camouflaged as a yoga room had large white glass candles burning along the borders of the room, the lights were dim, and relaxing music softly trickled from the speakers. Incense may or may not have been burning. I felt like I had entered a spa and not in a gym at all. There were only a few students in attendance. I believe my stream of consciousness went something like this: this is fucking hard, I hate this, I thought I was in shape, who does yoga anyway? Why is she so relaxed and I am so irritated by her voice? How much longer are we going to hold this? Why did I come here? This is stupid and hard. Oh, wait I can do this. When is this class over? I want a glass of wine. I can leave, it’s a free country. She makes it look so easy. I’m going to pass out. Why can’t I do that? I want to do that. Oowweee, my hamstrings. Please stop talking. I’m going to cry. No, I’m going to throw up. This isn’t so bad. I survived. OK, I’ll try that ride again and I don’t like rides - at all.
Shortly after I turned 25, I moved to Los Angeles late November 1993 because I wanted out of the club and bartending scene and thought I’d give acting a go. About a month after arriving, because of NYC connections, I got a job at The Gate on La Cienega Blvd, the hottest nightclub in LA. So much for a change of scenery. Somehow my NYC demeanor led the management team to believe that I could handle being Front Door Bitch holding the clipboard, running the shit show out front.
Nearly two years of that, culminating in a drive by with a gun pointed at me by an angry customer I didn’t let in. I quit.
Anthony Benenati: A Guru
When I first moved to LA, I had taken some yoga classes at a yoga studio on La Cienega where I practiced with a man named Ki. I liked his teachings, he felt authentic and sincere. Not in a turban wearing kind of way, just in his presence. After going through a series of 10 classes rather quickly, I realized I was into this yoga thing. Yoga classes were expensive at studios; $80 if you bought a pack of 10 and that’s a lot of money for an unemployed-going-with-the-flow-kind-of-gal.
I bought a membership at the Crunch Gym on Sunset Blvd and Fairfax because I got a deal via my investor friend in NYC. I milked that connection. There was a movie theater which showed Indie flics (posters for Party Girl were all over the place) and more importantly, a 24 hour Virgin Mega Store occupied most of the real estate in that plaza. Crunch is where I met “my yoga teacher” Anthony Benenati. As fate would have it, Ki was his teacher. Rather quickly Anthony’s classes were packed, and uncomfortable, and not my scene. Anthony, the brave rebel (of course because he’s a yogi) left teaching sold out classes at Crunch to open City Yoga, a studio on Fairfax and Santa Monica, a stone’s throw away from where I lived. The small studio was up a flight of stairs with a reception area, small office and really small yoga room. Anthony had devoted students, but mostly there were a handful of us who came three times a week, two of whom are well known yoga teachers now, Tara Judelle and Colleen Garrity. There was a tatted, beaten up looking skateboard dude named Billy who came all the time, too. I wonder what happened to him?
I had no idea why I kept going to yoga. At that point in my life, for some reason I didn’t need to know. Some days I really hated going, but I went anyway. Something was happening despite my reluctance to chant, to “breathe”, surrender in Savasana, and nearly blacking out any time we would meditate. I’d gasp for breath, surely I was going to die. WHAT THE F***!? Still, I kept going.
For 6 years, I took class religiously about 4 times a week. Anthony’s classes were on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings at 10:00 AM and Sunday mornings at 8:00 in Santa Monica for a super sweaty vinyasa class with Bryan Kest. I had his videos with the long hair, ripped jeans and shirtless. I loved those videos, and ones he did when he cut his hair short. He made good videos. Bryan sold tapes of class recordings, too. A yogi was all set if they couldn’t make it to class or were so flat broke they couldn’t put gas in their car to drive out to Santa Monica. All of Bryan’s classes were donation based. I loved that he had a box out on a table for people to put in what they wanted and make change if they needed. $10 was the suggested donation in the early 90s, but if all I could put in was $2 that was OK. In Bryan’s class I was just one little fish in a sea of 100 no matter when I went. With Anthony, it was almost like a private class. About 3 months into attending Anthony’s class, while in Trikonasa (triangle pose) he was adjusting me and proclaimed, “you’re going to be a yoga teacher.” My hung over, punky-shaved-head self, burst out laughing and said, “I don’t think so.” All I could think was there’s not a chance in hell those yogi words coming out of his mouth will ever come out of this mouth. However, I heard him loud and clear. I didn’t see what he saw, but I trusted what he told me. He saw something in me that said yogini in the making.
Cut to seven years later, I’m writing an email to Anthony asking for a referral letter to enroll in teacher training at OM Yoga in NYC. I had already been teaching asana (postures) and it was time to deepen my practice as well as go through a formal training program to teach yoga and get certified. One teacher training leads to the next, and the next, and really it never ends. The teachings never end. What your average westerner may not be aware of is there are people who teach “yoga” and there are yoga teachers. I put the word yoga in quotes because westerners think yoga is mostly about physical flexibility. Ninety-nine percent of the time, when I tell someone I am a yoga teacher, they will reply, “I’m not flexible”. I kind of wish I had put $1 in a shoebox for every time I heard that. My response usually is, “Flexibility is in your mind. I understand what you are saying, but yoga is so much more.” Now I tell people I am a yogi. They are even more confused, but so be it.
You can only start where you are.
During the rainstorm I was sitting in meditation and started thinking about being a kid during the summertime sleeping in a pup tent in Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain. It sounded the same, with rain falling. It sounded the same. During meditation, you keep coming back to the breath, and I was working with sound with breath as the anchor. Breath is the anchor. And how could I not work on sound with the rain pounding on the leaves and the ground? Then the emotions come up. I started crying. I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I was crying because I was happy to be right here right now. And the thunder is unpredictable. The rain is unpredictable. I’m just sitting there watching it happen. Right here. Right now. But it also takes you to a place where you find yourself … It’s in this moment that it’s happening, and you don’t know if it has something to do with the past. It’s just connecting. I’m connecting to the present moment with nature, and that’s when I feel the most human.
Everyone goes to their first yoga class for one reason or another. Some never come back and some go on to becoming yoga teachers. There is some part of yoga for everyone and anyone. You may never step foot into a yoga class and yet follow the first 2 limbs on the path of yoga – the Yamas and Niyamas, ten ethical guidelines which are foundational to living mindfully and skillfully.
These principles are:
- ahimsa (non-violence)
- asteya (not-stealing)
- satya (truth)
- bramacharya (responsible sexual actions, understand desires and attachments)
- aprarigraha (don’t be greedy)
- saucha (cleanliness)
- samtosha (contentment)
- tapas (austerity)
- isvara pranidanah (practicing the presence of God or the divine)
- svadhyaya (self study)
I dare say a yogi takes these principles to heart. Your yoga teacher will not cheat you out of a session, nor are they looking for a way to take advantage of you. In fact they are most likely doing their best to honor the practice by arriving on time and honor the student and teacher by ending on time. They are most likely not going to have an affair with your partner. If you are working with a yoga teacher or taking class from one, they are there to serve you. Of course yogis are human and shit happens, but you, the student would wouldn’t be learning much if your guard is up.
We peel away the layers of conditioning with yoga. You will most likely receive physical benefits, but the metaphysical benefits are much subtler and take time to cultivate. That’s why it’s called a yoga practice. It’s practice not to compete in a game or perform for a recital. It’s practice not to be perfect because you are already good enough just as you are. Yoga can turn your world and body upside down and help you see the world from a different angle. You are going to change; nothing stays the same. How you change is up to you. Yoga teachers can guide you and help you on your path to self discovery.