Be Kind to Yourself/Be a Warrior/You were Born This Way

This month's Karma Yoga was in support of the Born This Way / Foundation co-founded by Lady Gaga and her mother Cynthia Germanotta. Many people think that the Born This Way / Foundation is only about supporting those who identify as LGTBQ, but it's more than that. Its purpose is to support the mental health of young people and work with them to create a kinder and braver world, and eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health. So, with that I would like to share my mental health story and the creation of Warrior Yoga.

Me at about age 2.

Why Warrior Yoga:

From the time I decided to begin my 200-hour teacher training journey the word warrior was stuck in my brain as an empowering and motivational icon. I never intended for the name of the studio to have anything to do with the assumed physical strength of a warrior. The warrior for which the studio is named isn't a soldier, knight, Viking, gladiator, Samurai, or Roman soldier. No armor or weapons necessary. The warrior is the unburdened Self within each of us practicing compassion, love, kindness, understanding, and truth to ourselves and others.

This is my warrior story:

For most of my adult life I have struggled with depression and anxiety in some form, but much of that time I did not realize what I was feeling was depression and I certainly didn't know why. It took me nearly two decades to know I suffer from depression. For this depression I have felt guilt. The guilt I felt was because I knew that others in the world had it so much worse than I did. I hid my depression as much as I could. I remember having a journal for a few years, maybe late high school and early college, where I would write down how I was feeling. If I remember correctly, it was quite candid and dark. Feeling shame and disdain for how I was feeling and fear of someone finding it, I destroyed the journal, though I don't remember exactly when.

I have come to understand the link between my depression and being bullied and mentally abused during my adolescent and teen years. For obvious reasons, being treated differently in those years had no real-time effect on me, but it caused severe negative neural pathway connections to be built at an early age that have surfaced in my adult life. In other words, I developed bad habits of being unkind to myself.

I think I was a happy child, at least that's what photographs and my family tell me. I really didn't begin to grow much hair until the age of about two. I was so fascinated with the hair that I took a liking to the neighbor girl's Skipper Doll (Barbie's little sister). My parents bought me my own Skipper, but I liked the long straight hair of the neighbor's better. Eventually we traded. She got the brand new Skipper and I had the one with the great hair. I was so obsessed with hair that I wore an old lace doily on my head. When my hair began growing it was in loose, wavy ringlets around my face. According to my mom, from the time my hair started to grow through kindergarten, I wouldn't allow it to be cut. I continued to wear the doily on my head far past the time my hair was down to my waist. Barbie and her friends became one of my new favorite toys along with trolls, and playing dress-up. All the rock stars on MTV had long hair and looked very different from the people in my life and I wanted to be like them.

The Bullying Events:

Me with my long curls in 1988, kindergarten.

I was treated differently beginning with the authority figures in my life, mainly my kindergarten teacher who pegged me as "different" and "weird". I remember her telling me that if I was her son I "would look very different". At this point in my life, my blonde hair

was in lose curls down to my waist. My teacher accused me of not knowing if I was a "boy

or girl." The teacher put me in counseling to deal with the problem of me not knowing my gender against my parents' permission. I think I remember them telling me once that they had to go to the school board to get me out of counseling. My best guess is that the students saw my teacher treating me differently so they also treated me in a similar way.

Going into first grade I finally allowed my hair to be cut, but it had to be in the style of MacGyver, aka a mullet. I thought he was just the coolest guy on the planet. While this was

MacGyver from the 1980s
MacGyver from the 1980s.

a better solution than the blonde curls to my waist, I wore the mullet with pride for way too long. By the time I cut it, mullets had been out of style for nearly a decade.

At about the same time I cut my hair to a glorious mullet, boys evidently only wore white socks, or at least that's what one boy told me in the bathroom in elementary school. I have no idea what color my socks were but I know they weren't white. I know I felt embarrassment for not conforming. I don't think I ever told my mother as I didn't want her to feel the guilt for putting me in brightly colored socks and causing another kid to poke fun at me. My first grade teacher was only slightly better than the previous one but she was still vocal about her dislike of my differences as she too was also stuck in old traditions. I ran into her a few years ago at the grocery store where she reminded me that she is glad I finally cut my hair. I have had short hair for nearly two-thirds of my life, and this is still what she chooses to remember about me.

Me with my mullet in second grade.

The bullying continued through the years and my friend group got smaller and smaller. In fifth grade, one particular boy loved to chase me on the playground, but overtime it became more hostile. Eventually I knew he was no longer playing when one day he caught me. He grabbed me by the neck and pinned me against the chain link fence in front of the school. I felt fear. I can remember his face and what seemed like insanity in his eyes. Kids and teachers were running toward us as he held me, defying gravity, against the fence. Following that, I was placed in detention, forced to spend the remainder of play time inside, but I honestly don't remember why. I'm not sure what punishment the other child faced, or if he did.

Fast forwarding another year to sixth grade. Gym class was a very different environment than anything I had experienced before. We were required to wear uniforms and change in gender specified locker rooms. At that time in one's life the body is developing in new ways and changing clothes in front of peers can be embarrassing. One day, a kid came up behind me and hooked. My pants down to my ankles. I remember the laughter and some of the faces of the boys. There were exclamations such as, "he has one" and "he IS a boy" and comments that I had the girls' version of the gym uniform. I must admit my shorts were tighter and shorter than all the other boys. I asked once if I could get another uniform because mine didn't fit right, but I was told I had to use the one I was given. I have since wondered if there really was a gender specific style to the

Freshman year of high school, the last year of the mullet.

uniforms and if I was given the one meant for a girl either maliciously or by accident. Puberty and the bullying experiences combined prompted a dark curiosity. When I discovered the ways my body was changing I found pleasure in cutting myself. The cuts weren't meant for attention or visible to anyone else. This behavior went on for several years.

I spent much of my middle school years without

friends. The few kids that I had played with in the neighborhood had moved away. I knew the kids in school didn't like me and didn't want to be around me. I remember the one remaining friend I had tell me once during lunchtime, "I needed to take my mask off and become normal". I don't think we ever really spoke after that. I began sitting by myself in the mornings in bus room before class and at lunch. There were a few kids I was particularly scared of. I hid in the bathroom stalls on occasion.

Sophomore year with my first short hair cut.

Most of the teachers showed little care about me, but one teacher in particular was wonderful. She saw right through my uniqueness and tried to help me find my way through art. She made me feel like I had talent, like I mattered, and made me feel safe. She pushed the school to allow me to take extra art classes instead of taking gym and other classes where students weren't kind. I will never forget her kindness.

My first year in high school was spent still very much alone. There were a few senior students that let me sit with them at lunch, but I felt it was out of pity rather than real kindness. Two boys in particular would lock arms and try to knock me down in the hallway. I would often try to avoid them by finding alternate routes to my classes. Even though teachers would stand by their doors to watch the students in the hall, they never once caught these two boys in action. The summer between my freshman and sophomore years I finally cut my hair. I know by this point I had been keeping it long (mullet style) because my mom liked it. I didn't want to hurt her feelings by cutting it. The incoming freshman class didn't know me well prior to high school and I was able to begin making new friends. I also began re-connecting with old friends with whom I grew apart over the years. Some of these friends I have to this day.

Me with one of the first people to stand up for me.

Through high school the bullying tapered off, except for the two guys that would try to knock me over in the hallway, and I ignored other students that were just mean. Once my best friend stood in front of me, acted like a battering ram, and plowed right through the boys who would lock arms. She nearly caused them to fall over backwards. Of course they snickered that I had a girl protecting me, but I thought I had the coolest friend ever. College was probably the best years of my life to this point as I made a fresh start with new friends, but this is when I remember feeling the effects of my depression most. Even though I had friends, I often still felt alone with my thoughts.

In the first days of graduate school my new classmates hid my architectural models and left me a trail of clues to find them. On another occasion, they placed all of my architectural drawing tools in a punch bowl of gelatin dessert. To anyone else, this may have been funny, simple and painless practical jokes, but for me it was probably my first anxiety inducing trigger. My professors just stood by while all this was happened instead of making it clear that maybe this wasn't the most professional conduct. My classmates had no idea that I had a history of being bullied or that I had been triggered. I felt picked-on and singled-out. This left me thinking, "Why me, why am I such an easy target. Am I stupid? What's wrong with me?"

I've always been bad at standing up for myself, but I was able to make it clear that this was not okay. They lightened up on me, but I never really trusted them moving forward. The second semester of my first year I got the chance to go to Egypt. While my direct classmates did stop the shenanigans, I was in Cairo with a whole new bunch of students. Several days into the trip I found out there was a bet going around that I was going to be the one in the group to lose it and freak out in the foreign country. Just another event to make me wonder "What is wrong with me and why me?"

Once out of school and in the workforce, I found myself fearing my bosses to the point I was trembling at work. I often felt cold, even though the indoor temperature was comfortable. I began having panic attacks and fearing failure, always questioning and second guessing my abilities.

I started online dating but never really found a connection with someone. Finally I went on several dates with a woman who was occasionally fun to be around but I really never felt the sparks to carry it forward. When I refused her sexual advances, she accused me of being gay. That hit me very hard. I began questioning everything about myself. I felt like I couldn't be me--my hair, clothing, sexual preference, skills and abilities, being too sensitive. I felt like I was constantly being scrutinized by myself and others. The chatter in my head became hostile, always reminding me I was not good enough. All the events of my past came crashing down into this moment in my life. I wondered what I had done to be a target to so many. I blamed myself for not being strong enough to shrug it off or let it roll off my back. I told myself that I was weak. I hated myself and who I had been as a child. I hated the photos of me wearing skirts, playing with dolls, and that stupid doily on my head.

Seeking Help:

By word of mouth I found a therapist to help me. My first round in therapy did help relieve the weight I was feeling at that time, but it only just scratched the surface. I don't think I really got to fully open up with that therapist. She went on maternity leave and I didn't return to therapy until several years later when another anxiety driven event at work put the weight of my past back on my shoulders. I found a therapist who suited my needs and personality better, and provided a valuable toolkit to change my behaviors for the better.

This time in therapy I went all-in. I finally accepted that my experience with bullying was different and unique to me and just because my experience may have sounded less severe than others', it didn't make it any less harmful. I found that I had repressed all the rest of the incidents of bullying through my childhood. The ones I wrote about above are all that I can remember, I do believe they are possibly the worst of the trauma I experienced, but I have snapshots of events in my memory of others, but with very little substance.

Through therapy I learned a lot about myself. I may have been a highly sensitive child which affects fifteen to twenty percent of children. Highly sensitive children are born with a nervous system that is highly aware and quick to react to everything. If you are interested in learning more about what it means to be a highly sensitive child, you can read it here. Being highly sensitive may be the why in the question why am I a target for bullying. It wasn't that I was a target, it was how the acts affected me so intensely. I also believe that I have developed fear and distrust of certain authority figures. Usually they are my bosses, but they can also begin as people I highly trust and respect, but overtime I develop a fear of letting them down to the point where I close myself off to them and fear that they are then disappointed in me.

I have observed that all the bullies in my life have been male. While girls weren't necessarily nice to me, I never grew to fear them. In my late adolescent and early adult life I have never had or maintained a good relationship with another man. All of my "best men" at my wedding (groom's crüe as I called them) were women, all who have supported me and been my friends through thick and thin. My own father was my best man.

How Yoga Found Me:

About the time I began counseling, my girlfriend at the time (now my wife) suggested I try yoga. She had a DVD of a yoga instructor named David Sunshine. We would do it together after going on short runs or when I was feeling anxious. We practiced it together for a while until a coworker invited me to a live session. From that first in-person yoga session I was hooked. My wife has continued to be a strong advocate for my mental health and has encouraged me to work hard to open the yoga studio because it brings me joy.

Circling back to the name of the studio, Warrior Yoga, the warrior is a symbol for me is mental strength, but I want to leave it open to interpretation for others. I have a sincere interest in trauma sensitive yoga. One of the best books I read during my time in teacher training was Teaching Trauma Sensitive Yoga: A Practical Guide by Brendon Abram. At Warrior Yoga we take an approach that is sensitive, inclusive, and kind. The way you experience yoga is unique to you. Yes, we offer a strength and core class, but at the foundation it is still yoga.

My tool kit:

The vision board I used prior to opening Warrior Yoga. It still hangs on our family room wall.

My therapist has helped me identify dysfunctional beliefs and old patterns of coping that have prevented me from being my authentic self. I have created vision boards with photos, words, and phrases that remind me to giggle, worry less, and that I am worthy. (The vision board shown here is hanging on our family room wall.) My therapist has also introduced me to EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which is a psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences. And finally, she has introduced me to people like Brene Brown, Master Shi Heng Yi, and Kristin Neff who have amazing TED talks, if you are ever interested.

One of the most helpful treatments we have use is IFS, internal family system, or parts therapy. Parts-therapy/parts work therapy is the concept that our personality is composed of a number of various parts from our subconscious. The goal of parts-therapy is to help people have all the parts of the self ready to show up when needed. This treatment is particularly useful for someone who has experienced