by KeOnte Criswell
If you’d said to me a couple of years ago that I’d be the kind of person to say things like, “I feel disconnected from my body” or “connect to your breath”, I would have responded with a full belly laugh. Furthermore, if you’d told me I’d become the kind of person who could exist without coffee running through her veins I would’ve assumed that you also saw tiny green men in spacesuits. Then on a cool, crisp Monday morning in November 2019, that coffee-loving skeptical diva got into her car, left for work, and never came back. On that fateful day, the driver of a black Ford F150 changed everything about her when he crashed into her car. Even now, I can still hear the sound of metal crunching and glass bursting. After the boom came the blessed silence. I didn’t realize its significance at the time. From that moment on, silence has been there for me with the same warmth and comfort of a security blanket.
The accident itself is a lost memory, extinguished by its trauma. But I was hurt with physical damage that even four months of physical therapy couldn’t fix. The right side of my body was practically useless. Halfway through my physical recovery, I caught COVID. In spite of everything I was going through, I didn’t feel overwhelmed. In his 1922 novel “Siddhartha,” Hermann Hesse wrote, “Within you, there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.” I didn’t know it at the time, but I had gone within myself to the stillness that Hesse described. The silence in my mind was like medicine. I was going through one of the worst experiences of my life however, I could find a way to soothe myself by going back to that place of silence. This sacred, silent place was giving me strength and the courage to honor myself in every area of my life. I started by quitting a job where I’d experienced constant microaggressions and pursuing my dream of becoming a certified yoga instructor.
Even though my practice over the years had been sporadic, I never fell out of love with it. One of my favorite sayings is “when the student is ready, the teacher appears.” That’s exactly how my instructor, Megan, came into my life – via a random Instagram post about an upcoming Yoga Teacher Training (YTT) session. That post was more than a sign to me, it was a light. I met with Megan through a Zoom call and our connection was immediate and strong. We were two Libras vibing, each of us one half of the same Libra scale. I told her about the accident and my injuries and she said four words that would push me through some of the toughest challenges then and now: “You can do this.”
In the spirit of full disclosure, at the start of YTT I was not only injured but overweight as well. To say that the physical aspect of training was a challenge would be an understatement. In my head, I’d pictured a nice slow vinyasa class with a lot of deep breathing. The reality was a much more intense (and hot) Power Flow class. Even though I’ve given birth four times and spent nearly 20 years on active duty in the Air Force, I can honestly say I’ve never pushed my body harder. Nevertheless, she persisted. I think back on all the days I wanted to quit, the days I was hyper-aware of just how many muscles it takes to roll over in bed, the times I actually shed tears on my mat and through it all, I could hear Megan’s voice in my head saying, “you can do this.” I’d also hear “KeOnte, pull your belly in” A LOT. Many times I wanted to respond, “Girl, I am! I’m just fat!” but even thinking it took more energy than I had.
Thankfully I had a much easier time with the history and philosophy section of training. Even now I can rattle off the yamas and niyamas (and their meanings) like the lyrics to my favorite song. As we were studying the eight limbs of yoga (the guidelines on how to live a purposeful life), one in particular stuck out for me: pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses. ‘This is a thing??’, I wondered. Teach me, Yoda. Of all the eight limbs, this one spoke to my heart the loudest. It became my personal challenge.
At the end of every class, I would work on withdrawing all my senses during corpse pose. Later on I realized I was still chasing that one moment from my accident where I’d felt absolute peace; the moment where I was formed. During the rest of our training, I would incorporate pratyahara into my life off the mat as well. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned with fully practicing yoga is that no part of it is easy initially. Everything requires you to be fully present and in the moment. If you forget to breathe or don’t keep your eyes on your drishti (focal point), you’ll be thrown out of your practice. At best, you reset your focus, take a deep breath, and begin again. At worst, you fall down. If that happens you get up, find your drishti, take a deep breath, and start again. In the beginning, I had to start by focusing solely on the sound of my own voice. Coincidentally, this was also an issue in my real life. Anytime you try to consciously create a moment of stillness, your mind will become active and resist. Simply acknowledge and observe any thoughts that enter your mind and let them go. The more I worked at it the easier it became to truly remove myself from the environment. Because of the trauma I carried, even from before the accident, I never knew what it was to feel connected to my body. Learning to withdraw into myself wasn’t just a new skill, it was a gift. It taught me to be fiercely protective of my whole self.
After graduation, I felt confident and powerful. Then one day during a soul flow class, my left knee gave out. An injury that’s plagued me for years flared up in a new and vicious way. I was devastated. My dreams of teaching were over. How can I teach if I can’t practice? Those were the exact words I said to Megan after a disheartening doctor’s visit. True to form, she repeated the words that have become my mantra: you can do this. How, Megan? I need my knees to do everything but corpse pose. By coming to class and pulling back to 50% or even less. That’s exactly what I did. I went back to class full of fear but also determination and intention. The knee injury caused me to lose my drishti and I’d fallen. It was time to get back up, find my focus, take a deep breath, and begin again. When the voices of doubt start to become louder than my own, I go back to the place of silence and find the strength I need to continue. It doesn’t get any easier but I consistently get stronger.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned through practicing yoga is that it teaches us how to ‘show up’ for ourselves and the people in our lives, despite our reluctance. We learn to connect to our breath to move through things that are difficult. We become quite adept at going to that place inside to find the will and the power to endure what’s ahead. We learn to surrender to stillness and reach pratyahara. It may not feel good at first but you’re strong and you can do this. Deep inhale in, deep exhale out. Beautiful job, yogis. Thank you for sharing this space and this journey with me. The light and love in me sees and honors the light and love in you. Namaste.