Dana Byerlee Is #WhatAYogiLooksLike
This is the sixth individual spotlight in series 3 of the “This Is What a Yogi Looks Like” (#whatayogilookslike) media series, a collaboration between the Yoga and Body Image Coalition and Yoga International based on the YBIC campaign that launched in 2014 and their continued work in challenging stereotypes, growing community, working collaboratively, and highlighting the diversity of yoga practitioners and yoga practices, as well as their staunch commitment to diversifying yoga media.
I’m part of a daily gratitude email group with a handful of kickass women. The concept is simple: One of us gets the day started with a simple “Today I am grateful for…,” and then shares her list with the rest of the group. There are no rules, and one doesn’t have to jump in every day. But once someone kicks it off, the rest of us usually chime in and share things both huge and small that help us all remember the wonder of this life.
There’s usually something about yoga on my gratitude list: my practice, the community, my students, and my incredible teachers. I am so grateful every day that I found my way to the mat. Yoga shifted the way I see and interact with the world, and it gave me the holistic set of tools I needed to face my biggest challenge (that is, cancer), with presence and an open heart. It helped me evolve from a Type A, perfection-seeking, disconnected-from-her-body girl, to a woman who pushes less and leans into life more—one who is able to listen compassionately to her body and heart, as well as to others.
Looking back, I can see how I spent much of my life addicted to achievement. Perfect grades and SATs, the “right” activities, a prestigious college, a “hot” major...I constantly looked outward for what I was supposed to do, who I was supposed to be, and the definition of success.
This continued after college, as I landed a string of positions at top-notch firms in New York City. I regularly worked 17 hour days, ate like crap, and drank and Xanaxed my way through each week. I remember calling a family member during lunch on my first day at a top-tier investment bank. I was already miserable, but she excitedly told me to “Be happy!” That this was it—I had made it, she told me. I was living The Dream!
Problem was, it wasn’t my dream. I hung up, went to a park, and cried.
I spent about six more years on the East Coast, always eager to take headhunters’ calls—as I thought the answer to my unhappiness was a different firm, a different role, or more money. But each time, I quickly got to the same place (burnt out and anxious). A bright spot in those years, though, was the half year I spent in Southern California. I fell in love with the landscape, the energy, the sun, and the sea. When the time came to return to the East Coast, I was extremely upset to leave.
In fact, when the following summer arrived, I informed my boyfriend that I was moving to SoCal. I hit up the job boards and the recruiters, and in two weeks I was on a plane to L.A. I had already secured an apartment in Santa Monica. Just like that, with just two duffel bags of clothes and a laptop, I started over. It took me about a day to notice all the yoga studios. Then, true to form, I went only to a power yoga class because: 1) My boyfriend wanted to try it. 2) It was popular and everyone else was doing it (so clearly so should I!). And 3) It seemed like a good workout, and having a body that looked good was very important to me.
Also true to form, I made my practice as unenjoyable as I possibly could. I made each pose an intense struggle. I didn’t allow myself breaks. And I spent a lot of time looking at other students and comparing myself to them. I wanted to do the poses absolutely perfectly, and I spent a lot of classes fuming in anger. And yet...something was sinking in. I wasn’t a particularly consistent student, but I remember smiling when I noticed the whole class breathing together, completely in sync, practicing as one. Or when one of the teachers would play the harmonium and sing during savasana, and I felt tears rolling down my cheeks.
More and more, I began considering what it means to be holistically healthy. I desperately wanted to feel more peaceful and at ease, to feel more of the strength and vitality that kept me coming back to power yoga. And I wanted to understand the breakdown of the poses—how to do them “right”—and I started watching videos to learn more. Eventually I decided to do a teacher training—not because I had any intention of ever teaching, but because something just said to me: “This will help you. You need to do this. And you need to learn from someone who knows.”
I felt that my purpose was becoming bigger than just helping myself.
I quickly learned that every pose is not for every body, nor for every day. I learned modifications and the value of backing off. And I discovered practices besides power yoga—restorative, gentle, and yin yoga, and meditation and pranayama. I began to see the imbalance I had created by bringing competition and striving to yoga. And I began to notice that that was generally how I’d been living my life. After all, how we do one thing is often how we do everything else.
As I deepened my practice and incorporated the more subtle practices, I connected the dots between my behavior on the mat and my actions off the mat—and I felt my life begin to change. It was as if the lens of my life were widening. I could see and feel more, prioritized my practice over going out, and developed profound relationships with my fellow teacher trainees. And I suddenly had a desire to help others by teaching and sharing these practices. I felt that my purpose was becoming bigger than just helping myself.
Then, at the age of 34, came cancer. In the course of one year, I completed six rounds of chemotherapy for breast cancer, had a mastectomy to remove my left breast, and underwent radiation. In the midst of it all, I also ended a 10-year relationship and was forced to leave my job. Just like that, I was on disability. The week after a chemo treatment, I could barely move. My entire life I’d been neurotically obsessed with achieving, perfecting, pushing, and doing, and now my only job was to simply be.
That year of cancer turned out to be the best year of my life.
I was suddenly forced to live life in the slow lane, and I spent day in and day out tuning in and going deep. Meditation became my go-to practice, and I explored loving-kindness, chakra alignment, zazen, mantra-based meditations, and yoga nidra.
By slowing down, I felt the world come alive again. I hadn’t felt this in touch, in tune, or content since I was ten years old. I was able to see miracles that had been right under my nose. A cup of sorbet tasted so incredible it blew my mind and brought tears to my eyes. Between treatments, I set my alarm early—just so I could wake up and lie in bed to take in the incredible luxury of not feeling sick, soaking up that early morning cozy. Where had I been all these years? I was overcome with gratitude for simple things.
Now that I was forced to take the pressure off myself (and consciously moved to do so as well), my asana practice also changed. When I was tired from treatment and rebuilding mobility after surgery, I learned to show myself more compassion. One day during class I said to myself, “Well, now you have an excuse to skip vinyasas or to go into child’s pose whenever you want.” And I suddenly realized: That had always been an option!
Now, with this new permission, asana really took a leap forward, and it became a true healing practice. I listened to my body. I moved to open and heal and strengthen, rather than to prove or achieve something. I was so grateful to be on my mat doing anything, and I began to think of each movement (even something as simple as a forward bend) as a prayer. I fell madly in love with the sweetness of gentle flows and the magic of restorative yoga. Breath by breath, these practices, combined with meditation, slowly but surely helped me come back into my body, and to release the trauma and the grief.
Today, on the other side of all of that, my practice is much more balanced, and so much more personal than when I started. I still do vinyasa, but I don’t hurry or force. I breathe and move more slowly. And when I challenge myself, I do it because my body wants to go there, rather than because my ego tells me to do it. And I’m a child’s pose champ, taking breaks whenever I’d like.
And it’s been the same with my life off the mat. I didn’t return to a hectic job, but instead took the time to finally reacquaint myself with my heart. I’m rediscovering who I really am, and what I’m really passionate about. I’m focused on how I want my life to feel, rather than on what looks impressive to other people.
My peace and my health are now my priority. And just as I did with asana, I’ve learned now to bring a more gentle quality to my work and to the creative process. I focus on being present. And I do my best—whatever that may be in that particular moment—instead of chasing the always elusive Perfect.
Dana Byerlee is a writer and yoga teacher based in Los Angeles. She is also the co-founder of Mindstate, a meditation training company. Yoga has been key to her journey of healing, reclaiming her body, and deep spiritual growth. Dana is passionate about lifestyle and preventative medicine, and believes that together, the world-wide yoga community can affect radical, positive change.