The three things you need for personal freedom

Steven Russell on left
Steven Russell on left

Out Health

Inhale. Let it sink in. Exhale. I can’tremember the last time I took a yoga class. Breathe in deeply. It was probably in 2019. Let it rest inside. Then 2020 came. Exhale completely. I have to say that my home yoga practice eased up quite a bit during that year, and deep into 2021. But as things started to get back to normal, I decided to kickstart my yoga practice by going back to my roots.

Inhale. Retain. Exhale.

That’s all I have to do to be doing yoga. I sought out my first significant yoga teacher, Christian Valeriani of Even Flow Yoga in Fair Haven, to whom I credit my becoming a yoga teacher. I took at least two classes a week with him starting in about 2005. I wanted to find out what it was about him and his classes that drew me in, made me fall in love with yoga, then spit me out into the world of teaching.

I remember the first class I took with Christian. He was sitting on the floor in the front of the room. He immediately looked up at me and met my eyes with a look I’ve seen many times. It’s a look that sees deep inside you. It’s happy and without judgement. I saw the same look just the other day as I walked into his new studio for a yoga class. I felt the same drawing in, as if I hadn’t spent 10 or so years away from his classes. It was so comfortable to be there. But I felt new, as well, not sure at all how my year away from the gym, my winter away from biking, and my lax yoga practice, would affect my performance in this class, with this important man. I had to exhale out all the stuff that had become an obstruction.

I soon was reminded of exactly what yoga is. It’s something I have known for a long time. I would be drawn in, lavished with love, and spit back out a renewed man. For yoga is breath. I need do nothing more than breathe, and safely explore no more than what I need to.

Yoga opens closet doors. Yoga brings me together with other people longing for the same things, and finding freedom, and wisdom, and breath. Lots of breath. It brings to mind my injuries and helps me navigate around them. It dispels the loneliness and isolation, with or without pandemics, that no number of drugs or alcohol can fix. In the words I’ve heard Christian say many times, “Yoga facilitates the connection to the deeper self that is no longer afraid to address the issues we often seek to hide.”

It felt so good to be in a room with other people after spending so much time at home. It didn’t matter that they were strangers. I felt connected to the others in the room because we were all breathing and moving together. Christian said, “Yoga is the great equalizer. If you become softer and gentler on yourself, and get right with yourself, then you can more easily accept others.”

I remembered why I had attended so many of his classes. It was community. It was understanding people whose only connection to me was that they wanted to breathe, they wanted peace, and they wanted freedom. They wanted a better understanding of how to navigate life with the body and the mind they had. And we breathed.

I remember feeling good about going to Christian’s class. I had gone to yoga at the gym for a while, but I was always the only guy in addition to being the only beginner. That was a lot of attention on me that I didn’t like. When I went to his class, it didn’t seem to matter. I wasn’t the only guy. It didn’t matter, nor did anyone seem to know, that I was gay, or inexperienced, or very inflexible. I felt challenged and safe. It was with Christian’s encouragement that I became a yoga teacher. I see in my teaching much of his influence. It felt good to reconnect with him after a long time away.

After class I stopped to talk to him. I remarked about how much his teaching meant to me, even though we were so different. He was always athletic, I was not. He’s straight and I’m gay. His body is flexible, mine is rather stiff. He said that it made sense that I took to yoga. He said it seems it would also be easy for a gay person to more consistently explore both feminine and masculine aspects of their personality, so important in yoga, to more completely integrate feminine and masculine characteristics into a cohesive whole. But he added that yoga has allowed this to happen for him, too.

He said, “Spend a night with me and my daughter. I can hang out and smoke cigars and play poker with all my sober friends and it’s all super masculine, and then the next night I’m with my daughter playing Barbies, painting my toenails, and totally plugging into her femininity. I thank yoga for that. I think I’ve always been that way. I thank yoga for me being comfortable with that. And not to compartmentalize, but just to be purely me, with all the facets of my life as one. I just want to help people, which is maybe quite feminine. What people think of me is none of my business. All I know is this: I help people out, I got a great kid, a great wife, great friends. I’m doing well. When I decided to serve my soul and not my ego, things fell into place.”

He left me with, “Inhale the good stuff. Let that sink into your consciousness. Then exhale the stuff that doesn’t serve you or others.”