NEW YORK TIMES
Teacher: Experience Needed
By JEANNE HEATONMARCH 11, 2011
IT’S 10:30 a.m. on a Monday, the seventh week of a nine-week Bikram yogateacher training course. I am lying face down on my smelly mat and I feel my will escaping. The tent is hot: 120 degrees. I can’t breathe. My head hurts. My legs hurt. I feel old and broken. Bikram Choudhury is yelling from his giant podium, one merciless correction after another. “Miss Black and Blue! You lazy! I hate lazy people.” I’m all the way in the back, Row 10, among 376 trainees. Surely he can’t be talking to me. Is he talking to me?
For 65 consecutive classes I had not given up. I can’t give up because six years ago I was a junkie living on the streets of New York, shooting heroin, drinking methadone and feeding my addiction to pills. So what are the odds of me winding up here, at 49, training to be a Bikram yoga teacher?
My journey is not easy to explain: from young aspiring actress to the depths of addiction, and then from junkie to yogi. I grew up in a small western Pennsylvania coal town with big dreams. I was the junior high homecoming queen and the lead actress in every high school play.
In 1981, my dad drove me to New York City to audition for the theater program at New York University. I moved to the Lower East Side and dived headfirst into the punk alternative music and art scene of the 1980s. Hard drugs and whiskey quickly followed.
Over the next 20 years, I lost a record deal, two apartments and a budding film career that consisted of a prominent role in a well-reviewed indie film. I overdosed twice; had numerous infections up and down my arms from shooting heroin; developed abscesses, which infected my heart with a condition called endocarditis; and contracted Hepatitis C.
I ended up living with other addicted musicians, wayward writers and penniless painters at the Chelsea Hotel. One night, I nodded off with a lighted cigarette in my mouth and the mattress caught fire. I was asked to leave immediately.
With nowhere to go, I found myself standing on 23rd Street, in the middle of a big puddle, and heard silence, something I had never heard in New York. It was Aug. 3, 2005, and I was certain I was going to die. Then I heard that little voice deep inside me say, “Get help.” For some reason, I listened.
I went to Bellevue and then voluntarily signed myself into Samaritan Village, a methadone-to-abstinence residential drug treatment facility. Over the next 14 months I would learn to open my eyes, shut my mouth, allow others to help me and not give up, none of which were easy propositions for me. One night, my best friend and roommate, Charlotte Jenzen, left the facility, drank a large dose of methadone, took four Xanax and died. At her memorial, I made her a promise. I would stay clean for both of us.
But traditional recovery ignores the physical body, ignores the power of exercise to heal. My body was completely broken. At Samaritan, there was no focus on the constant pain, no focus on how a daily addiction to opiates kept me from stretching, yawning and even sneezing for more than 10 years. My Hepatitis C count was through the roof. The only solution for my physical condition was the vicious chemotherapy drug interferon and a “safe” regimen of antidepressants.
Somehow, I graduated from Samaritan Village 100 percent drug free and got a little sober job. A friend helped me get back into writing and acting. I successfully auditioned for Michael Imperioli’s acting class at Studio Dante, where I wore the shame and pain of my past like a heavy wool blanket. I also met a writing teacher, Francine Volpe, who would become my mentor. She could feel my agony and she bought me a 30-day trial to Bikram Yoga Manhattan. I took my first class on Dec. 10, 2008, and knowing that it takes 90 days to make or break a habit, I vowed to go for 90 straight days.
I made it through two.
On my third day, I marched into the studio lobby and told the instructor, Rachel Kaplan, that Bikram yoga was destroying my body and that I was never coming back. Without skipping a beat, she asked me, “Why are you here then?” I didn’t know. I broke down sobbing. She felt my fear, but all she said was, “Just get in the room, Jeanne.” For some reason, I did. I made those 90 days in a row, showing up in spite of myself, no matter what.
Bikram yoga is a challenge for anyone, much less a recovering addict wracked with pain. It is a 90-minute class, practiced in a room heated to 105 degrees, with the same series of 26 postures patented by Bikram Choudhury. The postures are accessible to anyone, in any shape, but challenging for everyone, in any shape. The front mirrors force you to face the truth and the reality of your life. Slowly, I found a sliver of hope that I could change. I learned to allow my sadness, my anger, my discomfort, my fight-or-flight drama to just be.
Eventually, all the teachers at Bikram Yoga Manhattan learned my story and instead of judging, offered kindness and grace. They were loving, patient and inspiring, but they were also relentless, forcing me to work hard, to look in that mirror and believe in myself. One day, Raffael Pacitti, the owner of Bikram Yoga Manhattan, yelled at me in class: “Jeanne, each paneled mirror cost well over $700. Please use them!” Every day in that mirror I watched my body heal and freed myself from the stigma of addiction.
I want to make this clear: Bikram yoga is not a cure for addiction. I do many other things to stay sober, a day at a time. But yoga is a huge piece of the puzzle of my recovery.
It was Raffael and Francine who suggested I apply for one of Bikram’s two scholarships to teacher training. I wrote my essay about how I feel compelled to share this practice with other addicts, to bring yoga to treatment centers. My hope is to work with the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services and the National Institute on Drug Addiction and any government agency and private facility that will take a chance with a new way of healing.
AND so here I am, being yelled at: “Miss Black and Blue, you stingy and you lazy!” I can’t believe Bikram can sense my despair all the way in the back row.After that class, I have my first chance to thank Bikram for my scholarship. He is surrounded by beautiful young starlet-trainees having pictures taken with him. They have flawless healthy bodies. Their arms and legs are not lined with needle tracks. They didn’t break their backs, their ribs, their wrists in terrible falls while they were drunk or high. I walk up to Bikram with trepidation, knowing his lack of tolerance for people who abuse their bodies. His guru taught him the body is the temple for the soul, on loan to us for the short time we are on earth. His temple is 64 years old but looks 32.
When it is finally my turn, I say, “Hi Bikram, I don’t have a camera, I just want to thank you for my life.” He yells to the crowd still around him, “Now see that, Miss Black and Blue doesn’t want picture, she only wants to tell me how much she loves me.” Everyone laughs. “What is your name, sweetheart?” I lean in, “Jeanne Heaton. I am a scholarship recipient.” He looks at me closely as a hint of recognition slowly crosses his face. I whisper, “I am the recovering heroin addict, and I am so grateful to you that I am here training to be a teacher.” He takes off his headset and wipes the tears from my cheeks. He looks me in the eyes and takes my hands. “And now you must go do the same for other addicts,” he says. “You must do for them what I have for you. This is your karma yoga.”
I am a teacher now. I graduated last Nov. 21 and teach every chance I get. I share my story with students, proof that all of us can build an honest, useful and productive life of love and service, no matter how bad, old, tired or sick we feel. Just get in the room.