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  • Heather Hagaman

My First "Yoga" Class, Hawaii 1978


One afternoon, I was sitting in the open window sill of the hallway on a college campus in Hawaii. I was gazing intently at the ocean. Then I noticed a group of those white clad yogi people nearby. I had seen these people around the health food store I liked to go to in the sweet town of Kailua. I looked away and then I felt a tap on my shoulder and found myself looking into the face of a stunning man standing behind me. He was wearing a white turban, white flowing robes and he smelled of sandalwood and heaven. He asked me if I wanted to attend a Kundalini Yoga class that night. I thought why not -- this could be interesting! Yes, very interesting because this man had the clearest, kindest eyes I had ever seen.


The yoga class was inside what looked like an extraordinary palace. This stone home was on top of a ridge called Tantalus. You could see other Hawaiian islands from this vantage point. There were marble pillars and diaphanous curtains flowing with the ocean breeze. The room was filled with people clad in white. There was a flute playing soothing music and candles lit up the twenty foot ceilings. I walked in and picked up a meditation pillow and seated myself in the back of the room away from people. I wanted a safe space to sit as I waited for the yoga teacher to begin the class. The sun was beginning to set. I could see Diamond Head in the distance and the colors of the ocean shifting from bright turquoise to darker blues.


I was excited and so ready to do my first yoga class! I hoped that yoga could help me feel better. I was hoping for a taste of enlightenment. I was hoping this might be the answer I was looking for. At least this was healthier than drinking and smoking weed (which were my coping mechanisms at that time). I had a wall behind me and I felt safe. The teacher was smiling and welcoming and cued us to sit tall on our pillows. He then demonstrated a breath technique called “breath of fire.” I immediately had a fear reaction to that name but I decided to give it a try anyway. This breath work went on for probably fifteen minutes. I was getting dizzy and extremely agitated by five minutes and thought I was going to pass out. I looked around the room and everyone’s diaphragms were pumping in and out and no one else seemed to be affected the way I was being affected. So I kept going until I was so hot inside, I knew at that moment I had to leave. I was going to throw up. I staggered out of the hot room and found a cool place under a palm tree to gather myself back to the present moment.


In my mind, I had myself in an ambulance to the hospital. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t breathe like everyone else and I left thinking "yoga" was something I probably would never be able to experience in my life again. I closed the door at age 18! It took me almost 25 years to be willing to take another yoga class. I look back at this moment and I can say adamantly that this is why I am a trauma informed yoga therapist today educating and helping people so this doesn’t happen to anyone else! I have heard many stories like this over the years. It hurts my heart to hear others feeling like I did after a yoga class (especially from people who are struggling with trauma.) Yoga inherently has been a customized and individualized practice. This is why I believe private yoga therapy - one on one instruction - is the best way to go especially for people with dis-regulated nervous systems. If you have emotional imbalances, especially anxiety I always recommend working with a yoga therapist before attending a public group yoga class. Yoga is for every body...and am on a mission to make yoga accessible to all!


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