We sit down with yoga celebrity Ana Forrest to speak about how her addiction and abuse spurred a quest for spirituality through yoga
Ana Forrest is a pioneer in yoga and the emotional healing that can come from it. She has become a household name across the globe, famous for her own life traumas of abuse, drug addiction and bulimia, which she has overcome through Forrest Yoga, a style she developed in her quest for truth and wholeness. She openly shares her wisdom, as she speaks about how her yoga journey has transformed and healed her spirit.
HOW HAS YOGA SHAPED YOUR LIFE?
Forrest Yoga saved my life. Without it, I wouldn’t have one. My pledge to the people is to use it, along with the skills and tools developed from practicing it, to mend and heal the “Hoop of the People”. Yoga got me off of drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and helped me overcome my eating disorder and abuse. My yoga practice and teachings are a source of empowerment for healing and moving pain out of my body. It also changed my relationship to pain. I no longer feel helpless when it comes to pain, because I can move it out of my body. Forrest Yoga gave me tools to explore the wonders and mysteries of myself, my evolution, and my spirit. It is the arena in which my spirit exercises. My discovery of Forrest Yoga has given me a purpose and a noble mission. Therefore, it has restored my self-esteem. Before yoga, my cycle was pain, rage, numbness, pain, rage, numbness. Now I have a sense of feeling, beauty and delight. It even gave me a sense of humor. In my 36 years of teaching, my love for teaching Forrest Yoga has gotten more passionate and dramatic, not duller. Every time I see one of my students light up with a discovery, I know that light will be carried out into the world and have a subtle yet profound effect.
WHEN AND HOW DID YOU GET INTO YOGA?
When I was around 14, a girl at school, just some girl in the hallway, dared me and said, “I have something you cannot do”. I was a tough, mad, mean, girl back then. I looked at her. She was short, a little overweight and soft. I lit my cigarette, and in my best tough-girl voice I said, “That’s impossible”. Back then, someone throwing down the gauntlet like that was the challenge that made me have to take them up on it. She told me about this yoga class, so I went to the class. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t even touch my knees. There I was in this class with all these ‘old’ people who could do it, they were much more flexible than I was. Now at 14, old meant 30 and older… That was my first yoga class. This was an age when I had experienced abuse and was abusing myself. I was full of rage, doing drugs, smoking, not attending school, and I had a real attitude. Even with all that, I returned to the yoga classes. I didn’t really know why, perhaps the challenge, maybe curiosity. I felt something intangible, something tasty, something compelling.
Truth is, this experience was an example of magical intervention. Magic used this guide to challenge me to take the class. She came into my life and then was gone. When I look back at it in retrospect to that first introduction at 14, I know that if the girl had said, “I have something for your health or your spirituality,” I would have told her to get lost. This was a major turning point in my life. It took me off my suicide road. Slowly pushing me in the direction I needed to go.
I started teaching yoga almost immediately after I started doing yoga in 1973. Even before I was certified as a yoga instructor in 1975. I was substituting for other yoga teachers within six months of starting my own practice. I was a born teacher. I began teaching horseback riding when I was eight years old. As soon as I learned yoga poses, I was forcing people around me to try them. I was very awkward and without grace in my teaching. But I was teaching.
I became a certified teacher when I was 18. Yoga was the first tool I used to make a difference in myself. I came to yoga with a tremendous amount of pain. At this young age, I was a horse trainer and had been stomped and rolled on. I had been abused both emotionally and physically. I would take a yoga class, and it would handle a good bit of the physical pain. However, sometimes it wouldn’t. At a certain point I had to go off on my own, into the unknown, to find out what to do with my own pain. I explored and worked with poses to find out what worked for me. And I did the same thing with my students.
Also, the classes did not touch the anguish I was feeling. I felt that something was alluding me. I began tracking and stalking this allusive bit. I studied various yoga systems, but the answers weren’t there for me. It took 17 years for me to recognize I was hunting for my spirit. I learned to connect to my spirit through Native American ceremony. I now weave these teachings into my yoga ceremony workshops. I teach people how to connect with their spirit.
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HOW DOES YOUR BACKGROUND OF ADDICTION AND ABUSE INFLUENCE THE HEALING ASPECT OF FORREST YOGA?
I teach very clear and specific tools for healing, all of which are inherent in getting rid of addictions. Forrest Yoga is about developing strength – physical, spiritual and emotional. My desire for freedom from the entrapment of addiction influenced my teachings. I encourage my students to explore freedom in all areas of their life – spiritually, physically, emotionally, and intellectually.
Many addictions are considered unspeakable. I speak freely about my recovery and to people seeking recovery. Part of the healing process is to speak the unspeakable, then it can be challenged. Each of these challenges, including addiction, abuse, eating disorders, have a heavy physical injury component. Another healing aspect of Forrest Yoga is working through these physical issues.
Another thing I learned from the healing process of my drug addiction was how important it is for me to have a purpose in life. My life is going about that purpose. It gave me a reason to live in my deepest darkest despair. I work with people to develop their self-worth and self-respect. We work to become a person who walks the earth with honor and integrity. This can be based on the truth of our daily actions. You need strength, courage, wisdom, and an active connection with spirit to overcome addiction. Connecting to spirit takes ongoing mindfulness, every day.
I teach my students how you can turn any experience around and see the treasure within. For example, my own abuse, I now help other people to free themselves from their own entrapments of abuse or addiction. That brings me great joy. I changed my karma into my dharma.
DO YOU HAVE A MOTTO OR A PHILOSOPHY?
Evolve or die.
Never waste a good trigger.
No matter what happens there is healing for you if you are willing to do the work.
Bottom line question – does this brighten or dim my spirit?
Have the courage to walk the warrior’s path.
Forrest Yoga is designed as a healing tool but also helps you answer questions about your life purpose. It is a practice where you can work out aggression, frustration, and, what I call “emotional puss pockets”. Emotional puss pockets are those painful and stuck places in your body and cell tissue where residue from your life experiences or trauma are stored.
Keen intelligence in your practice builds internal intelligence. Cultivate the inner attention and listening ability to know what your spirit needs. Then you can connect to your spirit. Next, you develop the courage to live as your spirit dictates. If people walk as their spirit dictates it will radically change the alchemy of the human race. We will cleanse some of the karma of humanity. Each person working on this brings changes for all of us. When we live, connecting or attempting to connect to our spirit in integrity, choosing a path of evolvement and living a life of honor, we create an alchemic field that affects everything and everyone who walks through it.
I teach specific workshops where the intent is “Embodying Spirit”. Many people do connect to their spirit within the first workshop series. For those who have had their spirit shocked out of their body by life and death experience (for example, sexual abuse), they first learn to connect to their heart. They put out a heartfelt call to bring their spirit home. In the process they learn what they need to do to make their home, i.e. their body, ready for their spirit to live in their body. There is a lot of clean-up necessary. But it is an incredible journey and well worth the work.Then the challenge is to live each day, embodying spirit, not just on the mat. Become aware of what disconnects them from spirit. What dims or brightens it. I teach how to make a warrior’s choice, to choose actions, over and over again, that brighten their spirit.
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WHAT IS YOUR MISSION BEHIND FORREST YOGA?
The Mission is to give people the tools to heal themselves, become empowered, move pain out of the body, build strength and flexibility at any age. Part of the gift of Forrest Yoga is the cultivation of passion and fascination to delve into yourself. It is an intelligent healing system that is self-empowering and way fun. Through Forrest Yoga, people can find the unique gifts they have to offer in this world. In our teaching we build integrity and live the truth of honoring our own sacredness.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE FORREST YOGA STYLE?
I created Forrest Yoga to address the needs of our people in this century, the needs of today’s society and the ailments that our bodies are manifesting due to our lifestyle; lower and upper back pain, neck and shoulder issues, carpal tunnel, intestinal sickness and disease, etc. I created poses to address these issues. They then evolved into Forrest Yoga. Many of my students have particular health issues that are not addressed by traditional yoga. I create poses for them and work with them in focusing their intent in a way that is healing for them.
Our life experiences affect our bodies. Forrest Yoga gets deep into those places and cleanses them. When you clear these areas there is room within your body for you to live. Your body is no longer a storage unit for old pain and unresolved life experiences. Many of us feel a yearning for something more. I perceive this as a lack of spirituality. Forrest Yoga helps people reconnect, or connect for the first time, to their spirit. It honors and celebrates the beauty of life and the power of spirit.
It helps you connect to your core, getting strong and centered. It uses heat, deep breathing and vigorous sequences to sweat out toxins. The long holds in the pose progressions help you flush, oxygenate and rejuvenate every cell. It is an inspiring yoga practice that builds flexibility, intelligence and strength while helping to deepen the relationship with your authentic self.
Forrest Yoga takes you to your edges, and when working at your edges (and beyond) you experience joy, insight, confidence, success, strength, and passion. Skillfully focusing your intent on breath brings incredible freedom. Using breath, Forrest Yoga increases the mindful connection from head to toe. Therefore, the intelligence of the mind can more clearly communicate with the wisdom of the rest of the body. I teach students to breathe in a very profound way. Maybe more profound than what a student has experienced before. Students learn how to direct their breath. If they know how to direct their breath, they can direct their life force where it is needed. If they are shut down, or have pain in a particular area, but can direct their life force to that area, they free it up. In freeing up the area, they are healed.
Forrest Yoga gives you tools to live a higher quality of life. You feel fitter, stronger, steadier, and brighter. It gives you balance and focus, so you can live a life that you are proud of. If you want to be a better parent, better executive, or whatever matters to you, develop the tools to do it in Forrest Yoga.
It will teach you to go deeper,find your truth and encourage you to take these gifts you have earned beyond the mat into the rest of your life. Students come to a class for a variety of reasons: to heal their injured shoulder, improve their stamina, lose weight, overcome addictions, find a place to be calm, get stronger, and any number of other reasons. What they get, however, is so much more than they thought possible.
HOW DO YOU COMBINE SHAMANISM WITH YOGA?
I first learned how to connect to my spirit in Native American medicine ceremony, not on the yoga mat. In the Native American tradition, there are ceremonies for healing, for vision questing, for finding our next step in life, for determining what is holding us back. There is a ceremony for every human issue. Ceremony requires and therefore develops the highest quality of attention possible. We learn to deal with our challenges and issues in a respectful and sacred way. It is very applicable for issues that bring shame and low self-respect, like anorexia. I did many ceremonies and derived tremendous insight and transformation from them.
At first, in an attempt to share this precious and wonderful discovery, I set up a sweat lodge and ceremony at some neighboring mountain top. It took me a while to distill the internal ceremonial process that could be used in the yoga studio. In my Forrest Yoga teacher trainings, I bring in elements of ceremony. I keep my students on track with their most deepest heartfelt yearnings and desires. “Setting the intent” is a crucial element of ceremony that I use in the yoga room. At the beginning of my yoga class, I guide the students into setting their intent on a topic or issue that is most important for them to deal with that day. The students use the pose to serve that intent. By keeping mindful of the intent through the action of the poses makes the experience 1,000 times more powerful.
See also: Shamanism: A Traditional Practice Gets a 21st Century Spin
SO HOW DID YOU TURN GRIEF, PAIN, ANGER AND FEAR INTO COMPASSION AND LOVE?
Working through my healing process gave me compassion and patience with my students. Only later was I able to give to myself, but I learned it from my students first.Love is a learning process and being in a relationship is a great place to practice love. I teach people to practice conditional love. So many people talk about unconditional love. What is that? When I started to teach, I learned to love my students and it was very conditional. You had to be in the yoga room doing the class. I didn’t have time for them outside of the class. At that time, loving them for one and a half hours was all I could do. That was all I could manage. So how I learned to love was by taking action. I asked the question, “What is the most loving action I can take right now, that will serve us to move out of the difficult place to healing?”
This included learning how to be a truth speaker. Being dishonest about your feelings, such as anger, pain and hurt, is damaging to you and everyone you are in relationship with. You lose your self-respect. I do not consider it compassionate to allow people to wallow in their issues. The most compassionate action I can take for another person, like my students, is to not be swayed by their emotional reactiveness or their internal destructive programs or conditioning. I ask them to feel the sadness and cry, instead of trying to comfort them into not feeling it. Love and compassion are not like a jacket you can just put on. They are something you grow and tend to and redefine on a regular basis. Our wisdom and capacity to love grows as we grow.
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DO YOU INCLUDE MEDITATIONS IN YOUR YOGA TEACHINGS?
In the Forrest Yoga Teacher Training, I start the morning with Native American ceremony of calling in the power of the directions and setting the intent of the day. Then we chant Native American chants and sit. While we sit, we are focusing our intent and bringing it out of thiking and into our visceral experience. This is done first thing in the morning of all 22 days of the training. It is a powerful meditation.
WHAT IS THE MOST INTERESTING YOGA EXPERIENCE YOU’VE EVER HAD?
Quite a while ago during my practice, I really wanted to get what was inside of me. I actually starting bracing myself for a big war against all the stuff inside of me, because I just thought it was going to be terrible. I rode my breath, my wind force, deep inside my cell tissue. I was quite amazed when I found myself there. So I went down deeper to an atomic level. There I found I was comprised of a bunch of sparkling bits dancing around in a choreographed space and the space was vast. I saw these little sparkling bits dancing around, and I realized I was looking at energy matter.
My view of myself changed forever. My conception of what is solid and stuck in this world no longer had a foundation in truth. I had a new truth. And I realized that all my “stuff”, my crippledness and my addictions are not real.
I saw I had this exquisite space inside of me that is as vast as the cosmos. I was awestruck by the beauty of my own particle dance. My belief in my lack of worthiness, of what I could or could not do, all collapsed. The realm of possibilities opened up like a hidden world. Even now when I remember the truth of my own cellular dance, it changes the way I see my perceived limitation. The experience helps me stay connected. The exciting, and yet scary truth is I don’t know what I’m capable of. But instead of staying entrapped and miserable, it gives me the strength to go and explore my capabilities.
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WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?
Forrest Yoga is my life’s purpose. I truly believe we all can do something to help our people. I am developing Forrest Yoga teachers. I want them to be great and they want to be great. We created a mentorship program in which each Forrest Yoga teacher is mentored by another more senior teacher. This provides great opportunities of growth for both the mentor and the mentee.
These mentors are a group of Forrest Yoga teachers that have pledged to be the guardians and carriers of the legacy of Forrest Yoga. So Forrest Yoga can live far beyond my life span and continue to transform and excite people for at least seven generations to come. I have started and will continue to build the Forrest Yoga Educational Library. This consists of audio recordings, videos, and writings about my teachings. This library will be the resource of my Forrest Yoga teachings.
I’ll continue to teach across the United States and internationally, something I love best, working directly with people and providing them with the tools for healing and living a full and fascinating life. I love helping people find what they are passionate about, helping them focus on what matters to them and not waste their life force on inconsequential things of their life. Forrest Yoga helps people walk on this planet in a healing way, and in power.
As a culture, we are immature. We pollute our own water, land, and air. Forrest Yoga helps people evolve into their maturity, to learn how to be responsible, knowing how to respond appropriately to each life situation, which includes the way we interact with ourselves and each other. And it determines whether we continue to destroy our water, air and land, or decide to heal our relationship with the planet that supports us.
If we childishly destroy this planet, then we will never evolve into the magnificence that we are capable of. I’m working with our people to reach that magnificence. I’m very hopeful that we can do this. I can see this happening. It may not happen soon or at all, but it could. I see Forrest Yoga as part of this. We can do this alchemical change.
It is important that each one of us can recognize that we can make a difference. We need to find out what we are capable of doing.
I have a story. I had a student in Los Angeles that spent five or six years fighting against a nuclear waste dump that was going to poison the Colorado river and basically the water source for most of California. She worked tirelessly protesting, going to meetings, going to Washington DC. Protesting and going to Washington DC is not what I do, that’s what she does. But what my contribution to this movement was to teach her yoga. I taught her tools to hold her center during all those years she was in battle. That was my contribution in this instance. I think it is important that each of us do something that we can be proud of, and it creates a chain reaction of caring. Each of us can make a difference. We are not helpless or powerless. We are needing to learn how to bring ourselves to live in a way that doesn’t destroy but that is in balance. That is part of our maturation process. That is most inspiring to me.
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WHAT ARE YOUR 5 KEY CONTRIUTIONS TO MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE?
I’ve created a yoga system that helps anyone create a life of healing and purpose.
I’ve created a teaching course that trains Forrest Yoga teachers to be excellent teachers and healers, who can continue the healing work and help humans evolve.
I’ve developed skills and tools for people to help and heal themselves in an honorable way, which also connects them to their unique gifts and passion, which they can then use to help heal the world.
I insist on living in integrity and honesty.
I teach others to do the same. When people chose integrity in their actions, that choice has a very profound effect in the world.