Melinda's Story - A Yogi's Personal Journey – Melinda VanKirk

So I thought I would take this opportunity to share a yogi’s personal journey – my own. We all have different experiences in life, but yet we connect to each other in the most basic, human, fundamental ways – through our shared experiences and emotions, with empathy and compassion. 

Here is the story of my yoga journey. . . 

 

Growing Up

Born in Cleveland in 1976, then raised in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, I was a happy, joyful child.  With an upper middle-class population, good schools, and many well-off families (numerous doctors and lawyers reside there), Worthington is a place people dream to raise their families.  My family was a bit more modest in what we had, but we had everything we needed.  My parents, both Lecturers at Ohio State, met in grad school and received their doctoral degrees from OSU in 1968.  My father also worked for a small market research firm for a good portion of his career.  Their salaries were modest, but they provided my older sister and I with more culture than most children receiving – signing us up for music, dance, and gymnastic lessons at a young age.  We had a wonderful upbringing, with love, support, and encouragement to be whatever we wanted to in life.  Always supporting my artistic and creative side, I couldn’t have asked for more.  

My sister, Michele, was the outgoing, loud, extrovert in the family – always excelling at physical activities like dance, gymnastics, and soccer.  She had the flexibility and strength to do so many things that I always longed to do, but couldn’t.  I was the quiet, introvert who excelled at music and art, and had good grades in school.  I always enjoyed my dance classes and gymnastics, even if I wasn’t the best in the class.  

Michele was nearly two years older than me, and boy did we fight a lot!  We loved each other, but as small children we drove my parents crazy with our constant arguing.  It wasn’t until I reached middle school that we actually started to get along (at least more often than not).  It was a love/hate relationship growing up, but eventually we became each other’s biggest supporters in life. 

My parents being the atypical parents they still are, always encouraged me follow my dreams – assuming that college was in my future.  I could go anywhere in the country (or probably the world) to college, and major in whatever I wanted.  They never pressured me to choose the “right” career path, and encouraged me to do my best in whatever path I chose.  I didn’t need them to pressure me, as I found that everything around me in American culture did a pretty good job of that.

I was a happy child, although inherently a bit meek and quiet.  I loved animals and art, believed in fairies and dragons, and could play by myself for hours on end.  I learned to read, sew, and ski at age 4 – not a typical child for sure.  My love of music developed at a very early age.  At 6 I was listening to the J.Geils Band, Michael Jackson, and Olivia Newton John.  I learned to play piano at age 7, violin at 9, trumpet at 10, French horn at 11, and saxophone at 12.  Sadly, around age 15 I had quit all of my music lessons, as high school neurosis set in and being in the band wasn’t “cool.”  Being an artist was much cooler than a musician, so it is there I focused my passions and decided that was my future career. I would be a fashion designer, as I was obsessed with the Supermodels of the 90s like Claudia Schiffer and Christy Turlington.

 

 

Adolescence into Adulthood

High school was difficult for me, despite the fact on the outside everything looked OK. I excelled in school with good grades, and rarely got in trouble (let’s face it, I was trustworthy and really good at not getting caught).  Sophomore year I fell into a very dark place in my life – to this day I have never shared this with my parents or sister, although they are probably reading it here now.  I became very depressed for a period of several months – barely leaving my room when I was home, and listening to music for hours on end.

My sister was the regular partier in high school – known for her wild partying, sneaking out of the house, and loud outgoing personality.  She was the rebellious teenager, to my parent’s dismay.  In my eyes, I felt I had to protect her – keeping her secrets and staying awake at night worrying – just hoping she would come home safely.  I loved her, but to me she was a tornado in her adolescence – all energy and attention was sucked away from me and placed on my sister, and I fell into a dark place of isolation, always feeling like I didn’t matter. Hence the start of my drinking and depression. I became obsessed with the Doors and the Seattle Grunge music scene (it was the early 90s).  I was obsessed with Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and dreamed of the day I would graduate and move away to Seattle.  I listened to that dark, drug inspired music for hours at a time, often in my bed weeping or punching a pillow in anger.  I began drinking and partying on the weekends as a regular activity – a way of escape from my depression and anger.  I controlled my eating habits, cutting out all fat in my diet (but ate Twizzlers and Bagels regularly as my “low-fat” diet).  I was looking for a way to control my downward spiral – thoughts of suicide loomed in my mind often, and I wanted nothing more than to get out.  My fantasy was to live like a character in the movie Singles.  I would be an artist, meet my soulmate, and have this fabulous Boho life. Oh the dreams I had. . .

I didn’t talk to my parents about my depression, and became angry that they didn’t see how I was hurting.  Now, as an adult and parent, I realize how naive this was of me, as in their eyes everything was good.  How could I expect them to read my mind?  At 15 you tend to have these expectations and perspective that are skewed and self-centered.  I blamed others like my sister and parents, the school system, anything external. Now, so clearly I see that it was my responsibility to reach out for help.  But Man – it’s hard when you are in that dark place. It took some time in therapy as an adult to realize this, and forgive my family (who honestly I do not hold accountable in any way for my state of mind at this point in my life).

I somehow made it through this dark period of high school, and by Senior year I was out of my depression and looking forward to my next chapter in life.  Off to Colorado I went to study Fine Art at the University of Colorado, living in Boulder and having this Boho life I always wanted.  I loved my year in Boulder – to this day it is one of the fondest memories.  I connected with other girls in a way that will never be replicated or replaced.  We cared and supported each other, as we grew into our adulthood together.  It was a really special time in my life.  As much as I loved it, I was homesick and broke, so I decided to come back to Columbus and finish my schooling at the Ohio State University. I lived at home for awhile, saved some money, and followed the comfortable path with little risk.

I liked OSU – I met a boy my first year there, who later became my first husband.  I took art classes and excelled at school.  I love learning – to this day I think I could be a professional student if this existed as a career.  I decided on Sculpture as my major, and then freaked-out my junior year and changed my major to Art Education.  I believed that I needed to teach to have any kind of job, and let fear rule my choice once again.  A decision I later regretted, as teaching in public high school did not suit me at all.

During my years at OSU I tried to stay fit, and bought several VHS tapes to try different types of workouts.  Among them was a 20 minute yoga video by Rodney Yee. I practiced with the video every once in a while, and realized that I liked yoga, but never attended any classes.  It was a good go-to video for me – I always felt great after, but I never thought too much about yoga as a daily practice.

 

Young Adulthood

I graduated from OSU in 1999 Summa Cum Laude, and then continued on at OSU to get my teacher certification the following year.  After this, I moved to Kentucky with my boyfriend (who was a graduate student at UK) to teach high school art.  Life was great – full of possibilities and adventure.  I thought I had found my calling and was going to make such an impact on the world teaching children about my passion. What an awakening my first year teaching.  It was utterly awful!  I cried so many times after school – almost daily.  At 24, I was barely older than my students, I had no idea how to discipline them, and the students treated me as a fellow student, not a teacher.  I was lost and stressed out all the time.  I ended up being laid-off after my first year teaching, and found a job at a county high school about 30 minutes away.  

That summer between jobs, my boyfriend and I got married – I was officially an adult with a career and a husband.  Things at work improved for me a bit, as I learned how to structure my classes better. I still struggled often and found myself unhappy much of the time.

Sometime around this point in my life I began to practice my yoga videos again.  I bought more Rodney Yee videos, and yoga became a regular practice for me.  It allowed me to be introspective while I was physical – a new concept to me, as I always thought I had to do intense cardio or lift weights to get a workout.  I was drawn to yoga as I didn’t need to be “good” at it.  No one was competing with me, although I could see my own personal progress the more I practiced.

Finally I decided to go to my first yoga class – an Ashtanga yoga class that was 90 minutes long.  After that class I couldn’t walk for days, I was so sore.  People were doing the craziest, bendiest poses I had ever seen in my life!  It was like watching an acrobat at the circus – they were so advanced and I felt so inadequate.  I took away some good learnings, though – Ujjayi breath and some basic posture corrections, that to this day I reference.  But I realized that Ashtanga was not for me.

I continued my yoga practice with my videos at home, and it became part of my life – until I injured myself in a skiing accident in 2004, which took me out for months.  During this year my husband and I had many struggles, which I won’t go into detail about, but things were not going well.  Life was falling apart around me, and I was drowning in it.  Work, home life, my identity, all in a downward spiral, like a riptide carrying me out to sea to be swept away forever.

I made some terrible decisions during this period of my life, which I still feel shame and guilt over.  I tend to think of it as an out-of-body experience, as I was not myself (although I try to reconcile this feeling even now).  I lost a tremendous amount of weight and struggled with my eating, as my relationship with my husband fell apart. My body seemed like the only thing I could control.  Just before my separation I was 5’6” and 112 pounds – my “goal weight.”  To my friends’ dismay and concern, I hit size 0, the skinniest of my life.  I worked-out like a fiend – getting up at 5 for my yoga practice, going to the gym after work to do cardio and lift weights.  I had gotten breast implants in 2001, and finally in 2003 reached my Barbie/Playboy Bunny goal of what I thought I should look like. I was never really pretty in school like some girls are – you know the ones who look effortlessly beautiful and never have a pimple or appear to have any flaws?  (I always dressed a little different, dyed my hair, and wore crazy makeup to try and fit into my role as “Artist.”)  With age this changed.  This obsession with my looks gave me focus and purpose.  It was the era of Paris Hilton, encouraging women to be sexy and stupid – and wear pink glitter.  I followed this path, and liked the attention I got.  I felt beautiful and fit into what society deemed pretty for the moment.  I was not healthy – mentally or physically.

In 2004 I decided to call it quits in my marriage despite our marriage counseling, and moved back to Columbus.  I was lost in life, living with my friend, and broke.  It was a bad place in my life – I wasn’t being creative, I had lost my yoga practice, and I didn’t want to go back to teaching.  I found a job as a substitute teacher (which I actually loved), but I once again became depressed and decided this time to see a counselor to help me through my depression and divorce.

Counseling helped immensely.  I made the choice to start fresh – move to California and live with my sister, where I would go back to school for a degree in Fashion Design.  I would be the artist I always wanted to be!  The plan was made – but just like so often in life, plans change.  During this time I also met a man (eventually becoming my current husband) – a fellow teacher – and everything changed.  My move to California was off.  I stayed with my decision to go back to school, and applied to the Columbus College of Art & Design.

My passion to be an artist pushed me through school.  It was, to this day, the most difficult thing I have done in my life.  Barely sleeping for the next 3 years, I persevered taking all studio classes (which is pure hell), and forcing myself to my limits.  CCAD is known for how hard they work their students, and take a sense of pride in having a large number of Freshmen drop out.  They only want the students that can “hack it” – those that will sacrifice everything to be a successful artist.  I was one of the strong ones – I sacrificed it all, and somehow I didn’t suffer from a mental breakdown (although a few anxiety attacks put me close to the edge). Thanks to my boyfriend and parents I was able to push through.  My yoga practice during this time didn’t exist – as really anything outside of work and school barely existed.

I graduated from CCAD as Valedictorian in 2009 – my parents have never been so proud of me as in that moment.  I was proud of myself – I did it!  I grabbed life by the balls and wrestled it to the ground.  I may not have been the most talented, but I worked the hardest to get to the top.  I was proof that hard work pays-off.  I felt amazing!

 

Until I didn’t.

I graduated during the recession, and couldn’t find a job after graduation.  Lacking confidence and feeling unworthy, I began to spiral again.  I felt like my accomplishments didn’t matter.  I continued substitute teaching and waitressing (my second job I had to get during school just to pay the bills), and applying for jobs.  Finally I got an interview at Abercrombie & Fitch for a contractor position in Technical Design.  I landed the job, and was on my way to my new career!

3 months later I was hired full-time for La Senza as a Technical Designer for Panties.  I couldn’t have been happier.

 

Until I wasn’t.

The first year in my new career was amazing – I learned so much and loved my job.  I was happy!  I thought I had it all, with an amazing boyfriend and a loving family (his family as well as my own).  My boyfriend and I were married in 2011.  I became a stepmom to his three wonderful children, in a new career, and happy overall.   But over the next couple of years work responsibilities increased, and the hours got longer and longer.  I was the first one in the office on my team, and the last one to leave at night.  The lights would turn off on me at the office, and I sat in the dark, completing my work as best as I could for the day.  Misery quickly set-in, no relief or end was in sight.  The miseries of corporate America became apparent to me at this time.  I was the hardest worker at college – I could hack it, I knew I could!

Then one evening in 2013 something unimaginable happened – my four year old niece, Berkley, became ill and suddenly passed away.  She was sick with a virus for less than 24 hours, and no one knew about her unidentified heart condition.  Her heart gave out as she was napping at home in the afternoon.  This was a really dark period for my sister, and so hard on the whole family.  It was a wake-up call for me. Life is precious, and sacrificing my life, my relationships, for work – for some corporation who doesn’t know me from the next person – is not the answer.

As I fell back into yet another spiral feeling the loss of my niece, and coming to terms with not having any children, I turned back to my yoga practice.  This time my Gaiam app and once again Rodney Yee videos.  Here I discovered many other teachers and a whole new world of yoga.  Yoga was literally my savior – a major mental breakdown was in my future without it.  Eventually I began to attend classes when a new yoga studio, Mat Happy, opened up in my town.  I was in love instantly!  The sense of community, kindness, and passion for yoga came through with every teacher, and every class I took.  My practice progressed from one class a week to 5 or more classes a week, within the year.

Work became a bit more manageable as my bosses changed, and my workload lessened (thank god for these people in my life!).  I was happy once again – fit, active, and learning so much at work on how to be a better communicator and cultivate relationships with difficult personalities.  Eventually I was promoted to Senior level, and was part of a great team.  It took so many years to get to that place, but things were good – my hours were normal, and I had an amazing boss that understood work-life balance.  I wasn’t being too creative in my job, so I started doing some pet portraits for people.  It was my creative outlet – allowing me to feel like my true self.

Life was once again good and I thought I had found my path.  I decided in 2018 to enroll in Yoga Teacher Training.  As I said, I could be a lifelong student, so it was no surprise that I wanted to add this to my repertoire of schooling.

Then in the Fall of 2018 La Senza was up for sale.  I had a terrible boss (nice person, but terrible managerial skills with no technical design experience) who was recently hired in the Summer, and it felt like everything was falling apart once again.  I prayed that the business would go under and I could get a severance package. I was done with corporate life and company politics. I was over bad bosses and their micromanaging.  I just wanted to breathe – to work at being a yoga teacher and an artist – to escape the madness of my work place.  How to do this was a complete mystery, however.

Sadly La Senza was sold off to a private equity firm.  Happily, my boss moved positions and didn’t stay with La Senza. She moved back to New York.  I thought – well maybe things would be OK?

They weren’t.

Many employees left the company, and my team grew smaller and smaller, with no chance of back-filling any positions.  I was teaching yoga one day a week, which I loved, but work was crazy.  I was doing the work of 3 people, as was my entire team of 3 that remained.

I decided it was time to make my own career path.  In the Fall of 2019 I enrolled in an online course to start my online business.  I continued my job and teaching yoga weekly, but things just got worse at work. Holding on for the paycheck feels terrible – I wanted to leave badly, but couldn’t bring myself to do it out of fear.  I survived several rounds of lay-offs in early 2020, and then COVID19 happened.  We were furloughed in March, and left to hang in limbo indefinitely.  No paycheck from the company, and only the hope of getting unemployment (along with several hundred thousand other Ohioans).

Finally the day came where I jumped on a call with probably 30 others, only to be told they were eliminating our positions and they were restructuring the business (not really a surprise).  I cried from relief, from grief, from pain, from suffering, from joy, from sadness, from uncertainty.  I cried for the sleepless nights, the hours my husband had to listen to me complain about bad bosses and too much work.  I cried for everything I had been trying to deal with through my yoga practice, meditation, and journaling. I had so many tools in my toolbox to deal with these feelings, but it is still so damn hard.

Thank God, the Universe, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, Allah – all of them!  I am free from these confines that work has imposed on me.  Not without fear and doubt, however.  As I sit here writing this, with fresh wounds from the loss of my job, I realize what an opportunity life has presented me.  It is so easy to become wrapped up in ourselves – all these external things in life that we allow to become our identities – our titles in life like designer, boss, wife, mother, artist.  These are all external things that are a part of me, but they do not tell you who I am.  They don’t show you my soul, my higher Self.

 

I am just that – I am me – a creative, loving, joyful soul.  I am connected to everything and everyone.  All of my life experiences lead me down this path to find my true dharma – my soul’s calling.  This is not created by the things around me, but comes from within my soul. I share my knowledge of where I have been, and where I am going, as my path is ever evolving.  It is a work in progress, that will change and morph over time.

As I progress on my spiritual journey, I learn to look within.  I realize that all these things I was doing, goals to attain, and extreme hard work, were not the answer.  The American Dream is a myth – working the hardest doesn’t equal success.  Money doesn’t equal success.  “Success” is a smokescreen designed to hide us from our true Self – the child within us that believes in fairies and dragons, magic and spirits.  Our inner being is mind connected to body, connected to soul.  This is our true authentic Self – the inner child that lives within each of us.

 

Creative Souls Art & Yoga is here to help inspire you and find your authentic Self – your inner guide, inner joy, inner passion – through learning these tools of yoga, meditation, creation, and self-expression.

It is my hope that Creative Souls Art & Yoga can help you on your journey by providing tools, practices, and community to support each other.  The more we connect as a community and to our true Self, the more we look within to find strength, abundance, love, and guidance.

May you be happy, healthy, free from suffering, and at peace.  Namaste.

 

Love Melinda

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