Bikram Yoga

Yoga Practice Turns Ex-addict Into Career Teacher

By Stacey Warde

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, December/January 2003.

It’s hard to reconcile the two lives of Nanoshka Hedgeman. In one scene, we see a magnificent physique framed by the beauty of the forest — a man depicting the picture of health, hope and vitality. In the next frame, we see a man clothed in orange prison gear, a cigarette in his mouth, standing behind the confines of prison walls. The two are indeed one in the same. The difference is time and the practice of Bikram Yoga.

Starting Over

Nanoshka served his last prison term in September 2000 after an altercation in which he couldn’t extract himself even though he tried. The fracas attracted the police, who arrested him. At the time, Nanoshka was on parole after serving time for drug charges. The altercation put him back in the system for a few months.

Waiting for him on the outside was Jeff Renfro, then-owner of a plumbing firm and now co-owner of Funky Door Yoga. Something he saw in his one-time employee inspired Renfro to ask Nanoshka if he wanted to become a yoga teacher. “He knew I was a good person,” says Nanoshka. “He saw something in me that I hadn’t seen in myself.”

Nanoshka put in good time on the job, says Renfro. “When he worked, he worked really hard.” In addition, Nanoshka “was entertaining, witty and smart. Renfro could see there was something in Nanoshka to be nurtured. “It was obvious to me, and I was lucky to have the resources to help him out,” says Renfro. He generously offered to put up the $5,000 fee for Nanoshka to attend a nine-week teacher certification program in Los Angeles after he finished serving his time in prison. Nanoshka jumped at Renfro’s offer.

Nanoshka knew what it was like to start from the very bottom after getting out of prison. He’d done it before, working dead-end jobs that paid minimum wage. The desperate mentality of that starting-over scenario didn’t provide much insurance against falling into old ways and habits again, Nanoshka says. The possibility of teaching yoga, of earning a lot more than minimum wage, of focusing on a healthier lifestyle, felt a lot better than starting from scratch again.

Renfro had visited Nanoshka in prison to help him get started toward his new goal. He gave the inmate a copy of Bikram Choudhury’s yoga book, Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class, which gives some insight into the 26 postures of the practice. While not the most ideal place to practice yoga, the prison environs gave Nanoshka time to familiarize himself with and practice the exercises every day on his own.

Even without the benefit of the vital heat so important to the practice, Nanoshka was still able to begin learning this particular yoga and found ways to add flexibility and balance to his already formidable strength. As Nanoshka began practicing the craft and delving into its philosophy, his attention turned inward, allowing him to find the much-needed balance missing from so much of his life.

Learning from the Yogi

By the time he paroled out of prison on Sept. 1, 2000, Nanoshka was ready to pursue the different path he had chosen. Immediately on his release, Nanoshka began attending two intense, 90-minute yoga classes a day. The idea, says Nanoshka, was to prepare for the nine-week teacher’s training that was scheduled only two weeks later in Los Angeles.

When the time came for the teacher training, Nanoshka was ready. The course included two grueling yoga workouts each day, plus 4-6 hours of seminars and posture clinics, and learning and memorizing the precise, 90-minute dialog that is a key signature of the Bikram style of yoga.

At this training he met his guru, Bikram Choudhury, the flashy yogi described by his detractors as the “bad boy” of yoga. But Nanoshka saw beyond all that to see a teacher who would open a new pathway to a more liberating lifestyle than Nanoshka had known as a drug user and petty thief.

He speaks of Choudhury endearingly as “my guru,” as someone who, like Renfro, took note of his potentials and helped him to tap into them. “His job is to make people beautiful. He takes people’s problems and helps them find solutions. That’s what he’s done to me and to anyone who honors him.”

From Choudhury, Nanoshka gained basic insights into staying clean and, more importantly, into growing up as an individual – breathe through the nose, keep the breath calm, meditate with the eyes open, stay present, learn how not to bend under pressure and how to stay solid in the moment.

Additionally, he got over a fear of exposing more of himself to the world, physically and emotionally. A real-world piece of this exposure was Choudhury’s advice to wear as little as possible while practicing the yoga so you can see yourself as you really are in the mirror.

“The less you wear, the better the yoga.” That was what Bikram used to say a lot, Nanoshka remembers. But the former inmate didn’t understand this for a long time – not until he took to wearing tight-fitting Speedos for the first time, placing his whole body before the mirror and looking squarely at himself.

“When you do the yoga, you take the clothes off, you take the masks off, and you finally get to have clarity on who you are, where you are, and where you need to be,” says Nanoshka. You can’t lie to yourself when you’re standing there fully exposed in the heat, forced to confront yourself in the mirror. “If you’re too fat, you learn to get skinny. If you’re too skinny, you learn to put on some weight. If you’re too nice, you learn to be a little bit of an asshole. If you’re too much asshole, you learn to be nice. You have to look yourself in the eye and see what’s really there.”

The point is, Nanoshka says, by doing the yoga, you “can’t live in denial. All the bad things that everybody else already knows about you but you don’t, you’re going to get to know.”

Accepting Change

Because of the yoga, life’s obstacles are not as much of an issue any more for Nanoshka, and are not as likely to throw him into a tailspin as they once did. “I’m a giant over whatever afflicts me,” he says. “My whole life is basically based around doing yoga, teaching yoga, learning yoga,” a practice that keeps him honest. “My life is not perfect.” He admits he can revert a bit to the gruffness that defined him before, but considers himself a good man.

The rigors of Bikram Yoga don’t allow for slips in diet and lifestyle. Ideally, the yoga is performed under the direction of a certified instructor who leads the class through the therapeutic poses with a precise dialog. The heat is a key factor in the practice. The combination of heat, dialog and posture demands great concentration.

One mess-up in self care, says Nanoshka, and it shows. You die in the heat if you’re not taking good care of your body. Drugs and yoga don’t mix. The yoga keeps him focused on building up his life without the former drug crutch that used to get him into so much trouble.

The practice, he adds, has a definite spiritual quality to it because it is so much like life. “You do the best you can, as much as you can, with 100 percent effort.”

With balance in the body comes a more balanced lifestyle. “I used to be up all night long. With yoga, you learn there’s a time to be tired, a time to go to bed. You’re supposed to be tired at the end of the day.” The rigors of the yoga, combined with his new-found goals, forced Nanoshka to finally stop smoking cigarettes. “I got clarity on who I am — that I’m still learning to be a man and that I’m blessed with all these things in my life that I didn’t have before.”

The drugs, cigarettes and alcohol were things, he adds, that “you think you’ll never give up.” They become a part of your life. You learn to rely upon them for the brief escape they offer. But, he explains, “these come from addictions, from having low self-esteem about yourself.” Yoga changed all that for Nanoshka, and he’s determined to remain sober. “This time it’s different. It really is. I don’t walk around with so much anxiety, anger and fear. I don’t ask myself so many questions, doubting myself and bringing myself down.”

Still Learning

According to Nanoshka, the key to it all is the spine. As the spine regains its flexibility, health returns to the body and mind. The healing effect of the yoga has near-miraculous impacts. It literally gives people backbone. “Basically, this is where I’m at: I’ll never arrive, but I’ll always still be learning. There’s always more to learn.”

And this in itself requires a new vigilance, a new level of responsibility. “The more you learn, the more work you have to do. You know how it is. You learn something new and you have to learn how to manage that new power, that new thing. But it doesn’t all have to be done today.”

It’ll take time. Through his yoga practice, Nanoshka is developing the patience he needs to learn and grow. “Sometimes, when you talk about the past and how it is now, it makes you feel good. I’ve come a long way, but I’m still hiking up the hill. Yoga never gets easier. The better you get at the practice, the more you have to learn.”

Bikram Yoga has radically transformed the quality and outlook of Nanoshka’s life. The yoga he teaches has helped him find the balance that was missing when he was an inmate.

After more than one year of daily personal practice and a steady teaching schedule, Nanoshka now carries 230 pounds of beautifully sculpted mass on a frame that stands less than 6 feet tall. Unlike most men his size, however, he can bend and twist his body with the flexibility of a ballerina.

Additionally, for the first time in his life, he’s looking to the future with real hope. The confines that drugs placed on him are now a part of his past, as are the prison cells that physically confined him. Today’s goals include building a lasting relationship with a woman, buying a home and, of course, one day opening his own yoga studio.