I had my first experience as a free woman the summer of 1993. That year I flew as an unaccompanied minor on a return flight to Buffalo from my stay in California. My parents had divorced three years prior and at the ripe age of eight, I was on the Intermediate Series of airport Vinyasa. Everything was going according to plan except the flight attendants didn’t wait for me and I was left at the gate alone. I pulled my bag of quarters from my book bag and called my mom. Ekam. Then I explained to her what had happened and that I was alone and forgotten in the Chicago airport. Dve. I advised her not to worry, that I’d checked my gate and I had plenty of time to get to the next one before take off. Trini.
My mom was in a panic. She told me to stay put and wait for someone to come and find me. What I did next was ashtanga yoga’s version of Headstand at Prasarita Padotanasana A. Instead of waiting where I was, I made my way towards the next gate by way of my favorite place in the world, the moving walkway.
As a free woman I was able to ride back and forth on the moving walkway twice. I felt like Ariel in The Little Mermaid. A real above land princess floating along in the candescent fluorescents to the sounds of Enya and Kenny G. I made it to my gate on time as promised, greeted by panicked and relieved flight attendants. Then eventually to a panicked and relieved mom in Buffalo.
Growing up a bi-coastal kid made adventure drama a welcomed distraction. The stress of constantly leaving my mom or dad many times per year began to take hold very early on. I’d already been showing the early signs of toxic stress syndrome. I know this now due to personal research but was left undiagnosed. My treatment was prayer and christian counselors.
Toxic stress syndrome is a condition where a child repeatedly exposed to high levels of stress at an early age displays rashes, hair loss, and night terrors to name a few. I had all of those symptoms and a few others. My parents and family felt sorry for me. To this day they still do and it has been a challenge not to feel sorry for myself. Those years and the following ways I’d learned to cope with the aftermath were hard but I draw upon this experience as a source of power. Because of divorce Vinyasa and early childhood trauma, I’m able to recognize symptoms of toxic stress in others. It helps me anticipate their needs and what teaching tools to use with the kind of intuition that comes only from personal experience.
I made my first trip to KPJAYI in Mysore, India in September of 2010 with a few close girlfriends, a travel pillow, and no clue what I was getting myself into. My teacher told me I should go and it didn’t seem like a terrible idea. I’d been practicing Mysore daily for about a year and yoga regularly since 2003. So I took my savings and four months off and hopped on a plane.
Like you, I have a story. It’s filled with love, heartache, and many highs and lows. But nothing could have prepared me for the physical challenge, loneliness, heartache and solitude I would meet on my first trip to Mysore. Practice was hard and my body was stiff even after all of those years of practice. I wasn’t used to getting up at 3 a.m, let alone sweating in a room full of beautiful bendy people in the intense Indian heat. My apartment down the road from the shala had large cockroaches and I slept under a mosquito net watching them crawl up and down as I tried to sleep. We used to chase them in the morning before practice and our apartment would be laden with overturned cups. The captured cockroaches writhing underneath as they awaited their fate.
Sure, I made friends but at the time it wasn’t easy and everything felt complicated. These people were older, wiser, and more well established than I was at 24. I was in the middle of an identity crisis. I’d moved to NYC to become a stage performer only to have my dreams crushed by insane competition and the anxiety and panic attacks that came along with it. I couldn’t hack it and that realization cut me open to the core. Yoga calmed me down and after a few months of daily practice I was able to manage my anxiety. My schooling was expensive too and I was saddled with $50,000 of student loan debt by the time it was said and done. I was 23. My mom had the other half which would inevitably be my responsibility. It was yet another crushing reality that felt too big to wrap my mind around.
Somewhere deep down I knew that theater, at least for now, was something my mind and body was not ready for. Especially at the high pace and stress of the city. My last performance was as Dr. Robin Cotten in a showcase of Juice: the musical, the story of the OJ Simpson trial. It was not a comedy. I tended bar and taught yoga to make money and I was doing really well for myself. When I started my Mysore practice in 2009 I was in love and living in west Harlem in an old jazz musician’s building. My boyfriend at the time was going to school and in the military. We were living together, had adopted a cat, and were making a home.
When I’d started my practice everything began to change. I was confronted with my insecurities, cut corners, and things I’d not dealt with from growing up. Daily practice revealed all the dark places in my mind. I’d always been a naturally gifted athlete, performer and had gotten along with people very well. The daughter of Buffalo’s blue collar generation, I was no stranger to hard work. Both of my parents drilled that into me by example. Still, I was living in a mediocrity I couldn’t ignore. My body didn’t tolerate my poor diet, intense grind, and inability to prioritize rest.
In Mysore in 2010 I was completely alone. I was not a small town Buffalo theater star, a studious college student, shattered dreamer, money driven worker, or girlfriend. Before leaving for India my boyfriend and I had broken up. Not for lack of love either but because I needed to grow and couldn’t do it with him at my side. We were both wrecked and slowly pulling back from each other the way you do walking backwards staring at the sea.
The girls I’d gone to India with soon split off and I was left to find my own way. I remember the first week feeling so alone and beat down that I didn’t leave my room. I was in a led class, sore and sad, doing Supta Hasta Padangusthasasana with the group. We were so close in the shala that you couldn’t put your foot all the way to the floor without hitting your neighbor. As I dropped my foot carefully to the right the man next to me gently placed his hand on my ankle and drew my foot over to the side. It was his way of letting me know it was OK with him if I took a little of his space for my practice. I looked over and he smiled with deep kind eyes.
“Hold it together Larson”, I told myself. Pulling back tears as it was the first show of genuine kindness I’d felt in days. I know it sounds silly but in that moment I knew I wanted to work hard to give that kindness to someone else. He was a senior practitioner at the shala, you could just tell, and by that simple act he gave me the permission that I needed to be there. To arrive. This sparked a desire in me to be a leader, senior, and teacher for others experiencing a similar rebirth.
By the third month, I’d learned the Vinyasa of KPJ. The friends I’d made that year have been in my life ever since. I’d decided in the middle of my trip that I would take my last two weeks in Goa to study with Rolf and Marcy. So, after my third month in Mysore, I hopped on a rickety bus that drove us from Mysore city all the way to the western coast of India. Accessible internet and cell phones were not common. The room I’d rented had basic amenities only. Bathroom, bucket shower, propane stove and a sink. There was a cafe with old school IBM computers down the road that had limited hours and to make a call you would have to go to an internet cafe even further down the road.
It’s rare to have an opportunity for solitude so easily accessible and at the time it didn’t register as the gift it was, at first. The student base was much smaller in Goa and I’d made only one friend, Robin, who had a kind heart but a busy social calendar. Practice was intense. My body felt broken after three months of deep practice in Mysore. I began doing some Second Series asanas with Rolf and couldn’t make it through practice without crying.
“Better out than in”, Rolf said to me as he patted my back while I was in child's pose.
I remember one night in particular where the loneliness was so deep it rocked my core. I had no books, no internet, and a movie i had already watched 15 times. What was worse was that I couldn’t sleep. The jungle was alive and the sounds of street dogs, monkeys, people yelling and car horns were the night’s soundtrack. I barely had any money left and no idea what going back to NYC was going to look like. Fear plagued me with pangs of panic that radiated in my gut. But, somewhere in that deep dark night of loneliness a spark was ignited. I was breathing. I was alive. The solitude didn’t kill me and I had to figure out a way to make the best of things.
I returned from India more alive than I’d ever been. Parts of my mind that were once raw, weak, and exposed were calloused and I felt stronger. The course I’d set myself on in my early 20’s had done a complete 180. I’d made a plan and it backfired, or did it? I really loved the woman I was becoming and if it meant changing things up then so be it. So, I packed my bags again and moved home to Buffalo to restart my life. It was 2012 and I was 26.
It’s so easy to forget where we’ve come from. Practice and my ability to focus has looked less like an incline and more like a squiggly line. The incline of personal growth and development is undeniable but it has been anything but smooth.
Nothing would challenge me quite like teaching Mysore and working as a doula. It requires a keen eye, big heart, weird hours, and a level of show up you can’t cheat your way through. Daily practice makes people focused, healthy and aware. Childbirth makes mothers and we all know these women to be the strongest of us all. They WILL smell your bullshit.
Dharma appears as the thing that challenges you most. If it’s your work it will keep calling to you like a harp in the distance. That is what will take you down deep into the reason you were given life. Those fears that are undeniable are a gateway to the soul. Eventually, once you shake hands with the devil in your mind, you realize you are capable of more than mediocrity.
A daily practice has taught me to welcome challenges because they will lead to growth. Difficulties and solitude on the mat and in life have helped me to understand my potential. The more I embody the practice of yoga and Ahimsa the fuller my cup is and it just overflows into service. I don’t have to try. It just happens. The moments the happening is there feels seamless, fun, easy and sweet. I cherish them. It doesn’t always go that way but I never stop trying because I know the happening is on the other side of my fear and self doubt. As long as I am breathing I will never stop trying. After India and what followed, for me, giving up isn’t an option. I am breathing.
The deepest, darkest corner of your mind is where art is born and where mothers go to bring their babies down from the stars. Sometimes, no matter how hard we prepare, life throws us a curve ball we weren’t expecting and we’re thrown into that dark corner scared and feeling unprepared. Daily practice helps me better gear up for those moments and help others gear up too. It’s my hope that practice will help myself, students, and the mothers I serve follow their life’s Vinyasa as best they can. And I hope as free men and women in the fight, that we always have a little left over to take a detour at the moving walkway.
In April 2009 Malissa began her Ashtanga practice in a tiny shala in Williamsburg NYC with Elise Espat. In September of the following year she made her first trip to study with Sharath Jois at KPJAYI in Mysore, India. It was the beginning of five extended trips to the main shala to support her practice. In March of 2017 she was authorized by her teacher Sharath Jois to teach.
Since 2013 Malissa has worked closely under the guidance of her mentor Angela Jamison. The mentorship contains in it a beautiful and long term relationship with the shala in Ann Arbor and the incredible students therein. Annually you will find Malissa taking an extended stay at Angela’s shala in Ann Arbor Michigan as an apprentice.
Malissa has worked with tireless passion to bring the practice of Ashtanga Yoga to her community in Buffalo, NY. Daily practice, maintaining a close relationship with her teachers, study, and meditation inspire the ways in which she teaches.
Get in touch with Malissa