My colleague, Nina, from Yoga For Healthy Aging (YFHA) said it was time I shared my story of coming to yoga, so here it is. But first, I should start by telling you what my life was like before I discovered yoga in 1994. Wow, where to start?! Let me encapsulate my schooling and work history in this way: I was always a studious kid and did well in my grade school, junior high and high school studies. I attended a college prep high school in Toledo, Ohio, St. Johns, run by the Jesuit order. I mention this because not only was it rigorous academically, but we also had religious studies as part of our curriculum, which at the time was of only nominal interest to me. But when I got to college and was studying pre-med, I decided to use some of my electives to take a course on the literature of the old and new testaments. This turned out to be a captivating set of courses that looked at how history and circumstance influenced religious texts. These exposures refined my feeling that I was more of a spiritual seeker than a member of a particular religious tradition.
From college, I went straight into med school and then into my family medicine residency and finally into a busy family practice, which I had been at for 5 years when I took my first yoga classes. Needless to say, my busy life was reflected in a busy mind! I recall having a classic “monkey mind” that was constantly reviewing my work decisions, and worrying about them, or dealing with the immediate intense decisions of the present day, or planning my next short and long term adventures. I worked a lot of hours, taking call on evenings during the week and every few weekends, so my free time felt precious and I tended to load it up with activities I enjoyed.
My relationship to my body at the time was not what it is today. I was relatively healthy, so I tended to use my body intensely in physical activity. I ran regularly, biked regularly, was an avid roller blader for a number of years, only to add in indoor and outdoor rock climbing, with the occasional winter ski trip thrown in for good measure. I was modestly competitive, and suspect I used these activities to deal with the stress I felt from my work. On the purely physical level, I was always of slender build, but I built muscle quickly, felt strong and had good stamina. But, I had always felt stiff and inflexible, ever since high school cross country.
Enter my first exposure to yoga: my girlfriend at the time was over for the weekend and was doing a practice to a Rodney Yee video tape in my movie room (yes, I loved movies so much I called my TV room my movie room!). I believe the video was Yoga for Strength, and I happened to wander by and stopped to watch both her and the video for a moment. I was immediately attracted to the physicality of the practice I was seeing, and asked if I could join in. She just happened (was I set up?) to have an extra sticky mat, and I did just that. My stiff inflexible body was really challenged by the practice, but more surprising was the effect of the final relaxation, what we yoga practitioners come to love as Savasana. My busy, worrying, planning mind actually took a break, if even for just a few moments, and it was not like napping or sleeping. When it was over and I sat up, I felt a profound and welcomed sense of peace and calm that was rare for me. I had just discovered a discipline that could satisfy my need for physicality and could rest and refresh my mind and spirit! I came to discover over the next few years as I began to practice yoga on a regular basis that yoga had other benefits to offer beyond the welcome improvement in my flexibility. I also felt more balanced and strong in my body in ways my previous activities had not done. And the yoga had a wonderful balancing effect on my mental-emotional self, seemed to improve my concentration, and allowed me space to consider my life work and level of satisfaction in life.
As all these new discoveries around yoga were taking place, I came to realize that I had a growing dissatisfaction with some aspects of my work in modern medicine, especially the emphasis I saw in the system that prioritized profit over care in many instances. And one day my yoga teacher at the time asked me if I had ever considered teaching yoga, as he said that he recognized in me some of the same traits and tendencies he had experienced in his journey. I had never considered myself a teacher, but as I look back now, I was doing one-on-one and small group teaching every day with my patients, and it was that connection that was really one of the most satisfying parts of my work as a doctor. Well, this little seed of a question eventually germinated into the decision to take a temporary sabbatical from my doctoring in the Midwest and head to Oakland, CA in January of 2000 to enroll in the Piedmont Yoga Studio’s Advanced Studies program, a 680-hour, 18-month teacher training program. Interested in alternative medicine as well, I took the time during that period to study medical acupuncture as well, through the Helms Institute in Berkeley. My yoga training led me to fall deeper in love with the practice, which I would get to start sharing with others when my training was done! And as I learned my new skills as yoga teacher and medical acupuncturist, it became clearer that I was not destined to return to my previous life as a full time doctor, but that I wanted to re-invent my way of being a healer though my new roles as yoga instructor and acupuncturist!
Since then, my interest has turned to wanting to train the next generations of yoga teachers, wanting to share my experience as a medical doctor with yogis interested in going to the next level of training as yoga therapists, and continuing to spread the word about yoga’s benefits for many health issues we all face as we age. That about brings us up to today, and how my participation in YFHA satisfies my goals and hopefully is helpful to many of you.
*Special thanks to “Yoga for Healthy Aging” for allowing us to re-publish this article!
Join Baxter Bell and Melina Meza for a rich week of exploration and learning around how the tools of yoga and Ayurveda provide an unparalleled approach to vibrant aging, meeting the unwelcome challenges of life with resilience, and supporting growing deeper as a person with age, August 12 – 19, 2023, “Yoga & Ayurveda For Vibrant Aging: Moving Beyond Resiliency To Thrivancy”
About Baxter Bell, MD:
Baxter Bell, MD, C-IAYT, eRYT500 fell in love with yoga in 1993 while he was working full-time as a family physician. His appreciation for the potential of yoga for fostering health, healing, and equanimity was so great, he soon stepped down from his medical practice and trained to become a yoga teacher. Now he focuses on teaching yoga full time, both to ordinary students of all ages and physical conditions, and to the next generation of yoga teachers, to whom he teaches anatomy and yoga therapy along with his accessible, skillful style of yoga. He also sees students privately, helping them use yoga to help heal from and/or cope with a wide range of medical conditions. At this point, with 18 years of teaching experience under his belt, Baxter brings a unique perspective to his teaching, combining his understanding of anatomy and medicine with his skill at instructing people from all walks of life and all levels of ability.
In addition to teaching classes, workshops, and retreats internationally, Baxter is co-author of the new book “Yoga for Healthy Aging,” a past presenter at Yoga Journal Conferences and the International Association of Yoga Therapy’s Sytar Conference, and teaches online courses and classes at Yoga U Online. Baxter is also the co-founder and writer for the popular Yoga for Healthy Aging blog, where he shares his knowledge of medical conditions, anatomy, and yoga with practitioners and teachers across the world. He has written articles for Yoga Journal and the journal of the International Association of Yoga Therapy. And he is often quoted as an expert on yoga and health by major national news outlets such as the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.
Learn more about Baxter: baxterbell.com