Amber Shumake gazed across the hot room.
“Deep breath in,” she said as her students slowly inflated their chests. “And out.”
A collective sigh washed out of their mouths as the tension in their foreheads melted and soft smiles bloomed.
Shumake smiled too. Guiding others toward serenity and empowerment through yoga became her calling after it saved her life.
Since high school, Shumake has had trouble with alcoholism, drug abuse, anorexia and depression. Her blog details some of the darkest times in her life when she would eat less than 1,200 calories a day to shrink into size 24 jeans and routinely take Xanax to get out of bed.
Anorexia and depression “each held guns to my head,” she wrote. “If one laid her weapon down, the other picked it up.”
The file below is a passage from her about living with depression and anorexia.
Fortunately for Shumake, she learned how to wield a weapon of her own.
She began practicing yoga in college after her psychiatrist recommended it to soothe her anxiety that had been plaguing her since she was a child. She was hooked instantly.
“I knew that when I got on my mat I felt different from when I started,” she said. “It became a powerful tool to change how I felt.”
She said it was the first time she felt grounded to her body, rather than lost in the fears bouncing around inside her head. One of these looming fears was her marriage—a relationship that became abusive.
“The relationship was not effective,” she said. “It was not loving, it was not kind.”
Yoga was a big part in pushing her to leave that marriage. Her poses, she said, taught her how to be flexible and, more importantly, recognize when she was being stretched too thin off the mat.
She gradually began to realize that her marriage was toxic and left. That was one of several positive changes the yoga instructor made over the years as she concentrated on improving her mental and physical health.
“Yoga was the tool to breathe me back to life,” Shumake said. “I just thought ‘Man I have got to stop numbing my feelings in a bottle of vodka every night,’ but I didn’t know how. I was like ‘This is my habit. This is what I do.’”
It isn’t what she does anymore. Shumake has been recovering from alcoholism and has reached her third year without drinking.
She’s also kicked her drug habit. Her mornings that used to start with a Xanax now begin with unrolling her mat before dawn.
She talked about how the practice has taught her mindfulness. She said that even though she does experience rough times, every feeling is temporary—like a challenging pose or stretch—and that it’s best to embrace the highs as well as the lows.
One of her students said it’s changed his attitude as well. Tom Cunningham, a longtime pupil of Shumake, said this type of exercise has made him “more tolerant” and able to transcend irritations that used to get under his skin.
In addition to the general courses, Shumake also hosts a class that uses yoga to aid people recovering from addiction and trauma. She said it’s necessary to pass on the technique that helped her so much throughout the past 12 years.
However, Shumake explained that while yoga is a useful complement to recovery, it’s not a “cure-all” or a replacement for other treatments. She said it hasn’t solved all her problems, but it’s been with her as she’s grown.
Her course concluded with a mantra the class chanted together in the dark. Click the file below to hear them.
“Lokah samasta sukhino bhavantu” is a common meditation hymn that wishes all beings to be happy, joyous and free while expressing a desire to help others achieve happiness and freedom. It’s a fitting sentiment to reflect Shumake’s calling—guiding students toward their higher selves the same way she found her own.
Shumake teaches group classes at SoulSpace Yoga Community as well as individual lessons. People interested in learning from her can view her schedule here.