There’s a little sunlight streaming through the words YOGA. Upstairs, a dimly lit room is filled with bodies, frozen in repose. They stir a little, guided by a voice coming out of the darkness.
“Your only job for the rest of your life is to be able to hear your breath,” the voice says. “When you can hear your breath, and serve your breath, you’re a yogi, you’re a master. When we observe the breath, we are living with God. We are in communion.”
Cheri Rae Russell observes, adjusts positions; moves in and out of the shadows. She pushes bodies into different shapes. Molds them. Encourages the very best. Challenges your very worst. Sometimes she’s barely audible, other times, her voice rises, cuts through the silence reverberates across the room.
She’s funny. She’s brash. She’s philosophical. She’s sexy.
It can happen simultaneously or creep up on you.
Her voice can be a thunderous clap that penetrates your bones, uplifts your soul. But if you look past the sage, the powerful yoga instructor, she’s a 45-year-old woman who has nursed multiple broken hearts.
The pianist, David McCullum, ascends and descends the scales, vibrating with every movement as they go from Catcow to Child’s Pose. The room pauses. Then breathes in. The chords drifting in from the piano brings colors to mind, a multitude of rainbows, undulating through the mind’s eye. The world, for Cheri, is all about colors, and the space between breaths.
The Color Green
Peace Yoga/Gallery was birthed from pain, a gestation that started years ago.
Cheri was a different girl then.
A national competitor, a figure skater with her eyes on Olympic gold. Or, at least, that would have been the obvious path to take. She was an overachiever until she had an accident.
“I went into this physical therapist for this knee surgery,” Cheri says. “Yoga’s about the feminine and the masculine uniting. It’s about balance and no ego. I think injuries are always that way. That reason was to bring my soul into balance. Shifting out of that competitive disaster into giving, I became a giver of my energy for children.”
She joined Holiday on Ice and traveled the world. It culminated in 21 years of professional skating. She transitioned gracefully from figure skater to something, maybe someone, else. “It took my career in another direction,” she says.
Riding on that high of personal recovery, Cheri was happy. She was even in a 1999 movie – The Bachelor – starring Chris O’Donnell. But she was concerned about her mother’s health. She was obese and certainly not eating right. Cheri, a vegetarian, wanted to help her. “Come live with me,” she told her mother during a phone conversation.
Two days later, her mother had a heart attack and died.
“When I lost my mom, nothing was going to fill this hole,” Cheri says. “It was even harder when her sister died (my aunt), and my uncle died, and it was all food related. Nothing really matters if you didn’t have anyone to share it with.” It’s a lesson she teaches today. Sure, you can have everything in the world, she admits, but it can still leave you empty. Cheri’s belief, her urgency, is about finding that inner peace. For her, inner peace comes from without.
“What fills you up is giving,” she says, her voice cracking with emotion. “Go out and work at a hospice or a mission. Get out of yourself for a second and just give. That’s why we’re here. Everything will heal when we’re in service to each other.”
Getting Raw Living Foods
Cheri’s commitment to raw, living foods easily connects to her mother’s death. But her mother wasn’t the only one eating herself into the grave. It’s happening every day. Right in America. It makes her angry.
“We eat all the time and we are still hungry,” Cheri says. “It’s constant. Everyone is obsessed with food. A guy doesn’t like me, I’m going to eat. I’m stressed, I’m going to eat. It’s insanity. It needs to be taught in school. They make it like it’s fun to eat like that. And they’re just burying it after layer after layer of extra weight on the human body. From the yoga standpoint, you can’t possibly think clearly, you can’t possibly connect to the reason that you are on this planet.”
She takes a breath.
“There is a higher reason for every one of us,” she continues. “We have the choice to eat ourselves to death, not exercise, and dumb down that beautiful gift that was given to us. Or, we have the choice of living right. That thing inside us gets so loud. There’s nothing else you would rather be doing, moving, creating something, planting gardens with people, doing yoga. People are just numbing out in front of their televisions. You have to live our way into the future. The way people eat now, they’re just killing themselves.”
When Things Fall Apart
Cheri goes to New York after her mother’s funeral. She starts partying with her friends, Jackie, Melanie and crew (a lot of the ice skaters). The truth is, yoga is what’s really holding her together, and at night, she would go out and “get crazy.” Sleep, if it was even worth climbing into, didn’t happen for 11 days. Straight. Now she’s driving somewhere–nowhere and everywhere–the past ticking. Days, weeks, months, filtering through the haze of wasted time. Her road trip is filled up with one voice – a constant friend – coming strongly through the speakers, her tape deck rewinding on a continuous loop. The book on tape is called When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron. Chodron’s voice is like a mantra. The words, like honey.
“…Breathe in all the pain of the world and breathe out love,” Chodron says.
And right then, Cheri feels as if she can transform all of her negative thoughts. “I was not at peace,” Cheri says.
“I was sad. I was missing my best friend. My aunt and uncle, everyone was gone. You go through a glimpse of ‘Really, God?’ To really wake up and go, ‘I am loving myself because it’s got to happen that way.’”
Back in San Francisco, her phone rings, and then she’s offered a teaching opportunity in Bali. The ground, again, shifted beneath her.
She was 38 when she “took the bulls by the horn,” and decided to open her own business. It was an emotional experience.
Enjoy it. Don’t let it be a pain. Be like ‘Wow, my body can do this? I can do this? I’m fucking amazing.’ Say, ‘I love you, body. I am a zillionaire. I am sexy-hot.
“That came from sitting down, breaking down completely and just saying to God ‘use me for a purpose greater than myself,’” Cheri says. “I need to funnel it into a place and live music, live food, live people… Every single thing is in here, every vision, every dream…all you have to do is spend enough time for that silence to turn into a strength. Nothing I’m doing is new. It’s ancient.”