Ms. Zen

Her heart is racing. She felt dizzy and her hands were tingly. It became harder and harder to swallow and her thoughts were rushing through her mind. Nicole Woodard was convinced the plane was going to crash.

“Oh my God. I’m having a heart attack,” said Nicole.  She was experiencing the worst of a long line of panic attacks that became more frequent as the days passed.

The plane landed safely. Nicole was able to calm herself down this time and complete the last leg of a three-week “hokie” dance job that consisted of a tour through various Chinese villages and cities. But claustrophobia and panic returned daily, even after she returned to the United States.

“I was always feeling trapped,” says Nicole. Whether she was on a freeway in gridlock or in a long grocery store line, there was always panic.

Finally, one day after yet another panic attack that ended in an all too familiar phone call to her father for help, she realized she needed therapy.

As a professional dancer, Nicole had already been practicing yoga to help strengthen and condition her body. But it was after she began therapy to deal with her panic disorder that she realized her yoga practice could also help her maintain a healthier lifestyle. In fact, yoga gave Nicole much more than just the tools to overcome her panic attacks. It also gave her the confidence to face her unhappiness, the passion to start a new career, and the courage to love herself.

“[Yoga] really makes you take a look at yourself and asks you why are you doing what you are doing,” says Nicole.

The beginning of her yoga practice was difficult but she knew it was helping her learn to take responsibility for her actions. A lot of her discontentment emerged and she realized that she needed to make some changes in her life.

“When you choose people, places and things, you attract certain energy and certain situations and circumstances start hitting you,” says Nicole. The time had come for her to face the choices she had made up to this point in her life, whether they were positive or negative.

The first thing on her list was to cut ties with her dance agency. She had high hopes that a new agent would bring her more success in her career. It worked. She booked a job working on the feature film, “Boulden!” which was set to begin shooting in North Carolina in just a few weeks.

Next, she was able to look at the relationships she had developed in her life. She was involved in a tumultuous relationship with a boyfriend who was unavailable and unhealthy. But now, with a higher esteem for herself, she was able to end the relationship just before she left for North Carolina.

While filming in Wilmington, Nicole would take frequent taxi rides to a local yoga studio she found online. It was here that her deep commitment to the Yogi lifestyle was born. The urge to teach followed soon after.

By this time, Nicole had found a home at Rising Lotus Yoga Studio in Sherman Oaks. Claire Hartley and Daniel Stewart, co-owners of the studio, had become her friends. They also ran a teacher certification program that Nicole wanted to be a part of; however, it was $2,700.

Sad and disheartened, Nicole began to wonder how she could find the money to help her with this goal.

But help was only a click away. Nicole googled Career Transitions for Dancers, an organization her friend and fellow dancer Lisa Eaton had mentioned.  She discovered that she could apply for a grant to help her cover the training program costs. After an interview, an essay and countless check stub organizing sessions, her package was ready. She sent off the chunky manila envelope to be considered, and waited.

When Nicole received the check in the mail for $2,000 she cried. It was made out to Rising Lotus Yoga Studio. She was on her way to sharing her passion for Yoga with others as a teacher.

The 200-hour Yoga training program was not easy.

“I got angry and I got frustrated and I got pissed off and I wanted to scream and I wanted to cuss all my teachers out and I ended up just crying,” says Nicole.

Claire Hartley oversees the program.

“There is always some sort of breaking down. Something has to breakdown before it can be built up again,” Claire says.

The students endure long intensives on all the postures. They also study the philosophical elements of Yoga.

Claire says that Nicole “would just stop and allow the emotion to come up and just kinda crumble to the floor.”

Nicole’s past resentments from the ups and downs of life as a professional dancer began to bubble to the surface. The constant rejection and competition created a fear based life and she had to face a lot of her patterns, good and bad, she says.

“I wonder where all this anger comes from that I get sometimes. I am never very proud of it,” says Nicole. One of her major concerns is to find ways to diffuse her anger quicker and be more positive in life.

While completing the teacher training, Nicole was still struggling to book dance jobs, calling her agents and asking for more auditions.

ww “There was still, on my end, a lot of searching,” says Nicole. Eventually she noticed that she was gradually shifting her energy toward a more gracious outlook on life. She credits her personal Yoga practice, the Yoga training program, and her mentors Claire and Daniel for this shift.

Nicole was proud of all the work she went through to complete the Rising Lotus Teacher Certification Program. She began searching for a job. Nicole reached out to Inner Power Yoga studio in Calabasas, Equinox gyms, and even Health Net Insurance Group where she was poised to teach a corporate program. All of these promised opportunities disappeared after the initial discussions.

“Oh my God. Yoga teaching is just like dancing. I am a Yoga teacher in Los Angeles. What have I done?” she wondered. Nicole was discouraged and setback.

But she was intent on teaching so she began a Yoga class in her own home. She would move furniture, clean her house and teach for a donation. Her home studio held up to eight people but she rarely welcomed more than four, and sometimes nobody would show up at all. So she stopped.

In yoga, Nicole experienced the benefit of trusting the flow. She now applied this concept to her life during this difficult time. Soon, she was asked to substitute teach a class at Rising Lotus Studio. She could feel things starting to work. She began to substitute for teachers regularly at Rising Lotus and it was during one of these classes that Claire decided Nicole was ready for her own class.

“I realized Nicole had all of a sudden fully blossomed into a teacher, holding the room with maturity and empathy for the process of yoga,” says Claire.

In class, Nicole encourages her students to be easy on themselves and surrender to whatever they need to do to take care of themselves. As a dancer she has learned to notice how music can affect people’s moods and she takes pride in the play lists she creates for her class.

“Its hard not to dance and get down in her class,” says Manny Ibapo, a Rising Lotus Student.The company Nicole chooses to keep has also taken a turn for the better. She has been dating Sacha Riviere for three years and he is supportive and respectful of her choices.

“She’s learned to embrace acceptance of obstacles,” says Sacha. They live together in North Hollywood, California in Claire’s old apartment.

Nicole now teaches three classes at Rising Lotus Yoga Studio where she begins and ends with meditation, a Yogi tradition that encourages self-reflection.

Nicole also meditates at home every morning. Blunt cut black bangs frame her face as she sits atop red and yellow blankets. She faces a table draped in purple fabric that sits eight inches high.  Strategically placed pennies, amethyst beads, rosewood beads and a Buddha decorate the space.

Nicole’s outlook today is far different from the panic-stricken woman who boarded the plane home from China years ago.

“I want to be the best person I can be,” says Nicole.  “I want to treat others better and treat myself better.”


(UD / The Bull)

(UD / The Bull)

(UD / The Bull)