I met Rita Ortiz Contreras at Green Tree Yoga Meditation, a non-profit yoga and meditation studio in South LA that I helped to open in 2013. I was taken by her presence, fun personality and sense of self. She started as a new yoga student and soon found herself enrolling in the Yoga Teacher Training program at Green Tree. As the anatomy instructor in the program, I got to experience her grow as both a yoga student and a new yoga teacher.
Rita’s life got very consumed with yoga during the teacher training program which consisted of 14 consecutive weekends of class room time, a barrage of studying and additional classes to hone her skills.
Her son, Arturo, claimed that yoga was tearing their family apart as his mom was gone a lot of the time, sacrificing her role in the family to reach for more health, happiness and to gain a skill she could share with her community. Yoga means “unity” so we both were amused by his sentiment knowing that in a short while it was more likely that their family would be more together then ever experience as Rita found her way to deeper and lasting self care which would lead to more presence and availability to the family.
Here is Rita’s story:
“When I was five, we made our long-awaited trip from Mexico to Los Angeles to see the daddy I had not seen for two years. All I knew was that he was in the U.S., and that we were finally going to be together as a family again. The first thing I needed to do was to learn English. I was the oldest of five siblings and became the first to conquer the English language. Naturally, I would then have to translate everything for my mom, and to some degree for my dad.
I fought to fit in. We moved into our new home in South Los Angeles in 1985, and I would discover that it was a pretty rough neighborhood.
Since I could remember, my father was an alcoholic, and the situation grew worse in my teen years. Most of our family in the U.S. shunned us because he was a violent and annoying drunk. Fist fights ensued between my father and me, along with his emotional and mental abuse…well, that was in between the periods when he was incarcerated. I was all the while fighting to understand this disease of alcoholism.
At 14, I was molested by an uncle. I couldn’t tell my dad—in fact, I couldn’t turn to anyone. I dropped out in the 11th grade, unable to concentrate on the simplest of studies. Eventually my father lost his job, and we lost our home and car. After two suicide attempts, I realized I was fighting to survive life. In 1994, I joined the Army Reserve in hopes of taking my mom and siblings away somewhere better than where we were—anywhere but South Los Angeles. Before I could sign on full time, I discovered that I was expecting my one and only child—a baby boy. But my fight still raged on in my mind. Now, more than ever, I felt that I had to succeed, as I was now doing it all for my family. Then 15 years later, after battling depression, anxiety, and weight gain with medication, something clicked—and I quit my stressful job.
I jumped from company to company for awhile—trying to find the right place, the right people, the right time—then suddenly discovered I had time to work out! I was off the meds, and my first yoga classes were so difficult (or so I thought). Also, I was not skinny, flexible, or strong, and the price for these classes was a bit out of reach for me. And I had to drive at least 30 minutes to the nearest studio.
After a year of practice, things began to come into focus. I saw that my community had been underserved and deprived of many things, and a yoga studio was one of them. Why didn’t I have a yoga studio near my home? Why were all the studios so far away? And why were they so expensive?
Then one day I walked into Green Tree Yoga and Meditation—a studio in my hood! Wow!! In my first class, I realized what yoga was truly about. I was excited to see a black male yogi! He was talking about making peace with all these crazy things that happen to us, rather than judging ourselves or others…and I surrendered. Suddenly I felt that I was enough. Surrendering did not mean I was giving up, but rather knowing and reaffirming that I was okay. The best part of this studio was seeing people of color in all shapes and sizes. And also that the more I practiced yoga, the clearer my feelings and thoughts became. All that physically strong stuff is really just a perk.
This practice has developed my awareness of the struggles of people in low income communities like mine, and how we live in an extraordinary time that calls for extraordinary measures.
Yoga is part of my life now, and I have learned that I am part of a huge awakening happening in my community. In my practice, I surrender often to my thoughts and my feelings, as well as to my mat. This helps me to help others.
We are not alone. We are as strong as we need to be. We are enough, and I have a heart full of love and an unbreakable spirit to prove it.
I now teach yoga in both Spanish and English to the people in my community, helping them to find their Zen. I like to call this the revolution to open our hearts and minds.”
Rita found her “zen” through the practice of yoga allowing her to focus on what truly matters, not just in her personal life but in her community, country, and the world. As a resident of South Los Angeles, she embraces and loves her sometimes rough and misunderstood community. She encourages everyone to join her in the revolution to open our minds, hearts and souls.
I am grateful that Rita’s path brought her to yoga and there was a space for her to find her way home again, to who she really is. I am also grateful to know her. And I am pretty sure the practice brought her family together again in immeasurable ways.