The morning of December 14 was one of the most brutal mornings of my life – it just pained me to no end having to tell the 5:30 am class that long-time member Michael O’Connor passed away. I felt compelled to share with that class the truth, and that class to know first as Michael, even in his “rude, I’ve got a chip on my shoulder ways” practiced then for must be ten years or more. Looking back, I needed you, class, maybe more than you needed me to tell you. Processing this loss is what I needed – I came to know more about him and his life, and while the “room” he was in mentally was iron-sealed to anyone, the yoga and this community were the bright spots he likely fed on for years until things got to be too much, too dark.

Ironically, many of you knew Chris Canevaro, our manager of ten years. He, too, had some dark earlier adult years, and finding this yoga rejuvenated his look at life – a second chance, he’d say – and gosh, he used it. While we may not have seen any of Michael’s “progress,” I believe through all of you and this yoga, it was there.

We often talk about yoga in its physically uplifting, mentally soothing but very much also spirit enriching – that’s the “zest” for life! That sweet energy that has you getting up in the morning, not because there are responsibilities to address that day, but more importantly, it’s a genuine skip in your step beyond reason that you have this day! Chris was able to totally metabolize this – he had a new lease on life – spring in his step. While I believe he truly tried, Michael received, in doses, this “zest,” let’s call it, as much as he could allow. Interesting to ponder: leads to the question, even for ourselves, “Where are you on this scale of zest?” 

I hope that by the end of this speech, something in you will compel you to start or stick to this yoga; healing comes when we open up. While hard, the rainbow after the rain is, yes, peace, but we can grow in our ability to dance even when it’s raining, too. It’s possible.

Watch Michele’s full speech

I appreciate all of you who have created a bar none studio community. We truly uplift each other in various ways. Thank you, Matt and Sarah, for being there that morning: these gestures we exchange are so impactful beyond words. Continuing on in my day, I felt a squeeze in my gut but carried on as we do as our bodies have permission to adjust – yogis just feel it all – I was so thrilled to make it to my godson Renzo’s Christmas concert: moments you can’t get back. Heading home, my pain got a little worse. Feeling hungry, I thought eating would help. As the night went on, I had a heating pad and other thoughts of what to do. I share this with you as I had what I call a “yogi” moment: I looked at myself in the mirror, pain extreme; I stepped out of my being and asked, “What do I need?” I could feel the obstruction as stuff wanted to move up or down, and while I was eliminating, nothing – not tea, not a laxative, or whatever came to mind, but calling 911 did. I don’t remember much, but these wonderful EMTs were at my door in about three minutes.

I crawled as I couldn’t stand and buckled over in pain; I never saw their faces. I was pretty loud, rocking myself and vomiting; I recall their calmness, even humor amongst each other while they still so compassionately tended to me. Let’s applaud our EMTs!

Taking me to Santa Teresa Kaiser (all ER beds full everywhere), I was so relieved to get a room ASAP, and within minutes morphine and other liquid pain relievers filled my veins. For a moment, I freaked out as my body had never experienced drugs like this. I was grateful to be out of extreme pain, and a CT Scan later showed a twisted ascending colon with the cecum inverted, meaning emergency surgery. Blessings continued to flood in as I was moved to Santa Clara Kaiser, my real “home” of hospitals if I needed to. Entering, I was greeted with so many wonderful “dressed up for Christmas” ladies, saying, “You must be Michele, we’ve been waiting for you.” Within an hour, these 15 ladies or so, each with their role, had me pre-op ready!

Kathy, Chris’s mom by my side advocating for all my care, doesn’t know how not to show up: each step for her was a re-examination of what they were doing and why. At one point, she was so upset as they switched surgeons on us at the last minute. Dr Choi, pompous, introduces himself and explains the exploratory surgery needing to cut as opposed to laparoscopy, not knowing what they might see, had Kathy unglued. His air of attitude pissed her off, and for me, I liked it – be as cocky as you want – I only want confidence in the OR!

The nurses were so sweet to get on their knees and pray with me before they wheeled me in. It’s now 4:00 pm December 15. Do the math; I was now up 36 hours straight. The surgery went well, and now, on the fourth floor, in a big room shared by a sweet lady with pneumonia – she introduced herself as Marcia. Not long after, I heard her say, “I hope you don’t mind that I’m eavesdropping on all your conversations.” And she proceeded to give me her two cents on all my calls – hilarious.

members listening to michele's speech
Michele Vennard
Members listening to Michele's speech

Twelve staples lined up unevenly above and below my belly button felt and looked like I was in a boxing ring with Muhammad Ali, with him free to punch my gut as many times as he liked.

Healing doesn’t really happen in the hospital; it’s more about ensuring surgery goes in the right direction. Every eight hours, I had a new nurse and a new doctor each day, and oh, so many great volunteers braiding my hair, changing my sheets, and encouraging me to walk. Thank you to all who visited me and the furniture you stole from the hallway to make yourself comfortable; luckily, the nurses laughed. I apologize if my hospital robe flew open or if I had any strange conversations, as some I don’t remember.

Yet, I remember YOU, and I do recall the genuine importance each nurse and doctor had on consistency: blood pressure, temperature, heart rate, lab tests, comfort level, pain management, and pain tolerance were the fundamental information they used to monitor my own bodies ability to adjust and the reaction of my own immune system beginning to heal. 

These are things we work on daily in our “works all glands, organs” practice. All areas were good except low iron. Lowering more and more, I needed a blood transfusion. Again, I am so grateful to all of you blood donors. I was given more drugs, a catheter, IV bags, clot blockers, and blood labs with no food and no water. Just lemon-tasting swabs to moisten my lips. After four days, I could have chipped ice. If you’ve been in the hospital having surgery, you know they want you to have a bowel movement, and then they’ll talk about sending you home. It’s a common conversation, and I didn’t hide it. So, during one of my walks around the nurse’s station, I began to announce that I pooped today 🙂

Only in a hospital would anyone applaud my “church girl” hat, long red nails, and a pink hoodie over a hospital gown; I appreciated their appreciation of my high fashion. Before I continue, I have to mention that in those six days and nights, I likely met hundreds of people from those I know and those I just met. Hospitals are rough and rarely quiet, yet from another point of view, each of you offered care and compassion, whether it was your job or not.

Being in the hospital so immersed as I was, you see so many sick people. I don’t know their stories; they didn’t know mine. But we needed to be there totally vulnerable and at the mercy of these medical practitioners. I noticed when they had fun and when they were stressed, but I mostly noticed that I could not do that job. Grateful, yes, but I’m reinforcing a message to you that prevention is better than repair. What’s the most important thing in your life? Your life! There’s no way to know when perplexing circumstances arise in your life, but if you’ve done some preparation, you’ll weather well. And if you’re doing this yoga, you’re doing the preparation.

Mother and baby
Moms and their boys
mom and daughter

Finally able to leave, I was stunned at how good it felt to be in fresh air. Wheeled to Kerry’s car, she lovingly took me home to pack up things so I could stay with Kathy for a few days. That was a smart move on my part, as I had no idea that the start of recovery could be so awful. Kathy, 40 years a nurse, had that hat on most of the time: time to take medicine, time to eat, time to drink, get up and move, and yet, she also left me alone, which is what I needed: silence.

Showering for the first time was hard and likely took most of the afternoon. I did take walks outside; however, my pain got worse. Heading home after two nights with Kathy and Walt, you can imagine the joy of just sitting on my couch, being with my cat, hanging out in my space. Home not even an hour with my best friend, Cheryl, putting away groceries she so willingly bought, I discovered blood in my urine.

As you likely know, that is NEVER good, especially after surgery. So shocked and in more pain, I called Kathy and Kaiser, and sure enough, the answer was, “You need to go BACK to the ER.”

It’s funny how I felt that I went through as much as I could with this surgery, yet it was “here” that I “lost” it. NOW, I was in a territory so beyond my comprehensive reserves. I had no reference; I had nothing – I shut down. My friend Cheryl, now realizing that she’s here for more than groceries, gets up at 3:00 am every day and never drives past 4:00 or 5:00 pm: no night driving. It’s 6:00 pm.

Her Queen Vicky car, as we called it, now pulled up with her at the wheel, nervous and yet so determined. We took the side streets; it was hard to see, but I didn’t notice until later that her lights don’t really work with the glass so worn that any light in front of us was likely the street lights. Now, on December 22, the amount of people at the ER was astounding. Numb, we sit and sit, and while in pain, I’m just solemn.

natalie and husband
a couple
yiting and husband

If you get a chance, read Hidden Potential by Adam Grant – absolutely the most incredible book that will have you recalling your kindergarten teacher and validate more reasons why you practice Bikram Yoga. He says,

If personality is how you respond on a typical day, character is how you show up on a hard day.

I’m not trying to show you what a hero I am. Please don’t get this twisted. It’s the goodness that grows in you from taking care of “the most important thing in your life” through a regular practice that, for the most part, you’ll never fully realize without putting it to the test like I had to – it’s the evidence that more in you has self-realized.

Present without emotion, I recall a moment, “So this is what it is like to surrender.” I’ve often heard that yogis are known for having a pretty long threshold for anything; I met mine. Surgery – okay; transfusion – okay; cancel Christmas – okay. Back to ER – uh, no. Another gown, another poke, another bed to roll around in. I cried, getting out the exhaustion and then the dancing even when it was raining; the nurses we met, the doctors so thorough, the patients we exchanged smiles and stories with despite more radiation, despite wanting to be anywhere but here, I endured, I endured with joy from my heart. 

My mind, wanting to feel sorry for itself, angry that I don’t deserve this – took a back seat. And then a rainbow came. I passed two kidney stones, and while one is still sitting in my bladder, it’s likely going to pass easily. The good news is that the CT Scan shows, as Doc says, that “I’m healing phenomenally.” As you recall, post-surgery is about how the body handles the trauma. So, remember, I pooped; and my immune system is now churning well, complimenting the surgeon’s work, and no infections. Driving home after only six hours at the ER, I remember going by the studio on Lawrence Expressway, seeing the lights on, and knowing Jose was in there cleaning the carpet; I stared, feeling that my life as I knew it felt a million miles away. 

Recovery is another beast. December 23, home! Okay, let’s get back on track here – familiar territory, familiar routine. But if you recall, I was in Thailand over Thanksgiving and just ten days later in the OR. Canceling Christmas also meant the usual cultural customs, baking, presents, hallmark movies, etc. Mine had none of that, and while that might seem short-changed, it just made the meaning of faith that much stronger.

My only goal was to attend the Christmas Eve service at 3:30 pm. That morning, up until noon, I felt lousy. I took a short walk, recalling the doctor’s advice, “Bed is bad,” and found myself getting ready for church. A Lyft ride later, I’m in the second row, tears in my eyes, praising. This pull-the-rug-out-from-under-me event did have me asking, “How did I get here?”

crow pose
scorpion pose
bow pose

Another great book to read, The Sermon on the Mount According to Vedantais just a super look at one of the most impactful messages in Christian life viewed from a yogi’s DNA. In it, he quotes, “Patanjali, known to be the father of yoga, states, yoga is a way to know God.” Hmmm. My angel card last year, 2023, was Wisdom. I chose to follow another great author, Boyd Bailey, and his habit of reading Proverbs 1-31 each day for a year. So, by the end of one year, I read Proverbs 12 times. Repetition is the mother of learning, as we know all too well in how we teach the same thing in each class; we know that repeating means better awareness for better understanding, comprehension, and ultimately, it leads to transformation. What’s my takeaway after doing this for one year? The right way is the best way. It’s easy to want to define this as “sin or don’t sin” religious righteousness, but study this more effectively. You’ll see that, as pastor Andy stated, “sin” means “off your own integrity” and not so much that sin is bad, but when we are off our integrity, we are “bad off.” Great, right?

For about three weeks since the surgery, especially my nights at home, I sweat through 5-6 outfits a night. Cheryl, bless her heart. She lives 50 yards away and would come over each morning and grab my severely wet clothes as, in those early days, it was hard to move, let alone wash clothes. The only clothes I wore were jammies, and to run out each night is a problem. It’s normal to sweat post-major surgery and anesthesia, but not this much. Doctors were alarmed somewhat, but for me, and likely for you too, as a Bikram Yoga practitioner, I was reminded of Bikram’s comments. He teaches high on the podium, seeing directly IN YOU what this yoga is doing FOR YOU right before his very eyes! He’s so focused on watching you move into half moon, triangle, and separate leg head to knee, and then he’ll say, “Where Western science ends, yoga science begins.” Western medicine may not be able to explain all the sweating, but yoga can.

Surrendering to my yoga cell intelligence, I gladly accepted the sweat pushing up and out the toxins, scouring for bad influences these massive amounts of drugs may have in me. One night, it was drastically less, and then it just stopped! 

The question, “How did I get here?” is really, “Here I am,” as one can keep you haunting the past, and the other is a healthy presence. That’s my story; better yet, that’s my song. Sounds better as a story can get misinterpreted as something I need to get over, while a song is a tune I happily sing to. Stories are heavy in your mind; songs skip in your heart. One makes a difference begrudgingly, and the other sees the butterfly from the caterpillar. A yogi perspective, right?

woman eating cake
Michele Vennard with guest
two members

Okay, why did this happen? Let’s go there, as so many have asked me, and gosh, I asked myself that, too, almost immediately after hearing the diagnosis.

“Did I do too many naulis and twist the crap out of my ascending colon?” Many of you see me, join me as we suck in and up our guts. When I inquired, the doctors had no idea what I was saying and stated that these things usually happen in a day – they don’t accumulate. Additionally, they say we are all born with different textures, meaning some may have more toned intestines, colons, or more floppy. Some may have a twist, and it goes right back. But this is inconclusive, which took me right to the fact that I was a breech baby – yep, and no turning me around. I came out ass-first, which explains a lot about me, right?! So, I’m thinking, did they use forceps around my gut and cause me to have a “floppy” set of tubes?

I hope you are laughing, and I am, too, which is my point. This is ridiculous, as who knows? I don’t know why this happened. It doesn’t frustrate me, to be honest, because what’s the point?

This is the defining concept right here and where I’d like to take the rest of this speech. You could obsess about how and why it happened and create behaviors that keep you in fear, OR how about the other mindset (here we go, yogis), the one we practice hard for in class, that this happened as a way to keep growing, keep healing; grateful to endure; appreciative to the wisdom of the experience, the wisdom of my body.

I am so appreciative that every year, I get to give you this “State of the Union” address at our anniversary parties, which I’ve done since we opened in 2003. I’m astonished as these speeches come to me each year. If you’ve been around a few years, you might catch on to the theme these speeches have.

“Why are we here?” “Why are you here?” “What is BYSJ really?” What’s the point of its existence?” Each year reinforces our purpose through impactful collections of events each year provides. This year is no different, with so much to reflect on in the latter part of 2023. All of it brings to mind a sense of urgency that your time is NOW!

Michele Vennard with Cynthia Wehr and member
Michele Vennard with the BYSJ staff team
yoga sport crew

How fitting that BYSJ is turning 21! Officially an adult, it’s time to make big choices! Being 21 years of age reinforces the message that it is time to GROW UP. If you are looking around for who that is – that’s YOU, that’s ME – BYSJ IS you and me that make this place. As a yogi, you are no longer asleep but mature enough to make (here we go) the Right decision – now get stronger with it! If you are new or your practice is just sporadic, then choose now to “start” or “start again.”

I heard this recently and recall its brutal awakening:

The average life expectancy in the United States is 77 years, so there are 8760 hours in one year. That’s 674,520 hours in an average life span.

If you are 30, you already used up 262,800 hours.

If you are 50 years old, you’ve already used up 438,000 hours.

All the things we do mean that time equals currency.

How many of us are making payments on things that don’t matter? For me, my iPhone tells me my screen time went up this week by 15% – ugh.

For most of you sitting here, please feel good that you are making payments on your life with yoga. And it is not my intention to make anyone feel guilty.

But time waits for no one. What this says is that LIFE for each of us is a vapor.

Going through this speech quite a few times, I thought, geez Michele, this speech is kind of depressing – it’s actually the opposite; sobering truth is liberating. Someone needs to say it – AND you couldn’t be in a better place for it. In my opinion, IF YOU ARE HERE, LISTENING NOW OR LATER, CONGRATULATIONS, YOU ARE NO LONGER WASTING TIME!

Listen to this: Bikram, who was recently at the teacher training during my trip to Thailand, gave a late-night lecture that briefly reviewed the five attributes we mentioned in class that “make us better humans.”

Remember what they are:

1. Faith – With yourself, your God, and in others.

2. Self-control – Self-discipline.

3. Determination – Willpower; never stop until you reach your goal.

4. Concentration – For 90 minutes, you don’t know your name.

5. Patience – Bikram says that this is his hardest.

This visit was the first time that I heard him also add this:

“3% it’s gifted to you; you are human. 97%, you need to prove it with behavior and character.” In other words, your practice is “convincing” you on the inside. Faith, self-control, determination, concentration, and patience are what you project on the outside.

My story, my song, is just one of the thousands of testimonials here tonight; it’s part of my 97% in “proving.” YOU TOO!

I see Thomas, Meron, Jody, Sundar, Ajit, and all of you practicing and proving on the inside to change on the outside. As I said earlier, yoga provides “physical uplifting, mental soothing but very much also, spirit enriching – that’s the “zest” for life!” And our ability to “dance even when it’s raining.” These things make us better humans, and, as Bikram states, so simply the vision for what Bikram Yoga is.

Take a deep breath! As I stated, you all couldn’t be in a better place to take on this bold choice than being at BYSJ, where we teach this authentic, committed, true 26 and 2 practice with such care from the building’s preparation to the people teaching it. Please stand, staff: Look around and applaud these people who don’t make stock money but make real currency by giving their time, love, and skill! 

Okay, let’s get real a little more. Here are some great questions to measure how you’re doing on your proof. 

What’s your pain response? Do you drink, shop, or eat? How about scrolling? Are you healthy enough for playoff pressure?

Meaning, would you let paranoia set in? Would you say that this is just my karma and sort of play victim, like, why is this happening to me? Would you be overly consumed by things you should’ve done? What you should not have done? These are just a few.

Bikram will tell you that “you are the loser when you let anything rattle your peace.” Pastor and straight-up, no-nonsense realist Jerry Flowers states, “When peace vacates, pieces relocate.”

So, the question is, how can we grow up more? How can we keep “proving” as we do our yoga practice? Let’s start with us teachers:

1. Bikram will tell us, “Teach my way, hard way, Right way.” He says,

“The teacher’s job is to make sure students understand there are some things their body cannot do now, but as long as they do it the right way, they will get there.”

2. Give hope. In a study on rats, they were placed in water to swim and found they could last up to two minutes before drowning – they just gave up. Yet, if they were lifted out of the water just seconds before drowning and then back in to swim, they could last 18 hours.  

Raging Rooks, a competitive chess team from an underprivileged area, beat out all the Ivy League chess teams that have studied chess since age four. Raging Rooks coach Maurice taught them a more backward approach: instead of the usual “pawn moves like up two spaces; bishop one up diagonally,” he showed them ways of “checkmate” first. This strategy instilled hope when they were inside the intense playing arena as they already “felt” a win.  

These are confidence scenarios that we have, too, students, every time we experience an “aha” moment! The first time you lock your knee, you can lift both hands after many years of practice in Toe Stand, and you can see the back wall in a back bend. You’ve been lifted before drowning; you, too, felt the big win with a smaller win through a pressure process. So, if we do it right and allow the students to have THAT experience, we as teachers will generate this ever-important HOPE.  

Speaking of hope, this, to me, IS what Rajashree IS in our Bikram Yoga World. She says to us teachers, “Show people HOPE, and they can improve their lives. Say the dialog – 100% Right Way, uplifting from your heart. Students may be frustrated and deflated. Your job is to observe and see their sea of issues: shoulder, knee, endurance, energy (are they giving up?) Allow for space, see there 1 millimeter at a time, and encourage THIS.”

As students, how can we grow up more; how can we keep “proving using our yoga practice?”

1. Try.

“As long as you try 100% the right way, have it forever,” Bikram states over and over again. When you do this, you’ll have longevity and health. It doesn’t matter if you think you can or if you think that you can’t, it doesn’t matter how far you go, it doesn’t matter how good or bad you are, and it doesn’t matter if you get “there” or not. Yoga you try; you don’t do. “You will benefit your whole life trying, and it takes 50 years, but in those 50 years, you benefit,” says Bikram.  

The book of James states this scripture in the Bible, which illustrates time-tested Wisdom: “When your patience is finally in full bloom, then you will be ready for anything, strong in character, full and complete.”

2. What does it take to really try? It takes feeling awkward and getting uncomfortable. 

In Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things, Adam Grant states how imperative it is to be in the Right moments of awkwardness and do this many times to make progress. In one of his studies, a linguistics master, at first glance, you’d assume this person was gifted and started learning different languages at a young age. Not so. The key ingredient from someone who disliked learning languages into full adult years was “allowing for utter discomfort.” He says, “My goal was to make 200 mistakes a day!” In other words, the more mistakes you make, states author Adam, the fewer mistakes you will make.

Steve Martin, the famous comedian, was another study, at one point labeled as “the most serious booking error in the history of Los Angeles.” he claims his success was in confronting the most uncomfortable thing he never wanted to do, “writing his own jokes.” He eventually embraced the discomfort of crashing and burning on stage, but as you know, he’s now one of the most popular comedians in America.

Discomfort takes discipline, creates discipline, and eventually desire. 

I’ll end with this: You may or may not know that BYSJ has lived by a Mission and Vision since its inception in 2003.

Our Mission is to bring improved health and well-being to you and all our members by providing the highest quality Bikram Yoga instruction. Our teachers are certified and experienced, and we continue to educate ourselves. We remain dedicated to serving all in our community – our students, San Jose, and the South Bay – with excellence and to fostering an environment conducive to learning, inspiration, and self-realization. This year, look for seven posture workshops and clinics to further your “proving,” along with our other “every year” commitments; a new pipeline of “yoga talks” giving you a behind-the-curtain conversation about each of these poses encouraging “aha” moments; and hope. 

Our Vision for BYSJ, which is all of you, is “Empowering Self-Realization, Igniting Compassion.” This broader verse simply says that BYSJ’s role is to help you see and be YOU, realize GOD in you, naturally becoming the actual beautiful definition of what it means to be human as a result of extending love by first the love you have for yourself. Bikram Yoga uses the physical to take care of Everything. Because, again, “what is the most important thing in your life, your life.”  

These are NOT new concepts, but as we turn 21, immature excuses no longer fly, so ask yourself, “Is my life really the most important thing in my life?” and “If not now, when?”