All of us remember our first Bikram yoga class. For Chris Durand, it was Aug. 7, 2008:
“It must have been about 70 minutes into the class—with sweat dripping into my nose, ears and eyes, and Altin yelling, ‘lock your knees!’ or ‘grab your toes!’ or something else I couldn’t do, such as, ‘breathe through your nose!’ (Yo, dude, I am just trying to breathe!)—I started thinking about the Bataan Death March.”
Many of us also remember Chris’s first instructor, Albanian-born Altin Duka, for whom deprivation was a kind of badge of honor— “You had bicycles,” he liked to say. “We had donkeys!” (Wherever you are, if you’re reading this, Altin, we miss you)!
Fortunately, Chris persevered: “My second, third and fourth classes all made me realize that most of the teachers were absolute sweethearts. And I was also getting used to the heat.”
Chris’s path to Bikram yoga began over Christmas, 2006: “I was playing a simple pickup game of soccer with some friends and our kids, and I slipped and fell. The following morning I woke up with a lower back pain I had not felt before.”
Several months went by with visits to the spine doctor and cortisone shots. Finally, an MRI confirmed that Chris had a herniated disc in his lumbar spine. Months of physical therapy, anti-inflammatory and pain medications ensued, but nothing seemed to be working. Chris’s family has a history of back problems, so he was afraid it was something he was just going to have to live with.
“I asked my doctor what options we had. She said short of surgery and some ‘injection-based’ therapy, the only other thing she has heard works is yoga. In fact, she mentioned hot yoga.”
Fast-forward to 2009. Chris attended a three-day, company-sponsored executive physical at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.
“On the final day, we had the option to see specialists, so I chose to see the spine specialist. I brought a copy of the MRI showing the herniated disc, and the doctor ran me through some tests.
“Afterward the doctor said to me, ‘You certainly did have a herniated L5 disc, because I can see it in that MRI. However you seemed to have cured it. What is it again you have been doing?’
“I said, ‘Bikram yoga, three to five days a week.’ He said, ‘I have heard of yoga healing people’s backs, but you are the first case I have seen.”
“Six-and-a-half years later, I have not had to see my spine doctor, I have not taken an ibuprofen, not even for a headache, and I have not had another debilitating event.”
Chris was born in 1966 in Hartford, Conn., where he lived until ninth grade, when his family to a small town in upstate New York. Despite the culture shock, Chris enjoyed his time there. From jobs on dairy farms he learned to appreciate hard work. He also realized that he definitely had to get to college.
“I always had a sense of service,” Chris says. “I thank my mother for that. She is one of the most selfless people I know. She taught me that giving is the real gift in life.”
So Chris made up his mind to go into the military. After applying to several colleges and ROTC scholarships, Chris says, “I was honored, and am still humbled to this day, to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.” He graduated as a second lieutenant in U.S. Army Infantry and went on to complete training in Jungle Operations and the Airborne and Ranger schools.
In the Army, Chris found more than just a career. One day in 1990, after a grueling “certification” road march—12 miles in less than four hours, in full battle fatigues, combat boots and helmet, carrying an M16 rifle and 40 pounds in a rucksack–he went to the Officer’s Club with some friends to have a few beers.
“It was that night that I fell in love with my wife of 25 years, who was a U.S. Army nurse at the time.” Chris and Jill left the military in 1991 and for several years lived in California, where their son, Nico, was born in 1995. They moved to Richmond in 1997, and a year later daughter Sophia was born.
Since leaving the military Chris has worked in industrial and manufacturing sales, engineering and operations, specifically in semiconductor and biopharmaceutical manufacturing. Jill is a self-employed medical trainer for child development and day-care facilities.
Outside the yoga room, Chris enjoys running and working in his yard. He loves to cook for friends and family. And he continues his dedication to service as a board member for nonprofit organizations. Most recently he has been involved with Sportable (www.sportable.org), which provides adaptive sports training and event programming for athletes with physical and visual handicaps.
Chris says, “There is no doubt that we share something special by doing Bikram yoga together, but I have found that it extends well beyond the walls of the Bikram studio to a larger community that really care about their own health and the welfare of others.”
Rick Saldivar grew up on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona where he ranched and began riding horses as soon as he could walk. From the beginning, Rick was a bit of a wild child – he would catch wild mustangs and ride them out until they were tamed enough to be sold. He remembers laughing with family members after being bucked off of the horses. As a teenager, Rick moved to Oregon where he worked as a hunting guide and honed his survival skills when he wasn’t in school. With the rest of his free time, he competed in rodeos.
“Being a young man, I would just brush off injuries as most cowboys would.”
Right after high school, Rick joined the military.
“All my life I knew I wanted to be a warrior, a soldier, and serve my country.”
As a young soldier, he attended some of the most mentally and physically demanding schools the military had to offer. Everyday in military school involved endless runs, hundreds of push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, and other physically demanding drills.
“These schools are designed to make you quit. You find out what you are made of, you learn to live with pain.”
Almost two years later, Rick got to his first unit, and began making a living traveling around the world, jumping out of aircrafts carrying almost 100lbs of gear. He carried everything he needed to survive in his backpack (“Ruck”). He carried it up mountains, across deserts, jungles, and some of the deadliest swamps in the world.
“For hours upon days, my “ruck” was my security blanket.”
If you’ve ever seen Rick arrive at the studio, you’ve probably seen him with his backpack on.
While in the army, Rick sustained many injuries to his ankles and he even broke his back jumping out of an aircraft. Sometimes when he was injured, it would be days or even weeks before he could seek medical attention. He became numb to injuries and pain and thrived in extreme and often dangerous situations.
After he was discharged from the Army, Rick felt says he was physically and emotionally a wreck. He felt like the quality of his life had been severely downgraded. He spent a couple of years in and out of the VA hospital recovering from his injuries. Once he was able to get back to the gym, he was at it full force once again – participating in “boot camps”, running, swimming, you name it, Rick was doing it. He even completed the rigorous race “Tough Mudder”, competing against people half his age. At this time, Rick was on pain medication and he was drinking almost every day to help him deal with his pain. Finally, one day he decided he’d had enough.
“ I was sitting at a bar and I told myself ‘I can’t do this anymore’. My days of doing boot camp and competition were over.”
He then saw people coming out of the yoga studio all sweaty and looking like “they had a beat down.” So Rick went over to investigate and talked to the teacher about the benefits of Bikram Yoga. At this time, Rick was under the impression that yoga was for wimps and said “no thanks”. A year later and still in pain, Rick decided to give Bikram yoga a try. Rick took his first class from Garland in November 2008.
“I was in for a rude awakening. Halfway through the class, the room started closing in on me, the heat was unbearable, I couldn’t breathe…“. Rick tried to leave the room, but Garland convinced him to stay.
“After I recovered and was walking out the door, not believing I just got my a$$ kicked at yoga, I heard a voice say ‘See you tomorrow!’” Rick’s immediate response was, “Like hell you will.” (Whether or not this was said out loud is debatable.)
Rick couldn’t believe that he found something that he couldn’t do – and that that something was yoga. Rick ended up coming back the next day and he eventually began a regular practice.
“I was always destined to be here, the way I’ve lived my life.”
By his 3rd year of practicing, Rick was off pain medication and had stopped drinking. He could run and swim much better, and he was started to gain more flexibility. He also says that his interactions with people have vastly improved as well.
“For the first 2 years I talked to no one, I was just in and out of the studio. Now, I’m a regular chatter box and have many yogi friends that I socialize with.”
Rick strongly encourages other veterans to practice yoga to help with injuries and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“I still have a long way to go, but my quality of life has improved. I only wish that I had started practicing much sooner. It’s a lifelong process, and I’m proud to say that I’m a yogi.”