April 21, 2012

Unique Asana: The Angel Opens Her Eyes.

Photo credit: Tanya Lee Markul

Unique Asana is a series of stories about personal journeys and the impact yoga has on different people’s lives. 

I have written this after an afternoon with Helena Hertz Melkjorsen.

We sat on a corner in Nørrebro, Denmark—it’s similar to a tiny pocket of the East Village, a little grimy, lots of people outdoors, and colourful with a recognizable pulse. With the humming of traffic just meters from our bench and the clicks and clacks of construction in the distance, Helena’s words rang softly from the depths of her heart, straight into my ears. They came from places yet to be explored, from spaces still too dark to enter and from the vulnerable expression of her physical body and the radiating space between her brows.

I couldn’t help to think over and over to myself: she’s stronger than she realizes. She’s beautiful, sweet and she’s broken. She has something to share, it’s still blossoming inside of her, emanating from her. She has it. It’s nestled in the palms of her hands and behind her eyes, and she wants us to have it, to feel it.

As I sat listening to her, the sun warming the tops of our heads, I couldn’t help to think that she felt like this song:


Lightning Crashes.

Let’s go all the way back to the year 1975. Her father wanted to have children. Her mother did not, yet Helena was destined to exist—she broke through the condom (or “she defied preservatives”) and nine months later, a baby girl was born. At just three months of age she was put into daytime foster care. Days in foster care turned into nights and nights into weeks. After four years, her parents divorced, and those weeks turned into full-time foster care.

“Am I a bad mother because I don’t want my child?”

She says her mother wasn’t the type of person that should have had a child. For about three years Helena lived with her. Although her mother didn’t want her, she didn’t want her father to have her either. She refused his requests to spend weekends with her until finally, when Helena turned seven years old, he was granted custody of her. At the time he was a military man turned salesman who would eventually become a bartender turned unemployed. He spent his money as quickly as he earned it. When he lost his job, he started drinking and Helena stopped going to school. She was only ten years old.

“I was just a child. Everything that I was supposed to feel safe with, I didn’t. I never knew what my reality would be like the next day.” 

From the age of ten to fourteen Helena rebelled in the only way she knew how—she did what she wasn’t supposed to do. She had no boundaries and had a hard time coping with the agitation she felt. She hung out with older boys, went to parties and her grades were bad. She got drunk for the first time with her father—a relationship that was far from typical, but it was what she knew. She went to school only when she felt like it and when the school called, her father would make up excuses for her—her period, upset stomach, diarrhea or the flu. She knew this because she delivered the parent-teacher contact forms to her school. He said she was just too hard to control, that it was just easier for him to give up on her. Helena ended up changing schools twice and boarding schools twice.

“I felt like I didn’t fit in at school. I was always the outsider.”

I can feel it coming back again. 

She had been dancing since the age of seven. It was a way for her to quiet her mind, soften her agitation and to express herself. The more difficult the dance, the better it felt. It invited her to translate and express what her mouth could not. She learned ballroom, jazz, hip-hop, rock and roll and more. She graduated from the Danish National School of Contemporary Dance in Copenhagen, and since 1999 has been dancing professionally.

”Dance offers me a sense of freedom. It takes me to a space where I can access both my inner self as well as tune in to the world outside. It feels natural, going beyond the analytical mind and experiencing harmony.” 

Photo courtesy: Helena Hertz Melkjorsen. Catch Me. Instructor Peter Gornstein

During her early teenage years, her rebellion seeped onto the dance floor. Although dance allowed her an element of expression, the mirror offered nothing but self-deprecation and scrutiny. She hated looking into it. As Helena told me this, her eyes softened and traveled to a distant place of her past.

She stood up and held and imaginary bar lightly with one hand and started to slowly plie. She looked reluctantly over a delicate shoulder into an imaginary mirror on an imaginary wall and started to fake cry as she bent her knees again and again. “I hate the way I look,” is what she’d say to herself over and over again. She said she couldn’t count the times she did this—every time detesting what she saw.

She also despised the pressure she was faced with to look a certain way and more than anything she hated listening to words of encouragement like “Helena, you are good enough.” She simply could not accept it. It’s still hard for her to this day.

The years of rejection she experienced early on in her life, especially from her mother, deeply damaged her self-esteem and her ability to accept and love herself. The eating disorder that she developed early in her teens, gave her a sense of control. If for only a brief moment, it allowed her to escape the confusing voices reexamining the past over and over again, and it gave her a sense of peace when things got too stressful.

Photo courtesy: Helena Hertz Melkjorsen-Helena at Dansens Hus

The moment she’s been waiting for.

In 1995 after years of suffering from bingeing and purging, she sought counseling as advised by one of her dance instructors. It wasn’t long before she stopped throwing up, but dealing with stress is still a challenge she deals with every day. She stayed in counseling diligently for six years, got her eating disorder under control, and in 2000 she began a journey with Ashtanga yoga.

Helena says that yoga has helped her feel calm. It has invited her to take a softer approach when dealing with her self. Her yoga practice has reintroduced her to a sense of control of her life. She has been able to step even farther away from her eating disorder and has been able to ask herself why she was so attached to this behavior.

“If you look at the way you eat, it’s a great indicator for how you are dealing with life.” 

For many years of her life, Helena was longing for approval. Yoga has helped her to go beneath those longings to find her own self-accomplishments. She invites others to do the same.

Not everyone feels the ‘bliss’ of yoga in that way. Some have to feel the ‘shit’. When you practice (yoga), you integrate with the deepest core of yourself. Sometimes you don’t know what hit you. Sometimes you find one big mess. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll try to go through the fence instead of over it.

Helena teaches Ashtanga yoga and will soon open a shala (Mysore Yoga CPH) in Copenhagen, Denmark. She wants to offer yoga practitioners a therapeutic teaching style and an opportunity to find, unleash and share their self-expression. She invites you to open your eyes.

“I am more conscious, more self-aware than I have ever been—there’s still a lot of work to do.”

I’ll definitely see you at the shala, dear Helena.

Helena’s father died in 2001 from a heart attack. He was only 48 years old, a victim of his rough lifestyle. She has spoken very little to her mother since she was seven years old.


We have all been wounded in one-way or another. Some of us carry around our wounds until they eventually kill us. Others keep seeking a way out of the dark tunnels no matter how many corners we turn to find nothing but another tunnel and not the opening kissed by sunrays that we hoped for. We keep going.

Every step forward, no matter how small, is an opportunity for exponential healing and growth. We can become stronger than before. The essence of the self will grow with sincere effort. Eventually, we realize that we are capable of healing beyond what we ever thought possible and that our wildest dreams are at the tips of our fingers. This realization changes life forever. Remember, the very moment you decide to change, you already have.

Read more:

Unique Asana: Keeping It Real.

In the Midst of Our Darkest Fears Emerge Our Wildest Dreams.

4 Ways to Deal with Your Emotional Black Hole.

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