San Diego Voyager: Meet Trailblazer Ingrid Yang

This story was originally published in SD Voyager.

Today we’d like to introduce you to Ingrid Yang.

Ingrid, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I started practicing yoga because I needed it on a very personal level. I was a 19-year-old college student in New York City and my nervous system was in chaos. I was a type-A go-getter with lofty goals, living a city full of ambition and energy. But the stress and pressure I put on myself were starting to take its toll. I was anxious and rigid, both physically and spiritually. I actually recall that when I first practiced yoga, it was at a 24-hour fitness on a visit home over Christmas break during my freshman year. I hated it because the teacher kept using words I did not understand, and I felt totally lost. I walked out in the middle of class and ran on the treadmill instead. A year later, during my sophomore year, I stumbled into a yoga class at Crunch in NYC. The class was being taught by a Jivamukti teacher, who seemed to understand how to communicate a sense of calm and well-being. During class, I practiced Trikonasana (triangle pose) for the first time. I recall turning my head up toward the ceiling, inhaling deeply and thinking, “I feel so light.” I suddenly knew that did not have to be anywhere or accomplish anything. I could just breathe and exist. I had never felt so relieved in my life. My brain asked, “You mean, I don’t have to perform and achieve right now? Hallelujah!” It was the best gift I could have ever received. Thank you. Thank you so much, yoga.

And of course, when you love something, you just want to share it. So, I started teaching at my college gym. I was lucky because that was the 90s, and there weren’t many yoga teachers around back then. I was flexible and felt comfortable with public speaking already, so the activities director hired me after an audition. It was the most fun I had in college. During law school at Duke, I continued to teach, both as stress relief for myself, but also to hone my skills. I used to take hours to prepare for one 50-minute class. I would scour through my yoga books, draft an outline for the class plan (including every inhale and exhale cue), practice the class plan myself and make edits, practice it a second time with my edits while speaking out loud and instructing it, and then instruct it again without my notes. It was a process, but it didn’t feel like work because I enjoyed yoga so much. The hard work paid off because my classes were packed. They grew from 10 to 60 within a year, and close to 100 by my last year of law school. It was rewarding to have so many students benefit from a practice that I held so close to my heart.

After law school, I moved back to NYC to practice law. I pretty quickly realized that a life in corporate law was not the right path for me. Also, my aunt, who I was very close to, passed away that year, and it gave me the realization that our time on earth is too short to not live the life you want to manifest for yourself. So, I packed up my things and moved back down to North Carolina to open a yoga center. It was scary. I was leaving a promising career as a “big time” lawyer at a large, reputable law firm to follow this little pipe dream of mine to found and run a yoga center in the South. It definitely would not be the most lucrative path, but it would be the start of a journey that allowed me to walk the path to manifesting the life I was born to live. So, I opened up Blue Point Yoga Center with the money I had saved from practicing law, and literally built it from the ground up — no walls, no floors, just a vision. I am proud to say that Blue Point still stands today, a thriving multi-location yoga center in Durham, NC. It all came together beautifully. Of course, there were stresses and hiccups along the way, but mostly, things came together when we needed them to, and the right people came along right when they were supposed to. The minute I started stressing about something, the solution came naturally and elegantly. It just goes to show that when you are on the right path, the entire universe conspires to clear the passage for you.

While I was running the center, I started realizing how connected yoga is to physics, kinesiology and human physiology. The way that we practice pranayama speaks fluently with our respiratory mechanics, and the transitions between postures logically connect to the biochemistry of our brains. I had always wanted to be a doctor, ever since I was a child, I just had never thought I was smart enough! Because of yoga, I started to become more interested in medicine and started to devour books and videos on our physiological inner workings. I started to teach through that lens, and because my yoga center was so close to Duke Medical Center, many of the doctors and nurses that came to my classes loved it. They encouraged me to consider a career in medicine. I shrugged it off initially, but then started dipping my toes into some pre-med classes at a local college. Soon, I had all the credits to apply to medical school and I took the MCATs. I did not do well, so I took it three times total to achieve the score I needed to be a competitive candidate. And even as an Ivy League graduate, an attorney, and an entrepreneur, it still took me 3 tries to get into med school. But I knew it was the right path for me, so I kept going. I’ll speak more to this below under “obstacles”, but med school itself was a rough path as well. Either way, I kept teaching yoga throughout med school and residency. It was tough to fit it all in in conjunction with the grueling schedule required of a doctor in training, but it was an important part of my balance to keep up my teaching practice. It kept me balanced and grounded during medical training. I knew that with the combination of medicine and yoga, I would be better equipped in guiding my fellow humans through their healing journey. And there is no doubt that this has been the case.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
To say that my journey took me on a rough path is an understatement. It felt like every turn in the road brought about obstacles to challenge me. How much did I want this? How dedicated was I? It took me three tries to get into medical school in the first place. Then, I failed a class during my first year of med school, failed the first step to my medical certification boards. My med school even threatened to hold me back a year. Then, halfway through residency, I realized I had chosen the wrong specialty, and applied to switch to Internal Medicine, where I had thrived previously. There was a lot of crying and feelings of disappointment. Feelings that I was not good enough. But I was so sure in my heart this was the right path.

After each hurdle, I would get up, brush off the dust, and forge ahead. I felt like I had no other choice – this was my destiny. In the end, it all worked out, and I am in the specialty that is perfect for me (I work as a hospitalist), with a medical group I love, in the city that I hope to always call home. All the failures taught me important lessons along the road. In particular, it taught me that just because you failed does not mean you are a failure. You just failed something at that moment. Whether we care to admit it or not, we have all failed. What defines us are the actions we take after the failure. Do you reflect and learn from the failure, get back up, and keep moving? Or do you take on the victim role and give up? Sure, it’s not so binary in real life, but next time you fail, I encourage you to ask yourself how you choose to handle it. Because it is always a choice. And I can guarantee you that the most successful people you know and admire have failed over and over again until they finally succeeded. And they continue to fail. It is part of the success process, and we choose to take it in stride.

What do you do, what do you specialize in, what are you known for, etc. What are you most proud of? What sets you apart from others?
My main job is as a hospitalist, which means I care for acutely ill patients in the hospital setting. I love it; it feels like a calling and what I was meant to do my whole life. In complement to practicing medicine in the hospital, I also provide medical consultations at Saffron and Sage, a holistic health center. Combining both traditional allopathic medicine with a more integrative approach to health is a passion of mine. Even in the hospital, where we are generally taught to heal with medication, I sit with my patients at bedside and teach them breathing techniques that help with their illnesses or anxiety. It makes a world of difference. Connection is extremely important to me, so when I treat patients, I seek to listen and understand. I believe that is my key role as a physician — to hold space for those that need to be held, both emotionally and spiritually. Most people know the path forward in their hearts, they just need to let it open their hearts and let it speak. Sometimes having someone that believes in their capacity to change and grow is the key to unlocking the door. I am also currently writing a book on adaptive yoga — it will be geared toward those with disabilities such as amputations, spinal cord injury, movement disorders and more. I think it is important work to put out there and putting my medical rehab background to use just feels right. I also teach yoga trainings and workshops and lead retreats all over the world.

My next retreat will be in Portugal, which I am really excited about. I believe it is so important to travel and see the world, to stretch our comfort zones. So, I love organizing trips that include yoga, meditation and rest, while also including cultural and adventure activities. In all, I think life is short and not to be wasted. Travel, do good work, connect, show kindness to others, use your skills and abilities to make a difference in your community and the world. That’s what it is all about; and I hope the work I do reflects that.

We’re interested to hear your thoughts on female leadership – in particular, what do you feel are the biggest barriers or obstacles?
We live in an exciting time that women can now do things more independently than ever. 100 years ago, we couldn’t own property. We couldn’t vote independently. We couldn’t hold jobs without someone else’s permission. Now, we are scientists, leaders in our community, supreme court justices on top of being mothers, friends and children to our parents. We can even have children independently! We are so lucky to have had our foremothers blazing the way for us. And since this article is about trailblazers, I encourage you to see how you can blaze the trail for those who will come after you. What mark will you leave on this world? How will you seize the moment and the opportunities that our mothers have earned on our behalf and make the most of them? We owe it to them and ourselves to make the most of our lives and lead our communities into a better future.

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