Hi there. My name is Joleen Emery, and I’m the founder and CEO of Big Raven Yoga. A lot of people have been asking me how Big Raven Yoga came to be — what our “superhero origin story” is, if you will. Well…let me tell you a story…
The first thing to know about me is that I. Am. A Yogi. And I have been for 15 years, both as a practitioner and as a teacher. My life is built around my yoga mat. It’s the foundation of my life. No matter what else is going on — work, travel, family — I eke out time on my mat, to center myself, to help me be a better mom, a better spouse, a better artist, a better person. My yoga mat and my yoga practice are, or were, my defining characteristic.
All that changed at 9:36 PM on July 13, 2016, when something else became a less-welcome defining characteristic: A horrific bicycle accident.
My husband and I were on our way back from dinner and ice cream and a lovely evening bike ride through the streets of St. Paul, Minnesota, when I crossed a pair of railroad tracks at the wrong angle. My tire got caught and I was thrown to the street, breaking the tibial plateau in my right knee.
Normally, this wouldn’t be more than a minor bump in the road of life, but the break resulted in something called compartment syndrome, which caused my lower leg to swell so tight that blood could no longer flow through it. If left untreated for more than a few hours, the muscle would begin to die and shortly thereafter the leg would need to be amputated.
It’s such a rare condition in women that it only happens to 1 in 10 MILLION annually. So, that’s me…I’m not even a one-in-a-million; I’m a one-in-TEN-million. (I’ve always been lucky that way.)
Over the next two weeks I underwent 4 surgeries (including a fasciotomy — don’t Google it; you’ll regret it; seriously, don’t click that link), an external fixator, an internal fixator, 2 skin grafts, 2 plates, and 14 screws. I left the hospital with a wheelchair and a lot of internal hardware I didn’t have before.
The next months were spent under 24-hour-a-day nursing care by my husband, who took a 4-month leave of absence from work. (Thanks, Family Leave Act of 1993!) I slowly progressed from lying in bed in a medicated haze, to occasionally sojourning out in my wheelchair, and then with a walker, and then on crutches, and finally walking unsteadily on my own just in time to host Thanksgiving. By the following spring I was walking with something akin to confidence, and was itching to return to my yoga mat and, surprisingly to everyone, even to my bike.
My first time back at yoga was an experience of… well, let’s just say, “resetting expectations.” Nine months off my mat due to a life-changing injury requires some mental and physical adjustments, as it turns out. Nevertheless, it felt like I was at least home again, and it might be only be a matter of time until I was back to something resembling my former self. My heavy (and expensive) black Manduka mat felt good. It felt familiar. My hands and feet still fit neatly into the indentations and wear spots that served as hard-won badges of honor (show worn black mat), representing thousand of hours of practice on that particular mat and tens of thousands of chaturangas over the course of the past 10 years.
After yoga, I came out of the shower only to discover that another yogi had inadvertently walked off with my mat and left hers in its place. The mistake was understandable. After all, they looked identical, like so many other generic mats rolled up and stacked against the wall outside the bathroom.
I was dismayed. One day back on the mat — MY mat — and now it was gone after all those years. No one saw it, it wasn’t in the lost and found, and despite repeated calls to the studio over the next few weeks, it never turned up. It was gone for good. It felt like my yoga story, my history, had been erased. I was crushed.
In an attempt to turn lemons into lemonade, I promised to treat it as an opportunity to find a new mat, a BETTER mat. After, it had been YEARS since I last purchased a mat, and given how far my PHONE had come since I bought my mat, it stood to reason that mats had to have improved at least a little, right? But — and I’m sure you can see where this is going — not only had they not improved, most of them were actually WORSE than my old mat. Ever-more-cheaply made to drive prices to absolute rock bottom. The newer mats were thinner, blander, more generic, made from poorer-quality materials that clearly wouldn’t last more than a couple of months before they needed to be replaced. There HAD to be a better way. So I began finding one.
I researched. I studied. I learned all about the different kinds of materials and fabrics and printing processes available. I talked to other yogis. I tested different base and surface materials. I lined up suppliers, hired designers, built a website. After two years of effort (and many, MANY failed attempts), I finally arrived at what I believe to be the best possible combination of size, weight, and materials. As I said earlier, we only make one mat, because it’s the best mat we know how to make. Many designs, but only one mat. The perfect mat. A mat you can be proud of. One that will last for years. And one that’s as personal and unique as you are. A yoga mat that NO one will mistake for their own.
I love my new mats. I’ve been using one almost daily for close to a year now. It mostly looks just like it did when it first rolled off the printing press, but those hard-earned indentations from thousands of chaturangas are finally beginning to show signs of returning. Just like my old body.
Before I close my story, I’d like to thank everyone for the support you’ve given me since my accident, and I’d like to thank all of my fellow yogis for encouraging me to “bring something new to the mat,” as it were — especially you, YOU who walked off with my beloved mat so long ago, because without you, this never would have been possible. Namaste.