Monica Benassi has been interested in yoga since high school. However, she did not decide to pursue her passion for it until she had a near death experience.
In May of 2012, Benassi suffered a cardiac arrest. She said she was with her boyfriend at the time it happened. She remembered feeling “funny,” so she went to the bathroom where she noticed her skin around her feet had turned to a purple complexion.
“I felt like I was going to lose my ability to speak or something, so I just let out a scream for help,” Benassi said.
Benassi said she remembered going in and out of consciousness on her way to the hospital and that her heart had stopped. The EMTs were trying to start it up again with defibrillators.
She said she was eventually stabilized and woke up a few hours later, where she learned her heart had stopped for a few minutes total.
“Everything was fine, but that was like my call because I had gone out of consciousness, out of this world,” Benassi said. “And you come back in and you’re kind of wondering what life is all about, what is life. And you wonder ‘well, I could die again at any moment’ so you want to wake up and enjoy life.”
Inspired by her second chance at life, Benassi decided to take a semester off of college and invest more time into something she loved to do, which was practicing yoga.
Benassi had been introduced to yoga by her mother when she was very young. She said her mother wanted to take a class at Lifetime Fitness when it had opened up. Benassi said she hated it at the time.
She decided to give it another shot in high school and signed up for a few yoga classes and decided to continue learning when she started college in 2011.
Before coming to Webster to study business management, Benassi attended Bellarmine University in Kentucky. She decided to sign up for yoga lessons with one of her newly made friends and started taking the practice more seriously.
“I thought it was really cool, just for fitness,” Benassi said. “I wasn’t into the spirituality, or any effects I could have mentally, maybe meditation or physiological effects. This was a really good fitness module for me.”
After her near death experience in 2012, Benassi said she wanted to study yoga and pursue it as to learn yoga from an original source. She wanted to expand her knowledge of yoga and the meditative techniques associated with it in a more authentic setting than the typical yoga-centric gyms found across the United States.
She looked online for places to study and locations specializing in teaching Sivananda yoga in India. She stumbled upon the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat in the Bahamas and told her mother, Carlin Benassi, she wanted to go there to study.
“At first, I was like ‘oh I don’t know about this,’ a young girl traveling alone to the Bahamas,” Carlin said. “And we talked about it for quite a while, really researching it and looking online and you wanted it to be safe but it sounded like a really cool opportunity.”
Monica said she bought a one-way ticket to the Bahamas. She expected to stay there for a year or two. Haley Thocker, a friend Monica made in college and fellow yoga teacher, said she was proud of Monica’s drive to study yoga at the source.
“It’s an incredible commitment to go to the [retreat], and not only to immerse yourself in the authentic teachings of yoga, but also fully commit to a very disciplined spiritual lifestyle,” Thocker said. “And she did all of this with such grace.”
Monica said the yoga retreat was on Paradise Island, a small island off of the Bahamas. Her daily schedule was very strictly defined. She would wake up every morning at five o’clock to a ringing bell. Then she would meditate and chant for two hours. The rest of the day is comprised of lectures, training and charity work in the form of karma yoga. She and the rest of the students would eat only two meals a day and go to sleep in between 10 p.m. and midnight to begin the cycle anew the next day.
She said the educational system involved the students living with their teachers, eating with their teachers and sleeping in the same house with their teachers.
“It’s a very strict learning system for people who are about to go into a different profession in life or maybe go into monkhood later on,” Monica said.
Monica eventually decided to come back to the U.S. after three months. She said she enjoyed her experience but grew tired of the strict daily regimen.
Carlin said she thinks the time Monica spent at the yoga resort had made her more introspective.
“I think [after] meditating, getting up at five in the morning, staying up til midnight and doing yoga classes and spiritual classes, so I think she was more meditative, more quiet,” Carlin said.
After her time in the Bahamas, Monica began her career as a yoga teacher when she and Thocker got their certificates together in 2013. She began to take advantage of opportunities to travel and teach yoga in different states around the U.S. and even in other countries, including Spain and Nicaragua.
“I think she’s made quite a journey and a commitment to yoga and everything that it comes with,” Carlin said. “And I think it’s done her a lot of good.”