Finding salvation after struggling with chronic pains and toxic situations.
My name is Ysa Pérez, I’m a portraiture and documentary photographer from Rochester New York. I’ve been a gypsy for the last 6 years coming from New York to London to Los Angeles to currently, Miami, Florida.
I didn’t do sports as a kid, and fitness only came into my life a few years ago. The summer of 2014, a culmination of realizations came to me. I was in pain. Mental pain stemming from depression since I was 10, but a lot of physical back pain that grew through years of being a photographer, sitting at a photography desk at my day job at GQ Magazine, carrying gear up and down those New York subway stairs, and just in general, an overall lack of understanding about my body’s structure and what it needed.
I was living abroad with a partner that smoked as much weed as I did, sat on the couch as I did, lived in the clubs as I did, and wasn’t really interested in self-improvement. I knew in the back of my mind that I was struggling for years with mental health and lightly looked at how it affected me, but I never went deep.
Finally, I went to an acupuncturist and he straight up said “You just need to be stronger,” and due to my isolated lifestyle in London and inability to legally work, I became fixated on the gym. It became my salvation. You couldn’t pay me to go to a yoga class in my early 20s, I had zero interest—then suddenly I was signing up for three classes a day when I started to see how much my body needed. The concept of stretching and your body holding pain is something I literally had to learn from youtube. I began educating myself. I realized I was in chronic pain due to years of physical stress on my body, lack of flexibility and stretching, toxic situations, and avoiding my personal issues.
My world as I knew it fell apart. I had put two years towards living abroad with my partner, and thirty days after getting married, he abandoned me. Two days later I had no choice but to leave my things in his country and found myself in a surreal rock bottom.
I lost my new gym routine I had created there; I stopped yoga and physical activity completely, began eating like shit again and began to undo all the work. Lost, heartbroken, and in more pain. After 9 or so months of being a ghost, I moved to Los Angeles for some life rehab. Since I’m an east coast resident, and my world was upside down, I thought, “fuck it why not LA?” The change of scenery brought me inspiration and hope. My urge to work out kicked in again and I signed up at the West Hollywood Crunch.
I was there, day in and day out, to the point where people would ask me, “Are you a teacher?” I would laugh thinking “If you only knew I do this to keep my sanity.” Aside from that, because my body was in such constant pain all the time, the only way I felt good or dare I say ‘normal’ was after hours of physical activity. Going hard was my therapy. The more I moved to combat years of a sedentary lifestyle, the more my muscles finally started to take it in. I was undoing all the trauma.
My body looked great again, but my mind was still unresolved. I was extremely stuck with the events that had transpired I never received closure from. The only times I was at peace was during movement—I was keeping myself busy to escape the present moment. I was in survival mode.
I got invited to attend Budokon Yoga Training in Miami Florida and I traded the two-week expensive tuition with my photography. I legitimately thought I’d do yoga on the beach for two weeks and get back to LA as soon as—but unbeknownst to me, I entered a unique martial arts world I wasn’t expecting. It was a system of yoga plus martial arts plus a zen mentality—something I desperately needed to address. They hold training camps several times a year and I lived in a community themed house for a month with 30 plus students from around the world. The work involves yoga, calisthenics, stand up striking, jiu-jitsu/grappling and overall mobility deriving from animal movement.
Instead of learning how to do ‘yoga tricks’ I ironically found myself having to deal with the mental problems I had avoided for years. In Budokon, one of the pillars is the mind. We would address it every morning in a circle of students sharing their stories. What I realized was I was telling the same story for years, a broken record on repeat, sabotaging myself.
Two weeks turned into a month, 8 to 10-hours a day, training intensively to value the photography I was bringing in. I saw the value of finally having to face mental demons through physical work. My teacher is unconventional, and was screaming in my face to get it together when I was playing “small.” He picked up on my weak mind and constantly pushed me to be the fighter that I actually was. I never had a coach or even a father, so having someone force me to ‘look at my shit’ was truly life changing.
April 5th, 2016
I completed a martial arts test resulting in breaking boards for the first time in my life and getting my first martial arts belt wrapped around my waist. When I faced that board cocking my first to punch through, I thought of everything that I had gone through up until 28 years—and when I broke it and saw my fellow team around me doing the same, my mind was awakened. I knew I couldn’t go back to the New York rat race zoned out on the L train on my phone, and I ended up staying summer 2016 in Miami to help continue the brand. Since then, I witnessed two training camps and saw other students go through what I went, and began to document and photograph it all.
The 180 turn I took to this day still blows my mind. I used to live backstage at shows in toxicity and suddenly I was learning how to rear naked choke people out. But it wasn’t about anger or violence—martial arts taught me how to cope with life, how to slow my mind down and accept what is and what isn’t. Years of having a reactive mind had affected my friendships, relationships, whether work related, romantic—the discipline of martial arts allowed me to see it was all connected.
With a brain like mine, I learned fitness was a requirement to stay sane, to stay on track. For years, I craved stability through unhealthy relationships, bad lifestyle choices, constantly wanting to escape—but staying still is now something I consciously work at and it’s giving me a second chance to live my life right.
Original UNDO Mag Issue 6 title: YSA Pérez
Written by YSA Pérez
Photos by YSA Pérez