WASHINGTON — “I’ve been getting a lot of, ‘You look great.’ But I’m not tired of hearing it yet,” says 29-year-old yoga teacher Michael Joel Hall as he flashes an endearing grin. A little puffiness on his right cheek and a tiny scar obscured by the stubble of a beard are the only visible reminders of what happened to Hall in the early hours of July 22.
He and his partner, Michael Roike, were returning home from a night out when the couple was jumped. The attackers were scared away by a neighbor, but not before their barrage of punches left Hall with a fractured jaw and other facial injuries. Hall and Roike had just moved to the neighborhood after their D.C. apartment — and most of their possessions — had been destroyed in a fire a month earlier.
To add insult to his injuries, Hall had let his health-care coverage lapse while studying in India this year. So he was faced with covering the ambulance, emergency room, reconstructive surgery and everything else out of pocket. Couple that with not being able to work, and Hall found himself in a rather uncomfortable position.
“I asked the doctor if maybe we didn’t need to do the surgery,” says Hall, who was told that not doing it would leave him with a sunken eye. “All I could think about was how much it was going to cost.”
The yoga community was thinking about that, too. “Instructors are focused on meeting their immediate needs, because no one is getting rich teaching yoga,” says Peg Mulqueen, a friend and fellow yogi who helped organize a fundraising drive for Hall.
In his five years of teaching, Hall has developed a devoted student base with his not-so-serious approach to some seriously hard yoga (he specializes in Ashtanga). So it wasn’t a surprise that the local community rallied around his cause, with studios and students pitching in. No one, however, expected such an overwhelming response, or that it would bring in money and messages from around the globe.
When Hall was in the hospital, he was inundated with letters, flowers, Facebook messages and a queue of visitors carrying balloons, blankets and ice cream. And on July 31, just a few days after he was released, he was able to respond with a post on his website, Midcityyoga.com: “No more donations, please.”
Hall feels uncomfortable publicizing the exact number, but his bills have topped out in the tens of thousands — the two titanium plates in his face were $7,000 each. Every cent has been covered. “I can’t imagine we’ll need any more,” he says. “It’s unreal. I don’t know how to say thank you. You do good work because it’s good work. I didn’t deserve all of this.”
Even with his finances covered, Hall has had a price to pay through the recovery process. His identity is wrapped up in the idea of being strong, flexible and physical. So the doctor’s orders to limit himself to one phone book’s worth of weight seemed almost cruel. “I wasn’t allowed to strain, or have my head lower than my arm. Child’s pose was off-limits,” says Hall, who couldn’t get too wet or too dry to minimize scarring, and had to stay out of the sun so the scars he did have didn’t turn pink.
To avoid looking at his face, Hall grew a bushy beard. “Total Unabomber,” is how Roike describes it. And there were times when Hall considered leaving yoga for the corporate world. “I thought, ‘I’ll get a regular 9-to-5 job, with two weeks off and a benefits package, and call it a day,’” he says.
But he always came back to his practice. “In Ashtanga, it’s what you struggle with that matters,” he says. Showing up every day, he knew he could make what was now hard become manageable, and what was now manageable become easy.
His first big day out was an event in Meridian Hill Park in early August that was originally planned as a fundraiser and turned into a celebration. “I was a good boy and didn’t do anything,” says Hall, who performed his sun salutations from a seated position along with his parents.
He considers his summer ordeal a lesson in attachment. It started with his possessions in the fire, and then the teaching continued: “You like that face of yours? You don’t get that, either. Your practice, the one that’s so pretty? You don’t get that, either.”
Unable to do much other than sit, Hall decided to head to California for a 10-day silent meditation. When he arrived, he recognized that he was losing himself. “I wasn’t allowed to do anything. And I didn’t want to do anything,” Hall says. “That’s not me.” Meditating for 10 hours a day, eyes closed and legs crossed, helped him find the path forward.
As the weeks have gone by, the doctors have rolled back the restrictions, and Hall, who is now back among the ranks of the insured, has found his practice is gradually returning — one pose at a time. “First it was triangle because forward fold was too hard. Right now I’m doing something I couldn’t do every day,” he says.
That includes going back to teaching, which he was able to start again the first week of September. “I have so much empathy right now for students who can’t touch their toes,” he says.
Beyond his calling to the classroom, Hall is feeling a responsibility to turn his tribulations into something positive for the yoga community, which did so much to help him. “There’s no guild, union or organizing body,” says Hall, who’d like to compile an “easy peasy” guide for yoga instructors to help them organize their finances and know their options. “Make sure they don’t end up like me.”
Watching him perform thrusters with 45-pound dumbbells as part of a CrossFit workout before teaching yoga last week, it’s hard to imagine anyone wouldn’t want to end up like Hall. “He’s got such a pretty face, but he’s one of the toughest people I know,” said 30-year-old Lauren Twohig, one of his training buddies.
He’s also living proof of what he told the class later as we twisted ourselves into reverse triangle: “It’s always okay to fall. It’s how we learn to pick ourselves up.”