Lori Bonazzoli is Here to Heal

Zoe Jensen


Yes, this is an article about a yoga teacher. You may roll your eyes, thinking this isn’t for you because you don’t practice yoga, or you don’t know what the big whoop would be about, or you have many (fair) preconceived notions about yoga appropriated in the West. The only way I can fully share why the New Haven yoga teacher Lori Bonazolli is so special is to take you to a class, so let’s go there together now.

I took their 9:30 a.m. class at Soul Sweat New Haven this past December on a pouring, chilly Sunday morning. Ten minutes before class, I walked in like a wet dog, thinking I was early enough to grab a roomy spot. I was wrong. Mats jigsawed the floor, pressed up snug up to the doors, and flattened against the walls. Five minutes before class, there was a waitlist to enter the completely sold-out 50-person capacity space. One minute before class, Lori, who looks like a more tatted, brunette Lady Gaga with a nose bridge piercing, made their way to the center of the studio. Lori had the front half of the room turn around on their mats to face the other students.

“Community has this roundness to it,” Lori said, circling their hips. “Comuuuuunity. It’s great - oh no, George.” Lori looked through the glass door to see a student on the waitlist get turned away. “That is so sad to see him not make it in.” Lori pauses, then centers back. “Community is needed. So often, the West misappropriates yoga into an impersonal practice. We need to be together in this room and outside of it. Let’s get on our hands and knees for cat cow.” And we begin.

It’s not often you see a teacher talk about the history of yoga and acknowledge that practitioners in studios much like this one appropriate the ancient practice. It’s not often that the teacher talking about this is over 45 and white. It’s not often to meet someone who talks about your spine swimming in your torso, “juicing” your legs, imagining your eyeballs rolling down your back to your toes, and, extensively, the eight limbs of yoga. It’s not often you meet a teacher like Lori.

Lori Bonazzoli was born in the heart of New Haven to a deeply Italian family. They were raised in the city until their parents divorced, then split their time between the suburbs and the city until graduating from North Haven High. Lori then entered SUNY Purchase for a liberal arts education but gravitated toward their acting and poetry classes. Lori loved performing onstage and decided to go into musical theater. Lori was thrilled about the chance to follow this calling and applied to change their major to the Purchase acting program.

Lori was denied. Their excitement collapsed. Crushed, Lori dropped out of SUNY Purchase. “It was the first big rejection of my life. I got very depressed, and I went back home.” Lori decided to enroll at the University of Southern Connecticut to finish college. Before transferring, Lori wanted to take a road trip for a few weeks with friends before the summer ended. They took off in a VW bus and drove up and around the country. They ended up at the border of Canada attending a Rainbow Gathering, which since 1972 has held no-admission festivals in remote forests to create spaces free from consumerism, capitalism, and mass media to get closer to world peace.

Lori was enraptured. They found where Lori needed to be, which was not at Southern. Lori called their parents on the road, told them they were not coming back soon, and set off on the bus going from festival to festival. After a few months, a girlfriend offered to let Lori stay with their family in North Carolina.

The family lived in an ashram overseen by Osho, whose story and cult were covered in the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country. Despite Osho running somewhat questionable practices in his communities, Lori had a positive experience with their girlfriend’s family. Lori learned clear communication and safe family boundaries, which they had never experienced before.

Lori also learned meditation, exploring energy and breath. One day, after meditating in the library, their eyes scanned the spines on the shelves and landed on a book on Asana. Lori flipped through the pages, reading about the third limb of yoga and looking at pictures of different poses. Lori followed the movements on the library floor, the book splayed open. At that moment, Lori became their own first yoga teacher.

Today, most people get into yoga through LuluLemon ads, looking up flows on YouTube, or wellness marketing. It’s commonplace to have a yoga studio about 30 minutes away. But in the 1990s, when Lori was at the ashram, they had never heard of or tried yoga. Lori came to it from an authentic place of interest to build their own meditation practice, as it was initially intended to do.

Lori continued studying yoga when they moved to Northern California to live for almost a decade. One day, a woman approached Lori at a woodland rave and gave them a card. “Here, you need this for your butt.” The card had information about Bikram Yoga. Even though Lori already had rear confidence, they went to a class. Lori enjoyed a guided yoga structure, even though it was a more rigid practice than they had at home.

After a rocky West Coast romance and 9/11 wounding the East Coast, Lori felt pulled to move back home. After landing in New Haven, Lori found a yoga studio nearby, which happened to be Bikram-focused. Lori offered to do a work-trade to take classes and then wanted to explore teaching. The studio said Lori could instruct there if they took teacher training with Bikram Choudhury himself.

Lori completed his teacher training, but not without experiencing the pain covered in a different Netflix documentary, Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator. Lori would hide in the back of classes, trying not to be chosen to rub Choudhury’s feet or brush his hair. Lori watched how a practice, designed to heal, hurt so many people.

Despite the pain, Lori got certified to teach yoga. Still, Lori did not enjoy the caveats of being watched by the greater Bikram organization to follow strict “copyrighted” asanas. Lori also faced poor working conditions at the New Haven studio where they were teaching. Lori was fed up. Lori severed ties with Bikram, left a note on the New Haven studio door outlining staff mistreatment, and set off to start their own space.

Lori was ready to guide flows focused on healing others and their own wounds faced through Bikram. Lori wanted to create a space where bodies felt free, safe, and supported through community. They also aimed to teach Hatha yoga classes respectful to the original teachings and not lean into a corporatized version that Bikram and other practitioners built. This culminated in Lori opening “Balanced” in New Haven.

People connected with Lori’s vision. Balanced became a community space where people could drop in and practice, regardless of whether a class was in session. A friend of Lori’s offered to take a group from Balanced to a yoga retreat to Costa Rica, and Lori was in. There, Lori fell in love with the warm weather, nature, and a person who brought them back to the country again and again. For eight years, Lori balanced their life between Costa Rica and New Haven for months at a time.

After Lori broke up with their partner in Costa Rica, Lori considered leaving the country for good and staying put in New Haven. However, COVID began to rear its head, and Lori wanted to be stuck in the sunshine rather than on the gloomy East Coast. Lori flew to Costa Rica before COVID put everyone on lock down and ran Balanced through classes online.

Things got rough. Lori tried teaching a personal practice through an impersonal screen, far away from their community. Balanced took a hit from the pandemic and had to shut its doors. Lori began to fall into unhealthy habits, particularly worsening alcoholism. Lori observed this destructive pattern and knew they would have to quit eventually.

That moment came when Lori’s dad called them to say that Lori’s stepmom was dying of cancer. Lori flew back to the U.S. to help their dad and stepmom. Taking care of their stepmom was a wake-up call for Lori to pursue a life worth living, which did not include alcohol. “That was almost three years ago. I haven’t been alcohol-free the whole time, but this past year of being sober has saved my life.”

Lori was there as their stepmom passed and was moved by the transcendence of death. "It was almost like you could see that she had become part of another world, she was so beautiful." Lori wanted to help more people through experiences similar to their stepmom's and guide them through their final days. Lori enjoyed caring for their stepmom's body, ensuring she was as comfortable and respected as possible. That moment inspired Lori to become a death doula and an end-of-life nurse.

Lori knows it sounds abnormal to get excited about helping people die. “Yeah, it’s weird. I was side-eying myself, like, you want to do this again?” But Lori recognized that just like yoga, ushering the soul out of the body is one of the highest acts of service. After their step-mom passed, Lori had to decide whether to open a new studio, or go back to school to help people die. Lori decided to go back to school. “The best thing I can do is breathe with the breaths that remain.”

Lori also went back to teaching yoga and joined Soul Sweat New Haven as an instructor, which the studio founder Courtney Eliza was inspired to open when she was a student of Lori's at Balanced. However, Lori's new studious alcohol-free chapter has made them more introverted, and Lori feels uncomfortable at times in front of large, crowded classes. Lori shared that sometimes they shake when they see many students who have signed up for their classes, and worry when the practice becomes less personal.

Lori worries because this yoga, this death doula work, this life that Lori was called to do is to heal, and that takes a personal connection. Lori wants their students to feel as safe as possible to express themselves, address past wounds, and be present in our bodies.

I asked Lori what four poses or limbs of yoga Lori would prescribe to the world if they could. Lori would recommend a closed and open twist, an inversion like legs up the wall, pranayama, and savasana. Lori said that watching their students go into that final pose is blissful. "It is so beautiful. Seeing students move into savasana moves the poet and performer in me. At the end of the last note, everybody sits. There is nowhere like that on Earth."

Fittingly, savasana is also called corpse pose. Lori has a reverence for the tranquility of both being fully present in the body and no longer present. Lori feels drawn to life's guarantees: one day, you will live, and one day, you will die. Lori is dedicated to being a positive part of these two essential aspects we all experience.

This dedication to healing should be a regular part of Westernized yoga, and clearly, communities want informed, thoughtful practices. Lori's decades of teaching have brought them to a place where rooms fill to be a part of their healing practice, and Lori is grateful.

Lori ends their classes with a short speech that sounds like a poem. Lori guides their students to express gratitude - to themselves, the other people in the class, the ancient practice of yoga, and the Earth, "the holy platform on which we are granted to practice." Lori shares their hope that the work done in this room helps every being on Earth be happy and free. "Thank you, thank you, thank you."