So far, QSaltLake’s Fabulous People have come from all walks of life but most seem to have one thing in common: almost all of them have spent time in California. In yoga teacher and Queer Spirit co-founder John Cottrell’s case, he was born there – in Oakland, to be exact. And he came to the Land of Zion in 1994, like so many Fabulous People do, in search of work. In this case, a year-long psychology internship at Valley Mental Health.
“I was very attracted to the city,” Cottrell recalls. “I met some good friends, I got a good job after the internship and I really liked the climate here, the four seasons. And the peace was just right here, compared to the bay area. It became a kind of a natural home for me.”
Cottrell settled down in his new “natural home” and his post-graduate job at Project Reality, a program in Salt Lake City that helps people struggling with substance abuse and drug addiction. Initially, Cottrell, who holds a PhD in clinical psychology, admits that he wanted to work with young people, including college students with homesickness issues (“I wanted something easy!” he jokes). But thanks to his internship, where he spent a lot of time in the drug and alcohol unit at University Hospital, Cottrell found himself working primarily with people addicted to heroin, guiding their medical treatment plans, running group therapy sessions and giving clients “one on one” therapy sessions.
“These were folks who really wanted help and were coming in to get help,” he says of his time there. “About 95% were there voluntarily. It helped me personally to look at the human condition and what we do to cope, what we do under stress, what we do with loss and failure. With these folks it was addiction. That’s how they coped. It made me look at my own coping mechanisms – what do I do with loss and grief? I think it was a growing experience for me, and very humbling. I realized we’re all the same, we just have diff styles of taking care of ourselves.”
While seeing patients down town, Cottrell also found time to work out. And soon, he says, fitness and exercise became another passion.
“Even before I moved here, I’d always been attracted to movement and dance,” he explains. “In high school and as a grad student I performed and did plays and musicals, the kind of typical stuff. After I moved here [I got] a little more into fitness.”
Cottrell started out with TV exercise programs in the morning before work. And then he joined a local gym in order to pursue his interest in aerobics further (“it was like dancing,” he says). He hired a personal trainer, who eventually let him teach weight and aerobic classes at her gym. And then he discovered his first yoga class.
“Yoga was just something I’d always wanted to try,” he recalls. “So I went to a class and fell instantly in love with it.” He studied the ancient spiritual and physical discipline for a year before receiving his certification to teach it. Using his experience as a choreographer in graduate school, Cottrell also began a The G-Force Dance Project, a community dance troupe for “men and women, boys and girls, all ages” to come together to perform. The group was active in 1999 and 2000, performing publicly and doing movement workshops at various conferences, including one for lay chaplins at Primary Children’s Hospital who work with families with terminally ill children.
“I did a movement exercise with them about death and dying and really got them to – they were able to verbalize what they thought they’d say [to a family with a dying child], but sometimes the body can speak more than words can do,” he explains.
Cottrell’s passion for psychology and his passion for movement were beginning to merge. And after he took a job as the Harm Reduction Project’s program director, the two finally came together forever.
“I’d always wondered what it would be like doing yoga full time,” Cottrell says. When visiting Lifetime Fitness in South Jordan with a friend, he decided to find out. “I talked to a trainer, and they were hiring and wanted someone to coordinate their department,” he explains. Cottrell immediately put in an application and now he coordinates the gym’s pilates and yoga programs.
“I’m still using my psychology background while I teach yoga,” he says. “It’s still about the human condition. It’s still about being present and mindful and taking care of ourselves.” He even compares his one on one yoga sessions with therapy, because he also talks to his clients about their “emotional issues and life issues” when putting together a yoga routine for them.
These days, Cottrell also brings his unique blend of therapeutic yoga to Queer Spirit, a group devoted to helping gay men unlearn harmful spiritual, behavioral and emotional habits and grow together as a community. Cottrell started the group two years ago with Salt Lake City therapist Jerry Buie after the two men discovered they had similar ideas about creating such a group for the gay community. The group holds a seasonal retreat at the gorgeous Wind Walker Ranch in Spring City, Utah. And when they get together, Cottrell leads the men through movement exercises – sometimes yoga, sometimes dance – to help them reach a better understanding of themselves and of their individual journeys as gay spiritual men.
“I think it’s another eye-opener, another enlightening experience, seeing that something which I feel is very simple – like movement which isn’t too much and a little yoga practice and talking – does so much and is so much for people,” Cottrell says, adding that he has seen his work change men for the better. “For me personally it’s been wonderful. It’s hard to put it into words. It’s sometimes unbelievable.”