“It was just… a quiet space. Sometimes that’s what you need.” Libby Hancock returned to these words several times as she sought to describe her Bikram Yoga experience. Forced into a position of finding her “new normal,” the studio has been a much needed source of peace for Libby since losing her daughter in an automobile accident caused by a drunk driver.
HOW THEIR BIKRAM STORY BEGAN
In the summer of 2014, 15-year-old Katie Hancock asked the leader of her youth group, Sue, if she could join her for an early morning Bikram Yoga class. Katie could be quite persuasive, making it hard for Sue to resist.
“She invited herself, not thinking of money and such,” Libby recalled with a light laugh. “When Katie said she wanted to go, Sue replied with, ‘No you don’t; I go at 5:30in the morning!’”
But Katie managed to persuade her, and of course, other youth group members wanted to join them, even though it meant getting up at 5:30 in the morning—not a popular practice for teens over summer break. Katie was all in from her first class. She went every morning, sometimes taking two classes in a row! She quickly signed up for the 30-day challenge and committed to completing her challenge by July 25th (read Libby's story here).
“She wanted to go, I did not,” Libby recalls. “The idea of purposely putting myself in a 104-degree room to exercise sounded insane! But Katie loved the entire experience. Joanne’s dad even began calling Katie “Sunshine” because she bounced in the door smiling really big even at such an early hour. Going to class made her so happy.”
Before long, it was the 29th day of Katie’s 30-day challenge—July 24th. Being a state holiday didn’t keep Katie from yoga. At the end of class, Katie added another green sticker to her chart, just as she had done the 28 classes prior. Just one spot left! It was then that she let Sue in on a little secret—she had a pink sticker hiding under a tissue box, which she was saving for the next day and that all-important final spot on her challenge chart.
The pink sticker wasn’t the only thing Katie shared. Sue felt an obvious shift in Katie that morning. Instead of her usual sassy self, Katie was more serious and reflective, discussing how much she loved her family and how thankful she was for her religious belief that her family is forever. While these aren’t abnormal thoughts for a child this age to have, it isn’t something you often hear them openly discussing, so the entire experience stuck out to Sue in a very profound way.
Only hours later… Katie lost her life. She was with her father and brothers, driving to a family BBQ, when they were hit by a drunk driver. Katie was killed instantly.
“She came home from yoga and worked on her math. Then it was time to go to the barbecue and… she was gone…,” Libby said, as she paused in silence.
THAT LITTLE PINK STICKER
The next day, in a giant showing of solidarity, all of those in Katie’s youth group joined Sue for that all-important 30th day in the studio. They completed Katie’s challenge in her honor (see story here). Upon completion, Sue took that little pink sticker out from hiding and placed it on Katie’s chart. The challenge was complete. Sue delivered the chart to Libby later that day—a gift she’ll forever cherish.
IN THE END, ONLY KINDNESS MATTERS
At Katie’s funeral, Libby and her family were taken aback by the number of guests in attendance. Over and over and over again, people shared stories of how much Katie’s kindness had meant to them. At the young and sometimes awkward age of 15, Katie seemed wise beyond her years. She didn’t limit herself to social boundaries that seem all too common in junior high. Instead, she was friendly to all she came in contact with, which revealed itself at her funeral and clearly left a deep and meaningful impression with many.
“She made a difference with the few hours she was here. She made a difference. She was just being kind. It was amazing to us that it made that much of a difference. You never know what a smile can do for someone.”
It was the day after Katie’s funeral that Libby first set foot in the hot room—a space that seemed crazy to her only weeks before.
“I went Aug. 1st… the day after the funeral. Katie had found her passion at the studio, and I needed to see why. Her absence was a huge hole in my life, and I was looking for anything that might help soothe my soul. I was just trying to function, so I asked Sue to take me to yoga. I had no idea what I was doing. I’d never done yoga of any kind before. That’s when I met Joanne and her dad.”
Libby immediately picked up on the fact that the hot room wasn’t the real source of warmth at Bikram Yoga—it’s the sense of community and the kindness that make it such an inviting place.
“Like Katie and for Katie, I went to the 6 AM class, and I just kept going that summer. When school started, I started going at night. I’ve always liked to exercise, and I recognize the value in it, but it was sooo quiet there. It was unlike any exercise I’d known. DVDs and gym classes aren’t restful at all; they’re loud and chaotic. Here, it was so calm and so quiet but also so hard. For an hour and a half, I didn’t think. I was just trying to hold the poses. For the first time since the accident, my mind was quiet. My tense muscles relaxed. I felt some peace.”
While Libby found great value in the quiet time, she also found it to be a very different experience at the end of each session. Suddenly, the thoughts would burst forth.
“At the end, it’s so hard. The thoughts come flooding in. I’m here. Katie isn’t. She should be here instead of me.”
As painful as those thoughts were, Libby also found the end of each class to be a gift that’s defies logic or full explanation.
“I would just lay there until my temperature would kind of return to normal. I would then turn to the windows and pray and I’d talk to Katie. There were a number of times I heard her. When I say ‘heard,’ it’s more like I felt the words… felt her voice. It’s like my heart heard it. It’s not logical, but it can’t be. It defies logic. I just needed to know if she was okay, and this gave me reassurance.”
As Libby began this experience, she and the instructors exchanged very few words. They weren’t needed. Libby found the unspoken offered so much more.
“The instructors were extremely helpful,” Libby recalled with gratitude. “Sometimes words aren’t what you need. When you have to deal with this kind of loss, most people don’t know how to go about helping you through it. There just aren’t right things to say. There were times I’d just start crying and couldn’t stop. One such time, I had to leave the hot room because I was crying so hard. Louis brought me my water and a towel and said, ‘you need to drink so you don’t get dehydrated,’ and then he just went back inside. Nothing more needed to be said. Over the months, instructors and staff members just knew what I was trying to come to grips with, so they’d check on me in subtle ways and otherwise leave things be. They’d give me a hug or squeeze my shoulders. Words weren’t necessary. Twice that I remember, I lost track of time as I sat facing the window at the end of class. In both instances, different instructors simply brought me a towel, wrapped it around me, and walk back out. That’s all they needed to do. It was a safe, quiet space.”
Libby continued, “The shock I was in from losing Katie wore off in Oct. I had already started the Slow & Steady Challenge (six months committed to attending class three times a week). Because I work for a school, I had to trade the 6 AM classes for night classes. There were a few times that were really hard. Sometimes I’d cry the entire drive there. Sometimes I’d make it through part of the class and then have to step out because I’d cry. Sometimes I’d get all the way through before the tears set in. But it was a place Katie loved, so I kept coming back. It just came to be a place that I could… be. An hour and a half, not thinking. Silence. Quiet. One voice. That was hugely helpful.”
Dealing with such a traumatic loss is emotionally draining, but it’s also tremendously hard physically. Bikram Yoga helped Libby’s body find some much needed strength as well.
“I literally had to keep myself from falling down all the time, and my muscles were aching. I didn’t realize how much physical pain was there until I realized I could exhale at yoga. I didn’t have that kind of release elsewhere. It’s just me and just about me. I could sit or not. Or work or not. Or walk out if I had to. I didn’t have anyone asking anything of me. I could just exist for a little bit. It’s a wonderful way to recharge and go back home stronger for my family.”
HONORING AN ANGEL
July is an extra hard month for Libby and her family. She refers to the day of Katie’s death as her angel-versary. This summer, as a way of helping her through this difficult time, Libby committed to the 60 Day Challenge, setting a goal to finish on July 25th, just as Katie had done.
“We have a family reunion next week,” Libby said as she trailed off. “It will be our last first thing without Katie. I knew I had to finish the challenge a week-and-a-half early to also attend the reunion. My goal was the 25th, but then I got sick. I finished on the 27th. I wanted to finish in a class with Joanne. She’s just been so helpful and kind and generous. It meant a lot to me to do this with her. Bikram Yoga… It’s a whole feeling. It’s a community. It’s a support group. Even when nobody knows anything, you feel the support. I know I’m not the only one struggling. We all have things, and we support each other.”
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house today,” Joanne said, describing the day Libby completed her challenge and received her sweatshirt. “We’re so proud of Libby!”
For nearly two hours, Libby shared every detail of her story with great pain in her voice. Then she’d recall something funny about her sweet girl and a light laugh would emerge. As she spoke of Katie’s kind character, the voice of a proud mama would come shining through. It wasn’t until she said these words that the emotion became too much and tears began to fall:
“Knowing somebody remembers… It’s three years. and you wonder if people even remember Katie. Joanne does. She still asks how I am. Sometimes, I’ll tell her I’m not doing so well and need a hug. She gives me a hug and that’s enough. She remembers and she cares. The studio is such a good place.”
Libby was a little unsure about being a spotlight in this way. It was obvious in talking with her that she doesn’t want this to be about her. She spent far more time sharing stories about Katie, whom she describes as her “camouflage princess” and her “girl of 1,000 faces.” Every name had a story, and every story came back to Katie’s brilliant character. She had such life and experience and wisdom in her 15 young years. It was obvious Katie got much of her strong character from her mama. Libby didn’t have to say this. It was felt in the messages she shared and the warmth in her voice. It’s easy to see why Joanne finds their story inspiring. It’s one of life lived in kindness. It’s one of the most unimaginable heartache. It’s one of finding small ways in each day to pick up the pieces and keep moving forward. Doing so takes tremendous strength and courage. We can all be inspired by Libby’s bravery, as well as by young Katie’s wise-beyond-her-years outlook on life. Kindness is what’s important. What special messages these loving souls share!
Libby also has a strong drive to take what she’s been through and use it to try and help others. It’s her goal in sharing her intimate story and what gives her the strength to be featured here.
“Everybody has bad things. You have to deal with other people’s choices. That’s what life is about. And it’s about how you do that. If such an experience helps you help someone else, at least it did something good. Let it be for something. Let it not be a complete and total loss. If we never share, we can’t help each other.”
In the spirit of helping, the Hancock family has an important message for all who read this.
“If we have just one thing to tell others, it’s this: slow down. If all of this has taught us anything, it’s that nothing really matters except family and loved ones. So slow down and enjoy being in the moment with the ones who make you happy.”