I had to write an assignment for school recently that ended up being about my journey to yoga. The assignment was to write about some aspect of your identity and before I knew it, I had words on the page. Enjoy.
I am not a traditional yogi. I’m not lithe and graceful. I’m not a beautiful blond in a handstand, flat stomach and perfect hair, glowing with peace and happiness for my one million Instagram followers. I don’t go running on the weekends and only wear Lululemon. I’m short and stumpy and cannot get my foot behind my head. I came to yoga in my late 20s and early 30s when anxiety was taking over my life and my therapist recommended a local class to help manage it. I came to yoga because I needed it to breathe. I eventually decided to teach yoga because I realized that there needed to be more plump, inflexible yogis out there to show people that the whole point of yoga is NOT to look like some uber-flexible 22 year old, but the point is to gain mobility, a sense of self, a break from the everyday rush of things, and maybe some spiritual grounding in a practice that reminds you that life is exactly that – a practice.
I always thought of myself as a confident person, but debilitating anxiety and terrible, unsupportive (borderline malicious) bosses throughout my 20s chipped away at my self-esteem. By the time my grandmother died, a moment unlike any I had ever experienced before, I was a complete mess. I was drowning in failure and to numb out the frenetic stress and anxiety I was drinking wine every night like it was water. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t focus. I was at one of the lowest points of my life. Then one day, after I revealed my inner monologue of anxiety and sense of failure to my family, I finally dragged myself to therapy. I loved my fruit-loop of a therapist. She had these two adorable dogs she brought to her office every day, a wolfhound and a whippet. They somehow understood their job and were forces of kindness at every session, snuggling with me while I struggled to understand how anyone could breathe without feeling anxious about it. Dogs somehow make everything simpler. My therapist was this wild yet calming, untamed creature who somehow understood me and my need to relearn how to breathe and function. She taught me about Buddhism and meditation and was the person who suggested I go to yoga. It would change my life.
Yoga is not a religion. It has its roots in many spiritual disciplines, a dash of Hinduism here, some Buddhism there, but it is not in itself a religion. Sure, there can be chanting and the poses all have names in Sanskrit (an ancient language of India), but this doesn’t make it a religion. When I first came to yoga I just thought I wanted to work out the anxiety, to figure out a way to breathe so I didn’t feel like my head would explode at any moment from the sheer stress of living. I would go to class and move through the motions at first, feeling so uncoordinated and out of breath. How the hell does this woman bend her body in that way? Are you kidding me with that arm balance stuff? Again and again the teacher would say, “your pose might not look like my pose,” and in my head I was thinking back, “well, screw you then.” My first class I wanted miracles. I wanted to be fixed, to not be broken any longer. But things don’t happen like that. When you’ve spent years building walls, they don’t come down in just one day. I came to yoga a failing perfectionist and it was a solid year before my ego slowly chipped away, as yoga will do, and the meaning of the teacher’s words finally sunk in.
I bought an unlimited class pass and was going to yoga a minimum of two times a week, but more often then not was there three of four times a week as the magic of the practice started to work its way through my body and my mind. I was slowly starting to sleep better and my body was regaining strength I had lost to disuse and stress. You hear the phrase sometimes, “I was beginning to feel more like myself,” but that wasn’t really the case for me. I wasn’t beginning to feel more like myself. I was beginning to feel like a new version of myself. One with more confidence and an understanding of how my failures were not really failures at all. They were human moments because humans aren’t perfect. Humans are this beautiful, messy, wonderful, infuriating ball of existence and it is ok to falter. I understood that my pose was not going to look like my teacher’s. That my body was my body, with all of its amazing qualities and limitations. No, my t-rex arms will never be long enough to grab each hand behind my back in cow-face pose, but that’s ok. That’s what yoga props are for- to help you where you need help, as long as you’re willing to accept it.
As the words and movement of the practice started to truly take hold of my mindset, I realized that I wanted to share this with the world. The magic that was happening inside me needed to be shared and brought to others. I needed to give to others what this practice had given me. I signed up for a 200-hour teacher training program that would meet for nine weekends over the course of nine months at a beautiful studio in North Haverhill, NH. The studio was on a working farm and one wall was all windows, looking out over the fields where the Highland cows were grazing or the geese were walking around. I knew after the first class I went to there to meet the teacher that it was exactly where I needed to be.
Teacher training is not just about learning the poses to instruct others safely. Teacher training is as much a road to self-discovery as it is a program to help people teach yoga. Your success in a program is dependent on two main variables: your willingness to go deep within yourself and discover who you are and what truly matters to you, and having a teacher who is the right fit to help you journey down that path. Without the right teacher, you may pass the course but you will not be truly prepared to teach the practice. Teaching yoga is about giving, every class taught requires you to give a part of yourself away to your students, so you need to understand who you are so you know what you have to give.
When I met Carolyn, I knew she was the teacher I needed in my life. Carolyn is my polar opposite: tall, slim, beautiful in an interesting way, flexible to the point of inspiring envy. Yet despite these oppositions, we clicked. She is uncompromising, but not in a way that discourages. She holds the line when it is vital, but also provides space when you need it. Her confidence is contagious as is her kindness. I knew from the first meeting that I would learn from her. In yoga there is a sense that the universe has your back and will move things in front of you, both obstacles and advantages, when the time is right. The universe had my back in this case.
As seems to be the theme in my life, shit tends to hit the fan all at once and from all sides. Part of this is related to my Go Big or Go Home nature – I never do things halfway and most often go overboard, expecting too much of myself and then struggling to get through (a common aspect of perfectionism). When I signed up for teacher training, I was in the midst of grad school. I figured I was only doing online classes at the time, so I should be able to balance grad school, working full-time, and teacher training. The problem with this sort of thinking is that it leaves no room for anything else to get complicated. My very first weekend of training, my beloved cat died on Saturday night. His death wasn’t a surprise, he had been in decline, but it was devastating and the grief was instant and debilitating. The month of my first week of training, work became intolerable. My office mate went on maternity leave and I ended up having to do all of her work, my own, and most of my boss’s work. I was buried. Add in travel and house guests, and well, it was not an auspicious start, but through it all I knew that I would not regret teacher training and needed to stick with it.
Things didn’t get easier in my life throughout the training, but each weekend at the studio improved my life in a multitude of ways. I started to become more confident as a teacher and a person, my voice unwavering in the front of the room, my pulse steady as I moved students from pose to pose and not concerned about always filling the silence. I began to understand myself and what was important to me, truly beginning to understand my purpose – I was meant to be a teacher, it is where I felt at home when I could let go of the anxiety and desire to be perfect. I became more aware of how important it is to be accepting of ourselves and where we are at any given point in our lives, that we are exactly where we need to be, no matter what is going on around us – my heels will never reach the floor in downward facing dog, it’s ok, that doesn’t make me a bad teacher or a failure, that’s just where I am in the here and now and I can give my students the freedom to accept where they are too. I became a better teacher and student, and understanding how those are ultimately one and the same.
The biggest breakthrough came the last weekend of the training. As part of the ‘final exam’ you teach an entire yoga class to the rest of the trainees and the teacher observes. I had been having a really terrible time at work, feeling like I was failing in every way, and this caused my anxiety to spike to levels only seen before yoga entered my life. I had an event the night before as well, over-extending myself and burning the candle at both ends. I was so nervous about the practicum, despite my teacher’s assurance that she wasn’t worried about my passing, that I couldn’t sleep the night before. I walked into the studio to teach my class and I could feel myself coming apart at the seams. Then it happened, my tired brain jumbled my planned class and I KNEW I had failed. I taught the rest of the class with my head screaming at me the entire time, “YOU FAILED.” By the time I closed the class with a final, “Namaste,” I was in tears and bolted from the room.
See, perfectionism is a nasty habit. It’s pernicious. It invades your psyche and makes you think that you can’t be doing well if you’re not perfect. It’s especially harmful when you must operate in a culture of perfectionism, such as where I worked. When I’m feeling good, anxiety in check, sleeping well, breathing fully, I can keep the perfectionism at bay, it is ok to do ‘enough.’ If things are not in order, it creeps in like a plague, taking hold and rendering me sick and helpless. When the tears had stopped and I returned from my walk around the farm, my teacher said nothing to me other than, “We need to talk in a bit, your class was great and I need to know what’s going on in that head of yours.”
This is a perfect example of why you need to have great teachers in your life. She got me. This is also why I needed a practice such as yoga in my life, because just the fact that it is called a practice is a clue to its power. It can remind you that not every day is going to go well. There will be great days where you feel like you get everything right, and there will be days where nothing goes as planned. Life is a practice where every day is a chance to do over, try something new, expand who you are and be a better version of yourself. There will be days when things will be completely out of your control and you just have to accept the circumstances and do the best with what you can control. Carolyn understood and she understood the words I needed to hear. I had taught a lovely class that hit all the right points. I had passed with flying colors. I was elated, but she didn’t let me off the hook at that, we talked through what happened and I left that day with a better understanding of myself and what I still needed to work on. I needed to work on changing my default mode of perfectionism, because it would only hinder me if I let it continue, even on the days when my threshold has been reached and I’m just trying to survive, if anything, those are the days where I needed it most. I needed to believe in myself no matter what, and to remember that the students looking at me for guidance do not know what my class plan was and if I can just keep going rather than faltering at the first sign of mistake, they will still have a great class and I can walk away with my head held high.
I left teacher training a better version of myself, and I continue to bring that version to my yoga classes. This better version works hard to not hold herself up to the standards of others, or even her own impossible standards. I make a point every class to share my own limitations with my students, “If you can believe it, the ‘perfect version’ of this pose says that your head will touch your knee. For me, that’s never going to happen because my body is just not constructed that way, and it’s ok if that’s the same for you. Any amount of the pose is the pose.” Any amount of the pose is the pose, it’s something that Carolyn said over and over again during class. It stuck in my head and it became part of my own vocabulary because it is so true, both in yoga as in life. I want my students to understand that it is not about being able to force your body into the ‘perfect pose’ because if you have to force your body that means it is not the perfect pose for YOU. Your perfect pose is making sure to have the pose meet you where you are in that moment and accepting that as where you should be that day. You don’t need to be slim and young to do yoga or anything you really want to do in your life. Accepting who you are at any given moment is far more important than hitting some standard set by others. Yoga taught me, and continues to teach me, about acceptance. It is an ongoing practice that has improved every day of my life.