April 5, 2010

The Less than Glamorous Adventures of an L.A. Yoga Teacher ~ Andrea Marcum, with Patrick Tobin

The Good, The Bad and the Flexible.

When you become a yoga instructor, there isn’t an instruction manual that you can pull out when things start to get a little—how do I phrase this delicately—unusual. There’s no index you can flip to: Client Hygiene Issues, page 175; Potential Hostage Situation, page 57; Reality T.V. Show Trying to Shoot in Class Without Proper Permits, page 221.

(And yes, to answer the question, these have all happened to me.)

When I first started out, I never ever thought I’d need such a manual. Back then, my life as a Los Angeles yoga instructor seemed simple. It was all about that “ah-ha” bliss I was feeling, connecting mind to body to spirit. Helping people from all walks of life and levels of physical ability improve their lives. I was the L.A. yoga teacher cliché: had my teaching been a movie, it would have been filmed through a shimmering, golden filter, a backup chorus of Tibetan monks providing the soundtrack.

And then…well, you know, reality began to intrude on my fantasy.

Emails from students complaining about other students was one of the early reality checks.

“So-and-so smells bad, can you tell her?”

“So-and-so grunts too loud, can you tell him to take it down a notch?”

At first I was a little disheartened that my students couldn’t just get along—the complaints felt so junior high coming from such a well-intentioned, meaning-to-be enlightened community.

But the deeper truth was that most of the time, these email complaints were right. So-and-so did smell a little funky. So-and-so did sometimes sound like a creature from Jurassic Park.

I tried to deal with these situations in the best way I knew how, which turned out to be avoiding them. When that (remarkably) didn’t work, I tried making gentle, vague announcements to my classes in hopes that the offenders would recognize themselves and correct their behavior. “Remember that the studio is a shared environment,” I said during one of my “scoldings.”

Here’s the deal. All of us, even those with a “highly evolved consciousness”, have our blind spots. Mine was that I thought I could run a studio without any bumps in the road. I tried so hard to create the perfect environment for my students that it was hard not to take it personally when things didn’t go the way I wanted to.

Case in point: during one class I noticed the sound of a police helicopter was growing louder by the minute. I discreetly increased the volume of my voice, but by that point the chopper was clearly hovering directly over my building. We all went to the windows—those gorgeous, big windows that had sold me on the location—and looked down at the street, where a large SWAT team was surrounding the building.

Needless to say, quite the unorthodox challenge to your drishti (focus point) when you find out that said SWAT team is pursuing a suspect. Many thoughts ran through my mind. What was I supposed to do? How could I keep my students from freaking out? And most importantly, how does a criminal on the lam end up in a Miracle Mile commercial building known more for its beautiful architecture than as a haven for lawbreakers?

The universe just shrugged its shoulders and pretended it didn’t know what I was talking about. Like a party hostess holding a baking sheet filled with burned mini quiches, I was forced to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, and to point to it as yet another challenge to our pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses). Suspect in custody, we finished class, said our namastes, and I gently reminded everyone to wipe up their sweat before they left.

When you open yourself up to absurdity, you also open yourself up to incredible fun and adventure.

I’ve been able to take groups of students to some of the most fantastic places in the world. I add to my nametag “travel agent/camp counselor,” and my students use their yoga mats as magic carpets and see the world. It is a chance to stretch beyond their bodies and wrap their hearts and minds around new landscapes, cultures, tastes, smells and ideas. Last year I took a group of students to the beautiful island of Bali. One morning we woke up at 4 am and went to the base of a volcano for sunrise yoga. With the sun peeking out from the eastern horizon—Monet pinks and lavenders—we literally swooned from the ethereal beauty. Just as I was about to start our incredibly inspired sun salutations, one of my students who’d brought her iPhone leaned into my ear and whispered “Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett died”…

Ah, Hollywood…seems it’s never all that far away…

The incredibly talented people I teach in this town have also allowed me to go places I would never have expected that have nothing to do with yoga. A far more glamorous, and hip Andrea is a lead character in Joanna Philbin’s upcoming young adult novel “The Daughters” (Andrea’s a photographer in the book). And I actually am in a movie …Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg.” (Nope, not as a yoga teacher, just as a partygoer, and no Tibetan monk chorus in this one.)

I’ve learned that a yoga instructor has a longer job description than just teaching. You get to be a part-time therapist, helping people through difficult personal situations. You get to be a part-time matchmaker, helping students connect with each other professionally and personally. You get to be a part-time obstetrician—seriously, there have been times when I know when a woman in my class is pregnant before she does.

And, as the owner of my own studio, I get to be a part-time janitor. I know, I know. The glamour never ends. Mopping the floors alone in my studio in anticipation of a class, I feel almost overwhelmed with gratitude for where I find myself today. I get to learn from some of the best teachers in the world: my students.

I think of a man who could barely reach past his knees , came every day for months, and the joy on his face when he could reach his toes—he taught me about patience. I think of students dealing with huge, life-changing problems, and still finding the strength to support and encourage others—they taught me about grace. I think about all the people who’ve brought their mats to my classes over the years—they’ve taught me to deal with the pitfalls of living in this crazy city, to grow as a person, to take risks I never would have dreamed of taking.

But most of all, my students have taught me that inside the classroom, we’re all equals—even if every once in a while some of us could use a breath mint. Just by showing up, we help each other. And that’s a lesson I never could have learned from a manual.

Andrea Marcum is owner of U Studio Yoga in Los Angeles. Patrick Tobin is an award-winning writer who lives in Los Angeles

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