Why Teaching Yoga is Better Than Bartending.

Via Bernadette Birney
on May 31, 2011
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Once upon a time—in a former lifetime long before I taught yoga—I tended bar.

It was during my twenties.  I didn’t know what I wanted to make of myself, or even what I could make of myself.  Instead of figuring it out, I knocked around.  I stayed up too late, partied too hard, and dated the wrong men.  I was afraid I would never get it together, never figure myself out, never discover what I had to offer, and never learn how to do a grown up job—or how to be a grown up.

I was afraid of everything, pretty much.

I was a good bartender, though. I prided myself on the speed with which I mixed drinks.  I could survey my bar at a glance and know who’d been waiting, who needed immediate attention, and who wouldn’t mind waiting a moment longer.

In some ways, teaching yoga is a lot like bartending.  Both occupations require mad skills—if you don’t believe me, try stepping behind a bar on any busy Friday night!  Both bartending and teaching asana require an ability to prioritize, and to connect with people.  Also, a sense of humor and a smile will go a long way in both endeavors.

Alex was a quiet guy.  He came in every night and ordered one vodka soda.  He never ordered more than one, and he never looked drunk.

He was probably in his fifties. I liked him because he never gave me a hard time, and he didn’t leer. Most often he sat alone.  He would just order his drink, and drink it, like a gentleman.  Sometimes he’d have a joke for me.

Because I liked him–and because I courted regulars who were good tippers–I always bought him back a drink.

“Have another,” I’d urge. “It’s on me.”

He would feign reluctance, and pass his hand across the melting ice in his glass to indicate that he was done.  I would settle the debate by pouring another vodka and putting it in front of him.  We both knew he would drink it.  The steps of this dance became well rehearsed over the several years that I knew Alex.

One night he didn’t come in.  He didn’t come in the night after, or the one after that.

He didn’t come in because he was in the hospital dying of cirrhosis.

It turned out that mine wasn’t the only bar he frequented: on his way home from work he stopped into every single bar in the neighborhood.

I took the train uptown to visit.  I was afraid to go but went anyway.  His hospital room was like every hospital room; the light was wan and fluorescent.  Alex was in bed.  The sheet was pulled up over his belly which was so swollen it looked like a pregnant belly.  That’s one of the symptoms of the cirrhosis.

There wasn’t much to say.  We made a couple of lame attempts to joke about his belly but, of course, it wasn’t funny.

Then I went home and he died.

Alex’s death threw fuel on my long, combustible history of doubt about my self-worth.  Rationally, I understood that I wasn’t responsible for Alex’s death.  If I hadn’t been pouring those drinks then someone else would have been.  In fact, other people had been pouring them for a lot longer than I’d been in the picture.

But emotionally–I knew damn well that I had poured at least some of those drinks.  I regretted every single extra vodka soda I’d ever pressed on him. I’d served them up with a smile, and he’d killed himself with them, one drink at a time.

Was that all I had to offer to the world?  I hoped to god it wasn’t but was terrified it might be.  I remember praying, please, please, please—let me have something more to give than this.

It was a dark time, so dark that desperation forced me to grope for a different way to be in the world.  Those first fumbling steps in the darkness ultimately put my feet on the path that would lead me to enroll in my first yoga teacher training.

That was over a decade ago, and lots of training ago.  I had a lot of work to do but it turned out that I was capable of doing more just than putting drinks in the hands of alcoholics.

I love teaching yoga.  I love that people leave my class feeling better than they did when they walked in.   I love explaining my belief that yoga is about loving life, and I love the look in people’s eyes when they start to actually believe it.

I’ve had the incredible good fortune to stumble upon my life’s purpose, and I don’t take it for granted.  In some ways, teaching yoga is a lot like bartending.  I still get people intoxicated for a living but yoga is a much better high, and better for them.

All these years later, Alex’s memory still galvanizes me to get better at offering myself through the work that I do.

I believe that individual happiness and fulfillment requires offering something to the evolution of a greater good.  I believe that there are gifts that only you can offer–in your own quirky, particular way.  I also believe that this kind of offering is exactly what we make every day as yoga teachers.

Leave your gifts ungiven and the entire universe is less than what it could be.  Give them away, and all of creation is better off for it.

How did you come to teach yoga?  Are you a yoga teacher who has walked in dark places?   Is teaching yoga one of your life’s purposes?


About Bernadette Birney

Bernadette Birney is a dyed-in-the-wool, freedom-loving tantrika. When she’s not busy conquering the world, taking hostages, feverishly freelancing, working on her book, and posting on-line essays, you can find her practicing the art of life-on-purpose, and teaching in Connecticut. / Bernadette has had the good fortune of studying with the great ones: she’s a certified Anusara yoga instructor, and has long pestered her Rajanaka Yoga mentor, Douglas Brooks. Known for her poetic and precise articulation, she insists that you can maintain a hard-core yoga practice and a sense of humor, too. Her classes, immersions and trainings are steeped in a life affirming philosophy that will invite you into the exploration of your own potential. / Bernadette was one of the earliest Certified Anusara yoga instructors in CT, and continues to mentor the local teaching community, leading trainings and retreats. She has contributed to Yoga Journal, Fit Yoga, Elephant Journal and Srividyalaya Amrta. She is also a Lululemon ambassador, and the author of the quirky, award-winning blog berniebirney.com .


16 Responses to “Why Teaching Yoga is Better Than Bartending.”

  1. niki says:

    i too used to bartend, and now i am a massage therapist. i can relate to so many points you made in this article, i often went home a t the end of a night feeling like i'd assisted in people's downfalls, or at least avoidance in living thier lives- and i was doing the same, i sometimes feel physically exhausted after a day of massaging clients, but i also feel a deep gratification for what i do, one person at a time, i am genuinely, humbly helping people. thanks for sharing.. xo

  2. A wonderful deeply moving article, Bernie.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

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  3. bernieb says:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment, Niki. I really appreciate it. That deep gratification makes all the difference, doesn't it?

  4. Jeannine says:

    This article is truly inspiring- I am still struggling with these same issues. I want to do more than work in front of a computer all day, and serve on the weekends. I believe that I should feel fulfilled and gratified from helping people, and that is what I have been searching for. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Craig says:

    Hi Bernadette-I came to yoga as a practitioner and now teacher from a past of enjoying drinking too much. I really liked your story and it's a great contrast between the short and long term feelings of happiness, contentment and helping out the greater good. I really liked this sentence "I believe that individual happiness and fulfillment requires offering something to the evolution of a greater good."

  6. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  7. bernieb says:

    Thanks, Lisa.

  8. bernieb says:

    Do it, Jeannine. Life is short. Good luck. XO

  9. bernieb says:

    Thanks, Craig. You will have so much to offer. XO

  10. bernieb says:

    Wow, Jane, no lie–you gave me the chills.

    Deb is so right. You will be able to do great work in a way that other teachers will not.

    Thank you so, so much for taking the time to leave this comment. You have really touched me. Now go make that video, dammit!

    Huge respect and huge love,

  11. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

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  12. iloveginger says:

    TRANSFORMING BEAUTIFUL really touched me thank you
    Myself, I have been coming out from "the darker side" for years now> making positive change/choices along with practicing yoga and now i am entering Midwifery masters program and dedicating my life to improving the health of mommas and babies, improving the birth experience..Your quote has been my inspiration and it feels so good making things happen!!
    "I believe that individual happiness and fulfillment requires offering something to the evolution of a greater good."

  13. Sol says:

    made me cry. thank you!!!

  14. Bernadette — I've been so stuck in life lately. Just absolutely flailing in both my yoga practice and my yoga teaching. Although I'm a few days late with reading this (found it on the top 10 popular post!), you unknowingly reminded me of why I love yoga, and why I especially love to teach yoga. Thank you for giving me a kick-in-the-butt, and for sharing such a heartfelt story.


  15. bernieb says:

    That is awesome! Would you believe I once applied to a nursing program specifically because I was interested in midwifery? We're kindred spirits. (:

  16. […] Why Teaching Yoga is Better Than Bartending. […]