I’ve been thinking about people in my life who have taught me yoga.
There are some who have taught me about alignment and anatomy, and how to teach these things. There are some who have taught me yoga that felt good, some who taught classes that made me feel strong, stretched out, or relaxed, and then there are people who have touched me in a deeper place. Many of these people have not even been yoga teachers, but have embodied principles of yoga naturally. I call them my “natural born gurus.”
I grew up in Dothan, Alabama in the 70s and 80s. As you can imagine, there weren’t too many people practicing yoga in southeast Alabama during that time. What you might not believe, though, is that one of the people who has had the greatest influence on the way I think about yoga came from my hometown.
My Uncle Larry Williams was a great man. He was a multi-talented guy, a true Renaissance man. He played piano beautifully, he was an excellent writer and English teacher, and he also taught theater and sponsored the yearbook staff at my high school.
When I was a kid, he would gladly sit and draw characters from my favorite stories for me, and paint them with watercolors. I’d be dazzled by the fact that in ten minutes time, he could do a painting of the Wicked Witch of the West that would rival any book illustration I’d seen. He was an incredible chef, and became the go-to man for elegantly catered dinners and weddings, with beautiful flowers that he also designed and arranged.
Larry was funny, intelligent and talented; he was also openly gay. This was a real rarity at the time in Dothan, Alabama. Larry never pretended to be anything other than what he was, and he lived a life that was full of integrity.
If he liked you, he didn’t just like you, he thought you were “wonderful” and would do anything for you. He wouldn’t tell you to your face, but he’d tell people he knew would get the word back to you about your “wonderful” status.
There were people he didn’t like too. These people tended to be bullies, or people who talked badly about others. He made no bones about it his feelings. He was cordial, but not overly friendly. He spoke and lived his truth all the time.
He let people know where they stood with him, and was always sure he was standing in the light of integrity. He had trouble with one aspect of this: telling someone to their face that he loved them. That was hard for him, and I imagine that might have been because of social pressures during the time he grew up.
Larry had a mean streak and a wicked sense of humor. People were a little bit afraid of him. It’s hard to be in the presence of genius and not get intimidated. He knew it, and took a mischievous delight in the fact that people got a little nervous around him.
In a lot of ways, Larry taught me about standing up for myself, and honoring the gifts I’ve been given. He knew he was talented, and while he was never arrogant about it, he was thankful for his gifts, and knew it was his dharma to use them.
Larry was incredibly generous. Over the years, I watched Larry help so many people who needed it. I think that because he had so much trouble verbally expressing his love for people to their face, he did it in other ways: cooking a huge meal for friends, throwing a big birthday bash, or buying someone a new wardrobe when they were getting ready to go off to college.
I was one of many people he took into his home when they needed a place to live. I watched him take in other people who for whatever reason needed a home, and saw many of them steal from him. I watched Larry forgive them, and continue to try to help them because he saw an essential goodness deep inside of them, no matter how troubled they may have been.
If Larry gave you a gift, you could be sure it was something you’d like. I remember being about seven years old, and having my Mom tell me that Larry wanted to take me to the mall in Panama City. I’d never been to that mall before, and Larry walked around with me, buying me anything I saw that I wanted.
He bought me a bag of pistachios, which I’d never had, and told me I would like them. I did. A friend of mine mentioned to me that Larry was responsible for many of his “firsts.” First time in NYC, first Chinese meal in Chinatown, first exposure to theater, first time on a plane, etc. I remember so many things that were introduced to me because of Larry, or through him.
Larry was a real teacher. He challenged people, he exposed them to new realities, and refused to ever let people settle for anything less than their best. If you had him for 11th grade Honors English, you were in for a rough year-with nightmares about slashes of red ink bleeding through everything you wrote-but you’d leave that class knowing where to put a comma.
You’d also know about more of the world. You’d read books that weren’t on the official curriculum, because Larry knew what books were worth reading. Your eyes would be opened to wider possibilities than you’d imagined.
I learned hard lessons because of Larry. I think the biggest one came two years ago. He’d been on my mind, and I’d been meaning to call him. I was busy directing a play, and teaching my yoga classes, and I kept putting it off. I was going to just say hi, and tell him thanks for being wonderful.
I was directing a play by a writer that he loved and he was on my mind. The next thing I knew, I got a call saying he was in a coma, and soon after that, he died of congestive heart failure. I let the opportunity to repay some of his generosity, and all that love he had sent my way for so long, go by. I wish I had called. I wake up sometimes, thinking, “I need to call Larry.”
I learned so much from him. Here are some of those lessons. Stand up for yourself, be proud of who you are, and don’t apologize for it. Live with integrity. Be on time. Do what you say you’re going to do. Speak clearly. If you’re going to smoke, buy your own cigarettes (not that I’d ever tell anyone to smoke.)
Eat well. Listen to good music. Dance and sing. Laugh out loud. If you’re invited to a party, you should go, even if you don’t feel like it-chances are, you’ll be glad you did. Don’t make a comma splice. Avoid run-on sentences like the plague.
Take the time to spell a word correctly. Give help to people who need it. If you’re going to do something, do it well. Learn to cook. Have a big kitchen table and make it the center of your home. Be generous when praise is deserved. Be honest without being tactless. See the good in the people around you.
When you love somebody, tell them.
Say thank you more often. Thank you, Larry Paul Williams. I’ll never forget the lessons you taught me. I miss you every day.
NY Yoga instructor Brian Williams has been practicing yoga since 1998 and teaching since 2005. During that time, he has been included on YogaCityNYC’s list of favorite classes, and has had the honor of his class being named by Gibson Guitars as “one of three very rock and roll ways to stay in shape.” Brian teaches Core Strength Vinyasa Yoga with a punk rock flair in his public classes, and blogs about practicing yoga on and off the mat. He has studied with Sadie Nardini, and has written the foreword to The Punk
Rock Yoga Manifesto, a great guide to living your yoga practice, written by Punk Rock Yoga founder Kimberlee Jensen Stedl. Brian blogs about taking
yoga into real life. He is proud of his southern roots, and believes that the world can be vastly improved by saying “please,” and “thank you,” and by holding the door open for other people. He teaches popular independent yoga classes around NYC. www.brianwilliamsyoga.com www.facebook.com/brianwilliamsyoga
Editor: Mel Squarey
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