I was on my way to teach a yoga class this last week. I had Black Sabbath on my car stereo, face wet with tears, trying like hell to focus on the ridiculously narrow lanes of the Huguenot Bridge through red eyes.
I had a 10 minute ride to pull myself together—to transform my Sybil face into one of peace and dignity. Or at the very least, to wipe the mascara stains off my cheeks and put on some lip gloss.
There were days when I used to show up half an hour early to teach; I’d burn incense and practice a little, meditate quickly.
There were days when teaching was not easy, necessarily, but seemed like the most natural, organic part of my day. The only time when I didn’t have to think about myself or my problems or starting a new diet or calling or not calling my mother back or money.
Then, teaching made my soundtrack go silent.
These are not those days; right now the volume goes up to 11 and the thought of even a quick meditation fills me with the kind of dread I usually reserve for the Department of Motor Vehicles. This is terribly timed, given that I’m smack dab in the middle of a six month-long yoga training that I was, initially, excited to be a part of.
The teacher trainers are inspiring and committed and down-to-earth. My classmates are strong, devoted, and most important, funny. It can be hard, in my experience, to find yogis that can laugh with abandon. Some of us have been known to be a bit uptight, but these people are generous with their laughter, a much needed trait in any spiritual situation.
Moving toward grace is a very a clumsy act—we fall into it the same way we fall out of it.
Unfortunately, this halfway point in my yoga training coincides with a halfway point in my 30s—I recently celebrated my 35th birthday. Now, this should mean nothing; age is just a number, Betty White and Lululemon ads will inform me.
However, I’ve responded by eating too much vegan fudge and over-examining every area of my life. I’m numb with indecision about work and friendships and what shirt to wear. And, as the training weekends loom, I find myself indecisive about my skills as a yoga teacher.
There is a huge suspension of disbelief that anyone who teaches yoga must operate under. We spend months, often years, learning asanas and sutras and sanskrit words that confuse our western tongues. We attempt to learn every muscle and tendon and chakra and meridian. We attempt to heal and transform, to guide others along the journey.
All the while, we must believe that we are wise enough and good enough to do this. Even if our personal lives are a mess, and our copies of the Bhagavad Gita are buried under old copies of Vanity Fair. Even if we haven’t spoken to our mothers in months, but speak to our therapists regularly.
Being a yoga instructor is a strange thing. We are a sum of so many parts—part personal trainer, part motivational speaker, part preacher, effortlessly yogic. We are, so many of us, people who couldn’t be tied to one post, who have an endless fascination with the entire landscape of life.
So instead of simply becoming a doctor or personal trainer or preacher, we wanted to do a little bit of it all; to study and train and spend thousands of dollars to work for practically no money. We’re either suckers or saints, if there’s a difference.
I sometimes forget how much it takes to be a good—not even great—yoga teacher. The amount of research on anatomy, injuries, poses and proper form is exhausting. You’re constantly faced with a student who has a rotator cuff issue, or a slipped disc and you, yogi, will have to know how to teach them safely. You’ll have students who have never practiced before in the same room with people who started practicing in their cribs. You’ll have students on tremendous spiritual highs, and students who believe that religion causes war and political idiocy.
It’s your job to be the middle path, the calm and balanced, sweet smelling yoga teacher who knows exactly what she’s doing.
Before I became a yoga teacher, I remember thinking my instructors were the most beautiful and sane people on the planet. I had no idea what was going on their personal lives, but from that hour and a half a week I saw them, I judged that they were pretty much perfect. I marveled at how Bhakti, my beloved teacher, could light a few candles, fire up the harmonium, and take us to India, even with police sirens blaring outside the studio windows. All that and having her own business while raising two kids.
She’s laughed with tremendous abandon when I’ve told her this. She’s also laughed when I called her my teacher. You’re doing the work, she’s said. Not me. It’s the right, and very humble, response for a yoga teacher. It is, though, not entirely true.
One of the most common yoga sayings is that when you ask for a teacher, a teacher will appear; they don’t say when you are ready, you will teach yourself and Google a few terms and read some Deepak Chopra and figure it all out on your own.
There’s a reason for this. Knowledge, especially spiritual knowledge, requires some kind of human conduit. Verses and scriptures are powerful on the page, but they are designed to be read aloud and shared and chanted. We can believe that yoga is powerful in an abstract way, but when we meet a compassionate, lively, open soul we can actually see this idea at work.
Teachers prove to us that what we strive for does exist by providing us with a living example.
I’ve felt, lately, like a living example of many things: delayed adolescence, bad financial decisions and what not to do with cheap drug store cosmetics. I’ve felt like a living example of a person who has, temporarily, lost her way in this world. I’m not exactly a likely subject for an episode of Hoarders or Intervention, but I’m having a small, very contemplative crisis of yogic confidence.
Which doesn’t make any difference in my Monday schedule, when I teach a class at a juvenile detention facility to a group of teenage girls.
I have to walk through several security checks, then be escorted into the fluorescent-lit basketball gym by a security guard. Instead of burning incense and meditating before class, I cue up the boombox and listen for the jangle of the security guard’s keys as they bring the girls in. Throughout class, the guard’s walkie talkies overpower the sound of gongs and waterfalls.
It’s a hard place to feel the love.
This is, perhaps, why I do feel it there. At this time in my life, when it feels like I’m surrounded by fences, when I imagine all of my past mistakes have doomed me to a life sentence, this actual prison seems fitting. I look at these girls, all of whom are struggling with their own choices, and I tell them that there is empowerment in these poses—that peace of mind is a valuable survival skill.
That yoga, no matter your age or weight or gender or past or future, can heal.
I don’t actually say this aloud, but I try to show this by how I walk and stand and look them in their eyes when I’m talking to them. I want to show them that this place, both the in the prison and in my personal life, is no match for the power of yoga.
I think I did—I had only one student that mascara-stained night last week. After a few sun salutations, she admitted to me that she was grieving a loss in her life, that this particular date was difficult for her. The events of this date one year ago cost her the life of someone very dear to her; it changed the course of her own life completely, she said. She admitted that she might not be in the detention center had it not been for that event.
As she told me this she cried a little, but stayed with me for some heart openers and a very tearful side plank.
Plank is a difficult pose, I said. If it hurts, gently release down and go to child’s pose.
I’m not crying because it hurts, she said. It’s because I feel better. She came out of the pose and looked me in the eyes.
You’re a really good teacher, she said. I don’t think we really appreciate that enough.
I wanted to say that I don’t appreciate it enough, either.
Instead I said, It’s a good thing I do—a joke, I suppose, but I hope one day it won’t be.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise