It was an inauspicious beginning.
When I met my favorite Yoga student, I was a little intimidated by her; not because she was shredded up mega-Yogi, quite the opposite.
She was wearing ill fitting sweats and an old t-shirt, and appeared very uncomfortable in my class. She had trouble following along, and always seemed to be on the right side of things when everyone else was on the left—a problem I can relate to.
After class was over, she pulled me aside. She looked miserably into my eyes and began telling me about an extensive list of medications she was on, as well as a litany of physical and mental challenges she faced—these ranged from plantar fascitis, to anxiety disorders, spontaneous vomiting syndrome (which she assured me was under control), word retrieval disorder (and she was most certainly having trouble getting all these words out) and many other issues I can not now remember.
It was overwhelming. I was way out of my depth. But I listened as well as I could, trying not to finish her sentences for her when she faltered, and we stayed over an hour together in the empty studio after that first class as she spoke. I locked up and walked out with her, gave her a hug and jumped in my car.
I couldn’t stop thinking about her.
The whole drive home I was haunted by her eyes, which, whether due to medication or some other reason, widened and narrowed as she looked at you, as if she were trying to see something that wasn’t there, or was seeing something that shouldn’t be there. Her speech could switch gears mid-sentence, going from a relatively insightful thought to stuttering repetition and then silence, during which she stared at you once again, seeing whatever she was seeing.
The next week, as I drove to teach the same class, I felt little sparks of nervousness jumping all around my stomach. What if she showed up again? I had no idea how to help her, and truthfully, it was difficult to teach with her in the class. The fact that she was always a beat behind, or on the wrong side of a pose was distracting for me and the other students. I had spent too much time correcting her at the expense of everyone else, and if I were in the same situation again, I’d have to handle it much more gracefully. The idea of telling her that this class might not be appropriate for her never entered my mind, which, in retrospect, might have been a disservice to her.
But I knew, if she came, I would teach her, just like anybody else.
She didn’t come that day, but she did the next week, and continued sporadically for the next few months. Each time she came to class I battled to maintain my own composure. She needed so much attention; there just wasn’t enough of me to go around for her and my other students. I struggled with a sense of frustration and failure, feeling like no one was getting what they deserved.
But after class, she would always stay and talk. It was never a typical conversation, as she usually had one idea she was trying to convey. She repeated herself endlessly, telling me more about her health, her parents, her diet (she desperately wanted to lose weight and often spoke of how “mean people were to her” because she wasn’t skinny), her job in the Social Security department of the government (which I was amazed to discover she had held down for 20 years), the choir in which she sang, the fact that she took Tae Kwon Do and that she participated mini-triathelons. The whole time she spoke, those eyes would be widening and narrowing, and I learned to just sit through her pauses and wait patiently.
She didn’t need me to say anything.
She just needed someone to listen.
I was happy to. This woman had achieved and did more in a single week with all of her physical and mental impairments than most “normal” people do in an entire year. She was scared, she was lonely, she knew she didn’t fit in, but she was marching ahead regardless, with matchless determination.
Then she asked me about taking private lessons. I balked. Could she afford privates? Based on the same pair of ratty sweats and T-shirt she wore to every single session and what I assumed to be a low-paying government job, I had to think not. I decided I would offer her a considerable discount and see what she thought. Truly, I still thought it would be too expensive for her and that she would decide not to work with me.
We discussed the price, which she said she was totally comfortable with, and settled on a day and time to meet weekly. She was so excited.
She kept saying over and over, “I can’t wait for my private with you.”
She texted it to me, “I can’t wait for my private with you.”
She left me messages on my voicemail, “I can’t wait for my private with you.”
She friended me on Facebook and wrote on my wall, “I can’t wait for my private with you.”
I started to get a little freaked out. What had I gotten myself into? After all, I didn’t really know what was wrong with her. Could she be dangerous? Was being alone with her in a studio after hours a good idea? But I’d already made the commitment. There was no way I would cancel on her now.
Our first session was tough. It was like being on an awkward first date. Nothing I did seemed to resonate with her. I was talking and working way out of her comfort level… something I do when I’m uncomfortable. I’m one of those people who gets all intellectual and high brow when I feel threatened, and I did feel that way. Like I had nothing of merit to give, like I was wasting her time, and letting her down after her obvious delight in getting to meet with me alone.
I saw with a flash of clarity that I had fallen into my own bad habits. Determined to do better, I had her lay down on the ground so we could just breathe. No philosophy, minimal explanation. Start at the beginning. The breath.
I have never seen someone struggle so hard just to breathe. Her breaths were quick and shallow, her panicked eyes glued to mine. I placed my hand on her belly and told her to breathe into it, to feel the connection between us and know she was safe. She managed to slow down; not much, but a little. We got her inhales to a count of one and her exhales to a count of two. Besides some sun salutations, that’s all we did that day. She was too nervous to close her eyes for savasana, so we didn’t even get to that.
But when she left, she had a big smile on her face. It dawned on me, I had known her for months now and I had never seen her smile. She had dimples!
We met weekly for a few months, making tiny steps forward each time. It felt like we were discovering Yoga together. We both got excited when some (to anybody else) minor milestone was passed. Getting one leg bent and one leg straight in warrior poses was a big one, as was managing anything resembling a downward facing dog or child’s pose, which looked more like table. Every single muscle in her was tight to the point of snapping, and the smallest movements could cause her profound discomfort.
The more we worked together, the more I learned to slow down, to put my ego aside. Since there was no possibility of doing things like arm balances or inversions, or discussing ideas like what OM means, we had to simply be. Be in the moment.
And as basic as the poses were, she was fascinated by them, and she worked hard, so hard to do them correctly. I often thought as we worked together, if everyone (including me) could achieve that level of dedication and love for something, anything, they would be wise. If all you can do is try to master child’s pose, but you put your entire being into doing it, without complaint, with unceasing effort, you are a true Yogi.
Without realizing it, my student was naturally following one of the basic concepts that Pantanjali put forth in the Yoga Sutras, book 1.14 (translation by Sri Swama Satchidananda): “Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended for a long time, without break and in all earnestness.”
It is not about becoming an Ashtangi, able to flip around your mat like a sleek dolphin. The truth is, there is no goal in Yoga other than to just be. The “practice which is becoming firmly grounded” is not the practice of the body, or even the mind, but the practice of the heart. And the part about doing it “in all earnestness” is what really matters. If you truly, deeply, passionately, fearlessly practice whatever it is you can practice, then you are doing Yoga.
I meet with my student twice a week now, every week. About a year ago she said she wanted to work harder, and wasn’t satisfied with our once weekly arrangement. I admired her dedication. She is as excited for every single session as she was for that first one, and now, so am I.
Something wonderful always happens.
She can do things neither of us ever thought possible; among them backbends, crow pose, and half moon, and is on the cusp of doing a beautiful headstand. Her breath has changed dramatically too. She can breathe deeply, in many different patterns, and has learned to control her inhales and exhales expertly. She still has trouble closing her eyes for savasana, so we use an eye pillow. We laugh as I set it gently over her eyes, both knowing if it wasn’t there she would just stare at me instead of resting.
My favorite student has taught me humility and true dedication. If you looked in a room a saw us practicing together, you would assume I was her teacher. You would be wrong. Perhaps I should call her what she really is; my favorite Yoga teacher.
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Ed: Sara Crolick