September 8, 2013

What I Really Mean When I Say “Namaste.” ~ Tracie Jansen

“The light in me sees the light in each one of you.”

She stood in front us, nervously shifting from one foot to another.

Jamie was her name, no more than twenty-something, and we, an eclectic group of thirty or so yoga teacher trainees, sat on the hardwood floor of the warm and sunny yoga studio with rapt attention and waited for her to speak. Haltingly, she began.

“What I love about teaching yoga is…” Jamie stopped and fumbled with her words a bit. I don’t even remember her answer. She bit her lip, visibly squirming in the spotlight.

“And what scares me the most about teaching yoga is…” This time she didn’t even finish, but instead bent over at the waist and covered her face in her hands. Doubled over, she began sobbing.

Big, painful sobs that hinted at a young life lived in struggle and darkness—of never being enough. Her pain was palpable. We blinked back at her, some with tears in our eyes, urging her to continue.

I saw myself in her shadows.

I had already been teaching yoga for several years by the time I took this teacher training. I took this training because I wanted to transition from standing in front of my classes as a yoga teacher to being truly present and being seen in front of my classes as myself.

This was the place to learn how to do that. We gathered that Saturday in June and had a short group practice to warm up and get us grounded. And then the real training commenced.

“Here’s your assignment,” my teacher announced. “Each of you will come up here and state your name, your age, where you live. Then, you’ll tell us the one thing you love most about teaching yoga and the one thing that scares you the most about teaching yoga. Stand squarely on your feet, arms by your sides and connect with us. If we buy it, you pass and you sit down. If we don’t, you stay up there until we do.”

Holy crap.

“Who wants to go first?”

My hand shot up immediately as if it had a mind of its own. I knew what sitting and waiting to be called on would be like.

I wouldn’t be able to relax and be present for everyone else’s exercise because I’d be too caught up in formulating exactly what I wanted to say. Let me go first and let’s get it over with. I stood and began.

“What I love most about teaching yoga is that moment when the light bulb goes off in my student’s eyes. When someone realizes they can do something they never thought possible. What scares me the most about teaching yoga is the possibility of someone getting hurt in my class.”

I finished and looked out into the sea of eyes. I could see my teacher thinking for a moment before shook her head. Not passing.

“Not buying it,” she said. She told me to turn around to face the wall, take time to breathe and turn around and try it again when I was ready.

I restated my name, my age and my statements. I waited.

“Better,” my teacher nodded. “But this time, turn around and face us and simply breathe. Breathe until you get every single person in this room breathing with you. Breathe and connect and really see each and every one of us.”

Oh, hell.

So I did. In silence, except for our collective breath, we connected. Breath and eyes. Eyes and breath.

I stood, just as myself, and let myself be seen. I looked back and made my gaze move methodically from person to person to person. I saw them.

And that very moment, that moment of courageously standing in front of a roomful of yoga teachers, most of whom were strangers to me, and simply breathing together, present in that moment… that very moment has remained one of my most powerful teacher training moments ever.

I passed. I heard someone whisper “wow” as I sat down. Yup, my thought exactly.


Jamie stood up and taken her turn about mid-way through the bunch. Some had come up armed with schtick and jokes. Others with well-rehearsed yoga-speak. Bullshit, we would claim, clearly yet kindly.

One or two passed on their first try, standing in front of us naked and real. But that was the exception. And when Jamie came up and stumbled and broke down, I felt like a fraud.

She told her story of struggling with eating disorders. Of hating her body. Of how yoga had begun to bring her back to herself. She was telling my story, too.

What scared me the most about teaching yoga? Oh sure, I always worry about safety in my classes, then and now. But honestly?

It scares me that I am not enough.

A big part of me wanted to raise my hand and ask if I could have a do-over. Wait, wait, I would say. I get it now. I wasn’t being completely real. Jamie’s bold undressing had taught me a lesson:

We see each other in our shadows if we dare to look.

“Namaste” is how I close each and every class I teach. Right before I say namaste I also say “the light in me sees the light in each one of you.” It is my loose translation of what the word namaste means.

As cynical as I can be about the modern world of yoga, I don’t utter that closing word lightly. I once had a friend who would greet me every stinkin’ time he saw me with the word namaste, as if it was the only possible greeting I would understand now that I was a yoga teacher. Or maybe because he thought his saying it made him more erudite. It never felt authentic coming from him and it drove me crazy.

Namaste is not something I say because it’s cool or expected or just the thing yoga teachers say. Before I say it with and to my class, I draw my thumbs to my forehead and then bow and bring my hands to my heart. I sit up, open my eyes and what I see back is priceless.

A group of yogis, having been led through a powerful physical practice and then allowed to rest and have the practice land. The faces that look back at me are beautiful, eyes full of light and love. It is, by far, my favorite part of teaching.

And I mean it when I say it.

I see the light in my students as they try something new. I see it when they smile and laugh as they topple over in ardha chandrasana and natarajasana. I see it when they fall to their knees into child’s pose to catch their breath rather than struggle mindlessly through just to keep up.

I see it when they come into class thinking they can’t and leave knowing that they can.

Brilliant, beautiful light.

But I see their shadows, too. The shadows that creep into tears during savasana.

The shadow of doubt that keeps them from taking one more deep breath or taking their feet off the ground.

The shadow of insecurity as their hands reassuringly feel for ribs and hipbones as we lie on the floor.

The shadow that tells them “you are not enough.”

And I see myself in their shadows as well, just as I saw myself in Jamie’s that June afternoon.

Back at the teacher training, we had a morning practice the following day. The thirty-plus of us coupled with another thirty or so regular students at the 9:30 class made for a completely full room. I was in the very front row, mere inches from the wall right before me and squeezed cozily in side-to-side between my fellow trainees.

As I kicked my leg back into natarajasana, my outstretched palm left a drippy, sweaty hand mark on the front wall. I felt good and light and powerful through the practice. And then, as we took our final twist on our backs before savasana, emotion bubbled up into my throat.

Well, okay, I thought. No biggie. This had happened before—a release, a wonderful by-product of the practice. But it didn’t end there. As I lay on my back, trying to relax and release, the sobs backed up in my chest.

I draped my towel over my eyes in an effort to be discreet. Oh please, oh please, oh please, don’t let this turn into those big, gulping, gasping sobs in this, a quietly peaceful room of meditating yogis. Thankfully, I managed to get through without too much of a display.

As I gathered my mat and towel and water bottle before the break, another well-intentioned yogi invited me to join her for lunch. I had packed some food in a cooler and had plans to eat by myself at a nearby park.

As I graciously declined her invitation I felt my feelings beginning to swirl and bubble again. As soon as I got out of my car, the floodgates opened. The tears flowed, mingling with the sweat from my practice.

I kicked off my flip-flops and plopped down in the thick grass in the middle of the empty urban park on a magnificent, early summer afternoon and sobbed. And sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.

Something was being released. Shadows, no doubt.

I remember talking about what our bodies hold onto and how they release emotions with my massage therapist once. She said “You know how sometimes you get a release and it feels new, like it was something from the fight you just had last night with your husband? And then sometimes you feel a release in your tissues and it feels old, ancient even. Like it’s some antique shit that just had to come out right then and there.”

I understood. What was being released that sunny afternoon after that powerful practice was older than dirt. Old, awful shadows of my youth, much like Jamie’s.

The shadows that danced and twirled and teased with their taunts of “not enough, not enough, not ever enough!”

Shadows that had to go.

Quite simply, they had to exit to make room for light. The yoga practice that morning had helped facilitate that exit.

The light in me sees the light in you. Namaste. And guess what? I see myself in your shadows, too. If we’re brave enough, we will see each other there, in each, in both shadow and light.

Jamie went on with her teacher training and became a powerful teacher in her own right. She and I are yoga acquaintances and casual Facebook friends. She shares candidly and frequently about her journey through her shadows into her light and I am proud of her, much like I would be of a little sister.

I saw myself in her shadows. I fought many of the same demons as she. And now I revel in the light that she is finally seeing in herself.

And then I wondered. Do you see your light? Do you really?

I remember Jamie standing in front of our class, covered in shadow. Immersed in darkness. The rest of us looked back at her and witnessed the sheer beauty of a breakdown and breakthrough. Through her darkness the light shone brightly. We all saw that. But I think it took Jamie awhile to see it in herself.

The next time you are in a yoga class and the teacher says that word, namaste, promise me this: Pause. Just pause and take a breath and acknowledge that shining, gorgeous, otherworldly spark in yourself.

You are more than something that needs to be improved and worked on and worked out and fixed and proven to yourself or someone else. Matter of fact, you aren’t that at all.

Enough. You are enough.



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Assistant Ed: Moira Madden / Ed: Catherine Monkman

 {Photo: Tim Cigelske}

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