I wrote an article, “My Favorite Yoga Student” several months ago about a very special woman I have the privilege of teaching. Yesterday, she hit yet another milestone—a one legged handstand against the wall and it was such a joyous moment I was inspired to write about her all over again.
As you may or may not recall, this student of mine has some unique challenges. I don’t know exactly what the words for them are, nor do I need to; I just put it under a general heading of cognitive impairment. I have long since stopped worrying about how to categorize my student. She defies any piddling label anyone might try to attach to her.
As we know in yoga, our mind, or cognition, is not actually us, it’s just a distorted piece of us that gets in the way of connecting to our true selves—so the fact that my student deals with mental impairment does not mean she deals with spiritual impairment. Quite the opposite; she is one of the most profoundly spiritual people I know.
I have heard consciousness described as a “glass of muddy water.”Our thoughts are the mud, and our spirit is the water. As we go about our daily lives, our thoughts obscure our spirit with their ceaseless wandering. Only when we become still do our muddy thoughts sink to the bottom of the glass, revealing the transparent clarity of the soul.
Although this is an accurate analogy, it’s hard to let the mud settle down. The slightest mis-step stirs a flurry of particles up into the water, blinding us time and time again.
Now imagine that your glass of muddy water was twice as muddy. This is what my student contends with. As difficult as it is for anyone with a “normal” mind to release the attachment to intrusive thoughts, it is vastly more difficult for my student. Which is why it’s so remarkable that she perseveres.
Her dogged determination, her courage and her commitment to yoga are unmatched. The small triumphs of mastering the hand position for alternate nostril breathing, of getting her drishti or gaze in the right place and keeping it there during a pose, and allowing herself to succumb to pigeon pose when her hips are screaming to be released are cause for celebration for both of us. In fact, much of our time together is spent celebrating with high fives, hugs, and laughter.
I am a person who tends to get trapped in my own intellect; I’m more comfortable teasing out the theory from the eightfold path than I am actually walking it. My student cannot discuss the philosophy of yoga, but she does live it.
She practices non-harm, she speaks the truth, she meditates through asana or poses, she is filled with gratitude, she is compassionate. With her, I drop the platitudes and the pretense and just allow myself to be totally open and free.
When I do that, she seems to be able to do it as well, and the sacred space we create for one another is the essence of yoga.
When I teach my favorite student, I am more yogic than at any other time. As I’ve often said, if you walked by the studio and peeked inside while we were practicing together you would assume I was the teacher and she was the student.
The truth is, she is the finest teacher I will ever have, and somehow, together, we are walking each other home.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise
Photo: flickr/Olga Kruglova