February 5, 2016

The Nicest Lessons from the Meanest Yoga Teacher.

yoga handstand beach

I might have been looking for a little punishment in retrospect.

I entered the way too hot room, looking down and intermittently around me at the others to see what I should be doing.

You see, I am a rule follower. Give me a rule, and I will stick within the lines.

It appeared I should be lying down, preparing for what was about to happen, probably not a good sign. I unfurled my mat gently with nary a noise and laid my weary body down.

Because I was making the journey through my divorce, I was in the midst of experiencing new loneliness and confusion with all that surrounded me. I was less lonely in this place where I had to follow the rules and could do nothing but focus on the sweat beads dripping down my forearms as I moved between poses.

In times of trouble, we all become seekers—I was seeking redemption and clarity when I entered that studio.

The laser-like focus of the teacher seemed to land on me each time, offering corrections and adjustments, not in the gentle, whispering way of some teachers, but in the barking your name with a stern admonishment manner.

Apparently, although I was innately flexible, I couldn’t even do half-pigeon correctly. No matter how close I thought I was to getting it, there was always some minute adjustment I should have incorporated.

Her voice was severe as it cut through the thick, heavy air.

She actually broke into a screaming rant during one class, losing her cool in the steamy room.

My friends were electing to leave the studio, appalled by the intensity of our ‘yogic’ sessions. They were dropping like little, sweaty flies. But something in her straightforward, no BS manner appealed to me.

The angry, redundant thoughts swirling in my divorce-addled head were exhausting. I needed someone to inject some clear messages.

Don’t leave the studio! Translation: Stay in the discomfort.

This was dictated to us, the newbies who were unfamiliar with the sickly, suffocating heat of the room.

The rumors of judgmental teachers following you into the bathroom if you dared leave the room kept us in check. This seemed cruel at first but over time this was one of the most powerful messages for me in my journey.

I just had to translate it into, “Stay in your discomfort.”

We run from the discomfort, from relationships, from friendships, from comments, from political issues—all the time.

Staying in the discomfort, learning to breathe through our anxieties—into how we want to be—is a good first step. We learn how to soften in order to strengthen ourselves.

Chair Pose, the dreaded Chair Pose. It strikes me in two ways every time I hear the teacher announce its name. I get excited that my thighs are about to be challenged and I cringe at the thought of the pain.

My way throughout my first four decades was to throw up layers of steel in response to a challenge.

I would make myself impenetrable, impervious to pain even. In a challenging pose, with my breath jagged, my initial approach was to steel myself against the pose, muscling my way through it.

A couple of months in to my yoga practice, her words which directed me to soften into the pose finally broke through my preconceived notions of the best way forward. I relaxed my leg and arm muscles, unclenched my fingers and tried another way.

Eyes open! Translation: Be aware.

Forty minutes into the hour long session, she leads us to the ground. The ground rises up to catch us as we unfold our bodies, vertebrae by vertebrae, until our arms and legs flop to the floor.

Bridge Pose, our next endeavor. The exact point when we were all dying to check out, assuming the ground would be our friend. Breathing heavily, my eyelids shuttered. “Eyes open!”

As she rattled off various counts between six to twelve, never letting us know when the final bridge would fall, reminders to keep our eyes open were scattered about us. Although it was annoying at the time, now I see where she was coming from.

It is so easy to check out and ignore our discomfort or numb it with various food and beverages. Keeping our eyes open is one way to stay aware of what we are feeling and what we are learning about ourselves.

Why did she feel the need to teach through yelling?

What I could see and hear clearly in the end, once I was no longer enmeshed in my own head, was the pain she was walking through. Her yelling was meant to pierce through me and back into herself.

Sometimes our guide to the other side is different than we imagined.

Sometimes she is yelling, directly in our ear, trying to get us to finally hear what she is saying. She didn’t teach me compassion but ironically, she taught me that the path to strength is through softness and vulnerability.

She opened me to the skills I would need to enter into a healthy relationship.

Allow the guides in your life to be unexpected and unorthodox.

Your guide may not resonate with anyone else but they may be just the perfect person at the perfect time for you.

I still practice yoga regularly, although at a different studio. I enjoy the quiet and pause it brings to my life.

But, I can still hear the mean teacher yelling in my head at times and I continue to appreciate the messages from her.


Relephant Read:

Not Inspired? Not a problem.


Author: Erin Oldham

Assistant Editor: Elizabeth Brumfield / Editor: Caitlin Oriel

Photo: Author’s own // Kullez/Flickr

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Erin Oldham