When I was in my thirties, I had a lot of tolerance for other people's drama. Over cups of steaming coffee I would listen for hours to issues that needed lots and lots of tissues. I would sympathize and empathize and proselytize with my friends until my ears rang with cyclic stories from the past that never seemed to end. Of course, back then I stirred the pot of my own drama quite a bit, too. I had a lot of personal sifting to do and although I didn't always do it well, I usually tried my best to move through the challenges placed before me and move on.
Granted it sometimes took years of living through the same scenario with different faces and places before I was able to recognize a pattern of my own behavior that needed changing. And then creating that change took a lot of energy and dedication. But as I look back, the real work didn't really become clear until I started my yoga practice.
On a chilly Tuesday night in November of 1996, I spent an hour and a half in a yoga studio housed within the walls of an old schoolhouse. The forced steam heat hissed and whined as we gently moved from warm up exercises to tree pose to triangle. From cobra to child's pose to savasana. Silently I competed with myself and the others in the class to see how much I could do. How deeply I could bend forward. How long I could balance on one leg.
The relaxation exercise at the end was uncomfortable as I didn't like laying on the floor with my eyes closed in a room full of strangers, but I tried. And I felt better. Better than I had in a long time. Week after week, month after month, year after year, I went to yoga class once a week, then twice, then finally three times before I felt comfortable enough to become a certified instructor myself. What tipped the scales wasn't my ability to finally stand on my head after years of preparation. It wasn't the accomplishment I felt when finishing a fire session completely drenched in sweat.
What tipped the scales for me was the memory of a quiet moment in the middle of my first year when I moved beyond the beginner level and into an intermediate class. At the time I was still teaching first grade and desperately needed a place where I could hide in the corner and be the student for a change. Unfortunately, on that given day, there was no space for me in the back and I had to be in the front row, surrounded by a host of other more experienced yogis. The instructor guided us through sun salutations and standing poses, then invited us to come down to our mats for a series of back arches.
All around me were men and women stretching here...bending there. I felt like I would snap like a twig if I tried to look like them. Still, I practiced every cobra variation that the teacher demonstrated, all the while noticing that one of the women closest to me did not. She just lay on the floor face down, her face cradled in the back of her hands.
Why aren't you doing what the teacher says? I wanted to ask her. You're here to practice yoga...so why aren't you?
After the class, I was talking to the instructor and mentioned the student who had skipped half of the poses. "Does that bother you when people don't do what you're teaching?"
He shook his head and smiled. "Not at all, Katie. That woman was practicing advanced yoga."
I wrinkled my brow.
"You see, she was listening to her own body...not to my instructions. Yoga is about connecting with yourself, not keeping up with the class."
I laughed out loud, recognizing my ingrained attitude about being a classroom teacher. How many times had I said to my students, "Please listen to my words" or "Would you please complete your work" or "What are you supposed to be doing right now?"
"You push yourself really hard, Katie," the teacher said gently. "I imagine you push hard in other areas of your life, too."
"And how's your body liking that?"
This past week I was teaching a chakra workshop in which the students and I were talking about healing and the real work it takes to be consistent. To honor a commitment to oneself or someone else.
I had mentioned that for many people, it's easier to stay stuck in their stories, their patterns of behavior, their victim mentality than to make the effort to create real change in their lives.
"I think some people don't really want to heal," one the students said. "Because if they did, then they would have to be accountable for their choices. If they stay stuck in the past then they can blame everything else...everyone else for the way their lives are."
"And if they did let go of their story...," she added. "Maybe they'd be afraid to ask themselves, 'Who am I now?'"
"Ah...but that's the delight in the healing process," I smiled. "Stepping out of the known and into the infinite possibilities of the unknown."
It's been a privilege and a pleasure to teach yoga for the past fifteen years. I've noticed that the students who resonate with my style are often the ones who are willing to do their own real work as well. How wonderful, too, that each one has something to teach me. And over the years, I've learned more about yoga instruction from watching my students and detaching from an unspoken agenda when I practice on my own.
I've learned to let my body and breath guide the tempo.
To allow the spaces I'm creating to open up more than just my hamstrings or shoulder girdle.
To let go of drama and do the real work of self-awareness which naturally leads to taking responsibility for my life and moving into positive transformation.
These are all reasons why you'll never see an ad for my classes with a picture of me practicing a yoga pose. Why, even though I've been asked a few times, I will probably never write an instructional yoga book or make a DVD. Why I'm content to teach only five students at a time in my cozy yoga room on the second floor of my home instead of opening a studio that could welcome many more.
As my students and I climb the stairs, I know that for the next hour and a half, what we practice in that space has nothing to do with me or what I can do. It's about who my students are in any given moment. How they feel. What they bring to the group. What they need to receive. What I can reveal that sparks an awareness of something they intrinsically already know.
It's why I don't mind at all if a student practices relaxation throughout the entire class or if after checking in with my students' needs, I shift away from what I had planned and toward what that moment is revealing.
For I've come to understand that the real work of healing, the real work of transformation, the real work of living is to be present with myself. With others.
With the gifts and challenges of any given moment.
Through this form of yoga, this conscious connection, I am able to let go of the past more fully. Let go of that which no longer serves me or anyone else. Let go of the need to control the way my life will unfold.
And enter into the joy of being in this real world more completely.