Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Confessions of a Yoga School Drop Out

David Williams and Me, January 2005
Back in 2002 yoga discovered me.  Sure, I had spent years before following along a Rodney Yee and Patricia Walden VHS, but I never stepped foot in a studio.  This new experience changed my life forever.  Following a surgery, I needed a gentle way to get my body back into shape.  My Mom, queen of newspaper clippings, handed me an article about a local yoga studio.  After minimal research I signed up for an eight week beginner session. 
My first Tuesday night class arrived with a small bundle of nerves, coupled with a dash of confidence.  After all, I had been ‘practicing’ all these years.  I signed the attendance sheet, paid the remaining balance and placed my shoes on a short bamboo shelf.  There were no shoes permitted in the studio; it was just a matter of respect.  I walked through a set of French doors and immediately felt at peace.  The walls were painted a subtle, yet uplifting pale yellow and the faint smell of incense wafted up to the twenty-plus foot ceilings.  I picked a spot close to the instructor’s mat and sat down.  Waiting.  Waiting.  I tried to sit tall and have it look natural, but man, this really killed my back.  Whew.  Why did I have to be so early?!
The instructor walked into the room and I was mesmerized.  She stood tall and slender with long, curly brunette locks.  She wasn’t the stereotypical lanky, malnourished yogi Americans have come to know; she had amazing muscle definition.  Her body was painted with tattoos: one on each ankle, one across her upper back and one covering her heart.  They weren’t just symbols; they had a story.
After addressing some FAQ’s we started off with breathing.  Ujjayi breathing is a continuous breathing pattern/technique that’s done throughout the Ashtanga Yoga practice.  Whatever Ashtanga is.  Once the group gets the hang of breathing we move on to some Sun Salutations.  Ah, yes, something of familiarity.  Only this time, it’s much worse. 
As I later learned, there are two types of Sun Salutations in the Ashtanga practice: Sun Salutation A & Sun Salutation B.  Both are similar, yet very different.  We probably did three of each and I WAS dying.  Ujjayi breathing was out the window, my mat was soaked with sweat and my shirt was practically over my head.  What did I get myself into?  We continued on with some standing poses, followed by seated and reclining poses.  At the end of the hour session, we laid down on the mat.  Ahhh.  This was what I was waiting for – SAVASANA.  Savasana is the final pose in a typical yoga practice.  The participants lie back side down on their mats and just rest in stillness.  This time is used to clear the mind and let the effects of the practice settle into the body.  The point is to NOT fall asleep.  After a ten minute Savasana (Sanskrit translation: corpse pose) we returned to a seated position, placed our hands together at the heart and bowed our heads.  Namaste. 
As the months went on, I ‘graduated’ from session classes to drop-ins.  I made it a point to come to a class two times a week.  I focused on learning more about Ashtanga, not just the actual practice but the lifestyle.  I read books, articles, blogs…anything that fed my mind.  The next natural step was to transform my learning into my every day.  Meat was, again, removed from the daily plate and I practiced the physical poses on my own time, in addition to the classes I was taking.  The opportunity to volunteer at the studio opened and I pounced on it.  But, I needed more.  The studio was offering a 40 hour teacher certification program in the upcoming months.  Perfect.  I signed up, wrote the check and anticipated my future. 
The certification program gave me more information into the world of Ashtanga, specifically with regard to the poses.  I learned more modifications, methods to get in (and out) of poses and I was instructed on safely assisting others (i.e. providing adjustments to others).  For some reason, a person as outgoing as I, public speaking had always been a challenge.  I became so confident in the poses that teaching came naturally to me.  Sure, I had to work on my cues and visual details, but this would come with practice.  I completed class and started teaching a beginner session almost immediately.
After a few months I realized that the honeymoon was over.  I began to make some disturbing observations.  Whether I was teaching a class or taking one I noticed some students pushing themselves, unnecessarily, towards an unsafe point.  They talked about how far they could go in a pose, or how long they could hold their headstand.  They pranced into the studio wearing the hottest clothing with their $80 ‘ego friendly’ mats in their multi-function yoga bags.  At the end of class, we walked together, in the city’s darkness, to our cars and bid each other good evening.  I popped the passenger side lock on my crappy ‘95 Ford Escort and piled my belongings on the seat.  I closed the door and hurried to the driver side.  I pulled out behind a BMW and left for home.
As time passed I became disappointed in my environment.  Everyone was fake.  They were missing the point.  They weren’t being true to the practice.  I, as an instructor and ‘follower’, needed to set an example, but I soon became ashamed of myself.  I started eating meat, but didn’t share that with anyone.  I stopped practicing daily, but I tried to not let that show.  I backed off on my teaching and eventually stopped altogether.  Then, just like that, I stopped coming around.  I didn’t volunteer, I didn’t teach there and I certainly didn’t practice at home anymore.  I was miserable, maybe even depressed.  I believed in something that changed my life, but it turned out to be a fraud.  Sure, a little dramatic, but I felt betrayed.  My body tightened and I plumped up.  I tried to move on.  Because the pay was decent I continued to teach twice a week at two fitness facilities.  I didn’t demonstrate many poses due to my flexibility insecurities and I didn’t feel comfortable adjusting anyone anymore.
About a year into my yoga funk I found myself in a spiritual conversation with my Father.  He’s been a devout Catholic his entire life.  He’s a churchgoer – typically attending the Saturday 5:30 pm service with envelope in hand.  I had questioned my religious background (as I continue to do) since I left Catholic school after 8th grade.  I began to disagree with some of the teachings; I also frowned upon the yearly fundraising efforts that were brought upon the congregation.  THIS IS IN ADDITION TO THAT COLORED ENVELOPE THAT’S PLACED IN THE BASKET EVERY WEEK!  My Dad reminded me that I needed to be more secure in my personal beliefs.  I needed to stand firm and not let anything influence them.  And besides, I didn’t need to step foot into a church to worship.  I just needed to believe.
And the light bulb went off!  I was not very confident in my yoga practice; I was judging others based on their material goods and their own desire to bend further, or advance.  I was not strong enough to look past this, instead I walked away.  The only person I hurt was myself.  I needed to change my view.  The following day I rolled out my mat and started with a round of Sun Salutations.  I could barely touch my toes, but I continued on.  After a 60 minute practice I laid in Savasana and sobbed.
I still teach one class a week, but I demonstrate all the poses and make adjustments where necessary.  I enjoy sharing my newfound passion for yoga and have been caught taking a class or two.  Whenever time permits I’ll practice on my own, sometimes even four times per week.  I don’t always follow the traditional sequence of the Ashtanga practice; I like to change it up based on my mood and physical need.  And yes, I can touch my toes again.
Life is a journey with many lessons.  This was just one of mine.