November 30, 2013

What Being a Bartender Taught Me About Being a Yogi. ~ Elizabeth Licata Cooke

“Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.”

While I’m tending bar and people hear that I am a yoga instructor they typically have a strong reaction.

Then they might “Om,” or ask me to do a pose and then they ask how I could do two things that are so opposite.

I got my first bartending job while I was in my 200 hour teacher training. Being a single mother to three very young daughters made it hard to find employment that enabled me to make enough money to support them, but also afford me enough time to actually see them (and pursue goals such as becoming a yoga instructor). Bartending fit the bill.

I will admit, when I first began the job it did seem as if I was entrenched in the opposite of yoga.

I went to my yoga world and focused on purifying my body and my thoughts. Then I went to the small town tavern and was surrounded by people who were trying to cloud their minds and bodies. Slowly but surely I learned that I had been pulled into the student’s chair of life and was about to learn volumes about how to be a yoga teacher right there in the classroom of beer taps and boob jokes.

When I began working at the tavern my voice was small. I think, in part, because I associated a small voice with being feminine. I was not small minded, nor was I small-willed, but I kept those things to myself. I did not want to intrude on the space in the air with my decisiveness. I left that space open for other people.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with being selective with what sound you give to this world, until it keeps you from bringing what you have inside out for the world to benefit from.

That is where I was. It was only after I began working at the tavern that I realized how I could create space by taking it over with my voice. The line-up of men at the tavern ranged from newly twenty-one to men who had been drinking at that bar for almost three decades. There were two common threads: they lived, worked and loved this small farming town; and they were male. Frequently blowing off steam after a long day’s work, the men could be friendly, but they could also be rowdy, perverted and disrespectful. It required a certain vocal activism to keep the tone friendly and kind.

Out of necessity my voice emerged. One that I would use to guide yoga classes without a hiccup.

I have told the story of how I developed my yoga voice before and people almost always respond with the same question: “But there must be a huge difference between talking to drinkers and teaching yoga, right?” My answer: no.

Which brings me to the next lesson I learned from being a bartender.

We are all human beings.


It does not matter if we are wearing steel-toed boots or mala beads. We are all human, and we are all suffering.

People come to yoga classes for the same reason people go to a bar: we want to ease the suffering.

Whether people look to me to hand them a beer or help them into headstand, they are seeking something that is difficult to cultivate—an ambition to meet them exactly where they are—and help them seek ease from suffering.

Perhaps handing a person a beer could be looked at as helping them hurt or deny themselves. I have had that experience at the bar, but I have also had that experience in yoga class where an over-achiever who is entrenched in a result-oriented practice asks me for guidance to get further, deeper, faster at the cost of their tired and overextended body. The truth is that as the tender or the teacher all I feel comfortable doing is trying to show people that they are worthy of kindness and I am seeing them clearly, without judgement. I will do my very best to come to them, exactly where they are, and share the experience so they, at least for that moment, do not have to go it alone.

Yoga is not a series of asanas woven together to yield a more svelte body, but a way of living. Living happens everywhere. That means yoga can happen everywhere, too.

I am not the best bartender. In fact, it is a long running joke between my regulars that I am pretty bad at it. I am not the best yoga instructor, either. I don’t know all of my sanskrit terms and sometimes just call the poses what my kids call them (in warrior three we want superman arms and in tree pose we should put our branches up and give them windy weather).

However, I feel called to both. Anywhere you can face humanity in yourself or in others and move gently towards it with ambitions of kindness, yoga is there. Yoga can be found as a cashier, a waitress, a bank teller, or a plumber. You can be a yogi as you drive a cab, write a legal motion, or take a blood pressure.

Sometimes, the best yoga teachings are waiting for us far outside the studio if you are open enough to receive them in whatever context they may come.


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Assistant Editor: Guenevere Neufeld / Editor: Catherine Monkman

[photo: Wikimedia Commons]


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