June 13, 2014

How I Became a Better Yoga Teacher.

Photo Credit: Tucker Sherman http://www.flickr.com/photos/tshermankb/

There I was, in New York, all set to rock my yoga photo shoot with Robert Sturman.

I got there a day early, because, you know, it’s New York. The first thing I did was rent a bike, the second was ride it to Central Park.

The third was fall off of it and break my arm.

No photo shoot for me. I cried all the way home to Chicago. Not only had I messed up an amazing opportunity, now I had to worry about my livelihood too.

Health-wise, it hasn’t been a great year for me. First I herniated two discs requiring surgery and tons of rehab during which I took a leave of absence from work.

Then I was diagnosed with TMI a.k.a. trigeminol neuralgia (say that three times fast), a vague nerve condition nicknamed the Suicide Disease because it “makes you want to kill yourself.”

I was forced to cancel work then as well, since the pain was so intense I could hardly open my eyes. (My ailment turned out to be a fractured tooth which didn’t show up on x-rays or an MRI causing me to spend months believing I had this rare, excruciating and life altering disease.)

Then, for my grand finale, I had the bike accident and broke my arm. My first thought (besides ow, and Im missing this f*cking photo shoot) was, I can’t take another break from work.

I’ve toiled for a long time to get the classes and the students I have now and the thought of all that slipping away was horrible. I called my boss/friend (more accurately friend/boss) and miserably announced my predicament.

“Are you sure you can’t still teach?” she said. “I taught with a broken hand for six weeks and it made me a better teacher!”

Huh? How did you do that? I wondered.

“You’ll just have to use your words,” she said, as if reading my mind.

Well, if there’s one thing I know how to use, it’s words. I decided to give it a try.

I plotted and planned the sequence for my next class with the kind of neurotic precision I’d planned my very first class ever. I anticipated that this was likely to be a similarly frightening situation.

I practiced in my studio at home, teaching to a slew of invisible students. It was frustrating, because I’d start out strong—it’s not so hard to cue surya namaskara A (sun salutation A) even if you’re not doing it yourself.

But by the time I got to ardha chandrasana (half moon pose) or vasistasana (side plank pose) I felt like a hot mess. I kept forgetting that I now had metal plates surgically implanted in my left arm and a fracture in my right hand, and that the slightest pressure on either of them resulted in lightening flashes of pain.

When I finally accepted the fact that no matter how hard I pretended I could, I was unable to do anything requiring my arms, it was kind of like drowning and just giving up. A calm settled over me, and I knew I was ready.

I walked into my usual Monday night class and immediately realized something; I was surrounded by friends. None of these people were going to judge me, and even if they did, so what?

It would have nothing to do with me unless I let it.

I had an epiphany: what if I walked into every room assuming everyone was my friend no matter what the situation, and that the people who weren’t were irrelevant.

I felt a warm tingling all over my body, especially in my broken arm.

I sat down on my mat to offer my pre-practice words, which on this day concerned the ego—specifically my ego, and the fact that I planned to use my accident to put it in it’s fancy box where it belongs so it can’t interfere with the rest of my life.

As I invited my students to accept their own flaws and shortcomings along with me, and asked them to be patient as I taught a class for the first time in an entirely new way, I gazed out among their faces. More than any other time in any other class, I felt love radiating around the room. Maybe because we all knew we were in this together, as equals— unusual for a student/teacher dynamic, or simply because compassion comes more easily on the mat, I’m not sure.

Whatever the reason, my residual fear totally evaporated and I somehow knew—and know—I will never be scared to teach a class for any reason ever again.

As my students started to move it became clear to me that just from a practical standpoint, my being less physically involved allowed me a much clearer understanding of how their practice was unfolding. It literally felt like someone had removed a pair of dark sunglasses from my eyes that I hadn’t even known I was wearing.

I roamed around the studio with my new 20/20 vision, making adjustments here and there, feeling the space in my mind expand as the implications of releasing the crutch I’d been unknowingly leaning on—the crutch of my own practice—dawned on me with blinding clarity. Without the tether of being in poses myself, I had so much more to offer to my students.

When people look at me with my cast and my braces on—this was a big injury and it’s estimated to be as long as 10 months before I am fully healed, they often ask “How are you still teaching?”

Usually, I just smile and say, “Come to class and find out.”

The truth is, I am beginning to wonder how I taught before I broke my arm.

Yoga is about finding space—space in our bodies, our hearts and our minds—through which to let in the light, even if, and maybe particularly if, that space happens to have been made by accident.

I’m sure I will have many more opportunities to deepen my understanding of this concept, but for now, I feel a bright light shining through what used to be my ordinary arm, and I can honestly say that I am grateful.

*Dedicated to Dolly Cipolla, my friend and owner of Samadhi..a yoga studio, who helped underwrite this particular growth spurt.


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Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: Tucker Sherman at Flickr


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