December 6, 2016

The Power of Being Seen: Learning from master yoga teacher Karin O’Bannon.


While Karin O’Bannon’s yoga classes were not my first education in learning to drop the ego at the door, they offered me graduate school curriculum in risking vulnerability as a necessary means to growth.courtesy of Efrat Lavie Gang

To understand Karin requires a handshake introduction with the Iyengar yoga tradition in which she trained. In the anteroom to any Iyengar yoga class, there should be a cubby to deposit the ego, just as there is one for shoes and keys. Iyengar yoga requires the student be willing to be criticized, corrected and given constructive analysis.

It requires a willingness to be fully seen, from a, “thank you, may I have another?” place.

Karin a Senior Intermediate 3 teacher taught by the Guruji himself, was a force. Called the “wildcat with a tiger’s eye,” for her fierce insistence on hard work and keen ability to see her students fully, she was, just a little bit, intimidating.

I was nervous when I first walked into Karin’s home studio. I wanted to unobtrusively morph into the back row of class, but she watched me, carefully, with a steady gaze that neither tried to put at ease nor harshly judge—only to search and know. After about 30 seconds under her gaze, I felt sure she had seen all of me: flexible of hip, tight of shoulder, slew-footed, furrowed brow, a propensity to be excessively hard on myself, the fistfuls of M&Ms furtively consumed before class. Everything.

She looked at me that first day and said, “You fell on that right hip, didn’t you?” It was true. In later classes, she noticed that I could never straighten my right pinky finger in down dog; where I gripped my toes in Parsvottanasana; how I had been cheating by using a hyper-extension in my knees to avoid engaging my quadriceps.

Karin saw how much my ego loves to be stroked and hates to be criticized. Frequently, she would stop class to say, “Elizabeth, can you demonstrate Trikonasana?” My heart would swell with pride as I assumed the pose. “Do you see what Elizabeth’s doing wrong here? We must hug the musculature of the upper leg to the femur bone from here!” (she’d smack just above my kneecap) “All the way to here!” (she’d smack my a**.)

To remain under Karin’s gaze, I had to submit to the work. I had to become a servant of learning, giving myself over to the task, no matter how painful, trusting that like a quartz in a rock tumbler, I might emerge from the intense buffeting with my most-polished self revealed.

Oh, but it was hard. I had great intentions about learning—seeking, searching, studying, reading, watching, questioning. But I cut corners in my efforts, in yoga class and in life. I recognized this gap between the wanting and the trying when I find a teacher, a partner, a friend, who requires me to show up and to be fully seen.

I spotted it first by the flash of anger from my awakened ego. This was followed by a gulp of fear that I was about to be found out and my tricks exposed, the bilious jealous streak, the quick temper, the urge to please. I realized that I would either leave or stay, and if I stayed, I would either fight or grow quiet, listening from a deeper place.

If I managed this open intake breath, listening for even half a minute—God help my teacher/partner/friend to stay brave and clear, because this is where new stories get written.

Only a year and a half after I began studying with Karin, she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in both lungs. In the first two of her last six months, her classes were so full that we used washcloth-size mats under our feet to save space. After she discontinued classes, she offered to give me private lessons. I went to her house several times to receive instruction, each time finding her body more ravaged, her health more diminished, but the directness of her gaze clear. Her ability to see fully, honed through her own work and the unrelenting polishing her own rock tumbler delivered, allowed her to look at death more unflinchingly than most of us, finding a peace through honesty.

During my final lesson, Karin was propped up in her bed, on oxygen. While she taught me half-moon pose, she asked if I, along with another fellow student, would take over her classes. In true Karin form, she rationally reasoned, “It will have to be you. There’s no one else. And you will have to teach yourself from here.”

Here she was, a worldwide teacher of teachers, who had taught hundreds of teachers far more accomplished, far more deserving by their efforts and talent than me. And yet, somehow, I was taking her last class, weeping from the enormity of this gift. I apologized for my tears, knowing that Karin was not given to big emotion, and explained I could barely hold what she was handing me.

Keenly reading me and my little insecure heart, she said simply, “You deserve this.”

Karin taught me much about yoga for which I am grateful. But I am most grateful for what Karin taught me about real learning—and its requirement that I let myself be fully seen.

To learn, I must be willing to be seen with everything I hold precious put away into a high cubby, while sweating from the difficult effort of improving. I must be willing to be seen by the relentlessness and beauty of a compassionate objective seer who doesn’t let me slack for even a moment, who looks deep within me and says, “You deserve this.”


Author: Elizabeth Beauvais

Images: courtesy of Efrat Lavie Gang

Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock

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