My Teachers

In the last two weeks I have gotten to hear the voices of three beloved teachers and see two of their faces.  Today I will take another class with a teacher whose knowledge and voice resonate with me and on Thursday we will start a weeklong experience with our main teacher in India. Yesterday I practiced along with a recording of her and at the end I could hear one of her little children telling her things while she did her shoulder stand, I could hear the Indian cars honking in the street and my own shoulder stand became something else.  These dear voices are people I have studied with, in some cases, for more than 20 years. So I will count this as an enormous pandemic blessing, the move of the Iyengar Yoga community onto or into the internet.  

Hands at work.

I moved to Philadelphia from Berkeley in the 1990s to attend graduate school. Until then my experiences of the East Coast had only been the briefest visits to relatives and I thought of New York as a place of fancy restaurants, golf playing and traffic.  I quickly learned to pull in my lax smiling, my eye contact with people on the street and any expectation that people would just be nice to me because I was nice. Philadelphia was violent, messy, angry, corrupt and home to terrible police history and drug wars.  The only way to find anything was to look in the phone book and so I looked under Y and there was yoga, only one teacher and so I called her up. No website, no other way to know what was going on. She gave me the address and told me to come to her house in West Philly.  We changed clothes on the second floor in a spare bedroom and the entire third floor was a yoga studio with the occasional beautiful cat wandering through.

Don’t free me! I’ll free myself! I’ll take care of it!

That first class she made me do headstand in the middle of the room and we did a lot of other hard poses and that was it, I had found my teacher.  And now, twenty-six years later, I can see her face on my ipad, hear her distinctive midwestern accent and there I am trying poses that I would never try at home alone, except I am home alone, or am I?  

I was excited about yoga in my twenties because it looked like a field of infinite learning, one lifetime would never be enough.  During the day I went to grad school where we were indoctrinated in some odd belief system that we could know everything and it would lead us to a superior position in life.  At night I went to Joan’s house and saw people easily do Kapotasana and I did my first drop backs. It is a crazy moment the first time you feel the back of your head touch one of your feet.  It wasn’t just the physical postures that seemed infinite, but also Sanskrit, philosophy, ancient texts, and anatomy. I started yoga teacher training during my last year of graduate school, two tracks, two paths, two ways of learning and educating.

One day I shall balance in handstand!

My academic career did not fulfill its promise even though I learned a whole bunch of things and probably read a thousand books in those years.  As a woman in a patriarchal and stagnant system, I had no mentor. My dissertation advisor was, in retrospect, rather lazy. He said he could get me a job in Detroit, I said I didn’t want to live there and that was the end of him helping me in any way.  Academia was an unknown system to me and no one explained the real rules except occasionally, among women, and I simply refused to believe that the backstabbing, the sabotaging, the posturing, and the misogyny could be true. I was convinced that if I worked hard enough I would get the job and be able to shine smartly.  Meritocracy is a game only available to the privileged and although I am quite privileged, I wasn’t the kind of privileged that made it possible to win at the academic game. Learning that lesson was terribly painful and still stabs at me every now and then. I did everything I was supposed to do and in a timely fashion but that didn’t make the doors open.  I don’t even want to write down the lessons I learned from academia. I didn’t learn how to be a good teacher but I did learn how to suffer fools and narcissists with some politeness.

The European red squirrel is so cute.

But, I am now in my middle age and I still have teachers!  I have the immense delight of being able to learn from people who have seen me do a headstand pregnant, who have watched me cry during savasana, who have watched me learn to teach and who are themselves always learning and evolving.  What does it mean to have a teacher when you are an adult? I have been thinking about this quite a lot because it is not necessarily the same thing as a mentor. These are not people who give me advice but rather people who consistently model and explain hard concepts that I want to integrate into my life.  Here are some of the things I have learned from my favorite teachers:

  1. Always show up.  Just keep showing up.  Practice means practice.  No excuses. Sniffles, a headache, a broken heart, you can still practice something.  There is always a way to keep practicing.
  2. Hold yourself accountable.  Whatever you are pursuing is not for the teacher, it is for you.  Check in regularly. Why are you here? What are your intentions?
  3. Break some rules some of the time.  Don’t be rigid. You are never going to be perfect.  Life is not always so serious. Here’s the French version: mais pleeeeease ne soyez pas si sérieux si bloqués, si rigides!
  4. Future suffering can and should be avoided.  Don’t hurt yourself to impress others. Don’t give away what you can’t spare today.  Take tender care of yourself.
  5. Be present.  Whatever you are doing, be there.  Be in your headstand, be in your stretched legs, pay attention!
  6. Love yourself.  Love the world. Love knowledge.
This little street is someone’s art project. Education can be silly and fun and loving and tender and rigorous and inspiring and very difficult – I do believe this.

I always say that everything I know about teaching I learned from my yoga teacher training and not from graduate school.  I will be back at my teaching job in the fall and I have no idea what it will look like. I look forward to learning from my students and I am so excited that maybe I will be able to continue to hear my favorite teachers’ voices without having to fly through many time zones.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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