“What is Yoga?” is a question that I have contemplated on and off for many years. Many people have attempted to give an authoritative answer. Today I prefer to keep this question open.
The question that I am more interested in asking and coming up with at least a partial answer is, “What am I teaching?”
In the summer of 2019, I had a few powerful experiences that sent me on a rollercoaster of emotions about my role as a movement instructor. At moments, I felt like I didn’t have anything to share (imposter syndrome) and at other times I felt like there was so much I wanted to teach all day. I understand and accept this to be a normal ebb and flow of being a teacher.
My feelings of being an imposter were triggered because of an experience I had at one of my favorite lakes—Bde Maka Ska. This lake is a pilgrimage spot for me. Walking the three miles circumference brings me tremendous joy and equanimity. It’s the first place I ever swam in a natural body of water and the first ice-covered lake that I stood on in the darkest days of winter.
One beautiful summer afternoon I was walking by Thomas Beach, which has a clear view of the Minneapolis skyline and I saw a woman carrying a yoga mat. When I first started studying yoga in California, I didn’t find many places to practice during my summer visits to Minnesota. However, this has changed drastically over the past few years with free classes popping up throughout the nationally recognized park system. On this particular day, I chose to follow the woman and discovered that there was a free class happening on a wide expanse of a plush green lawn. I felt it was auspicious that I got there just as class was about to begin. The instructor welcomed everyone and gave a general overview of the class. A 20-minute yoga warm-up, followed by 20 minutes of some movement practice whose name befuddled me, followed by a cool down.
We started with neck rolls which are always an instant red flag for me. (Most people don’t have the neck mobility to do this safely*) We then proceeded through a rapid series of asana in which some poses were held for less than a second.
At some point I just stopped and watched with a sense of fascination and horror. My judgmental mind felt like I was watching a train wreck. Another part of me felt fear for the future bodies of these folks. And then another part of me noticed that there were over 100 people enthusiastically participating and wondered how I could attract this many people to my class.
While these thoughts danced in my head, the teacher moved on to the second section of the class. She demonstrated what the students were to do: a series of rapid movements that required a lot of jumping, push-ups and fast lunges. At this moment, the thought of participating made me feel like my body was made of lead. I couldn’t even imagine doing one burpee.** I watched for what seemed like a mini-eternity as everyone around me continued flailing their bodies as if they were machines being pounded into steel shapes.
Inside I felt awful. I consider myself to be in good physical condition but I couldn’t fathom doing these rapid movements. Did have a distorted self-image? If I couldn’t do this, could I really teach movement? I walked away feeling small and dejected.
While sitting with these feelings, I was also preparing to teach my first outdoor yoga class at Lake Harriet. I had recently met a lovely group of people who had been practicing yoga for over a decade in another one of my all-time favorite places—the lawn at the Lake Harriet bandshell. I was stepping into an unknown and I was feeling nervous about standing up in front of a group in a way that I hadn’t felt for a very long time. Would they be expecting me to rapidly call out the names of poses and throw at them a repeated series of chaturanga, up dog/down dog? Did they expect a hard work out? I had no clue about their expectations and felt a gnawing desire to receive their approval
I’m usually comfortable with being a little nervous before teaching a class. I consider this to mean that I am holding the experience as something meaningful and important. However, for this class, I was almost terrified. It bothered me that I felt this way and I carried a heavy weight for a few days.
When the day came, I sat on the grass in the front of the lake and looked out at over 70 friendly faces. I decided that while I may not be teaching what they expected, I would teach from what I know. I chose to share very simple yet foundational themes; grounding down to lift up; and exploring the balance of fluidity and stability.
I began sharing and slowly let go of my nervousness. The time flew by. By the time I was guiding people into Relaxation pose – Savasana, I felt that I had shared something rich and powerful. At the completion of what I think is a successful class, I experience a wonderful sensation of unity, wholeness and hope. This feeling was very palpable. On this day in particular, I was so energized that I felt like I could do a hundred burpees and jumping jacks.
Afterwards, I received a number of comments:
“I had never thought about that before. You helped me connect to my body in a new way.”
“You said things that I’ll be thinking about for a long time.”
“Thank you! The poses were not hard but it was still hard and I learned a lot.”
“You taught me that transitions are important, if not more important than the pose itself.”
One woman simply came up to me, looked me in the eyes and hugged me. Not one person said, “that was a great workout.”
I realized that these are the kinds of comments I most often receive from new students and represent many of the reasons people repeatedly return to my classes.
I first came to postural yoga for purely physical reasons. I was experiencing a lot of pain and asana was the first thing that helped relieve it. I now teach anatomy, body mechanics, and alignment through multiple movement modalities. This experience includes but is not limited to gaining more strength, agility and balance. In my teaching I encourage moving with curiosity and playfulness. My goal is to share pathways to feel more connected to one’s body; to live an embodied existence where one can feel at home living in and with one’s body—even when our bodies can’t do all that we wish they could.
I hold the memory of my two experiences at the two lakes—one where I felt dejected and the other where I felt elevated—as a reminder that what I share is not for everyone but that what I have to offer is valuable for many.
*A full neck roll, which includes rolling around the back of the neck, can compress nerves and arteries, and may restrict blood and oxygen flow to the brain. Some people get dizzy or feel tingling in their arms when they get their hair washed at a salon because of this compression.
**A burpee is a series of movements that beings in standing. The most basic from is to bring one hands to the ground, jump the feet back to a push-up position, jump the feet forward and then come back to standing. I first remember doing burpees in my elementary school PE class.