When I first began teaching Yoga back in 1997, I always imagined that I would be doing the teaching, and my students would be doing the learning. But in the course of the past almost twenty years, I have found that my students teach and affect me in a much greater measure than I could have ever imagined.
At first it was little things. Like the time I was asking my students to put their hand on the floor on the inside left leg. Some looked up to see what I was doing, some just did it wrong, and others looked puzzled. Finally I heard one person whisper to the person next to her, “The big-toe side of the foot!” To this day, I use “the big-toe,” for inside, or “the baby-toe” for the outside of the foot when giving those instructions. And I always listen to my students for clues on how to better verbalize instructions.
My first real learning experience, however, was in Gold’s Gym. I had negotiated free membership, and a small stipend for teaching a class after work. Our classroom was upstairs, away from the overhead TVs, the clanking of the weights and machines, and the constant chatter that goes on in such a place. One of my students, a young woman with a French accent, always came in wearing a head scarf, which I just assumed was European “fashion.” I just know that all the females reading this already know exactly what was going on. But this was my first experience. I had to be told. One day after class she told me she had breast cancer, and was undergoing chemotherapy. She told me that my Yoga classes helped her get her strength back after a bout of chemotherapy, and she enjoyed my deep relaxations at the end of each class. She also told me that this was a “private” thing, and she would rather I not share this information with the rest of the class.
Each time she came back from a treatment, I would watch her sit and do one or two of the Asanas, and then rest. But as the weeks continued, and her strength grew, she would do more and more. Then one day, she came into class and truly became my teacher. She sat down, took off her hat, exposing her bald head, and proceeded to participate in the class as if nothing had happened. I could hardly hold my tears. She now felt so comfortable in the loving and caring surroundings that had been created in this upper room, that she no longer felt the need to hide her condition. The rest of the class felt just as comfortable, barely giving notice to the “external.” I just sat there, admiring her courage; not just for exposing her head that evening, but for all of it. For having a potentially terminal illness, dealing with it with such dignity and grace, and taking positive steps in her recovery. I’m sure there were times she came to class feeling weak and nauseous, but knowing that her children depended on her, and that her husband needed her, she worked through it all. She never complained, always had kind words to say to me about my classes, and continued to grow stronger and stronger.
When I got a new job in a different city, I left Gold’s Gym, and said good bye to my class. And though I never got the chance to say this to you, my dear, if you are reading this, thank you for all the things you taught me.
As Yoga teachers, we do more than just teach Asanas, or Pranayama, or meditation. Our biggest job is to provide the space, the opportunity, and the atmosphere, for people in distress to come and pick up whatever medicine they might need. Some come to just be in their own space. Others come to be consoled. Some are there for the joy of doing Yoga together. And some come to feel the love permeating all around them. Though I no longer go to a church, I remember in my early Christian upbringing that the spirit of the Creator spoke once through Jesus saying, “Wherever two or more are gathered together, there am I also.” So for me, Yoga class is my church; the metro is my church; a restaurant is my church; my home is my church.
I’ll tell you of one more of my many teachers. This was at George Washington University, where I continue to teach. She was a college student. It was the first day of class, and I had just barely begun with my introduction, when I head a motor noise; at first in the distance, but coming closer and closer. There, from around the corner, came a young oriental lady with cerebral palsy, on a motorized wheelchair. She drove her chair right up to the very front row of the class, plopped onto the floor, removed her shoes, and took off her leg braces. She looked at me with such determination. She was ready to learn Yoga! Let the teaching begin.
After class, after everyone else had left, I sat on the floor and chatted with her, while her palsied hands struggled to get her shoes on over her braces, and then tie her shoelaces. The urge to help her came over me, but this time I was not as clueless as with my first teacher. I could read in her face and in her mannerism, that she did not want, nor need any help with her shoes. This was something she could do, albeit with difficulty, and do it she would! I asked her a little about her condition, and she gently explained to me what cerebral palsy was, how she came to be born with it, and some of her limitations. She said that she needed a physical education class for her major, and her father had told her to take Yoga. I told her this was a totally new experience for me, and I would need her help and understanding, and she kindly agreed to take me on as her student!
She could do none of the standing poses, so I was presented with the challenge of structuring a course that would challenge the rest of the class, and yet not leave her out. Often I had alternate poses for her to do, and at first I awkwardly tried to be discreet in giving her separate instructions, but it soon became evident that no discreetness was necessary. She was very comfortable in her skin, and, just as in my other Yoga class at Gold’s Gym, everyone else felt at ease. When we did warm ups, standing with our legs hip width apart, hands clasped over our heads, and rotating from the waist up in circular motion to warm up the spine, she would be sitting on the floor, with her hands clasped over her head, rotating from the waist up, and just beaming.
Her favorite thing, though, was during back bending. After giving the instructions to the class, and getting everyone started, I would go over and place a strap around her hips, as she lay on her back, stand over her, and lift her into bridge pose. It was pure ecstasy for her. If you think about back bends as moving the lower spine, hips, and thighs in the exact opposite direction as they are when you are sitting, and then knowing that she spent most of her waking life sitting, it’s no wonder it felt so good to her to be in a back bend. She would revel in this feeling for a short while, and then open her eyes and say, “Okay. I think that’s enough.”
Since our class ended in the evening, and since it took her a while to get back into her wheelchair, she was the last to leave, and it was dark outside. I would wait and walk her part of the way back to her dormitory, but she soon let me know; not with words, but with her demeanor; that she was also not afraid to be alone in the dark, and I needn’t bother. Sometimes I would still walk with her, but it was more just to talk than anything else.
Thank you for being my teacher my young friend. I learned so much from you. You taught me that when there is a sincere desire, no obstacle is insurmountable.
And lastly, thank you to all of my students (my teachers). You teach me every day in both subtle and profound ways how to be a better person.