It has been a very long time since I last wrote a blog post. Personally, lots of things have been going on; primarily, bronchitis and a sinus infection for me, a mild concussion for my middle son, college visits for the older son, Hallowe’en (which is truly a Holy Day around here), lots of glorious rowing, and helping to run the registration desk for a large regatta. Oh! And I had a basal cell carcinoma removed, but I’m good. (I’ll write about that later, it’s pretty funny. Well now it is…)
The most notable executive news for me is that I have decided to stop teaching my evening adult yoga class. This wasn’t an easy decision to make. When I took over the class from a well-known instructor and teacher trainer, I remember her sigh-saying as she handed over the metaphorical keys, “I always thought that this class would blossom with someone in the community running it…”
Looking back through my jaded lenses, that should’ve been a sign to me… I have been reluctant to admit the truth about the reality of the yoga potential here.
You can’t get much more “in the community” than me as I live less than a mile from the facility. The logistics remained the same. Even payments carried over. For students, it was easy-peasy.
That said, changes were a’coming and people don’t always adjust to change.
The first change was that people were about to get a new yoga teacher. GULP.
The second change is that I was about to shake up the payment scheme. People do like their money. They also like to do whatever the hell they want with it.
The third change was actually a constant: I can’t change who I am… But people said they liked my style, they loved my classes, they wish they could keep taking them…
In retrospect, at first, I tried to be all things to all people: I tried to be that departing instructor. Then I also tried to be the original instructor who started the class. So that’s two separate people besides me — the funny thing is: I never attended either one of those teachers’ classes, so who knows what I was trying to replicate.
The first two instructors ran the classes on what I like to call a “peace love happiness” hippy punch-card scenario. That’s not at all my style. I treat yoga more as a
studio business would: you buy a set of classes in a “session” (a finite period, say 10 weeks, so you attend the commensurate amount of classes remaining during that session and classes could carry over only per request).
Upon taking the helm, I decided that I would honor for two more months whatever “balance” remained on the punch-cards, as several of these cards had been in circulation for TWO YEARS and were unused.
In fact, several of the people on the original email list never contacted the second instructor, they never attended her classes for the one-year period when she took it over. It was only when they heard from me, that “use it or lose it” was in effect, that they attended classes.
In a punch-card world, someone has to keep track, someone has to “X out” a class on that card. At a studio, a receptionist can do that. I don’t have a receptionist. I don’t babysit adults, nor do I “X out” anything. We are in our 40s and beyond, people. If you’re going to make your yoga teacher hold you accountable, you’ve got problems.
Before starting the classes, I consulted with my brother. He’s an MBA with a big job and he and wears fancy shoes. He gave me his advice and told me why he likes to pay for his fitness instructors and how he “gets it” that this isn’t about “nice feelings” but rather, it’s a transaction of values. “Don’t let people confuse you either, this is a business transaction. Yes, yoga is all about energy and feeling good, and being good, and all that shit; but it’s also a transaction. It’s about money.” He told me (along with my own yoga teacher) to change the payment program to “buying a group of classes in a ‘session'” instead of a “punch-card” because a punch-card doesn’t impart a commitment to the self and to the practice, and that self-improvement, as we all know, only works when you work it.
“If you don’t show up, or you don’t do the work, how can you expect any changes?” he reminded me. “I could go get McDonald’s or a Slurpee instead of coming to your class. I don’t value you if I don’t show up. I also don’t value myself, but that’s totally different, and not your problem. Your problem is waiting on people to follow through: to take you up on the service you are trained to provide them. Your service won’t be like anyone else’s, that’s what they’re buying. They’re buying YOU for 90 minutes. Not with a punch-card, but for that time only.”
He could sense that I had a problem asking people to pay me for a service that I felt they could just as readily perform on their own.
“But they can’t, can they? They can’t see their own misaligned knee or that their shoulders aren’t stacked, can they, unless they’re looking for them… but even then, if they’re looking, they’re not ‘doing yoga‘; they’re concerned with their appearance… They can’t see how the pose is performed, or hear you talk about what to feel or engage what muscles where or to loosen their jaws, can they?”
“That is reason enough to pay you. Shit, no one but a trained and observant teacher who is doing the work with them, and who can talk about where things are working, as they do the work with them, can tell them that stuff.”
So he was right. Over the last 21 months, the count of participants ebbed and flowed. My most successful quarter was about a year ago: I had about seven registered session students, and several drop-ins. I bought myself a pair of boots last year. I didn’t ever make a killing. I could use the money to pay for gas for a long road trip and maybe a nice dinner out for my family, but that was it.
Then the numbers started to really drop last spring.
Lives change: elderly parents get sick, job requirements shift, people move, bodies ache, people lose their jobs or their motivation… My purpose on this planet is not to judge anyone’s decision to do anything, but to rather look at where I was feeling satisfied and if I was being “of service” to people; if I was actually helping people instead of sitting there picking my navel and feeling sorry for myself because no one showed up anymore.
The numbers continued to drop. I had three registered students, and only one regularly showed up. More logistical challenges for the other members, wrenches thrown in the engine.
It became a real drag.
I have a giant IKEA bag holding 12 yoga blocks; 6″x 2′ strips of my old yoga mat for extra knee / spine / elbow support; and 12 static double-D ring straps to hold poses or to stretch more effectively. I played amazing music (Todd Norian, “BIJA,” get it) too. I spoke softly and humorously about what was working in the poses. I offered modifications to challenge or support the body. I sprayed lavender oil mist in the room. I recited a guided breathing exercise during savasana for anyone who was interested. I infused a brief yoga nidra during every meditation. I had created, in my estimation, the very class I always wanted to attend. It wasn’t perfect: I was nervous teaching inversions, but I tried every so often and most people didn’t really care for them. I was not teaching to change people, or to get them to do something they’re not comfortable with. My goal always, has been simple: to help people feel good and let go.
But the numbers continued to drop. One day, I was quite certain no one would show, so I texted the people that hadn’t let me know and one did come to class! I was thrilled to see her! In fact, I even had a drop-in that night! Two people in the room with me! It was really nice! But I knew it would be short lived, so I decided that night I was throwing in the mat.
If it weren’t for one seriously dedicated person, and she knows who she is, I would’ve given up a long time ago. She asked me one night, “Is it discouraging when no one else comes?” I was so touched and surprised and defensive of the question. I answered sort of automatically, “No, it’s nice you’re here; I enjoy being here with you…” But I do wonder about it all… I said to myself.
The concept of “walking out on this class” never occurred to me. Nor had the idea that I had a choice. Growing up in the world I did, with the mother I had and the father I had, I couldn’t leave my post, or my mother would falter. She could die. I couldn’t stop my sentry work, or things would fall apart. My father was relying upon me to keep watch, to let him know how things were going, to let him know if Mom was sick or where she was, or what she was doing or who she was with. I had to stay. I had to keep my post. The same thing happened with the yoga, I guess. Even as I type this right now, I realize that I’d taken the position of yoga instructor to heart. There’s nothing I don’t do that isn’t done 100% and I think people have come to expect that from me. I have come to expect that from me. That’s fine, because I’ll always try to deliver. But my duty was to the yoga mat, and to hold the door open, so to speak, to the space where we practiced. To always be ready for people to come in. And to wait, even alone, in the dark, in that big room for people to come because that meant they would be safe. That meant they would be well. That meant they were taking care of themselves. I could relax when people were doing yoga, because they were secure. I knew where they were.
I’d never been given permission to retire. Failure was not an option, nor was deciding that the seas were too strong and that the prevailing winds were simply trying to teach me something: to lie down, to batten down, to steer my craft to calmer seas… to stop waiting for adults to show up at night. (Woah, that use of “adults” just now, just typed itself.)
It’s hard to admit. If it weren’t for the health club where I was recently hired, and if it weren’t for the growth in those attendances and the news from the health club management that I “have quite a following” for my yoga classes, I would be crushed.
They say ego is not supposed to be part of a yoga teacher’s energy, but if it weren’t for a healthy ego, I would keep trying to make this work despite the obvious signs it wasn’t working. It’s November, chilly, and once daylight savings time ends, people go into hibernation mode. They do NOT want to leave their homes, no matter how glorious the yoga. I get that. But still… it’s hard on the ego. However, empathy must prevail: it’s cold and dark out, who wants to leave home?
What also must prevail is the absolute truth that anyone’s decision to not come to yoga classes that they’ve already paid for has NOTHING to do with me. I really have to get my head out of my ass.
I have had some really interesting students, too, in this evening class. These are amazing people with some pretty spectacular disorders and physical challenges; I’m grateful for the opportunity to teach these people because they taught me as well: that no matter how strong a teacher I want to be, there are SOME THINGS I will never match. (That sounds a little too familiar to my story growing up, doesn’t it?)
In the very beginning, I had a student who became very attached to me. She was sweet and sparkly-eyed. But I have limitations and I’ve done a shit ton of couch time to not only allow for the existence of the flags, but to see them and turn heel and run.
I can’t handle that, when people become attached to me. There are only four people and two dogs I will be OK with attaching to me: my kids, my husband and Charlie and Murphy. This is not to say I’m not a reliable person. I absolutely am reliable. Just don’t expect me to be your everything; I’m barely my own anything.
This one student somehow identified with me. Maybe it was my kindness, or my optimistic attitude toward her situation, and my utter newness toward her and her idiosyncrasies. I was sincerely proud of her accomplishments despite a major disability. But, like they all do, these empty souls whose mommies didn’t love them enough (raises hand sheepishly), she attached to me. She idolized me, for something, and inevitably, I disappointed her. I treated her like I treated everyone else, despite her identification of me. She thought she was someone special to me, because I was someone special to her.
My job as a yoga teacher is to teach yoga, not cleanse your soul. I teach yoga, not emulate Jesus. I teach yoga, not act as your therapist. I teach yoga, not solve your problems. I teach yoga, not be your mother. I teach yoga, not set you apart. I teach yoga, I teach yoga, I teach yoga. I ask for payment. I expect you to show up. I teach yoga. That is all. If I am lucky, we will become friends, but we are equals. I am not superhuman, but I am very sensitive to energies, so the moment I feel people set me apart and think of me as special, I start to feel sick, as though I am picking up their self-loathing; it’s a very tenuous sensation: it feels like you don’t know if you’re coming or going: “are these my shoes?” After many years, I know when I start to do that to other people, make them my saviors. So I take a deep breath and I re-center myself. Don’t make anyone else your idol; it’s a lot to live up to.
I liked to get to the space early, to loosen up myself and to prepare to teach, go over notes, play with a transition or a flow, or select a reading for the class. It was as though she could see the parking lot from her house because as soon as I pulled up, she would be walking up or waiting on the steps for me. She would text me in the morning, “Hey Doll! Have a great day!” on days we didn’t have class. I said inside to myself, for her benefit, please don’t do this to me, don’t do this to yourself.
On the one day she wasn’t waiting for me or preternaturally aware of my arrival, she stormed into the room. She started barking out her day. This was fairly common, but I could usually get her to simmer down, to let it go… but she was having none of that. I spoke to her gently and privately before others arrived about her disposition; suggesting that maybe she should take her dog for a strenuous walk instead of yoga, that I’d credit her for the class. She said the others knew her better and longer than I did. She wanted to pass out her business cards to the people in the class. She wanted to cross all sorts of boundaries. I said no. Absolutely not. “People come to yoga class to practice yoga, to get away from their day and their lives off the mat,” I explained to her. Do the business card thing later. Not before.
People started coming in. She was erratic. Like a loose puppy. I sat and waited, made small talk with students. I took up my chimes and started to sit up straight. People started to center on their mats. She fidgeted.
As I did during every pranayama (the seated opening breath and meditation sequence), I invited the group to give themselves “the gift of keeping the day outside and preserve this space, for the yoga, inside,” and I rang the chimes three times with our conscious inhales.
As usual during pranayama, my eyes were closed, so I don’t know if she glared at me, but I did open them after hearing her huff and snarl, to witness her get up, gather her things as noisily as she could, and let the door slam behind her.
I spent a little longer in pranayama, for entirely selfish reasons, and we did some sort of conscious breathing exercise, likely alternate nostril breathing. I can’t recall the exact one, but we did it for another five minutes.
She never came back to my classes.
I fell from grace.
I became the “anti-her” person. Another bad guy. Another reason, as she told me in a text, during that class, for her to not leave her house.
Don’t give me that power. I certainly don’t deserve it, nor do I know what to do with it, I texted back to her the next day, followed by telling her I was glad she got home ok.
After several very quiet months, despite telling me to never contact her again (and I hadn’t to begin with), she sent me an email. A blog post from MindBodyGreen about how to be a good yoga teacher, “I thought you would find this helpful,” she wrote as an intro. It was about the importance of teachers keeping their egos in check; to not show off or show up the students with displays of magnanimous self-control or pious self-awareness. To not demonstrate crane, or bird of paradise, or dancer poses because it was too upsetting to those students who felt unable to perform them.
Ask any of my students if I’ve ever demonstrated crane or dancer without a request to do so; you will hear crickets. I purposely keep my classes mellow, meditative, mostly on the ground, and introspective because I know that no one is coming to me to look like the cover of Yoga Journal. I never expected this woman to exceed the massive limitations of her disability, but I never made her limitations the focus of the lessons. As an “all levels” teacher, you must teach to the highest ability, so that’s what I taught. No one was in those classes to levitate or balance on one toe, the classes were well-designed and challenging.
After Little Miss Backhanded-Awareness sent me that blog post about keeping the ego in check, I ceased all communication with her, and told her to give me distance as she demanded of me: “I’m not your Virgin Mary, your Jesus, your Buddha, your Saint. I’m a flawed, suburban mother of three who is working her ass off to conquer her own demons, so save your blame and finger pointing for your mirror.” >booya.<
But here we are again. Admitting the truth: the number of people coming to my evening classes has fallen. I can’t beat out the four health clubs in the 3-mile radius with their fee-inclusive classes; nor can I beat out the churches with their “Christian yoga” (ha! it is ABSOLUTELY to LAUGH!) versus my “satanic yoga,” I guess. So I am not going to try. I am finished being Sisyphus. I am letting the rock roll.
I’ve decided to go back to my teaching roots and teach children’s yoga. The classes are shorter, the students are shorter too. The kids are game, sometimes too game, but that’s what being a kid is all about. For me, teaching yoga to them is a game, and we play games. Kids are super honest and they are also really into noticing how things affect their bodies. At least in the way I teach it, they get that yoga is about everyone, not just one of us.
In my next post, I’m going to write about what it’s like to teach yoga to kids, and how we as parents can know if our kids are truly ready for the mat instead of us just wishing they were…
Thank you and namaste.