I don’t know why I haven’t written about it more. Becoming a yoga teacher has been a moving, empowering, meaningful part of my healing work.
What?!?! you say with surprise. Ha, you didn’t even realize I was a yoga teacher, did you?
Well, that’s understandable. I’m not the kind of person most people think of when they think “yoga instructor:” the young, white, skinny, super flexible model tucking her legs behind her neck on Instagram in a peaceful, luxurious setting. I’m white, yes, but otherwise, I don’t fit that profile at all. I so emphatically don’t fit it that I wondered if I’d lost my mind when I started my yoga teacher training back in the fall of 2017.
But it’s okay, I told myself back then. I don’t have to actually teach. I can just do the training to deepen my understanding and appreciation of yoga. No pressure.
There were 20 of us in the teacher training, and in my early 50s, I was either the oldest or second oldest person in the class. Although there were others who weren’t super skinny, I was on the heavier side and not as strong as many (most?) others. On top of that, I was still recovering from an intense gallstone attack a couple of days before. Halfway through the first weekend intensive, I thought I’d made a terrible mistake. I don’t belong here!
Fortunately, there was a relaxed, accepting atmosphere, and I went ahead and articulated that thought at some point on that second or third day. And the teacher responded right away, with absolute certainty, that whatever challenges I was encountered in no way disqualified me from becoming a yoga teacher.
“On the contrary,” she said. “There are so many people who are afraid to try yoga because they think they aren’t the right body type or haven’t been a gymnast or dancer or struggle with flexibility. If you can understand how they feel, you can welcome them and serve them that much better.”
She gave me permission, I think, to start to see myself as a potential teacher.
I chose to do a “yoga and social justice” teacher training, which meant that after the instruction was over, I needed to teach at least 10 classes as a volunteer in a non-studio setting. I ended up being the substitute teacher as a women’s residential substance use treatment center. I was insanely nervous during the first class, less so the second class, and by the third class, I was hooked. When one of the regular teachers quit, I took over the Monday morning class, and two and a half years later, I’m still teaching it.
At the treatment center, I would estimate that at least half the women are under 30, but there are plenty of older women as well. Some are thin, some are heavy. Some have tried yoga before, while others don’t know a single pose. A few are pregnant. I’ve had the opportunity to teach an enormous range of women. Of course some classes are better than others, but I always leave the class feeling good about having taught.
It’s not just that I am giving them something. Maybe I am, to some of them. Some of them only come to the yoga class because otherwise they have to go for a walk, and it’s raining outside, so what the heck, yoga. They don’t necessarily try hard. They need gentle reminders to turn their phones off, little nudges to let their side conversations go. Some are so agitated that they can’t relax and focus on the yoga. That’s okay though. I figure for all of those women, maybe I’m planting a seed. Maybe there will be a time later in their lives when they want something peaceful and centered in their lives, and they remember, “Hm, seems like some of the others got a benefit from that yoga thing. Maybe I should try it again.”
And then there are others who are really into it now, who say, “yoga is my church,” or “this is my favorite part of being here.” It’s such a pleasure to give them something sweet at a difficult time in their lives.
So I’m not the kind of teacher who teaches in a yoga studio, although I have substitute taught for a couple of friends a few time. I’m the type of teacher who has an entirely different career (as a researcher) but feels like the hours she volunteer teaches are some of the sweetest hours of each week.
Then, just to make it even richer and more complex, this past fall I started volunteering to help with a yoga teacher training, a very special training. What’s different about this YTT is that it takes place in a medium-security women’s prison. Every Friday afternoon, I go with one to three other volunteers and help teach seven women to become yoga teachers who will work with other women in custody who are in the mental health unit. They are learning not only about asana (physical poses), pranayama (breath), and yoga philosophy, but also about how trauma, mental illness and developmental disability affect the mind and body. They are choosing to develop skills to benefit others, as part of their own work to craft different kinds of lives for themselves.
It’s hard to find words to convey how much darker prison is than you imagine, emotionally speaking. I mean, of course we know that prison is not a nice place. But until I had been going regularly, I did not understand the layers upon layers of loss that incarcerated individuals experience.
I’ll need to write more, another time, about all the thinking I’ve had to do about what it means to have committed a terrible crime. I’ve grappled with ideas of redemption, forgiveness, and the inherent value in all human beings. It’s been a big, big deal in my life these last four months.
But what I want to say right now is that my original teacher was right when she said that coming to yoga as someone who was old(er), not super fit, round(er), and pulling a cartload of trauma baggage behind me. Several of the women in the prison class have gained a lot of weight in prison. Two of them are in their 50s and have wondered if they were “too old” to learn to be a yoga teacher.
No! I can say. You are most certainly not too old. You are just the perfect age, the perfect size, the perfect being to give the gift of yoga and mindfulness to others.
We all experience such a lot of suffering in this life. It’s shocking sometimes, even after all the stories I’ve heard. But we also carry the ability to comfort one another, to share strategies and techniques and beautiful, ancient teachings that allow us to touch the peace that life can sometimes offer us. I feel so grateful to have found a way to share some of that peace.