Yogini or Goddess?

I often lead just a little bit of yoga in some unexpected places. I’m asked to warm people up at conferences, classes or even in church to open up the creative juices, get ready for meditation or get the blood flowing in the late afternoon.

So I lead them these mostly non-yogis through a short bit of circling arms, belly breathing and basic sun salutation that only involves Tadasana, Uttanasana Arha Uttanasana, which is standing, bending

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and then bending half-way down before standing again. People invariably let me know how wonderful it is and I’m floored that they respond so enthusiastically to such a small amount of movement. This is when i feel the urge to recruit.

I constantly struggle with the question of exactly what am I supposed to be doing as a yoga teacher. Am I teaching poses? Am I leading a yoga session? Am I just creating space and time for students to get quiet and listen. But more and more I’m feeling like I’m some kind of motivational/inspirational yoga bullhorn.

And the more I start preaching, the more I have to remind myself to be gentle with people and treat them like sweet children. Because, really, people know what they need. They know what they’re not doing and they know what they should be doing. At least the people who are brave enough to chat with the yoga teacher after ten minutes of movement. Those are the people, I finally realize, that are just looking for a little encouragement. They’re ready to start taking those little baby steps. Their shaky smiles and shy glances are a way of connecting with yoga, even if it is just to acquaint themselves with a yoga teacher.

And this is one of the reasons, I remember, that I like being the face of yoga for students. I am a real yoga teacher. I think I’m infinitely more approachable than what most of  us think of when we think yogini. I’m not that pretzel girl on the front of Yoga Journal Magazine. I don’t wear white unitards and smile beatifically at my students as I chant long complicated mantras in Sanskrit. (Disclaimer: Yoga Journal is an excellent resource and I’m a big fan).

In reality I’m a padded Mom who constantly struggles to stay in clean yoga clothes, who habitually has trouble sleeping, yells at her kids occasionally and eats junk food sometimes. I have hip issues so there are some poses I don’t do. I’m strong and flexible, loud and a little high energy. I think my students like that. I know that I like being real in front of them. I sneeze through allergy season, wheeze if I forget to take the lobelia for my asthma and lament my cramps as I show them poses to alleviate the sniffles, snuffles and pain.

But really, my point is, that I make it easy for people to approach me because I’m just like them. I think sometimes my students are surprised that I really can do a headstand. The pity of yoga in America is that we’ve tried really hard to exalt our yoga teachers to some odd god-like status. We believe they are not really human and are exempt from the messiness of human life. But as we see in the news they do silly things like get involved with their students and heartbreaking things like get divorced.

Sometimes I struggle with how real to be with my students. After my son was born I stopped demonstrating inversions. You know why? It wasn’t because I’ve been chastised for demonstrating poses instead of using a student. Invariably I get hurt because I’m not warmed up enough and/or I jump out of the pose too fast to go and adjust my students. And it wasn’t because I wasn’t strong enough anymore or got dizzy or couldn’t breathe upside down during allergy season.

Nope, it was because my beautiful boy was almost nine pounds and I was nearly 40 when he was born and my stomach muscles just didn’t bounce back the way we all hope they will. And, I didn’t lose the weight after this child very effectively. So when I demonstrate shoulder stand my belly hangs down where I can see it and my breasts flop into my face (even though I stopped breast feeding nearly two years ago). I can still breath, but it’s a bit scary. I demonstrate headstand though, because I can’t see my front and I can pretend my belly is firmer than it is.

Here’s what I learned this week,though. I was writing and thinking about poses and realized how engaged my ego is in my yoga teaching, so I decided to let go. I decided to demonstrate shoulder stand and tell my students the weakness of my ego-resisting brain. And you know what? I was a more effective teacher that day than most. I was open and vulnerable with my students and it allowed them to be open to their own vulnerabilities. I had one student enthusiastically ask for the strap to keep her breasts in place when she inverted and other students didn’t snicker, blush or blink. They gave her the space to be real. In my opinion there are other students who might have benefitted from the strap that day, but that one student and I opened the door. We created space for us to accept ourselves as real yoginis and not aspire to goddess status.

Frankly I’m not really sure that goddess sounds that fun. There’s probably a lot of upkeep. A lot of time and energy devoted to hair, make-up and crunches. And surely, that’s time better spent in Savasana.

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