Teacher Pose

I've always had a special relationship with teachers. They were my refuge through a challenging childhood. What I loved the most about them was their willingness to answer questions. Teachers made me feel like being curious was something precious: curiosity often yielded answers, and answers were a valuable form of currency. Enough, even, to compensate for my endless fascination with figuring out how all the stuff worked.

Years later, as an adult, I started practicing yoga every day because I was working with a shoulder injury that was impairing my ability to function normally, and the warmth and movement of the practice were doing a lot more for me than all the visits to the physical therapist. At that point, a disabling musculoskeletal injury felt like only the peak of a mountain of stuff that didn't work at all: one tumultuous relationship after another; chronic panic attacks and depression; a grad school experience so overwhelming that it had made me question whether or not I had brain damage; a dread about the increasingly chaotic world around me that kept me up at night.

It was nice and warm enough in the yoga room that I didn't wonder as much about what was happening outside of me. With myself as the crux of the experience, I realized that I had lost a sense of what was happening in my body, but that there was something about the practice that was stirring these very strong sensations -- I just didn't understand what it was. Very often yoga made me feel a lot better, but that wasn't always the case. All I knew was that breathing these breaths and making these shapes made me feel something, and that intrigued me to such a degree that little else felt nearly as worthy of my attention.

After only a few months of regular practice and a truly remarkable improvement in the functionality of my shoulder, my teachers urged me to participate in the studio’s training to teach the traditional hot sequence I’d been practicing and asking them questions about after every class. The teacher training was a life-changing experience, but also an anxiety-inducing one: I felt like an imposter teaching others when I was so confused myself. Since I still had so many questions -- especially about the new aches and pains I had started feeling -- I signed up for the studio’s vinyasa training armed with an entire notebook of them. I had learned how to get into all of the poses, but I still couldn’t ever really predict how I was going to feel during any given practice, or even from one day to the next.

The tweaky shoulder that had originally brought me to the mat became the least of my worries as I progressively lost stability on my feet. Everyone seemed convinced that this was due to the stress from my most recent, awful breakup, so there wasn't too much concern. Still, I couldn’t stand with my feet directly beneath me while barefoot for much longer than five minutes at a time without having to sit down. I was back to seeing doctors and physical therapists, and this time they presented me with an even longer list of musculoskeletal issues ending in -itis, but not very much success in terms of resolving them.

With the pain and inability to keep my balance that accompanied it came panic attacks so terrifying that they relegated me to a fetal position on the ground wherever I happened to be. The feeling of being plugged into an electrical socket against my will left me struggling to manage fits of uncontrollable crying. I went back into the hot room and practiced again, sometimes three times in a day, when I couldn’t cope with the surprises of reality. I grew irritable in the hours I couldn't practice, and self-medicated with prescription tranquilizers and alcohol when I couldn’t get myself under control. I was just keeping myself afloat until all these destructive emotions of mine subsided, I rationalized, and told myself that so long as I practiced everything would be okay. People who had previously been friendly grew distant, and I, in turn, began to obsess over the minutiae of every personal interaction. When the studio at which I'd been practicing changed their sequence without notifying the instructors, I was so utterly incapable of dealing with the change that I wrote an appalling email to my teachers telling them to go fuck themselves. I woke up to my own screams covered in bruises from night terrors during which I dreamt that I would no longer be allowed to practice.

“Every challenge is just an opportunity,” I told myself: I showed up to the mat even when I knew that yet another type of movement might become inaccessible that day, and put in my availability to teach even when I was crying myself to sleep each night and week after week went by without me on the schedule. I berated myself for my ingratitude and made videos of myself on my phone repeating everything I was grateful for, forcing myself to watch them anytime I burst into tears on public transportation. I had never before in my life felt such a profound sense of shame -- in my mind swirled unanswered questions in a cycle that felt like it would never end, but I answered them with the simple response that my practice would shake the volatility out of me. Otherwise, I reckoned, the shame would simply break me so much that all the ego would shatter along with it.

Within a year of having done my first teacher training I wondered to myself if this practice might just be a constant reminder that I would always be broken and no one would ever be able to give me any answers about what was wrong with me, or about why my body rebelled against me as viciously as it did. Every asana felt like it exposed one shortcoming or another, but no single one more than teacher pose: why would anyone listen to someone who hadn’t even been able to figure out how to practice without getting hurt, was having trouble getting out of bed in the morning, or  -- for that matter -- couldn't even balance on one leg anymore? My preternatural curiosity had led me to open this Pandora’s Box that was yoga, and inside it I had been presented with all these feelings that I didn't want to have. I couldn’t figure out what to do about these undesirable discoveries, but I also couldn’t unsee them. If yoga was really just about accepting powerlessness in the face of intractable suffering, then I was failing. I told myself each day that I was nothing, hoping that it would press a reset button, and that constant practice would help me transcend the questions that made me who I was. I kept showing up to the mat.

After one particularly rough class left me wincing in pain, I asked the manager of the studio where I had taught my first classes if she was familiar with any poses that might help me stand more comfortably on my feet. She told me that I wasn't using my toes properly and I looked at her perplexed; my toes couldn't really do much at all. This style called Forrest Yoga was good for developing strength in the feet and hands, she told me, and gave me the name of an instructor who taught at a studio not far from my apartment. I would have been nervous if I’d felt like I had anything left to lose, but what made me decide to give it a shot wasn’t optimism: it was curiosity.

When I look back to my first Forrest Yoga class, what I remember most is how Denise Hopkins placed her hands on me as I struggled and sweated through the sequence and urged me to pay attention to how my choices on the mat made me FEEL. This sense that someone was entirely unfazed by whatever experience might be unleashed from within me was something I had never encountered. Not even my therapist held space for my feelings so powerfully as Denise did. After class, I felt like a different person than when I had walked in, so I went back the next week, and enrolled in the Forrest Foundation Teacher Training within a few months because Denise pulled me aside one day after class and told me she thought it would be beneficial to me.

I never would have started practicing yoga as regularly as I first did had it not been for teachers who had encouraged me to keep asking questions, but Denise showed me what it was to be fearless in the face of the answers when she held the space for me to excavate my internal landscape and simply feel whatever emotion came up. When I eventually met Ana Forrest at my training, I realized that this was her legacy: to create a community of instructors who dignified the human experience in its entirety so that people felt like they could finally embody their most luminous spirit.

I was fraying at the seams when I arrived to Peterborough, England for the teacher training with Ana, and within a week I was in such physical agony that I couldn't even make it through half a round of Sun Salutations. I’d walk through the English countryside on the way to the training site every day nurturing fantasies of how maybe Ana the Medicine Woman would wave her magic feather on me and heal all that ailed me.

Ana didn’t fix me, but she never tried to, either: instead, she tenderly hummed her medicine song to me as I was doubled over with a migraine one afternoon, yet on another day was completely unwilling to answer too many of my questions when she saw me holding my breath as I attempted to jam myself into poses with brute force. “You're the only one who can tell you how to practice in a way that doesn't hurt you,” she told me sternly, pointing out to me that I was at a crossroads and needed to make a warrior’s choice. The way Ana stepped into her own intensity to teach by example -- and the power that gave her to hold space so that I could unravel my own experience -- made me feel like I wasn’t so irredeemable.

I used to think about myself in terms of what I could do or be for other people and for society: that my value was a decision made outside of myself based on how I fulfilled my end of the social contract. Even during the years I spent in chronic pain, or when I was more or less completely disabled by depression and anxiety, the main reason pain and suffering felt like such major problems was because they made it more difficult for me to do the things that allowed me to be valuable for others: depression made me want to stay in bed because I didn’t see the point of applying myself to any task; anxiety held me back from taking risks that might lead to success or from behaving calmly and confidently in front of other people; pain curtailed my ability to work hard and be productive.

Forrest Yoga entered into my life during a period when my sense of self-worth was so low that spending an hour on a mat not working to be more educated or athletic or successful or attractive didn’t seem like a self-indulgent waste of time, because I had stopped feeling like there was any point in trying to be successful or even trying to make this yoga practice I’d become so drawn to feel good. It still blows me away that it took me feeling like I had nothing to gain elsewhere to feel like I had nothing to lose continuing to practice yoga. Because I had lost hope in any rewards for doing the “right” thing, falling down, looking like I had no idea what I was doing, or even being considered a failed yoga teacher weren’t a big deal. And out of that heap of shit came something new entirely: something that was mine.

Toward the end of my Foundation training I started having these little moments that felt secret and magical, like those hazy memories of playing make-believe during childhood. The time I spent on my mat opened me up to the richness in even the rockiest terrain of my interior, which made the challenges of the outside world seem less daunting. Either way, I stopped believing that any of those challenges meant that I was somehow less valuable as a human being.

Ana told me all shit could be turned to fertilizer, so I wallowed deep in my shit without shame. I realized that I had spent years limiting my breath so that I could dissociate from my emotions, my desires, my curiosity, and all the other things about me I was ashamed of. I hadn’t felt like I had the right to my feelings unless I had some sort of answers to offer the outside world in return, so I held my breath to punish myself for what I perceived as a shameful sense of entitlement -- wanting something I hadn’t earned. I had spent a lifetime doing everything I could to suffocate my spirit, and all those turbulent feelings were my spirit breathing fire back at me, refusing to be crushed. Therein was the choice with which Ana had presented me: I could die trying to slay this dragon, or spend my life studying how to embody it with all the dignity a force so powerful deserved.

I started doing most of the poses from the morning intensives during our training on my back so that I could feel what was happening in my spine without fighting gravity, and soon I started letting myself take full breaths, so full that they made enough space for me to be able to articulate the movements. When my nervous system wasn't in fight-or-flight anymore, it got quiet enough to distinguish signals from the noise. Once I gave up trying to suppress everything I felt, my spirit began talking to me, showing me things, giving me feedback that it wouldn’t give anyone else about how to take care of its home -- my body.

Since then, the conversation I have with myself begins, always, with one question: What part of this can I do? And the rewards of moving and breathing and solving my own problems on my own terms have grown big enough to run interference on the narrative that everyone else had fed me about what I needed to do, and about who I was. My curiosity remains boundless as ever, but that’s what the time I spend on my mat is for: paying attention to the endless wisdom of all the sensations so that I can be more than just an innocent bystander in the experience of my spirit living inside my body -- I can let my spirit be my own most insightful teacher.

Part of what I aim to do when I teach yoga is hold space for whatever sort of experience that might come up to come up. I’m confident that I skillfully transmit the impact of mindful breathing and the mechanics of aligning this part of the body with that one during an asana practice, but more than anything, I can sense that I’m able to gain enough trust for my students to give me permission to bring them into my world: the place where there's nothing to do, no boxes to check, but lots to feel. And with that, I hope that maybe they’re inspired and empowered enough to start discovering the magical landscape of their own feelings -- something no one can actually teach them because it’s too special to be anything but completely theirs.

My commitment to teaching this practice is rooted in a profound sense of gratitude for having had someone believe in me even when I didn’t believe in myself; to have believed in me not in spite of, but because of all my feelings. That's the greatest gift any teacher has given me, and one I strive, every time I teach, to give my own students.  

Aho.