It's a beautiful Saturday morning in Salt Lake City and a small group of women are gathering gingerly in a pebbled courtyard. We smile at each other, almost nervously. We’re playing guessing games in our head: What’s her story? Is she here for the hour-long Yoga Basics class? Or something more? We notice who holds bags that might contain books and light snacks. We smile at each other, a little nervously.
The first day of my 200-Hour Yoga Teacher Training is not like the first day of school. The first day of school is fresh and unstudied. Classmates become best friends in almost no time at all; we are too young to have learned the differences in our stories. But we gathered in the garden behind Avenues Yoga as adults. Decades of experience in the world have drilled into us that, no, we are too different for the immediate, all-consuming trust you find in the schoolyard. The ornaments of identification have gradually become confused with our actual identities. We hear a gentle chorus of “Namasté” from inside the studio. Relaxed and smiling, the students in the studio quietly file out into the lobby. Timid and apprehensive, the students in the garden make their way into the studio.
A New Sangha
Yoga Basics is a simply designed asana practice for beginners. I feel refreshed and more at ease watching a third of the room file out and return to the world. The remaining 13 of us are here for the long haul: One hour down, seven to go in this room full of strangers. At the request of our teachers, we pull our mats into a semi-circle with our teachers, Erin and Charlotte at the head. Between the two, they have roughly half a century of experience in yoga and movement. It’s intimidating and exciting, and I can see the reverence in the faces of my fellow students. They introduce themselves and talk about their journey with yoga, then ask us to do the same. This is the moment I always dreaded in school: “Tell us your name and a little about yourself.”
My name is Sarah. I’ve been practicing yoga intermittently for about 10 years. There’s a lot that interests me in yoga, but I’m particularly curious about yoga as treatment for mental health issues.
That’s about as neutral as it gets. Moving forward around the circle, my fellow students are, perhaps, more honest, less afraid to be vulnerable. There are a few tears shed, a few revelations of dark pasts and deep troubles. I feel for these women, and see my own troubles in their cracking voices and wet eyes. There are also freshly initiated college grads, reminding me of a not-so-long-ago self. We announce ourselves by the things we’ve been so far: Moms, wives, students. Our jobs; our histories. But once someone tears up for the first time, I immediately remember the grander truth: We’re the same. We’re here to discover ourselves, to deepen our practice, to work through the issues. It matters less who has children or a degree, who has a salaried job and who waits tables for a living, and more that we’re here in a sunlit room with other living, breathing beings, divine and mundane in their own right. We are all in this together.
By the end of the day, we’ve felt each other breathe and adjusted each other’s bodies. We’ve put our hands on each other’s expanding diaphragms and allowed others to touch our own: A truly terrifying feat in a world of tummy tucks and Photoshopped fashion magazines. As an all-female group, we feel at liberty to discuss the unreasonable expectations we feel constantly on our shoulders. After a belly-breathing exercise, we stand in a circle, listening for an explanation. One of my classmates, a fitness instructor, raises her hand and asks the room: “How many of us immediately sucked our tummies back in?” I know I did; I know I’m not the only one. I somehow manage to feel ashamed of both my attempt to hide my tummy and the fact I have it in the first place.
A Yoga of Compassion
The present is the only place you can act from, one of our teachers says. I scribble this down, knowing I will come back to it again and again. I come to my mat in this body, with my scars, with my trinkets and tattoos. Every day is a good day. Every day is a good day to come back to the mat, the studio, yourself. After my initial discovery of yoga (as a way to get independent-study P.E. credit in high school, since I hated P.E. so much I failed it. Twice.), I practiced once a week, then twice a week, then almost every day. I took my practice to India, to Thailand, and to college. I had a regular daily or near-daily asana practice for nearly three years, but eventually other pressures took over. Homework, roommates, the commute to campus; ever-crazier parties and their attendant hang overs soon eclipsed my yoga practice entirely. Years later, I incurred a mysterious shoulder injury. The doctor said it was stress and advised me to see a bodyworker. The bodyworker advised me to return to yoga and I began taking some gentle yin classes at a studio in my neighborhood in Vancouver. It was less than a month before I'd fallen back in love with my practice. The way I feel after a great savasana; the looseness I could feel returning to my joints. Most of all I loved leaving my phone at home, getting away from the screens and the rings and the ever-louder beeping of devices. The yoga I’d rediscovered wasn’t the yoga that had made me strong or brought me (a little too) triumphantly into one-legged king pigeon pose as a teenager. This was a yoga that was healing, that was gentle, and mindful. I felt compassion toward myself for the first time in years. The striving, critical voice in my mind—the psycho-b---, a classmate called her—was quiet. Every day is a good day. I still struggle, sometimes, looking enviously at arm-balances I can only dream of; slim hips and flat tummies I still yearn for; days I sweat and wonder where my strength has gone and why I didn’t I drag my lazy butt to class last week? The present is the only place you can act from.
I am studying a yoga of compassion. I will teach a yoga of compassion. One of our textbooks is Donna Farhi’s Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit. In the passage on ahimsa, Farhi writes: “First and foremost, we must learn to be nonviolent toward ourselves.” We can be terribly destructive and abusive to ourselves. I pass judgments on myself I wouldn’t dream of passing on friends, family or strangers. I am studying a yoga of compassion. If I really plan to teach this yoga, I must first be compassionate to myself. My fellow students seem to be learning the same lessons: telling the psychotic abuser in our brains to quiet down and take a seat, to put fear and negativity in their rightful places instead of letting them rule us. First, I find, I am learning this through the gently unfolding beauty of the faces of my fellow teachers-in-training, through my compassion for them and their life experiences. If I can feel lovingkindness for them, and for all the students I have yet to meet, and we are all essentially one, then I must find lovingkindness for the vessel I call My Self as well. More than breathing exercises, more than yamas or niyamas, this is what I will always remember and hold close to my heart: this safe space, this place of lovingkindness.
Every day is a good day.