Teaching Yoga—30 Years of Gratitude

This entry was posted on Aug 4, 2016 by Charlotte Bell.

santoshaFriends who knew me in grade school and high school would probably never have pegged me as a person who’d end up teaching yoga. I was painfully shy. If students had been graded on participation back in my high school days, my GPA surely would have suffered. Knowing I had to give a talk in speech class kept me awake at night. I trembled uncontrollably while performing solo on piano and oboe—not a pleasant situation, especially on a wind instrument.

And yet, when I first became enamored with yoga and was made aware of a teacher training course back in 1982, my first reaction was, “Yes!” It wasn’t that I suddenly wanted to be in front of people; it was that I loved yoga so much that the idea of sharing it seemed like my perfect fit.

I knew, even then, that teaching yoga wasn’t likely to make me rich. But it felt like home somehow.

While I was not able to swing that original training that had inspired me, I instead apprenticed with a couple local Salt Lake teachers, Cita Mason Riley and David Riley, who were a physical therapist and medical doctor in their non-teaching lives. When they left town in 1986, they gifted me with their classes. Ready or not, I began teaching that July.

I’ve taught yoga continuously since then and could not be more grateful for the calling that chose me. Sure, there have been financial insecurities all along, especially ever since the advent of the yoga boom in the early 2000s. But the rewards—mainly the wonderful community of friends that are my students and teachers—have made me realize the preciousness of what I’ve chosen to do with my life.

The Faces of Gratitude

It would be impossible for me to remember all the many gifts that have come from teaching yoga for so many years, but here are a few that come to mind:

Commitment: Even after 30 years, when I step back and reflect on the fact that my students make time in their busy lives to attend my classes, I feel deeply humbled. It seems that busyness is the norm these days. The things we do to replenish ourselves so often take a back burner to the commitments we have to others. The fact that people value their practice enough to show up week after week reminds me of what I love about yoga.

Years ago, I went out of town for a few days and my sub, who is one of the most reliable and conscientious people I know, forgot she was supposed to teach. Because I was teaching at Salt Lake’s First Unitarian Church, the door was open and students came in and set up as usual. (Many of them knew I wasn’t going to be there and were expecting a sub.) When it was clear that no one was going to show up to teach, the students stayed anyway, some for more than an hour, and did their own practices. When my students told me about it the next week, I was elated. I was so happy that their commitment to practice didn’t depend on me. Their commitment was to the value of practice itself.

Learning Opportunities: I can’t begin to list the multitude of gems I’ve gathered from my students and teachers over the decades. I’ll share just a couple.

From the stiffest student I’ve encountered in the history of my teaching life—his standing forward bend was about 10 degrees—I finally got it that to benefit from practice, you didn’t need to touch your toes, or even your knees. From this student I learned that the internal benefits of asana practice, no matter what your poses look like, far outweigh anything you can get from performing fancy poses.

Over the years, many yoga teachers, body workers and medical professionals have attended my classes. I’ve deeply appreciated their insights and yes, corrections, when I’ve not completely understood the applications of anatomy to asana. One class in particular is so heavily populated with these knowledgeable people that we trust each other as resources. I’m immeasurably grateful for their generosity in sharing what they know with me and with our community.

Longevity: My longest-standing students have been attending classes with me since the early 1990s; probably 2/3 of my students have been coming to classes for 10 years or more. I’ve seen these people grow from busy young parents to happy grandparents. We’ve grown and evolved together. My teaching has matured and become more subtle and mindful because of these longstanding students. They inspire me to continue to learn and grow in my own practice.

Because this base of students has practiced for so many years, they’ve pretty much let go of the whole ego-based pose-performance paradigm. When a new student comes to class, he/she is quickly and warmly welcomed. Often new students remark on how they never feel pressured to perform. Everyone is just practicing at his/her own pace. This is not simply because I talk about the hindrances of comparing and competing; it’s because more than half of the class is walking the talk.

Sangha: My classes are relatively small, compared to the mat-to-mat classes so common today. This gives me the opportunity to know something about my students’ lives outside of yoga. Over time, our weekly meetings have allowed us all to get to know each other as people, not just as fellow practitioners. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to see new friendships form among my students. We know and are genuinely interested in each others’ trials and triumphs. My students share gardening tips, book recommendations and beekeeping wisdom. And when one of us faces illness, injury or loss, the sangha provides a safe, caring haven.

The most powerful residue of my 30 years of teaching is the feeling of gratitude, for all the people who have come and gone, or come and stayed, from my fairly uninformed beginnings to my humbler and somewhat more wizened present. I’m honored beyond measure for this path and all its peaks and valleys, and the wondrous souls I’ve met along the way.

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6 responses to “Teaching Yoga—30 Years of Gratitude”

  1. Charlotte: More lovely and heart-felt words! I also have been teaching for many, many years and can relate so well to your comments. I enjoy reading your blogs and hope eventually to actually meet you in person some day!

    • Thanks so much, Shoosh! I’m surprised we have never met. We have so many common friends. I remember Sara (founder of Hugger Mugger) spoke so fondly of you and I loved the t-shirts you made. And then there’s Rodmell Press and your wonderful writings. I, too, hope we someday meet in person!

  2. Louise peine says:

    I’ve said this before but again, I have never met a person of such integrity and consistency. I have not been a student in her Classes for years , but I never experienced a bad class with Charlotte Bell . A friend from long ago , I hope to see you again in the future ! You taught me more than you will know . ❤️

  3. Denise Sciarrotta says:

    Dear Charlotte, I just read your article “Why I teach Old School Yoga” and it sounded and felt just like something that I kept thinking I needed to write.I started teaching in L.I.,N.Y. in 1989 until I moved to a small town in Az. in 2000. I too have watched the changes in most Yoga classes, exactly as you described. I am not teaching right now and I started looking for a Yoga class a few years ago; and while I have been able to find some classes, I have not been able to find one with the 10 to 15 min Savasana. Namaste

    • Hi Denise, Thanks for writing. Things have definitely changed since 1989! To me, the shortened Savasana that’s prevalent now is one of the things that keeps me from going to most yoga classes, even in the mid-sized city where I live. There’s no way nervous systems can recover from asana practice in less than ten minutes. It’s just a physiological fact. I always feel very jagged after a short Savasana. Keep looking. There are still many teachers out there who allow for a 10-15 minutes Savasana. We’re just a little harder to find.

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About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.