For some yoga students, the act of walking into a yoga class is a leap of faith. It’s true for many of my students, who bring woes ranging from gout to bulging vertebral discs to post-traumatic stress disorder.
That I am standing in front of them teaching yoga is an act of faith as well. I must constantly draw on the words of the teacher who taught me to teach, Karin O’Bannon.
She asked me on my third day of yoga teacher training if I was teaching anywhere. I stammered, that, no, I wasn’t.
Was she crazy? Here I was with all these people who were actually GOOD at the poses. And she addressed me while I was struggling my way into ardha chandrasana, my elevated leg mere inches from the floor, restricted by such impacted hip joints that two years later I would have them both replaced. My back was to the wall, and my hand was on a chair seat.
“You should be.”
I was shocked. I was there because my teacher at a health club had urged me to get some training so I could sub for her. After my first day of class, I was sure I could never teach, but I was there to get more of the learning Karin provided, which had immediately taken hold of my heart.
I struggled with more than my utter inability to do the poses with even 10 percent of the quality of my fellow students.
I struggled with the concept of ishwara pranidhana, surrender to God. As an atheist, I didn’t even know how to begin to deal with this. A few weeks later, though, Karin gave me something to hold on to. In response to an assignment, I had written that at the end of a yoga class, I felt that the possibilities of all the individuals within the class were magnified far beyond the strength of any imagining. She had written: “For some, this is God.”
When I started teaching, it was with her faith in me.
Over the years, perhaps encouraged by my own limitations, students came to me with problems and encouraged friends to come, too. Their courage inspired me. Over time they learned to have faith in yoga. When they thanked me, I had to point out that they were the ones doing the heavy hauling, that it was the yoga and their work that they should thank.
One day a 30-something student came to me who was in such immense mental pain that I felt overwhelmed. I was so frightened of doing her harm. I contacted one teacher by e-mail. She told me to trust my instincts. I realized later that what I came to trust was the student’s determination to heal herself and the ability of the yoga itself.
A few months later, I was able to see my teacher Karin and ask her directly for advice. (She had moved to India a few years earlier.) She said the same thing, to trust my instincts. Then she looked me straight in the eye and said: “And know that she is a gift.” I had no idea what she meant at the time.
Her workshop that evening touched on Sutra 2.15, that it was the “axial aphorism” for the entire text.
“The wise man knows that owing to fluctuations, the qualities of nature, and subliminal impressions, even pleasant experiences are tinged with sorrow, and he keeps aloof from them. (Translation: Edwin F. Bryant.)”
Eventually our discussion went to ishwara pranidhana, my old nemesis, as she knew. And she said it might also refer to surrender to “absolute truth”. As a former journalist, I found the idea of an absolute truth perhaps even more difficult to grasp than the concept of a supreme soul.
The 30-something woman and I attended the Iyengar yoga conference in Washington, D.C., in May 2012, in large part to be able to study again with Karin. We also attended Professor Fred Smith’s discussion of the Yoga Sutras. Here I came across another explanation of the niyama: surrender to the “lord of yoga”, to trust in the act, the doing of yoga.
I thought I had come to that point, teaching as an act of faith in yoga. Then I learned my teacher Karin is terminally ill , and I realized that, no, I was still teaching from her faith in me. Without her, how could I find the courage to keep teaching?
Student by student, the answer has come. Sometimes from someone who knows I am quavering, but as often not. Over the past weeks, many students have told me that I am an inspiration and that is why they have found healing in yoga. Rather like when I heard my teacher Karin, I have no idea what they mean. I am so very ordinary. But I find that I must accept their faith if I am to keep on teaching.
And so the gift I have wanted to give my students, faith in yoga, has come rebounding back, multiplied many times over.