Teaching Yoga Is An Oxymoron

Students come to my classes and immediately apologize. “I’ve gained, like, a hundred pounds,” an absolutely gorgeous woman moaned to me the other day.

“My balance is terrible.”

“I can’t touch the floor with both hands.”

“My shoulders are really, really tight.”

And underneath all of this is the common thread: “I’m just not very good at yoga.”

I just returned from a week of study with one of the most respected and accomplished yoga teachers in the modern world, someone who studied yoga in India before it became a lifestyle statement that allowed you to wear stretchy leggings to the grocery store. Someone who is not afraid to articulate thoughts with clarity and compassion. Someone who understands that when you point a finger at someone else, you’re pointing the other four at yourself.

And what this teacher reminded us all, continuously, throughout the week, is that in teaching yoga, we are not creating something within the student. To the contrary, we are creating an environment in which what is already present within the student, within every human being in the world, can begin to emerge. Every asana, every breath in pranayama, every vibration in the sound of “om” allows the student to strip away the layers of the ego to reveal what is underneath. “Practicing yoga is like peeling an onion,” the teacher said. “It takes you a while to get to the center.”

Oxymoron is such a great word, isn’t it? It sounds like it should be an insult, but instead, it simply refers to a couple of words that are self-contradictory, like “jumbo shrimp” or “pretty ugly.” And now that I’m back at work after a three month hiatus (hopefully, more to come about this), I’ve started to think about myself in a different way.

You can’t teach people what they already know. But you can remind them how to see it if they’ve forgotten where it is. I call myself a yoga teacher, because that’s what people understand. But all I’m really doing is facilitating my students’ experience of their own yoga. I’m giving them space and permission to feel their bodies and their breath and their spirits, most of which have been living under layers of criticism and doubt and dissociation for decades.

When they thank me for a good class, I smile and remind them that a yoga practice is a co-creation between the teacher and the student. I know some don’t believe me. But I hope that over time, these students begin to see in themselves what is already there, what I see when they are on their mats, and what I’m working so diligently to nourish and maintain in myself…

The yoga inside us all.

Embracing The Negative...Space

I haven’t been around for a while.  And it’s partly because I’ve been trying to figure things out.  My foot surgery never really worked, even after two more after the initial operation, and just when I was getting ready to work with a gait analyst to see if I could correct any motor patterns that led to my foot issues, I learned that I have advanced arthritis in my hip.  I’m scheduled for a total replacement in a few weeks and have taken time off from work because every time I teach, I’m in pain for the rest of the day.

Ironically, teaching restorative yoga is hardest on my body.  There is so much bending down and twisting to help adjust students that it inflames my hip more than doing a half-assed demo for a hatha or vinyasa class.  But I digress. 

With hip replacement surgery, and likely yet another foot surgery, looming, it’s hard to stay optimistic.  The past two years have been challenging.  I’ve had to let go of a lot of things that defined me:  my vigorous yoga practice, strength training, anything involving lots of walking and running, fabulous shoes that show off my tiny ankles, and most depressingly, future dreams of adventure travel.  It’s hard to walk around a new city or hike in the mountains when your foot throbs with every step you take and your hip feels like it’s being stabbed with a dull knife. 

But this is when things get real, folks.  I can look at all the things I can’t do, or I can look at what I can do, especially things that I never even considered before.  Indeed, all kinds of doors have been opening, and it’s up to me whether I choose to walk through them or stay where I am, banging on the one door that’s locked and bolted and may not ever open again. 

I can teach students who are in pain with more compassion and more skill.  I can develop a practice that delves into the subtler aspects of yoga that bored me when my body was still relatively intact and cooperative.  I can walk slowly, feeling my connection to the earth through my feet and noticing how my gait changes when I pay attention.  I can, and have been, exercising in a way that makes me feel better and stronger and alive without crushing my arthritic joints and destabilizing muscles weak from dysfunctional patterns.  I can still travel, just not the same way.  Really, the only thing I can’t do is wear fabulous shoes…unless I change my definition of what “fabulous” is.    

It’s easy to notice what’s missing when you’re used to seeing it every day.  But did you know that there are a million other opportunities lurking in the negative space surrounding the most obvious touchstones of your life, just waiting for an opportunity to expose themselves?


Negative space is a term visual artists use. It refers to the empty area around the art’s subject that, upon closer observation, has an intrinsic value of its own.  Negative space provides a contrast that enhances the beauty of the obvious but obscures whatever exists just beyond the edges.   And while the sense in which I’m using it isn’t quite accurate (because negative space doesn’t have anything in it, whereas the stuff I’m writing about has been hidden by what’s inhabited the positive space), I like the idea that something that was previously unseen can become visible.  That there are hidden gifts in in every tragedy.  That a silver lining really exists.

This isn’t to say that I’m embracing my pain and limitations.  I’m looking forward to getting my new hip and pre-habbing my glutes and hammies with a vengeance.  I’m getting third and fourth opinions on my foot and will take additional time off work if it means less pain down the road.  But at the same time, I’m getting more comfortable with the idea of leaving the gal who did powerlifting and HIIT behind and morphing into the one who rides the recumbent bike and walks in the pool.  I’m meditating.  And I’m trying not to struggle against what is and see what exist just beyond the edges of what used to be.

Yesterday, I went out and spent a chunk of change on shoes at Nordstrom Rack.  I’d given the fabulous ones away to the Salvation Army a few weeks ago and came home with some flats, pumps, and boots.  And you know what?  They may not show off my ankles as well as my old shoes, but they feel pretty fabulous.