The Road Now Taken

I like to think of myself as a free spirit, as someone who can coast on top of the tumult of life, who can change her plans at the drop of a hat, who can roll with the punches. 

When I told this to my best friends, the ones who’ve known me since before I was a teenager, they all burst out laughing.  Obviously, I was wrong.

Everything is relative, of course.  Some people, perhaps Virgos or those suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, might look at my filing methods (dump everything in a drawer and clean it out maybe once every two years) and shudder.  But deep down inside, my friends are right.  I crave order and structure, and I don’t think I’m alone.  When we know what’s going to happen, we can plan for it.  Fear of the future, with all of the uncertainty that not knowing what the future will bring, is so debilitating that it keeps many people frozen in uncomfortable situations.  The demons we know are more manageable than whatever waits for us on the other side of the door.  And so we close ourselves off to spontaneity, risk, and the unknown.  We are safe and if we are not happy, at least we are content and secure in our cocoons.

Today is my birthday.  I’m fifty-two.  And I never, ever planned to be this old.  I watched my mother die five months shy of her fifty-first birthday and, at the age of twenty-three, taught myself that was the span of a life and that I should plan accordingly.

Fifty-one seemed an awful long way away when I was twenty-three, but I started planning anyway.  I did some things my mom did, like marry and have kids and live in a house in the suburbs.  I did some things my mom never did, like try pot brownies and open a business and appear on Jeopardy (I came in second place and won a trip to Hawaii).  Although I put money away in a 401(k), because that’s what reasonable people who plan for the future do, I didn’t worry about it growing because I knew that I wouldn’t be relying on it in the future.  I wore sunscreen but wasn’t neurotic about covering every patch of skin, because I figured that by the time I got wrinkles or a melanoma, I’d already be gone.  I planned for my youngest child to be out of the house, happily ensconced in college, before I turned fifty-one, just in case.  My mantra became “why not,” not in a breezy, rhetorical sense, but as a real question:  if I thought of something I wanted to do and there was no good reason not to do it, I did it.  I took chances and vacations, figuring that the clock was ticking down and I needed to fit everything in before I died.

As I eased my way into my late forties, I started getting ready.  I cleaned out a lot of old clothes and possessions, just like my mom did.  She didn’t want us to have to go through all her crap from two decades of fashion (those Pucci dresses would’ve been worth a fortune on eBay had she kept them), and I didn’t want to leave any incriminating evidence behind.  It was nice to have organized shelves.  My husband and I went to Bora Bora and India.  I accepted every birthday party invitation I received from old friends.  I tried not to give a shit about stupid things, like what people would SAY and how things would LOOK.   I kept going to the doctor, waiting for the diagnosis.

It never came.

When I got older than my mom, I got my nose pierced.  It was the last thing I had wanted to do before I died.  I thought it would look cute, and it does.

My bucket list is done, for the most part.  My kids are well on their way to being the type of human beings who will make the world a better place—compassionate, kind, smart, and driven.  Teaching yoga, which started out as adefault career (I couldn’t imagine how embarrassing it would be to have someone ask me what I did and have to answer “nothing”), wound up being something I was good at.  I’ve achieved a certain level of professional success.    I have every single material thing I’ve ever wanted, as well as loads of things I neither want nor need, things I always assumed my heirs would have to deal with, not me. 

What I don’t have is a plan, and that is very, very uncomfortable. 

I don’t have excuses.  If there’s anything I want to do—teach yoga in India, write a book, learn neuroscience and sustainable agriculture—I don’t get to say that there’s no time.  Knowing I was going to die young gave me an exit strategy, a way to bow out gracefully without having to try that hard.  I didn’t realize this at the time, but I do now:  living each day fully is very, very different from planning to die the next day.  I must risk having unfinished business if I choose to embrace life. 

I spent more than half of my life planning to die, and now I have to spend the rest of it—however long that is—figuring out how to live.  Coming to terms with this over the past five months has, frankly, freaked me out.  When my mom was alive, when she was sick, and then after she died, at least I had a benchmark.  There was someone for me tocompare myselfto.   Whether it was following in her footsteps or not, I had that choice.  Now, it’s just me.  I’m older than my mother and will never be able to look at how she lived her life to inform my plan as how I should live mine.

But not having this guidance can also be a gift.  Being able to create my own story, free from the echoes and constraints of my mother’s older, shorter story,  isboth daunting and intoxicating.  Whether my mother would have done the same or different, whether she would have approved or disapproved,  whether she would have laughed or cried…who knows?   And does it really matter?  It’s all so speculative.  And irrelevant.  I get to forge my own path now.   

I don’t know what the coming year will bring.  But I know that I will be spending the next few months doing a lot of hard work on myself.  I will make plans; old habits are hardto break, and planning is not abad thing in and of itself.   But I will also practice NOT planning.  Instead of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, measuring out my life in coffee spoons, I have the opportunity to be like Jimmy Buffett’s cowboy in the jungle, rolling with the punches, making the best of whatever comes my way.   I like this.  And I think my mother would have liked it too.

 

Fear and Donuts in Chicago

As I was preparing for  the Forrest Yoga class I'm teaching this morning, I had an epiphany:  I was EXCITED to teach!  Let me elaborate...

I never, ever, ever wanted to teach yoga.  I took my first yoga teacher training at Moksha Yoga simply to deepen my practice.  There was something about yoga that spoke to me, and I was hungry to find out more.  In the interest of full disclosure, I also wanted to be "better" at yoga, which at that time meant coming into more and more complicated, difficult, and impressive poses.  

Immediately after completing my first training, I learned that Ana Forrest would be offering her training in a nearby community.  I had met Ana earlier that year at a Yoga Journal conference and spoke with her briefly after taking her intensive session.  What she told me ("you can't open up to joy until you're ready to open up to fear as well") struck such at deep chord that I had  vowed to practice with her whenever I could.  I waffled for a few weeks--the training was expensive and intense, and I had just finished one training already--but ultimately signed on, reasoning that it was more likely that I'd regret NOT taking it than taking it.

 This one will look right into your head and call you out on any bullshit.  It's scary and real and I love her for it.

This one will look right into your head and call you out on any bullshit.  It's scary and real and I love her for it.

It was crazy hard but I got through it.  So there I was, a green yoga teacher with two trainings under my belt but lot of ambivalence toward standing in front of a room full of students and teaching.  That's when the owner of Moksha made me an offer I couldn't refuse.

"Marjorie," he said, "would you be able to teach a Forrest class?  We'd really like to have you on staff."

At that time, a teaching slot at  Moksha was a plum assignment, something countless teachers aspired to but few received.  I didn't feel ready to teach at all, but couldn't really say no.  So I said yes.

In retrospect, I still can't say whether it was a mistake or not.  Ana probably would have applauded my willingness to step into my fear, but I didn't step in with both feet.  Instead, I hopped in and out, crying and numbing with Dunkin Donuts before each class and sobbing with relief afterward, grateful that I wouldn't have to do that again for a whole week.  The gig lasted almost a year.  Quitting felt like a failure and complete freedom at the same time.  

I went on to teach at different studios and gyms for seven or eight years.  While it was still hard to step in front of a class, especially for the first five years, I eventually got comfortable with the idea of me and teaching yoga not being mutually exclusive.  Over time, I came to have faith in my ability to teach a good class (after I moved through the phase of "I don't suck anymore!").  The memory of the Forrest Yoga performance anxiety  faded into a distant memory, and I continued to practice with Ana when she was around.    

Then Ana came back to Chicago to teach another Foundation training in the fall of 2015.  I actually flirted with the idea of re-taking it in an effort to redeem myself.  The first time, in 2008,  I was so caught up in my own unhappiness and fear that I wasn't able to open myself to the joy in the training.  It was something I gritted my teeth and got through.   But between the expense and time commitment and the knowledge of what the training entailed, I decided to forego the full training and take Ana's morning intensives instead.

It was the best thing I could have done.  Instead of practicing as though I was punishing myself, I practiced with an embodied curiousity that was revelatory.  There were plenty of poses that didn't fit my larger, older body as well as they had eight years earlier,  but instead of self-mutilating (Ana's expression for negative self-talk), I breathed and felt and allowed myself to be where I was.  I saw Ana as a human being--a scary human being, but human nevertheless--with a sense of humor and with wisdom and compassion.  I realized that I didn't have to be HER to be an effective Forrest Yoga teacher.  I could bring my own voice, signature and experience to my classes.  Hell, I could even work through my shit (again, Ana's words) while teaching by setting a relevant intent and interweaving it through the sequence.  

Once the intensives were over, I spent the next year completing my Forrest Yoga homework.  Yes, I had blown it off for almost ten years.  Please don't judge.  Completing the homework, again, was terrific therapy.  Readings I had looked at with younger eyes were more meaningful and relevant and thought-provoking.  And when they weren't, it turns out I had magically grown some balls in the meantime and could disagree with what the readings espoused without rejecting Forrest Yoga altogether.  

I sent my homework in before the end of 2016 and immediately began teaching Forrest Yoga at Moksha again.  And something wonderful happened...I LOVED it!  Yes, there are certain limitations that may be unwieldy if you're accustomed to vinyasa flow.  I had to leave my edgy playlists and flowy transitions  behind.  I had to get serious about pranayama and setting an intent.  But it felt like coming home as a grown-up after experiencing a turbulent adolescence of rebellion.  Teaching WORKED for me.

It's funny--when I taught in 2008, I used to hope that no one showed up to my classes so I wouldn't have to go through with it.  I thought that attracting classes that ranged from three to six students meant that I sucked as a teacher.  And now, I look forward to teaching no matter who comes (although in the interest of full disclosure, it's hard to teach one student.  At least that's never happened).  Ironically, the less I care about who shows up, the more people keep coming.  

Today, I am subbing another teacher's class.  This teacher is a beloved Chicago institution and pretty high up in the Forrest Yoga hierarchy.  Normally, I'd be in a tizzy, trying to figure out how SHE would teach the class, worrying that no one would come because she wasn't there, and condemning myself to a morning of being second best.

And yet, this isn't happening.  Instead, miraculously, I'm EXCITED about what I've got planned.  I'm working up to a  pose I've never taught before (again, something new for me--Ana created a bucketload of poses in the eight year interim since my initial training, and instead of avoiding them, I'm teaching myself how to teach them and laughing when they don't go perfectly) and reverse engineering the sequencing to get the students there sanely and logically.   Last week, there was a pregnant woman in the class, but instead of tailoring the poses to her, I'm penciling in modifications in case she comes back.  I'm looking forward to the slow pace, the deep breathing, the warm room, and the intent. 

Is there something that frightens you that you find yourself talking yourself out of doing it?  If so, why not give it a try?  Maybe teaching a yoga class doesn't seem all that scary to you, but believe me, it DESTROYED me for a long time.  And when I look back, I realize that it wasn't the teaching that was destroying me.  It was my resistance to moving into the fear.  Once you get through the fear, you'll find that Ana was spot-on.  The joy is there too.  It always was.  

Epilogue:  Class was awesome.  Three students showed up.  I learned that teaching cross tie is a lot more fun and a lot easier when I admit that I'm doing MY yoga by trying something new and scary and being curious rather than fearful.  And in a fitting homage to my old coping mechanism of eating donuts, I picked up a little treat for myself that I enjoyed after class.  While Dunkin Donuts may taste of despair, Stan's are incredibly fulfilling and joy-provoking--especially when enjoyed with a hot cup of coffee and a healthy dose of mindfulness.

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