How I Fell Into The Practice of Yoga
Like many women in exercise, I started my “career,” if you can call it that, as an aerobics instructor.
At the time, I was living in a tiny apartment below my mother, working as a tutor to try to earn money, and writing plays, which is what I thought at the time that I wanted to do when I grew up.
I earned about $90 a week as a tutor. It wasn’t much. I lived on muffins from Sams for breakfast and lunch, followed by macaroni and cheese for dinner.
Once a week, my mother would invite me upstairs for a proper meal and I would eat like a pig.
Meat, vegetables – what a concept!
As time went on, somehow I had a little more money from my erstwhile tutoring business and I decided to join a gym.
Because I was single and had nothing else to do other than try to write plays, eat muffins and pet my cat, I ended up spending a good amount of time at the gym.
I think I took just about every class that they had.
Finally, I was at the gym so much that the owners invited me to start teaching classes.
Frankly, I sucked.
I would practice and practice at home, putting on records on a record player and trying to do my routine without any formal instruction about how to teach exercise.
I continued to suck, but somehow the gym kept paying me a little, and at that point every bit counted.
If I had an extra $5 I would head off to the Salvation Army and buy a pair of jeans.
My favorite were used jeans with a leopard skin print.
I felt like a queen when I wore them.
On the other hand, I was very embarrassed when I stood in front of my aerobics class in my leotard.
Like most women, I had bad body issues.
I assumed that everybody must be looking at my butt and thighs.
One day it dawned on me that they weren’t so much looking at me and my butt and thighs as worrying about their own butt and thighs.
Suddenly teaching exercise got a little bit easier.
All I had to do was focus on them, I realized, and not on myself.
Teaching exercise was about helping people.
I got it, and I liked it.
Along about this time, somehow the owners of the gym decided that the people who taught classes should become certified instructors.
I failed my first aerobics exam, which really rotted my socks, as I had attended Brown University, an Ivy League college, and been accepted into Phi Beta Kappa.
I thought I was smart, and yet there I was, failing a stupid aerobics exam.
Apparently I was locking my knees when I taught.
I had no idea what knee locking was, or even that I was doing it.
“Oh,” I thought. It meant something to me that knee locking had made me fail what I thought was my stupid exam, so I tried to pay more attention.
I went on to fail the next aerobics exam that I took.
Finally I thought maybe I needed to find some kind of aerobics exam that might be easier, that I could actually pass.
I went on to fail yet again on my third aerobics exam.
It felt more and more ridiculous!
There I was, thinking I was so smart, failing all these stupid exams in exercise.
Apparently there was more to it than just locking my knees.
I kept practicing and practicing at home with my record player, back in the day when people played music on record players.
I would wear myself out practicing, so my failing those exams had nothing to do with me not practicing.
I did not know what I was doing.
In fact, looking back, I literally had no idea.
I just tried to imitate what other people were doing, even though I really didn’t know what they were doing.
Finally, after moving from Savannah, Georgia, to Atlanta, Georgia, I found an aerobics exam that I could actually pass.
I was a certified instructor.
Meanwhile, I kept writing my plays, which, once again, was what I thought I wanted to do with my life.
I ended up writing 12 plays and had four productions Off Off Broadway.
Failing all those what I thought were stupid exams that asked me all sorts of questions like what the muscles were and aerobic capacity and VO2Max and all sorts of other information which none of my students have ever asked me about was actually a huge blessing in disguise.
I was so determined to pass that I went on to study everything I could about exercise.
I continued to suck as an instructor, however.
I would get notes back, “Instructor not on the beat.”
I didn’t have much money back then, and as long as I kept practicing with records rather than with aerobics music that had the appropriate beat, I was never going to learn how to be on the beat.
I wore myself out teaching aerobics.
Students would come into my class and find me lying on my bench, as I progressed to teaching both aerobics and also what was called Step classes at the time, doing aerobics on piled up benches.
“Are you the instructor?” someone would ask, finding me taking a nap before class.
I hardly looked energetic, but I sure was determined.
I would write my plays at home in Atlanta and take my materials with me to write in various libraries around the city as I drove to my next aerobics class.
I was teaching about eight aerobics classes a week and making about $170 a week at the time.
Gee, my income had almost doubled!
I was getting more and more tired from all the driving I was doing – roughly three hours a day – and I heard there were other people who taught as many as 15 aerobics classes a week, so I still felt like an underachiever.
Around this time of my life, when I was about 34 years old, I went on vacation to Los Angeles, California.
Having not much to do one morning, I heard about a yoga class at a nearby studio.
I remember walking over to the studio – I think it was somewhere around the Larchmont area – and took my first class.
I really enjoyed what we were doing even though I had no idea exactly what the poses were.
In the lobby afterwards, I saw a video, “Total Yoga.” It was put together by Gangha White and Tracy Rich.
The video at the time probably cost around $12.99, which was still a lot of money to me at the time, but I decided that I already liked yoga so much, that I needed to have something to show me what to do when I got home.
I took the courageous step of spending the money on the yoga video.
When I got home, I put the video in the cassette player and started practicing on my living room rug virtually every morning.
Here was some kind of exercise I could practice that did not wear me out.
Here was some kind of exercise I could do that I actually enjoyed, that made me feel beautiful.
The hardest part was the meditation at the end.
The voices of Ganga and Tracy encouraged you to lie down for an entire five minutes after your yoga practice.
Five minutes! Five entire, whole minutes!
It felt like eternity.
I would lie on my living room rug, eyes closed, wondering when the five minutes would be up so I could run around and continue on with my busy day.
I don’t think I was able to stop my mind even once during those early five minute meditation sessions.
But the rest of the yoga practice made me feel better.
I wasn’t sure how it made me feel better, all that I knew was in fact that it did.
The next big step came when I actually bought myself a yoga mat.
As I was learning the poses through the video, I would notice that my feet would slip and slide around on my rug, which was very thick and cushy but not much for keeping your feet in the same position.
Wow! Lo and behold, when I got my yoga mat, I could actually keep my feet steady.
I kept practicing and practicing.
I continued to teach my aerobics classes, which kept exhausting me, but it was the main way I made a living, such as it was, so I kept doing it.
I took my first yoga teacher training in Atlanta.
The instructor there was not very nice to me.
He got fed up because I could do everything but meditate.
Other people would be happy to lie down on their mats when practice was over.
Me, on the other hand, lying quietly was just not my talent.
I was way too hyperactive.
I tried and tried, but the instructor would get angry with me.
Because of this initial certification, I was able to convince the company that hired me to teach aerobics at different corporations around Atlanta that I should include yoga as my list of offerings.
At that point, I was teaching aerobics, still very badly, and Step classes, also very poorly, and water aerobics, which nobody can really tell if you are teaching well or not because your body is submerged in a pool and it all seems like thrashing about anyway.
I started teaching yoga and suddenly things felt like a good fit.
People loved what I was teaching, even though I still didn’t have much of an idea what I was doing.
I was very creative and found ways of linking the postures together in interesting flows.
Because I was dissatisfied with my initial training in Atlanta and the mean instructor who picked on me for not being able to meditate, I moved on to the White Lotus Foundation outside Santa Barbara, California.
At last, I found my yoga folks.
I studied with Ganga White and Tracy Rich – the people who performed in my first yoga video.
I loved the flow yoga they were teaching.
I also seemed to fit in with the other teachers who were there studying.
The only thing that bothered me was that at that point I was nearly 40 years old and around the first or second day, the organizers announced that later in the week we were all going on a hike, which I loved to do, and then go skinny dipping.
All week, I worried about getting naked in front of people I had just met.
I didn’t think I could do it.
Because the White Lotus retreat itself is in an isolated spot in the mountains, there were people who walked around – I kid you not – bare naked. One woman only put her clothes on to practice yoga and to go to meals.
I felt very uncomfortable.
Here I was, thinking I was so liberal and open-minded, only to come upon California thinking.
I realized that I really was a 40-ish white woman from Atlanta, Georgia.
The day of the hike came. I had agonized whether to go or not but decided I really wanted to go out into the woods. I went on the hike with everyone but when we got to the place for swimming, I kept my swimsuit on.
I just could not go there.
I didn’t fault yoga for all that openness. I loved the White Lotus yoga.
Meanwhile, between classes, I slept a lot.
I was totally exhausted from life driving around Atlanta, trying to teach aerobics, Step, yoga and water aerobics and trying to write my plays at the same time.
I think that other people wondered why I was so tired.
Shortly after I published my first book in 1997, I was working with the Monsignor of Holy Spirit Catholic Church on Northside Drive. I was helping him with his exercise and also teaching him some yoga. Monsignor had polio twice as a child, so one of his legs is significantly shorter than the other. I was impressed that he was open-minded enough to try yoga with me. Monsignor got a copy of my book and then invited me to start teaching at Holy Spirit.
This was one of the greatest gifts that anyone has ever given to me.
I have friends whose goal in life is to become a famous yoga teacher.
For me, all I have ever wanted was to be a happy yoga teacher.
I found my yoga home at Holy Spirit.
They let me borrow a room for free, which took all the financial pressure off.
All I had to do was show up with my boom box (we kept the yoga mats at the time in a closet where the flowers for the altar were stored) and start teaching.
I was immediately happy teaching yoga there and began to develop a small class in the evenings, every Tuesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
I also taught a Wednesday morning class for a group of four ladies. This morning class happened to occur at the same time and in the same room as the Holy Spirit bridge group.
The bridge ladies resented the fact that while they were playing cards we were in another part of the room practicing yoga.
I would try my best to be kind to these ladies, but they would send Monsignor constant emails complaining about me and my yoga music, so Monsignor spent a considerable amount of church money to commission a moveable wall.
This wall divided the room in half so that our yoga class could be on one side and the bridge group could be on the other.
At last, peace was achieved!
Meanwhile, I continued to study yoga.
I went on to get a yoga teacher training certificate from Integrated Yoga Therapy, which sounded interesting to me as I was always interested in the healing aspects of yoga.
I also took Erich Schiffman’s yoga teacher training not just once but twice – first in Santa Barbara and another time in Los Angeles. I loved the way Erich’s freedom yoga gave me permission to continue to be creative, to flow one pose into another, and to figure out my own sequences.
Being intuitive, I generally taught my classes in an intuitive way.
I would show up, everybody would roll out their mats, and I would ask every student to say their name, identify any areas of tension in their mind and body, and then I would teach a class precisely for who showed up and what they needed.
Over the years, I taught in many locations in the church.
First I taught in the old McDonough Hall. Then we were in the Bride’s Room next to the main church, which was small but had very happy energy. Then we got moved to a school library not far from the church while construction was taking place on the church property. I had to move maybe five or six tables and about 50 little kid chairs before every yoga class, but once again the elementary school library had very happy energy, with pictures of all the presidents on the wall and thousands of little kid books, photographs of dogs and a comfortable rug.
Eventually our class was moved back to the main church again, this time to a beautiful room with a thick red rug, stained glass windows and wonderful walls where we could practice our yoga poses. We had everything we needed except a place to store props.
After moving back into the main church area, somehow I injured my right shoulder very badly.
For years, I had been teaching primarily vinyasa yoga, where you flow from one pose to another. I could make my flow harder or I could make it easier, but it felt really really good until I hurt my shoulder.
I could not do a single down dog or a single full body plank pose.
I realized at the time that I had to do everything differently.
Plus, I was getting older and by now my students were also getting older.
Even those of us who had been able to do a pretty challenging vinyasa flow wanted and needed something different.
By then, I had not just five teacher trainings under my belt, I had also attended countless yoga conventions and workshops. I was fortunate enough to hear that Lillah Schwarz was holding a yoga retreat the summer I hurt my shoulder. Even though I had helped countless other clients heal their own shoulders after injuries, now I needed help to learn how to teach my yoga differently.
I attended the yoga retreat with Lillah, then her seminar on yoga for healing the back and became the first person to sign up for her 2012 yoga teacher training.
When I showed up for her 2012 yoga teacher training that February, I was expecting to be just another 200 hour student.
As a younger person, I felt that I knew everything.
Now that I had reached the ripe age of 53, I felt like I knew nothing – maybe I knew actually a little bit, but I had changed my whole mental outlook. I was open to learning and eager to learn. I wanted to hear not just how to heal my own shoulder but also how to teach yoga the rest of my life, as I had seen videos of xxxx V. Scaravali, a long time student of Mr. Iyengar, teaching yoga well into her 90s. I had decided that I wanted to be like V. Scaravali and teach yoga into my 90s, and at that point had about 37 years to go.
Lillah was 60 and had been teaching for 30 years.
I was 53 and had been teaching for 16 years.
I liked the fact that her approach was totally different from mine, and yet very very intelligent, very thorough, very kind and tough at the same time.
Here was a woman I could really learn from, I thought.