• Julie Martin

The Teacher As Beginner


The first thing I think about when I reflect on my life as a yoga teacher. What an amazing vocation to share and witness the process of life, my life and others.

Surprisingly I experienced a class that brought new meaning to the word gratitude, opening my eyes to how yoga is a reflection of life in each of us.

I was visiting my friend and fellow yoga teacher, Anna Marti in Portland, Oregon. She volunteers for a wonderful organisation called Living Yoga that brings yoga to people who wouldn’t normally have access to it or be familiar with the benefits of yoga. Classes are held in prisons, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, shetlers and similar facilities.

Anna asked me if I wanted to co-teach one of the classes with her at a mens center. I felt out of my comfort zone, yet I was drawn to say ‘yes’ as Anna explained the challenges in this setting not normally encountered at a regular yoga studio.

For most clients this setting is court mandated. It’s this or prison.

I started to get a bit nervous on the drive over. Anna gave me the most basic and wonderful advice: “Just be open to whatever may happen. Connect from your heart”. Right.

Isn’t that what I need to do every day in life? Isn’t that what I travel around the world teaching others? Now more than ever was time to put the lessons of yoga into practice. “Just breathe,” I reminded myself.

My initial fear rose as the men filtered into the room; attitude, indifference, tattoos, big guys, and unanimous in their desire to be somewhere else, perhaps someone else altogether.

“Oh my God, we’re girls.” was the thought that flooded me. Were we to command a room full of men encountering perhaps the most challenging time of their lives? Addicts and alcoholics hoping to get clean or just doing time to prevent a prison sentence.

It became apparent that there wasn’t going to be a lot of traditional asana happening. These men have never been in their bodies. Sitting on the floor was uncomfortable and stamina to maintain standing postures, absent.

As if on cue, a question arose from the ranks: “Why do we have to do yoga?”

We had decided to start the class with a brief discussion on the Bhagavad Gita. Sounds like a bit much for this kind of crowd, but our focus was on Krishna’s explanation that Arjuna must fight this battle regardless that his cousins are on both sides of the battlefield.

This tale can be translated as the battlefield of the mind that we all live with. While we can’t change the circumstances of battle, we can learn to be a witness. To observe, not react. To remain present in whatever conditions we find ourselves, just breathe, just be.

Using language the men could relate to we were amazed to find them listening, connecting. In 12 step programs they are taught to be in the “Here and Now”. This wasn’t foreign to them.

The first surprise. Sparks of recognition. Maybe they couldn’t touch their toes or sustain attention. Yet there were moments when stopping to get one to just notice breath, relax their head, a connection happened.

It was these moments that showed me the real power of yoga. I’ve spent years helping students into difficult postures and here in this revealing class all that seemed insignificant.

There was more true yoga going on in this room than I had seen in years. It felt more powerful because it was revealing itself in the most unconventional yogis, certainly not my familiar audience.

In the end, It wasn’t the brief gratitude from the men as they filtered out of the room that moved me. It was gratitude I felt for being in their presence, for witnessing small, even miniscule lights switch on no matter how flickering. I stood in awe.

I urge you to question “what does it mean to be a yogi?”

We spend too much time delving into our neurosis, when in fact, as teachers, as leaders we need to stop gazing at our own navels and start showing up for the rest of humanity.

Our job is to inspire, the postures are merely vehicles of the process.

If I preach that we are one, that we are connected, then I need to live connection. I encourage everyone to risk and offer service (seva) to those in need. To all.

The opportunity to serve comes in the most surprising places.

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