Underpaid and Undervalued Experienced Yoga Teachers

There were stars in my eyes the day I became a 200 hour certified yoga instructor. Dressed in white, I walked on rose petals down a candlelit pathway. Standing face to face with my teachers, they rained roses down on me and held me close. I have not forgotten that moment, now twelve years later.

It was a different time in the current incarnation of yoga. It was 2005, and I knew most of the teachers in my small New England state. There were only a handful of teacher trainings in a 100 mile radius, and a smattering more of studios. I was fortunate to be in the same town as a grass roots studio and was accepted into their first teacher training program.

We emerged from our training hungry to teach.  We would teach anywhere from church basements, to gyms, to the town green, back to back classes.

We would do it for next to nothing because we weren’t focused on making a living. We were grateful for the opportunity to watch the bodies of our students and assist them in their poses. We were in a new love affair with the practice and teachings of yoga. It was the time in love when you can’t keep your hands off of each other. We were loving and learning, and finding our voices.

Yoga and yoga teacher trainings were quickly exploding. What I had spent months on and practice in could then be achieved in a weekend workshop. Those of us who were properly trained waited for the dust to settle and continued to teach. During this time, Yoga Alliance was identified as the benchmark of a teacher training program. The weekend workshops faded away and the uprising of the YA registered TT program began to swell in the undercurrent. Some of these trainings were good and some of them were not, but we all came out with the same 200 hour certification if not the same breadth of knowledge.

The Business of Yoga was also rising, and we began conversations
around making a living as a yoga teacher.

When I started teaching, I was single and without children. I was mostly loyal to one studio, working at the front desk about thirty hours a week, and teaching several classes. I taught mornings, evenings and every weekend. I was working seven days a week, every week. During this time, I also completed my 500 hour YA certification. For the next several years, I taught anywhere from one to fifteen classes a week while working part or full time.

Part of being a yoga teacher is Seva (selfless service). I taught benefit yoga classes for free, and donated the proceeds to a worthy cause. Likewise, I taught students receiving complimentary yoga from the studio for free, as I believed this was also some part of my service. I reasoned that I was paying my dues. What I was actually doing was teaching studio owners that, as an instructor, I held no value.

In my experience, the majority of studios pay their teachers in a few different ways. There are flat rate studios, who have a two or three tier rate structure, usually based on experience. This leaves no room for growth of income, no matter how large the class becomes.

There are minimum rate studios who pay a flat based on the number of students, say $25 for 1-5, $35 for 6-8, $50 for 9-10, and then an additional per-head bonus. These base rates could be lower than a flat rate studio, but with effort from the studio and the teacher, the class could grow larger and potentially pay out very well, benefitting everyone.

The third pay structure I’ve seen become more prevalent over the last few years is the no minimum, and a cap of, let’s say, $125 per class. This leaves potential for the teacher to grow the class, and can seem like an exciting opportunity. However, if the class is not in a popular time slot, the income is minimal. Studios are also participating in Groupon, hoping to retain students after their dirt cheap yoga classes run out. In most cases, this lost revenue comes out of the teacher’s pocket, or at the very least is shared between the teacher and the studio. This, coupled with the blatant giving away of yoga (i.e., first class free), is teaching new yoga students that the practice holds little to no value. In the cases of free yoga, the studio owner may even elect not to pay the teacher at all for these students.

Experienced yoga teachers are being undervalued and in many cases, underpaid.

The market continues to saturate with 200 hour brand new teachers. This commission based pay structure puts everyone on the same playing field, which could lead to a detriment to the quality of teaching. This may happen through disheartened and emotionally less present experienced teachers, or perhaps fewer experienced teachers in a group class setting. This would not only fail to serve the students, but also the newer teachers who need further guidance after becoming certified and/or are looking for inspiration for their own teachings.

While I used to be able to dedicate myself to a yoga studio nearly 24/7, I am now a wife and a mother. I am only able to teach on weekday mornings for the most part. My classes are smaller at 9:00am than a 6:00pm weekday class, and I accept that. I don’t expect to make as much money as a teacher teaching a thirty student class in the evening. I usually have an average of eight to ten people in class, and some of them have been with me since day one.

I make less now to teach a class then I did the day after I became 200 hour certified, and I know that there are ten yoga teachers behind me
who would gladly teach it for what I do.

They are new, they need the experience, or it’s a good time slot for them. I’ve waffled on that truth for several months. If I said something, I knew that there was a good chance that I’ll be shown the door, no matter how amicably. Or worse, I could be labeled as a difficult teacher. How intimidating, especially in a field where we are all supposed to be so tolerant and understanding.

I am no longer able to teach for less than I am worth.

The combination of my education and authenticity through experience must count for something. This means that I must not only ask for what I believe the worth of my teaching to be, but I must kindly demand it. I must also be willing to walk away from teaching group classes if my requirements aren’t met.

When I have pressed for what I am worth, I have been met with resistance in the forms of:

  • Guilt – Don’t you understand how much money it takes to run a yoga studio?
    No. It shouldn’t cheapen my worth.
  • Dangling Carrot – If you just give it more time, you’ll make more money.
    Unfairly vague.
  • Passive-Aggression – It’s not my fault you can’t teach at the popular times.
    It shouldn’t devalue my experience and education.
  • Shame – No one else has complained about the wages but you.
    Well, allow me to be the first to speak up for all of us.

I’ve also received the straight forward response of, “I’m sure I can find someone else to teach it for X amount.” That one may have stung the worst, but was the most necessary to open my eyes.

Sometimes I get so wrapped up in how much I love to teach that
even I forget that a green 200 hour teacher cannot provide it.

The classes that I will teach this week will have the foundation of every observation I’ve made about people and the practice of yoga in the thousands of classes I’ve taught before that one. I will teach from the scars of my mistakes, because I’ve already made most of the big ones. And when I do stumble, I’ll know how to bounce right back into the next pose with a little humor. I’m fully prepared to simultaneously support the woman in the corner who is crying her heart out in Camel, and the beginner in the front of the room who has had back surgery and needs modifications.

There will be thousands of new teachers this year. They also need to teach and cut their teeth. They need to be paid enough to support their endeavors, whether it’s through full time teaching or part time work and part time teaching. They have deep value, but we cannot all be paid the same way.

I must be the one to decide the value of my yoga teachings.

If studio owners agree with me, we can enter a collaboration. My vow in those collaborations will be the same as it always has been: I will be there early to hold the space for students as they come into class. I will read the level of the class and use all of my experience to teach to every one of them, both individually and collectively. I will teach from the heart and the mind, creating a safe practice. I will see every single one of them. I’ll support them, and I’ll encourage them to play with their edges. I’ll let them see my humanness. I’ll be available to talk after class, and I’ll do whatever I can to answer their questions. It’s the least I can do for this incredible, gorgeous gift of being able to teach this ancient and sacred practice.

I’ll earn my keep all the way, but it’s time for a shift in energy.

It’s time for experienced yoga teachers to be acknowledged and rewarded for our long term loyalty to our practice, education and teachings.

Temple has been teaching yoga since 2005. Please visit her at templeOMyoga.com

What do you think? Please comment below.

 

 

 

 

A Teacher Does Not a Healer Make

 

While listening to a podcast, I heard the host say that even though she is going through her own process, she is still a healer. My breath caught in my chest, as it does whenever I hear a human being refer to themselves in this way.

I have many teachers in my life. The short list includes my son, my husband, several yoga instructors, as well as psychotherapists, shamans, nutrition and life coaches and my dead father. None of them, ever, has healed me because none of them, ever, has had the ability to. To agree to any stance other than this is only to hand over my power to someone else and wait for them to fix me, to fill my voids and deficiencies. This life is way too short for that sort of thinking. My commitment to healing is to myself, from myself. I do not place this most precious of seedlings in the hands of anyone else. The wellbeing of my commitment to heal is no less important to me than the wellbeing of my family. I do not attempt to heal alone, though. My tribe reflects back to me what I need to see.

There have been nights of conversation from which I have emerged healed from an emotional wound. This is not because the person I spent that evening with chanted over me, held me, or walked through fire with me. Healing can only happen when I decide it’s time to happen. Those walks, those mantras, they are an ingredient in the recipe for healing, but they need my presence and my participation to rise.

I am a yoga teacher. In class, I create a space for my students and I hold that space for them during our time together. My promise to them is that I will be fully present if and when they decide to begin a healing process. I am not there to heal them. For me to think that I am even able to heal them is an exercise in futility and, in and of itself, delusional.

There is no podcast, no workshop, no yoga class or meditation, no guru, no book, and no retreat that will heal you. The healers among us are only us, and we choose what tools to use in order to facilitate and continue healing. All of these practices and experiences can be valuable, and even invaluable on the path, but they are only a deflated balloon without your breath. Take on your teachers. Listen to and question them, and then choose your position. You are your healer, and believe no one who tells you differently.

A Divorce of Two Yogis

A Divorce of Two Yogis

 

Jeff and I met before either one of us considered attending a yoga class, let alone teaching yoga to others. He was a VP of Finance at a management company in the city and I was the receptionist (I was a late bloomer in my career). We were friends. I liked that he used the natural light from the outside to light his office instead of fluorescents, and he liked that I was a seeker.

 

After three months of complete boredom at the job, I moved onto greener pastures and left Jeff behind. A couple of years later, we flashed back into each other’s lives and would go on double dates with our respective partners. He was engaged and I was very happy just dating. There was a connection between Jeff and me, and we both felt it.

 

The following year, his engagement was off and I was in a relationship that was becoming threadbare. We moved to the same town and started spending time together. We went out on our first date on my 29th birthday and we were married 364 days later on the beach inAntigua, barefoot and in love.

 

Our ultimate demise was exactly two years away. We had no idea, and the people around us certainly had no idea. In my yoga circle, I was constantly told how fortunate I was to have such a sensitive, agreeable, attractive, loving yogi for a husband. When I say constantly, I mean at least twice a week. I was talked to by women who said they would give anything to have their husband/partner practice yoga with them.

 

It was nice. It was lovely, actually, to have the person I was sharing my life with as excited as I was to go on a retreat to southern Brazil and practice yoga three times a day, to go to class at ‘our’ local studio, to teach partner yoga workshops with and to talk late into the night about the science and philosophies of yoga and how they fit into our lives, both separately and together.

 

But it wasn’t enough.

 

Eventually, we began to drift apart. It was so subtle at first that I hardly noticed it. It was a tiny seed of emptiness that I felt somewhere very deep down in my physical body. As much as I tried, I couldn’t seem to fill the space. There was a part of me that thought to myself, ‘It’s so small; don’t concern yourself with it.’ Keep calm and carry on, so to speak. I tried to let it quietly sit inside of me. I knew that I loved this being that I was married to, but it began to feel awkward. I began to feel that I was married to my friend, and only my friend.

 

We went about our lives in the adorable house we had recently purchased in the adorable town with the fantastic school system for the children we would eventually attempt to have. I planted flowers, he mowed the lawn. We worked well together on projects. I thought perhaps this was the foundation we would build our marriage on. Our circle of yogic friends began to separate in this way that was hardly noticeable. We didn’t attend the Thursday night yoga class together anymore. Instead, he met a female friend there, and they would practice together. And I, I started noticing someone else in my new circle. It was all so harmless, wasn’t it? Weren’t we, as yogis, supposed to create community?

 

Neither one of us said anything about any of this to the other. We still taught partner yoga, although the connection I once felt to him was replaced by discomfort as I placed my hand on his thigh to demonstrate double seated spinal twist.  Slowly, we began to say things to each other that began with: “No matter what happens…”  We were coming closer to the truth that neither one of us was ready to admit. We were the yogi couple! We had a goddamn meditation room and an adorable yellow house with a front door that I had intuitively fucking painted! How could that possibly be wrong?

 

The man I had my eyes turned toward was no one I had any business to be looking at. He was a man with a wife, and I was a woman with a husband. In retrospect, I can see that I was not looking through the eyes of a woman who knew who she was without a man in her life.

The woman my husband had sent seemingly innocent* e-mails to about her beautiful energy in class the evening before, found by me as I accidentally** checked his e-mail instead of mine (my name was the password) was a friend of mine that I was confiding in about my doubts in our relationship.

 *only innocent if one is paying absolutely no attention whatsoever
**completely on purpose, and not proud of it

Things were getting ugly, and getting ugly fast.

 

There was still a part of us that was on the same side, though, and I know that was because of the lessons we had learned through our individual yoga practices. We were each attempting to figure out what was right for ourselves, and at the same time trying to spare the other unnecessary pain. It meant some lying by omission. That wasn’t the yoga talking. That was the fear, and we both had it.

 

It was a frightening time. We were just on the cusp of learning how to tell our truths, both to each other as well as others in our lives. There’s something I can only describe as an internal tornado when this happens for the first time. Even though there’s no stopping it, one will look for every single coping mechanism and reality avoidance tool in the box to avoid it, because it’s new and it’s scary as hell to stand in your truth and let the chips fall where they may.

 

We looked to each other for comfort during this time, strangely, but then again, not so. We went on a cruise planned months earlier to celebrate our anniversary. We sat at a table at dinner inFort Lauderdaleand talked about a divorce. We went on the cruise the next day, and we were friends again, thoroughly. Upon our return, we began to make plans to separate. I left our house and moved into an apartment. He lived in the now nearly empty house (he told me to take everything) and put it up on the market.

 

There was a part of me that thought we would get back together. Perhaps he would come over to my new bachelorette pad, we would have dinner and find our spark again. He did come over, three days after I moved, and announced that he was seeing the woman from the yoga class on Thursday nights. I tried to argue him out of it, but only because I wanted him to want me so that I could make the final decision. It didn’t turn out that way. I asked him that night if he thought we had made a mistake, and I saw the clarity in his eyes when he looked at me and said, quietly yet firmly, ‘no, I don’t.’ I got the message, and I respected him for standing in his truth. It didn’t stop me from bawling over a marriage that didn’t even last two years other than legally, and it didn’t stop me from attempting to build my rope swing to the Man I Had No Business Looking At (gratefully, to no avail).

 

But his honesty did teach me one thing.

 

I learned that what is true is true, no matter if it’s spoken or not, and that, ultimately, when we speak our truths, we can at least give them the chance to see the light of day, to watch what they blossom into.

 

So, Jeff and I had the most amicable divorce ever. We drove to the courthouse together on a rainy, cold day in December. We sat together and giggled in the hall at how the judge had chastised us for not properly filling out the paperwork. We drove back to the town we now together lived separately in, and as he dropped me off, I looked to him one last time as a husband. We said that we loved each other and I left the car and our marriage behind.

 

Learning to not be a wife again was difficult for me. I thought that the rest of my life was planned out. I feel extremely fortunate that I had the physical as well as the spiritual practice of yoga in my life during that time. During moments of panic, I would drop into ujjayi breath and ride the wave. That was most of the time. Some of the time, I was crumpled on my living room floor, feeling like I would never again feel like a woman of worth and literally crying out for help in moving through my pain of loss.

 

It’s been almost four years since my divorce. My thoughts on marriage have evolved consistently during that time. I would have said that it wasn’t the path for me in the first two years post-divorce. Now I know that being a wife and mother is something that I want to be a part of my experience on this planet. Although I cannot say that it will certainly happen, I can say that I am most certainly rooting for it these days.

 

 

 

 

 

The Smoking Yogi

The Smoking Yogi

I once read Q&A with a guru where the student asked: Can I practice yoga and also be a smoker? The guru replied, “Smoking does not get in the way of yoga, but sometimes yoga gets in the way of smoking.” How true this would become was not known to me at the time, although I did feel a connection to this idea.

I was the smoking yogi.

I have been practicing yoga since 2004 and I smoked up to 30 and at least five cigarettes a day until 2011.

I had been a smoker since I was 16 years old. I learned to smoke in two ways: first, I watched my mother smoke and stole her cigarette butts from the ashtray. Second, a girl I went to school with literally taught me how to inhale and not cough. I was a good smoker right away. I barely coughed and managed to power through to become a full-fledged smoker. I smoked cigarettes whenever I possibly could. It was very accepted in my family and I was not questioned about smoking in my bedroom at my parents’ house and was even invited to openly smoke at my grandparents’ house. It was so deeply sewn into my family that the thought to tell me NOT to smoke simply was not there. And, to a girl who wants to smoke cigarettes, well, that’s about the perfect setup.

There was one moment between my father and me that has stayed with me. He and I would write letters back and forth telling each other how we felt about each other. He was in the house with me, but we couldn’t talk to one another. One time, he stole my cigarettes out of my nightstand drawer. I left him a note in that drawer telling him that he had no right to do that, and I received a letter from him that I have to this day. He said to me, “You have my blood and if you do not stop smoking, you will have the same health issues that I have now.” By this, he meant two heart attacks and lung cancer. I felt more outraged at his audacity to tell me what to do and not do, as he wouldn’t even speak to me in our home. I still have that letter, though. I’ve saved it for 19 years, and suspect it will always be with me, tucked in a box high up on a shelf to remind me of where I come from.

So, I smoked through high school and into my 20’s. I smoked in my apartments, in my cars, at bars and restaurants and anywhere else I could. I threw cigarette butts out the window of my car without a second thought. I fully embraced being a smoker in every way, that is to say I didn’t think twice about two cigarettes before work, four at work and seven to ten after work. These days went on and on. Weekends meant at least a pack of cigarettes. I would smoke myself hungry and then full again. I loved, loved, loved to smoke. I felt that it was something I excelled at, as it was.

As my 20’s came to a close, I began to not love smoking as much as I had. I began to feel and acknowledge the consequences of smoking. The catalyst was my father’s death in 2000 from lung cancer. I began to know that I did not want to smoke any more, however, there was always a reason to continue to smoke. I was stressed out, I was tired, I didn’t want to gain weight, it was something that brought my mother, my grandmother and myself together. It passed the time, it was part of me, I didn’t know who I was without cigarettes, it was too hard. It was too hard. Still, slowly, I began to become aware of cigarettes in my life. Although it took me a few years, I began to smoke less. I bought my first new car and decided not to smoke in it. Ridiculous, right? I didn’t want to mess up the interior of my new car with cigarettes, but thought nothing of standing outside of my new car and inhaling smoke and 40,000 carcinogens into my lungs and through my blood after work. Hindsight is so clear. At the time it made some sort of sense to me.

In 2004, yoga came into my life. I looked forward to yoga and thought: That’s it! That’s the thing that will take smoking away from me. It was just another way to give up my power. I made no effort not to smoke as I was thinking of coming into yoga. I imagined that I would be too embarrassed to smoke and take yoga, so I waited for my teacher training program to begin. I honestly thought that the urge to smoke would be magically taken from me.

To keep this short, and to not appear like a complete idiot, let’s just say that it did not magically take away an addiction that I had actively maintained for 15 years.

I smoked through teacher training (200 hours), then advanced teacher training (500 hours), DanceAwakening training, workshops and countless two hour yoga classes. I smoked before I taught yoga and after I taught yoga, but something had changed. I was no longer simply aware of my addiction.  I was ashamed of it. I told very few people about it, and those people only learned I smoked if there was a bottle of wine involved and I absolutely needed a cigarette. Not only did I not tell, but I lied when asked. Once my hairdresser asked me as he smelled my hair, “Darling, do you smoke cigarettes?”  I lied and said that I had walked though a group of smokers right before I came in. My shame was growing, and growing exponentially.

The shame was still not enough to get me to stop smoking, although it did take nearly every bit of enjoyment out of smoking for me. Every cigarette I had would go something like this: Me, on the back porch (I had stopped smoking in my house as well). Enter weather. Sunny, rainy, or blizzard, it didn’t matter. I would literally shovel a spot for myself to stand in if the snow was too deep to stand on.  Commence light up. As soon as I took the first drag of smoke into my lungs, I felt home. By the second time I pulled smoke into my lungs, I felt like a worthless liar who would never, ever, ever be able to free myself from this addiction. That also had the feeling of home in it. I had smoked nearly every single day for 20 years of my life. My mother, grandmother and father all smoked themselves ill. I felt as if I was tied to train tracks and seeing the light of the of the oncoming train in the distance.

I vowed to cover it up better so that I wouldn’t have to lie. I wouldn’t have to lie because no one would know, not because I had decided to be truthful.

During this time of absolute shame, I received confusing mixed messages from others. There were those who told me that being a yoga teacher who smoked made me interesting. That I found very appealing, as I wanted to be interesting.

As an addict of nicotine, as I imagine an addict of anything else would do, I looked for reasons to get my drug of choice into my system, and to keep it there. I was never disappointed. Someone hurt my feelings, Work was difficult, I was celebrating something and alcohol was involved, I was running away from something, I had just eaten, I was bored, it had been two hours since my last cigarette, and the most unbelievable, yet powerful one of them all:  I was feeling stress because my family was dying of lung cancer before my very eyes.

So began the most painful part of my journey. I smoked while knowing the two women whom I loved more than anyone else on the planet were fighting for every breath, fighting for their lives because of a lifelong addiction to smoking. Let me be clear: I was disgusted with my addiction and my actions. During this time, I was teaching yoga and telling the students that they were precious. I was desperately trying to listen as I spoke these words. I finally, finally, FINALLY admitted that I needed to give this addiction up after my mother and grandmother passed away. Still, it took three more months for me to ask the Universe for support. I am not religious in any way, but I thought of the Serenity Prayer that is spoken in AA meetings around the world. Although I do not pray in this way, I did acknowledge that this addiction to nicotine needed to me ‘handed off’. In my mind’s eye, I imagined myself in a backbend, heart open to the sky. The words came to me, ‘please, take this desperate need to smoke away. I will handle the rest.’ Something was different. I didn’t expect that I would never think of smoking another cigarette. I just needed to give up the absolute fingernail dragging desperation that comes along with needing to reaffirm shame in order to stay in it. I asked for it to be taken away, but in reality, I gave it up, not to anyone or anything. I simply, finally, gave up the battle, and began to accept that I was also precious, just like the people taking yoga with me.

I am now sixty some odd days into my new life.

My new life is so fantastic. I, for the first time, feel that I am honoring myself and the two women who meant the world to me.

I breathe clearly every moment of every day. I no longer cough in the middle of the night or in the middle of teaching a yoga class. I am no longer shameful of something that I do about five times a day.

There are moments when I really think that I want to smoke. It’s Spring now, and that was the best time for me to smoke on the back porch. These moments hit me like a spear in the heart and I catch my breath. Usually, with a few breaths, this feeling passes. It happens about three times a week. I can live with that.

I want to live, and I want to live well. This want propels me to say no to the twinge again and again. I know this is my heart: if I was to continue to smoke, it eventually would have taken my life, the same life that I deeply want to live. I have always had a flame in my heart that burns brightly. I am passionate, I am loving and I am a woman who was a wounded girl. I have found through my own experiences that wounded girls need to fight to understand how important they are. The practice of yoga has helped me become a warrior, and by that I mean that I am a woman who stands very proudly in her entire life, including mistakes made and years and years of not understanding how precious I was.

Now, I get it. And incidentally, I love every single one of the five pounds I’ve put on since I stopped smoking. I’m enjoying losing them through things I never could have accomplished as a smoker, like Zumba and Boot Camp. And I’m breathing deeply all the way through.

Yoga and Grief

Yoga and Grief

 

In order to understand where I am writing this from, you must first know from where I’ve come. In October, I wrote in honor of the birthday that my dad would have celebrated had he not passed away in 2000. Less than three months later, my mother and my grandmother passed away within three days of each other. My grandmother had been set on passing for some time. She was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007, had lost almost everyone she had ever known as a child by 2010 and was exhausted. She was admitted to the hospital two weeks before Christmas and passed away quietly on Christmas day with the family at her bedside, including me, my brother and my mom. We watched her take her last breaths with an oxygen mask tied to her face. Her breath became slower, and her mouth little by little took up all of the space inside of the mask as her last breath released. My mom, beating her own lung cancer, began to hyperventilate. She sat for a moment and regained her slow, deep breath. We thought it might have been anxiety. After all, her mother had just passed away. The funeral was three days later, and my partner, Jonathan and I drove the two hour drive back to our home state of CT. We had coffee with my mom at her house. I remembered a Christmas present I had left at home for her and mentioned I’d give it to her the next time I saw her. We made small talk, and then it was time to go. We took separate cars, my brother driving my mom in her car. We knew the way well. We had said goodbye to many of our family members at this funeral home. We walked in and my 2nd cousin went in with my mom to view my grandmother’s body before the services began. My brother and I waited in a small room for family, greeting the people who were coming in.

 

I saw my mother run by me with our cousin close at her heels. She ran out the door, and I ran to follow her. She was kneeling on the ground, crying (I thought) with people holding her up. I ran back inside. It was too much to see. My heart was breaking for her. She was with several people and I cried on a family friend’s shoulder. Commotion began to ensue. People were rushing, and I couldn’t tell what was happening. I went back outside, where my mom was on her back, mouth open and eyelids fluttering. Her legs were being held in the air. I knew she was dying. Family, friends, they tried to tell me that she was having an anxiety attack. The EMT’s came and intabated her after attempting CPR. My brother was in the room with her, and declined when they told him to leave. From the family waiting room, I could only see her legs and her winter boots in the doorway. I saw her briefly and noticed her wig had fallen off. I knew in that moment that she would not survive. I had never seen my mom without her wig, and I knew that she would have not been able to go on if she knew all of the people saw the results of her seven months of chemotherapy and radiation. To think about the gap between that and dying seems huge, but my mom was an extremely proud woman who thought of cancer as an inconvenience and never complained, never put herself first. To have been the center of attention would have been too much for her.

 

The EMT”s put my mom on a stretcher and took her out through the front doors of the funeral home, past all of the people waiting to come into my grandmother’s funeral. My brother followed the ambulance to the hospital and promised to call. I stayed, thinking I would attend Grammie’s funeral for both of us. I did not make it in. My brother called ten minutes later to tell me that our mother had died.

Jonathan and I went to the hospital to meet my brother while the funeral went on without us. I could not view my mother’s body. I felt like I could shut down and die at any moment and I went into self preservation mode, sitting instead in the bathroom whispering the words to myself again and again, “Mom passed away. It’s okay. We’ll make it. We’ll make it through this day alive.”  I stood and looked at the face I no longer recognized in the mirror. I appeared old and confused to myself. Jon and my brother went in to say goodbye to my mother.

 

There have been moments when I regretted the decision to stay behind in the bathroom. I know that she would have tried to come and say goodbye to me, even under the circumstances. I must take solace in knowing that I was a good daughter to her, and that she would understand that losing the two women who I loved more than anyone else on the planet was too much for me in that moment.

 

The three of us went back to the funeral home about 15 minutes later. We had to bury our grandmother. We numbly drove to the cemetery. As fate would have it, the minister who spoke at the funeral could not come to the cemetery and so the funeral director turned to ME to say some words about our Grammie. I wanted to crawl in the ground, but somehow I found some words to say. The words were brief, and perhaps not appropriate for most funerals, but for those who knew her they were most appropriate. I said that she was full of piss and vinegar and also one of the most loving women I had ever known.

 

We left the cemetery and went back to my mom’s house, where we were supposed to have a party in honor of our grandmother. We asked that no one attend, that we needed to be alone. We sat in her house among her things in silence, all of us in our own thoughts. People who were unable to attend my grandmother’s funeral began to call the house to offer condolences to our mother. After two or three phone calls, we just let it ring. Several hours later, we tore the Christmas tree down and threw it away. We went back to the funeral home to discuss arrangements for our mom.

 

The days that followed were filled with cleaning out our mom’s house. She was sentimental, but not at all organized, so there was a lot of going through bags of pictures we had drawn as children, letters to Santa, Barbie clothes, toy trucks. I simply do not understand how we made it through those earliest days.

 

It has now been three months since she died. We are still cleaning out her house, and my grandmother’s house, and working with lawyers and medical practices attempting to sell houses and settle debts. There have been moments when I have been the shell of the person I once was. I have tried to do everything perfectly and I have acknowledged my humanness. I have taught yoga through the entire process. There have been classes where I’ve cried while the students were in Savasana, when I’ve felt my mother’s spirit with me as I spoke about letting go, and times when I’ve nearly had to drag myself into the room to teach.

 

I’ve taken a few classes only since my mom has passed away. The first class I took I completely lost it in Child’s pose. I received a sacrum assist from the teacher and opened up to the intense sadness that I’ve felt over the last few months. I’ve spent so much time attempting to appear normal that I’ve forgotten to grieve. The second class I took was a memorial benefit in memory of my mom.  There were students of my classes as well as my own teachers all practicing in the same room. I nearly fainted about three times. Every time I would come up from Uttanasana to Uphavista Hastasana, my head would get all fuzzy and I’d feel as if I was about to go down. I tried to breathe through it, and eventually did. I cried in Seated Spinal Twist through Savasana. The third and final class that I’ve taken was the first time I didn’t feel like I was dying, but that I was choosing to live. It was a warm Vinyasa class, early morning. I felt stronger than I’ve felt in a long time, and didn’t feel as if I would collapse. Sure, I still cried in Ananda Balasana (Happy Baby), but I just worked with it. I didn’t stop practicing, I just kept breathing.

 

For me, yoga in the face of deep grief is nothing short than a connection to the divine; my divine. It’s an acknowledgement that although my heart is shattered, breaking, just an absolute mess, it’s still part of this body that is going on in the shadow of this grief. It’s still part of this body in the deep surrender of Pigeon pose or the strength of Warrior III. It is with the breath that I warm the cool corners of the shadow of my grief and slowly begin to deem those corners once again inhabitable. It is through the practice that I begin to creep back into these places inside of myself and turn on the lights.

 

It’s frightening to begin the process of moving on. On one level, the very deep level of shame, it feels like a betrayal to the women I loved so deeply. How DARE I go on?  But then I hear the voice of my mother. It is the same voice that cooed to me as a baby, grounded me as a teenager, debated with me as a young adult and supported me as a grown woman, a yoga teacher who is attempting to help others heal through the practice. I hear her voice, the same I’d know from a million miles away tell me to go on. I hear not words but her very essence with a hand on my back giving me a little push. She tells me through this essence that perhaps we’ll see each other again. She tells me she wants me to live and to be happy. She even tells me that it’s okay that I sat in a bathroom at a hospital instead of kissing her face one more time. She tells me to teach, to say what I need to learn out loud so that others have the same opportunity. She tells me to practice, to seek out teachers who understand grief and joy mixed together in the same glass, and also to practice on my own, to trust my intuition to know where I need to go.

 

So, I teach. So, I learn to practice on my own, to be with my thoughts of grief and joy, of sadness and hope. I know that it is the right path for me, no matter how frightening it may feel in those moments when there is more grief than joy. I know that all things pass through this life, whether it’s someone like my beautiful momma or fear in my mind. When we choose to release the fear and live fully, this is where the magic, the healing, the evolution happens.

 

For those of you that are grieving know that my heart is with you. I understand, and you are not alone. It helps to know that neither am I.

 

Practice, follow your hearts and breathe.

Finding Your Authentic Self Within Your Yoga Practice

The yoga mat is where I found my authentic self. You can too.

 

I was desperately afraid of connecting to my body, and I ignored the voice of inspiration that was telling me to come to the yoga practice for three long years. Once I finally began to practice (with the support of dear friends whom cheered me on until I finally went to a class), I started to feel the connection of mind and body. This connection felt both like I had come home to who I was and also felt nearly suffocating. I continued to practice, as well as trained to teach yoga to others.

 

The yoga mat has become the place where I continue to learn the deepest parts of myself. My deep breath leads the way as I come into the poses, and I’ve realized that I deserve nothing less than the deepest possible breath within my practice.

 

And that’s where we begin; in the breath. As you feel your body connect with the mat, allow it also to connect with the breath. Begin to feel the flow within yourself. I will tell you something that I know to be true: you are precious, and you deserve whatever it is that will make you feel full so that you can go into the world and do your good work.

 

The next place to bring the practice is to an allowing space. Allow yourself to be yourself. Allow everyone else to be who they are and feel how freeing that is. Notice how you have such a clearer view of yourself when you allow others to live their lives. Allow gratitude to come into your psyche, and let it flow through every vein in your body, leaving no cell untouched. The power of gratitude in your yoga practice will most certainly follow you off of the mat. With this allowance comes absolute compassion. Once you allow compassion into your practice, your poses will become more beautiful that you would have imagined. Your toes may not come over your head in Natarajasana (Dancer’s pose) and your knees may bend in Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Fold). Still, if you are allowing and grateful, if you are compassionate, your practice will widely open up and the possibilities of the authentic YOU will be endless.

 

Your authentic self is the person you are when you allow the world to be as it is, and know that you will do what you can, you won’t do what you can’t, and the circle of Life will move forward. For me, coming to the mat meant leaving behind the idea that I could not succeed. What is it for you? What can you release in order to make room for what you need?

 

I invite you, the next time you come to your yoga practice, to ask yourself this question: What do you need to let in and what do you need to let go of? Let the breath be your guide, and let your authentic self speak. It’s really the least we can do for ourselves.

 

There is a quote that I heard nearly five years ago now in a yoga class. Your energy is the same energy that turns the planet. You are that important. I think of those words nearly every day, and I take it to the mat with me. I am that important. So are you.

 

For questions regarding yoga or Temple’s journey, please contact her at temple.yoga@gmail.com

Homage to Dad

Today would have been the 65th birthday of my father, Robert F. Symonds. He passed away on January 23, 2000 after a battle with lung cancer.

I have my father to thank for a myriad of my personality quirks, and also for my talents. Although I didn’t inherit his ability to play guitar, because of him I learned to sing. Since I can remember, I have found solace in the act of singing, mostly to myself. My earliest memory is caught on our home movies. I was about five years old, and my father had a bunch of silent films from various Halloween nights, as well as about 90 minutes of the cats. When my brother was 8 or so, me being 5, he set up a microphone in our living room and told us to narrate the home movies. Mostly it’s just my brother and me fighting about who was going to say what, but at the very end of the tape in black and white film, he hooked up the sound (ah, technology!) and asked us to sing. Erik, my brother, chose ‘John Brown’s baby’ (note: although I would have LOVED for E to have been dressed like this in the video, alas, he was not). I chose Playmate, Come Out and Play With Me. Even now, when I look back on that tape, I know that I was singing to and for my dad.

I always sang to and for my dad, whether he knew it or not. Everything I did was for my dad. I thought that I would be the one girl to show him how important he was. You see, he didn’t know. He didn’t understand that he was a beautiful human being who had the same right to be happy as the rest of us. He grew up in an abusive home and as a result, he was unable to show us love. He said it best in something that he wrote once. He said: I never laid a hand on my children; not in anger and not in love. Still, I sang for him. I knew that one day it would click. He was everything to me.

Honestly, I don’t know if it ever clicked. He died before we had a chance to really talk it out. I don’t even know if we would ever have talked it out, had he been alive. What I do know is that there is nothing, nothing that he could have ever done to stop me from loving him. He was a deep, dark, charismatic, talented and emotionally unavailable man.

One of the deepest impressions he made on me was his love of words. I sometimes wish that I knew his favorite author or what moved him to write, but I only know what I received from him. He and I would write letters to each other, never speaking of them. I would leave them for him in his car, or at the kitchen table where he drank his coffee, and he would leave them for me in my nightstand drawer. In these letters, I would tell him how very much I loved him, as well as how angry I was at him for not letting me in. I would tell him that I still loved him, even though he couldn’t let me get close. I would tell him at 15 how he was screwing me up. I would use loving language, and foul language, and never apologize for either. He would write back to me explaining that I couldn’t understand why he was the way that he was, but that he was trying. He would make promises to me about how our relationship would be someday and I would hold onto hope that it would happen.

There were glimpses of happiness and love between us. He taught me to swim and to drive. He danced with me on a couple of Christmas Eves. I have a picture of us on such an evening. My face is in his cable knit sweater and we are looking at each other. I can see the hope in my eyes that it was the beginning of change.

The truth is that it was, but not in the way I had hoped. It was the beginning of the lesson for me that I am my own support system. There are many girls in this world that have their fathers to run to during hardship. That’s not something that I had. Still, his life was the greatest lesson of all for me.

I wanted to heal from the pain of losing my father, both as a child when hope was dashed, and as a 25 year old woman who received a short phone call from a pastor telling me that my father was dead. I tried to ask this man questions and he cut me off and hung up on me. My father had found religion and a new wife that did not appreciate his life before her. There were many arguments with her after my father’s death. I don’t mean to vilify her, really. I barely know her. We haven’t spoken in almost 10 years. Here’s what I know: she spread the ashes of my father and didn’t tell me. When I asked her about it, she told me that I didn’t love him and didn’t deserve to be there. There. I said it. I know it sounds intense, and it was intense. Still, it was a long time ago and time does mend wounds like that. So, after his death, my heart was a bloody mess, I tell you. I was heart broken, in every non literal sense of the word. I was crushed. Then came Monday morning, and I had to go back to work. I had to function in a world that I couldn’t begin to understand with a heart and mind that cried with every toss of the wind. I was in therapy, but none of it made any sense. I thought that we were supposed to work it out. I thought that it was the most unfair thing that he had ever done to me, dying like that. I thought he had some nerve. Suddenly, I was not only a grieving daughter, but a martyr as well who somehow had to function and pay the rent. I did all right, really. I found healthy and not so healthy ways of coping. I tried to appear balanced. The people who got closest to me saw that I was desperately sad. I can think of them all in this moment. They all tried to help in the best way that they knew how. As my dear friend once told me, though, I was inconsolable.

I would sing to my father then, in those dark moments. I would sing all different things, but I loved to sing ‘Amazing Grace’, and also ‘Winter‘ by Tori Amos. I would ask for his forgiveness and give him mine.

I began to need to practice yoga. I didn’t know that’s what I needed, but I know I needed to connect to my body. I needed my heart and mind to make friends.

Even though my father never laid a hand on me, as he said, he showed me that when we don’t listen to inspiration that a void will follow. I try to follow my inspiration in my life, in my teaching, in my practice. I try very hard (sometimes too hard) to listen to what I need. I’ve found that when I listen TOO hard that I miss the point completely. Yoga has taught me that everything is fluid. Blood, love and body are fluid. There is no point to attempting to clamp down on them, because nothing stops the flow. Yoga, and my beautiful, amazing, talented and shadowed father taught me that no matter how heavy the weight, that love cannot be hidden. Even without the hand of love, I know that he loved me. I know that he would have loved me better if he could have. This knowledge doesn’t stop me from feeling like my heart is splitting in two from time to time. It’s part of the grieving process, and I don’t think that’s ever truly over when a child, no matter how old, loses a parent.

So today, even though I haven’t seen his face or dark eyes for over a decade, I can feel what it felt like to be his daughter. I can feel his struggle for survival. I can hear his deep, baritone voice singing country songs. I can feel the cable knit sweater against the skin of my face. So, today my heart is splitting in two.

There is nothing that would have stopped me from loving him. It’s simply not possible.

When you gonna make up your mind?

When you gonna love you as much as I do?

When you gonna make up your mind, ‘cuz things are gonna

Change so fast

All the white horses have gone ahead

I tell you that I’ll always want you near

You say that things change, my dear.

——-

Hair is gray and the fires are burning

So many dreams on the shelf

You say I wanted you to be proud of me

I always wanted that myself.

———-

If you’re heart is breaking, let it break. We must learn to walk with sorrow in order to understand the light. This I know is true. Happy Birthday, Dad. I miss you with every cell.