Dear Yoga Teacher

This piece was originally published on June 4, 2015.

Dear Yoga Teacher,

Two years ago, my depression and anxiety were getting the better of me. I've lived with them all my life, but up until then I thought I was doing just fine, that I knew how to cope. Old habits and defenses had deluded me into thinking I could handle my pain all by myself until, all of a sudden, like a bridge collapsing into an angry river, I realized I could not. It's not that I hadn't been sad before; it's that my coping mechanisms no longer worked.

Suddenly, I couldn't make it through a day without crippling anxiety, sometimes so severe that it was impossible to do the simplest things, like sit through a television show with my guy or focus on a book long enough to absorb the words on the page or pay attention in a meeting. Getting to five o'clock without running to the office bathroom to cry through a panic attack was a constant struggle. The things I'd done in the past to distract myself into thinking I was okay, like exercising and staying super busy, didn't fix it. Obviously, this was not sustainable. Clearly, I couldn't live this way. So I embarked on a journey - one that included a therapist (two, to be precise, both of whom deserve a lot of credit for my improved well-being), a physician, medication, reading, writing, mindfulness practice, and one other very, very important thing: yoga.

My sister found yoga after a particularly stressful time in her life, and grew to love it so much that she's now a certified instructor and a wonderful teacher. Back then, I didn't really understand why she was so into it, particularly the spiritual value she was getting. I've never been religious at all, and had never felt a particular need for religion in my life. Though I considered myself spiritual, I didn't exactly understand what yoga had to offer me in that department. The idea of the group - a room full of chanting yogis - seemed foreign and uncomfortable to me. Like so many other people, I didn't understand how the physical practice was part of a much larger mental exercise and life pursuit. But later, as my depression and anxiety worsened for the first time since my early twenties, I felt pulled to give it a try. I remembered what it did for my sister, the confidence it gave her in her own strength. I thought, hey, at the least, it'll be good exercise. And if it ends up being more, then, excellent.

I had dabbled in yoga before, being a former dancer and someone who loves a good sweaty workout. I knew I wanted a more contemplative practice, one that was physically challenging but that would also take me on an inward journey of healing and growth. I tried several studios in Seattle but felt like I wasn’t finding the super powerful connection I knew could be out there somewhere. I wanted a studio near my house that I could walk to, so it would be harder to justify skipping class on the days when my depression threatened to win out. You, dear yoga teacher, were one of the first people I practiced with at my home studio. I remember feeling a bit intimidated, walking into your Tuesday night All Levels class, looking around a room full of accomplished students and wondering if I would be able to keep up. At that point, I had been practicing about twice a month, and I had no confidence in my practice at all.

I looked around the room, feeling a little anxious and wondering whether I should just sneak out and come back another night, maybe to an easier class. But I noticed that you seemed to know almost everyone in the room, and the few people you didn’t know, you greeted so warmly. I was struck by the way you stopped by the yogis' mats, hugged them, asked them about their lives, like a friend. I thought, “Everyone in this room is a regular. These people come for you.” I knew that I had walked in on something very special, and I decided to stay. 

I’m so glad I stayed. 

Classes with you have changed my life. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true. Every single time I’ve come to practice with you, all of my problems and anxieties fall away and I become one hundred percent focused on the present moment. A break from my brain; exactly what I was  looking for. Physically, your classes are challenging, and a lot of the time, I feel like the sweatiest person in the room, like my breathing is the only thing anyone can hear. But you are so encouraging, and you make me want to keep coming back, to stick with it. You lovingly shepherd the cultivation of your students' best practices. You emphasize over and over that being able to perform the final expression of a pose doesn’t make us better than anyone else, that yoga is about the journey, the playful and mindful experience of accepting our bodies and our abilities on a particular day and growing into more over time.

Because of you and the fire you helped ignite, I now attend several classes each week - at least one of them with you, because my week feels incomplete if I don't get to practice with you. Because of you, I set up a home practice and meditation area so that I may continue my practice on my own. Because of you, I somehow found the guts to challenge myself by attending your level 2 class, where I’m certainly one of the least experienced yogis. You make me feel so welcomed, always providing plenty of options for asanas so that I never feel like I’m not doing as well as the others in the room - because I’m not. It’s not a contest, and you taught me that.

You know when to push me, to urge me to use my strength instead of my flexibility. I don't know if you know it, but that's the exact challenge that I'm facing in my life, and by pushing me, you remind me that I am strong outside and inside, and not to cheat my way through the practice, through this life.

Because of you, I am a happier and healthier person. You are a mentor, a teacher, and you have become my friend as well. You love your students, and it shows. You make the effort to get to know us and pay attention to our bodies and our strengths and weaknesses so that we can learn and grow. You bring joy and energy and fun into the studio, from the playlists so perfectly matched to the asanas to the giggle-inducing Michael Jackson references. You encourage us to try things even if we know we’ll fall down, and to laugh at ourselves. You can make me laugh and cry in the same class, who knows when to turn the music up and when to push us to tolerate and appreciate silence. I often watch you and think, “How can such a small human being be so big and strong and passionate?” You help me believe I can do anything I want to do, that I’m bigger than any sadness or obstacle life can throw my direction. You remind all of us that we carry the entire world right inside us, and that by the simple act of showing up on our mats, we are doing yoga, and doing it perfectly.

For all the beautiful yogis in my life. Namaste.