Utthita hasta padangusthasana. Extended hand to big toe posture. Take away the fancy Sanskrit words and it basically means standing on one leg with the other leg extended out in front at about ninety degrees, preferably holding on to the big toe of the lifted leg with a couple of fingers. And there I was on a Friday night, in the very front row of a packed ballroom at the Seattle Sheraton, practicing with about three hundred of my closest yoga pals. All of us there for a three-day intensive workshop with one of the yoga world’s biggest rockstars. And my leg wouldn’t lift more than six inches off the ground.
The Rockstar had a microphone headset on, his amplified voice booming from all four corners of the huge room. Because of that, you never really knew if he was in the farthest reaches of the ballroom or standing directly right behind you.
“What a bunch of lazy yogis we have here tonight!” his voice mocked, “Some of you can’t seem to lift your leg more than a few inches off the floor! Lift it higher!”
Crap! I thought. He’s talking about me. He sees me flailing and failing. I suck. What the hell am I doing here? Why is this so hard?
My breath was not deep and even, but stilted and way too fast. I began to feel nauseous and then sparkly stars started to flash in my vision. I was either going to throw up or pass out, or both, none of which I could fathom doing in the front row of a packed room of hundreds of yogis. I dropped into child’s pose, my head spinning with thoughts of ending my yoga teaching career right then and there. After a minute or so, I got back on my feet and rejoined the group, only to feel weak and woozy once again. Finally, I left, carefully navigating my way through the sweaty bodies packed in like sardines, mat-to-mat, mere inches apart. As I pushed open the double doors of the ballroom, I was met with a whoosh of cool air and a hint of relief. Hurriedly, I stumbled my way to the restroom, still thinking I might toss my cookies at any point along the way. I sat down and held my throbbing head in my hands and wondered what the hell was I going to do now.
I hadn’t eaten since the morning. It was now after 7:00pm and my body was rebelling. Nervous about spending three days in an intensive, sweaty yoga practice with my revered teacher, The Rockstar, I hadn’t been able to think about eating, much less do it. It was a stupid move on my part and now I was suffering the consequences. Not only did I suck, but now I was kicking myself for being so ill-prepared. After ten minutes or so, I got up and splashed cold water on my face and decided to go back in the room.
I opened the huge doors of the ballroom, the class now halfway through the triangle series, the air thick with sweat. As I slid myself self between the bodies, attempting to make my way back to my mat, I looked up and saw The Rockstar a few feet from me. Our eyes met for a moment and rather than warmly smile, he seemed to smirk at me, almost as if he knew what a mockery of a yogi I was. I felt ashamed and defeated. I finished that evening’s practice, sick, sweaty and spent.
It wasn’t but a year or two after I had begun doing yoga that I found The Rockstar. His first book was my yoga bible, translating this powerful physical practice into something that resonated deeply within me. I could do this practice, I felt successful and inspired. I began taking classes at one of his affiliate studios in the area and fell even more deeply in love. I began to pepper my own classes with The Rockstar’s catchy inspirational quips and quotes. I took workshops and teacher trainings at the affiliate studio and finally spent nearly a year as an apprentice there, assisting and team teaching twice a week with my local mentors, both of whom had been mentored by The Rockstar himself. After my apprenticeship, I was told that if I had aspirations to teach at this studio, I would be expected to go through The Rockstar’s own teacher trainings. Each training at a cost of about $3000, not including travel. Being somewhat sensible and financially conservative, with two kids at home, this was not in my budget. And yet it never ceased to amaze me just how many people’s budgets it did fit into. His trainings always sold out, year after year, some people taking them over and over again. There were waiting lists and more programs added, new trainings debuted, and yet more waiting lists to get in. The Rockstar is undeniably charismatic, making it easy to follow him, easy to fall into the web of his extensive community. At first, all I wanted was to be one of those flocking to his week-long “transformational” trainings. Not only did I want to drink the Kool-Aid, I wanted to learn how to serve it, too.
But something changed.
Back at the weekend intensive bright and early Saturday morning, we began with a guided seated meditation. Normally, I like guided meditation. But this day, The Rockstar’s voice, nasally and as annoying as fingernails on a chalkboard, began to grate on my nerves. As he told us to bring our awareness to our lumbar spine I wanted to scream, “Shut the fuck up!” Wait, wait–I told myself, this is your yoga, Tracie. Focus on your breath, what you can control, release what you cannot. A sense of calm would return momentarily and then the ache that was beginning to spring up in my right hip would take over. Let it go. Breathe. Every once in awhile The Rockstar stopped talking entirely and the room filled with sweet, absolute silence. Ahhhhhhh. Only to be shattered a moment later with that voice again. I made it through the hour, albeit somewhat disgruntled.
The rest of the day was filled with sweaty yoga practices broken up with group discussions and journaling. I had eaten a good breakfast and packed a healthy lunch, so my body was wholly on board again. In the afternoon, The Rockstar began the group discussion on the subject of “perception.” Namely, people’s perceptions of us and why we really shouldn’t care too much. Their perceptions are their projections, and certainly are not always indicative of the truth. (Or “our truth” as The Rockstar likes to say.) He opened the discussion up to the group, asking us to share our perceptions of him. I’d seen him do this in previous workshops and I’d always thought it to be a bit odd. In the past, I had quickly admonished myself for my cynicism, but this Saturday found me barely containing my eye rolls. It seemed to become an exercise in ego-stroking, gushing compliments:
“Rockstar, you seem so chill.”
“Rockstar, my perception of you is that you are powerful beyond words.”
“Rockstar, you seem to transcend any limitations that get in your way.”
And on and on it went. As I sat there listening, I concocted an elaborate fantasy about standing up at the microphone and saying, “Rockstar, you seem like an arrogant asshole who mocked me like a bully when I was struggling last night.” I imagined myself actually doing that and then having a swarm of Rockstar bodyguards swoop out of the woodwork and efficiently sweep me out of the room, like his own private Secret Service agents. I would be immediately banished from the
cult workshop, never to be seen or heard from again. In the end, I had neither the guts or the gumption to do it, but the thought of it made me smile.
The ten hour day concluded with The Rockstar’s signature two-hour hip opening practice. Been there, done that, poured out buckets of tears and snot in a heaving mess in the process of doing it in the past. This time it was predictably intense and grueling, but different. I felt strong and capable, not weepy. Appropriately wrung-out, we laid on our backs for savasana. A collective exhalation followed by silence, then the opening notes of The Beatles “Let It Be” rang out from the speakers. I felt good and centered and couldn’t wait to go home. The song came to an end and silence returned, only to be broken by random sobs of many of the yogis laying prone around the floor of the grand ballroom.
Huh. I thought to myself, completely dry-eyed and composed. Something had changed.
The next day was Sunday, Mother’s Day. The Mister was out of town, and although my two kids were old enough to be left alone to their own devices, I chose not to go back to the final day of the workshop. Instead, I slept in, relishing the familiar soreness of muscles having been stretched and strengthened in good ways. I read the Sunday paper with a big cup of coffee. And I knew I would likely never go back to another one of The Rockstar’s trainings again.
I blamed The Rockstar for months afterwards. I said that he had changed, that he had become egotistical and driven to greed by his own exploding popularity. I stopped taking classes at his affiliate studio, not wanting to be bathed in his inspirational quotes anymore, predictably parroted back by the teachers there. I missed having a “yoga home,” a place where I felt fed and challenged and known. I missed my friends there. But most of all, I felt as if I was out in the wilderness on my own, trying to find my direction, no longer under the protective wing of my mentor teachers.
“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” ~ Buddhist proverb
We probably all have known a career college student or two–perhaps we ourselves were such a student–who was reluctant to leave the comfortable confines of their professors and place of learning. I understand that. It feels good to be led by a trusted mentor, to be watched over and guided down the “right” paths. If I had questions, I had someone to ask. If I had doubts, I had a community of support who would hold me up. It feels safe. But there comes a time to move on.
A full year passed by after that weekend workshop with The Rockstar and I was still wondering where my next teacher was. I’m ready! I thought to myself. So appear already, will ya?
And look…there I was.
What had changed was not so much The Rockstar. He was still doing what he had been doing all along. But I had begun to hear him through different ears and see him through different eyes.
I had changed.
It took awhile for me to realize that at some point in our journey, eventually we must look at ourselves in the mirror and see all that needs to be seen. To understand that within each one of us sits all the wisdom, all the guidance, all the nurturing that we need. That we, ourselves, can be the trusted teacher for ourselves. After all, I am my own guru, or so the t-shirt that I often wear proudly proclaims.
This is not to say that I know it all, for that will never happen. But I know enough. Enough to stand up and lead myself. Enough to call “bullshit” on something that isn’t right for me. Sometimes it’s scary. Sometimes it feels like living without a safety net. And although I have moved on from The Rockstar as my guide, I value the lessons that I learned from him. I may not be living under the protective wing of a mentor any longer, but I still keep a small but trusted circle of friends and family close. Simply by nature of their breadth and depth of knowledge of various subjects and life in general, they guide me to live more fully and fearlessly when I have my doubts. Oddly enough, only a few of them are in the yoga world. And so far, none have asked me for $3000 to share their wisdom with me.
So, instead of drinking Kool-Aid, I’ll take a rich, red wine, thank you. Make it a generous pour of Shiraz or a nice Malbec, and let’s share it together around a campfire, or a messy kitchen table, or in the back of a funky restaurant. Let’s tell each other of the great books we’ve read and the movies that made us cry. And let’s not talk about yoga so much, or even at all, but instead let’s share our big ideas of how we might change our small world.
It’s about time. I am my own guru, my own teacher, my own guide.
And so are you.