I remember her telling me she had been a ballet dancer for many years. With her Eastern European accent of unknown descent, I used to imagine her as a prima ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet. Her supple backbends, her steady balance and unwavering focus made it easy to fuel the story in my imagination. Later, I learned that she was a nurse practitioner who specialized in supporting new moms and their babies.
As the news broke of Putin’s invasion into Ukraine, I thought of this woman and several other of my yoga students who were immigrants from that part of the world. When she walked into my class last Wednesday afternoon, I was happy to see her. After class, she came up to me and shared that her sister had just given birth in Kyiv and was currently scrambling to safety with a newborn baby in a war zone. She talked about how Ukraine wasn’t perfect, but it was working towards democracy and trying to do the right thing. How the war was primarily hurting innocent civilians and how, in the commotion of evacuation, her sister had left her passport behind in Kyiv. She told me these stories not with tears in her eyes, but with a resolute calm that I imagined she used when reassuring nervous and overwhelmed mothers.
“I’m hoping to travel to Europe, somewhere, just so I can be closer to my sister in case she is able to escape.”
She thanked me for the class and added, “This class was the first time I’ve been able to fully breathe all week.”
Only hours earlier, I had been having a tense phone conversation with my manager from my other job at a local winery. My job at the winery tasting room had been my escape from my hours working in the weight room at the Y, subjecting myself to unruly teenagers and members who challenged our Covid guidelines daily. The winery gig seemed perfect—just three weekend days a month, fun atmosphere, great wine, good tips. I had friends who worked there, and I quickly grew to enjoy the convivial vibe and the chance to do something entirely new.
The phone call had come about after I had told my manager repeatedly that I was unable to attend a wine training that conflicted with my yoga classes. (A training that had not been required but strongly recommended.) Most of us at the winery held other primary jobs during the week, so this conflict was not unusual. She had called me to issue an ultimatum—find a way to attend this training or else. I dug in my heels, took a deep breath and explained again why I was unable do this. I asked if perhaps we could strike some sort of compromise, a solution that would work for all parties. No, there was no compromise, she told me. Figure out how to make this training work or else I will take you off the floor immediately and indefinitely. Tell your yoga clients that class is cancelled. Her words, punitive and dismissive. Her tone made me feel like a child who had just been scolded by an overbearing parent.
Even when I teach a yoga class, it forces me to be completely present. When I am teaching, there is no room for outside thoughts and worries. The hour I spend teaching is often as grounding and therapeutic for me as I hope it is for my students on their mats. I had no room for worry about that earlier phone call as I guided my class through its sequence.
With my Ukrainian student’s words still resonating in my head, I walked to my car after class and sat with my breath for a few minutes. I closed my eyes and said a prayer for her and her family and all the innocent humans in the crosshairs of war. As I drove back home, I felt no remnants of the stress from that earlier phone call. I talked with The Mister about what had transpired, and he supported my decision. I woke up the next morning and submitted my resignation from the winery, effective immediately.
There is a mantra that I often use when faced with difficult decisions: Go where the love is. I remembered this mantra as I came to my decision to leave the winery. I thought of this mantra as I heard my Ukrainian student’s plan to travel abroad to be as close to her sister as possible. Even amid the ugly uncertainty of war.
I have no illusions about why people come to my yoga classes. I know that plenty come because someone told them it would be good for them. Maybe it would help with their back pain, or anxiety, or tight hamstrings. Some, like I did at first, come to yoga because it’s kind of cool. A few of my students have shared with me things that their yoga practice has helped with—addictions, grief, recovery from childhood abuse, depression—and I am always honored and humbled to hear their stories. Their stories are what keep me committed to holding space for them and anyone who might need it, week after week. Teaching yoga isn’t rocket science and it might not change the world, but it sure as hell is important to me.
My manager at the winery never responded to my resignation email. I worried for a moment that perhaps she hadn’t received it until I noticed that I had been taken off the winery’s scheduling app. I wondered why she had felt a simple acknowledgment of my email was unnecessary.
I do not believe that everything happens for a reason. I believe that awful and horrific things happen to beautiful, innocent beings all the time and that we may never know why. But I do believe in the power of listening to a voice greater than our own. You might call it God or Allah or The Universe. I equate it to our gut instinct, intuition, that place of knowing without knowing. When my student shared that her yoga practice that day had returned her to her breath, it was a message from that still, quiet place within. The place that drowns out the noise of the world, that calms the external forces that pull us hither and yon, that place that brings us a slim sliver of peace.
That place that continually reminds us to go where the love is.