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From Yoga Student to Yoga Teacher: Getting Hooked on Inquiry

by Laura Didyk

Through immersion in the practice and study of yoga at Kripalu, Sam Chase discovered a calling to teach.

Watching Sam Chase move slowly among his students’ mats—offering several variations of Triangle pose, reminding them to engage the three-part breath, and suggesting that they notice what resides out at the edge of the posture—you would never guess that when Sam graduated from the Kripalu Yoga Teacher Training program (KYTT) almost four years ago, he had no ambition to become a yoga teacher.

Sam, who lives in New York City (where there are more yoga studios than pizza joints, he jokes) now leads classes for employees at the United Nations, has private clients, teaches in various yoga teacher trainings throughout the city, and is responsible for upwards of 20 yoga classes a week. In essence, he supports himself by doing something he never actually meant to do—teaching yoga.

He signed up for KYTT, a training that has been in existence for more than 30 years, because he’d fallen in love with yoga—again, by accident. “I went to my first yoga class because I wanted to touch my toes,” Sam says. “I had no higher aspirations. There are a lot of reasons that people step on to a yoga mat, but I don’t think there’s ever a bad reason.” As an asthmatic child, Sam excelled in academics more than anything else, and his body, he says, had always been a vehicle for intellectual endeavors, not physical ones. He wanted to break out of that.

After regular attendance at a Kripalu Yoga class taught by Dana Moore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, eventually Sam was, indeed, able to touch his toes, but by then the deeper vibrations of yoga had caught his attention. “Kripalu Yoga inspired this huge untapped relationship to my body and to deeper aspects of myself. Touching my toes became incidental. And I began to have this colossal love affair with myself, with a partner I’d never had before.”

After Sam’s initial yoga-class experience in Cambridge, he immersed himself for a couple of years in the rigors of Ashtanga Yoga. Then he came to Kripalu Center with a friend and took a vigorous Kripalu Yoga class. “As we made our way through the first vinyasa, the instructor said, ’As you inhale, pass through Upward Facing Dog or a low Cobra.’ And I thought, ’You mean I have a choice?’”

It was in this spirit that he decided he wanted to take a teacher training—to have the opportunity to practice for a continuous stretch of time and study yoga in more depth than individual classes allowed. “When I came to Kripalu for R&R for those few days, I just loved it. I loved the atmosphere. And I loved the yoga classes. I didn’t even look anywhere else to do my training.”

Kripalu Yoga, in Sam’s experience, is the ultimate yoga—the framework it provides helps with understanding how concepts and techniques from all styles of yoga fit together. Some critics of Kripalu Yoga, according to Sam, say that it isn’t disciplined enough, not structured enough. But he says that the more he practices, the more he appreciates how freedom and structure in Kripalu Yoga bounce off of each other. Plus, he says, “The methodology is inclusive, to a radical degree, so everything has a place, and all these styles from outside Kripalu are totally welcome.” During his Kripalu training, one of the faculty, Devarshi Steven Hartman, Dean of the Kripalu School of Yoga, said something that he’ll never forget: You can be doing Bikram Yoga and doing Kripalu Yoga. You can be doing Ashtanga Yoga and doing Kripalu Yoga. You can be eating a sandwich and doing Kripalu Yoga. “It’s that ideology that got me hooked,” says Sam.

Kripalu Yoga also started getting him hooked on the inquiry—the one that happens right on the mat—looking for questions more than answers. “One of the instructions I found myself getting the most during the training was: ’think less about what you’re supposed to do and more about what’s actually happening.’ I’d ask an instructor, ’Where should I put my hand?’ and the teacher would say, ’How does it feel if your hand goes here? What about here?’ I started to realize that if I’m going to live a life, I need to decide what’s important to me. I realized that figuring out what’s important to me … is important to me.”

Kripalu Yoga Teacher Training was the beginning of that larger inquiry. “Committing to a yoga practice,” says Sam, “is like opening up the hood, looking around, and making sure there’s nothing terribly wrong, then you close up the hood and drive around. At Kripalu, I had time to open up the hood. I mean, for all I knew, the engine could have been on fire.” What he appreciates the most about KYTT, however, is that no one told him how his life was going to change because of it. “No one decided for me in advance,” Sam says. “It left me with all this room to make the decision myself and because of that, there’s a difference in the way that I move through my life.”

It’s hard for Sam to pinpoint what happened exactly that transformed him from a yoga practitioner with no intention to teach to a yoga practitioner with a full-time teaching schedule. The first time he taught after getting certified in KYTT was as a last-minute substitute at a studio near his apartment. “I really didn’t like teaching at all at first,” he says, laughing. “After that first class I remember thinking, ’Thank God that’s over.’ I had this skill set that was largely untested. And it was really uncomfortable.”

That first studio where he taught kept inviting him back, and he kept teaching despite the discomfort. It wasn’t that it went away after a time, it was that the “discomfort became a good thing.” And the more he teaches, the more he wants to teach, to give back the gift that practicing yoga has given him.

“The best teaching I can give as a yoga teacher,” Sam says, “is, What’s yoga today? I teach classes and if some people are a little happier because of it, that’s great. I mean, what’s better than to sit in a room with a whole bunch of other people who are feeling really, really good?”

An avid reader of psychology, neurology, and yogic texts, Sam refers in his classes to “samskaras,” those imprinted and patterned furrows in our makeup that keep us stuck in unwanted and damaging habits and addictions. Neurology calls them neural pathways, psychology calls them cognitive patterns. In the language of this KYTT graduate, they are “the little ruts of habit we find ourselves in.” Sam believes that practicing yoga helps fill those ruts. “Once they get filled,” he says, “then you can ask yourself the big questions, ’Where do I want to go? What do I want?’ And yoga helps buckle you in for the big ride.”

It’s clear that Sam’s big ride has taken him many places—brought his hands to his toes, then brought him to KYTT, and now to a life centered around teaching yoga, to giving back its gift. What it hasn’t brought him is answers. He has more questions than anything else and the questions themselves just keep getting bigger and bigger. “I know less than I used to,” Sam says, smiling, “but I am enjoying more.”

As he wanders among his students while they inhale, then exhale, then flow into a Downward Facing Dog, he encourages them to practice whatever their yoga is today. “Ask yourself where you are in this moment,” he says. “What do you want?”

Note Sam Chase will be teaching at Kripalu in December. He can be reached at sam@spotyoga.com.

Laura Didyk, MFA, former Special Projects Editor at Kripalu Center, is a writer and editor whose work has been published in literary magazines throughout the country. She is managing editor of EnlightenNext magazine.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Summer 2009 issue of the Kripalu catalog. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.