Stories of transformation
by our teachers
To celebrate the theme of this year's KYTA ConferenceYoga Teachers: Catalysts for Transformationwe asked five of our workshop presenters to write about the transformations they have witnessed as yoga teachers. The stories they shared with us are poignant reminders of the ways in which change occurs, both gradually and dramatically, in small steps and in giant leaps, at all ages and every time of life. We hope their stories will touch you, inspire you and assure you of the difference you make in the world as a yoga teacher. We look forward to seeing you at the 2003 KYTA Conference, Oct. 23-26.
Amy Weintraub is a Kripalu Yoga teacher and mentor who writes on yoga and psychology. She will lead The Science of Positive Mental Health: A Yoga Teacher's Guide to Working With Dysthymic Depression on Saturday afternoon. The following is excerpted from her book, Yoga for Depression: A Compassionate Guide to Relieve Suffering Through Yoga (Broadway Books, 2004).
For three years Elizabeth knew that something was wrong, but she didn't know what it was. She remembered a time when she had ridden her bike nearly every day, when she had a circle of women friends with whom she went dancing on Friday nights, when she went to sleep with a new idea for an exhibit at the museum where she was a curator and woke up writing the catalogue copy in her head.
But for the last three years, her bike had leaned against the wall with a flat tire. Her friends had fallen away one by one. She stopped dancing when her physician diagnosed her aching joints as fibromyalgia and said she might have a degenerative arthritic condition. Her house had fallen into disrepair. She rarely changed her sheets, almost never made the bed. Most of the time her shutters stayed closed against the Arizona sun.
Elizabeth suffers from dysthymia, a chronic depression that has at times incapacitated her. In our work together, she has found that a slow, gentle practice with longer holdings that also includes some dynamic movements and energizing breathing exercises works best to alleviate her symptoms. I observe a significant difference in her appearance and her ability to connect with others when she's practicing and when she isn't. When she walks into class after a period of absence, she's hunched forward with her head lowered, as though if she makes herself small enough, no one will notice she's back. She has trouble breathing deeply into the bottom of her lungs and often sits with her eyes closed while the rest of the class takes deep belly breaths. But when she is able to come to class regularly, there is a visible change in her bearing. Her posture is better, she looks me straight in the eye, and I suddenly notice how attractive she is.
The mother hen in me would like to call her every morning to invite her to class. But all I can do is be present for her when she does show up. And her experience in class is always varied. "Sometimes I come out feeling peaceful," she says, "sometimes energized and alert, sometimes desperately sad. But I rarely come out feeling dead or anxious. Yoga short-circuits the downward spiral for me, makes me feel less hateful toward my body, mind, and emotions." While I believe that a regular daily practice would make a difference in the way Elizabeth manages her dysthymia, I trust her when she tells me that her mat is "my little island of calm presence, even if I just sit on it."
Dean Hudson, L.I.C.S.W., is a licensed psychotherapist, professional-level certified Kripalu Yoga teacher and mentor and director of his yoga business Pathways to Wholeness. He will lead Creative Approaches to Teaching Yoga in Nursing Homes on Friday afternoon.
As I walk down the hall of the nursing home where I am about to teach, I pass by my favorite picture. It is a panorama of profiles of the same woman. The first face is that of a child. Each profile shows her a bit older: growing up, moving through adulthood, entering old age. The caption reads "The sun setting is no less beautiful than the sun rising."
I recall a time when that truth would have been lost on me. When I heard others speak of teaching in nursing homes, my reaction was Not me. I want to teach real yoga. I equated yoga with asana, implicitly accepting the notion that the less you can do with your body, the less serious your practice. But since then, my perspective has broadened. As I have come to accept the limitations of my body and the limits of my physical practice, my compassion for and ability to work with those who are less physically capable have grown.
I continue down the hall and encounter another familiar sight: an elderly woman hunched over in a wheelchair, parked along the side of the hallway. Her body is immobile, her face sad. I notice the impulse to turn my gaze and close my heart, but I resist. When the Buddha first left the sheltering gates of his royal palace, he encountered death, illness and old age. Deeply grieved by these realities, he nevertheless considered them heavenly messengers sent to deepen his commitment to the spiritual path.
Like everyone, I'm hoping for a long, healthy life. But there are no guarantees against the suffering of illness or old age. When I come here, I am reminded of that. So I take a full breath and try to open my heart to compassion, to lift the veil of separation that identifies the sick, elderly and frail as other than me.
I walk into the room where I will teach and am greeted with a chorus of "Good morning, Dean." There are smiles on all of our faces. I come here only twice a month to teach for a half-hour, not much time at all. But after two years, we have built an abiding connection. They thrive on the gifts I bringa little bit of attention, the chance to reconnect to their bodies in a positive way, a moment of human contact through the touch of a hand, a brief period of restful peace. I give what seems to me so little, and yet they receive so much. It is the yoga that brings us together, and through the miracle and mystery of our common humanity, they are blessed by my presence, and I, by theirs.
Debra Risberg is a Kripalu Yoga teacher, stress management specialist for the Dean Ornish program and owner of Main Street Yoga in Bloomington, Ill., a Kripalu-affiliated studio. She will lead Yoga for Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain on Saturday afternoon.
I'm always inspired by people who are willing to let go of the known and embrace the unknown. Sometimes we have to let go before we know where we're going to land. We can always wait for the courage and the faith. Sometimes we just have to jump!
Of all my students, Tona best exemplifies this for me. When she began taking my yoga classes seven years ago, she seemed fragile and reserved. She had recently lost her mother and was pursuing a glamourous but stressful career as a costume designer and university professor.
Gradually her yoga practice became the refuge she needed to relieve her anxiety and depressive tendencies. She began to lose interest in things like tenure and university politics and became aware that her happiest moments were on the yoga mat. Tona, like so many of us, left her career and financial security to become a yoga teacher. She now teaches some of the most popular classes at our studioand she's no longer fragile. In fact, she teaches more classes than any other instructor here. A natural teacher and artist, she puts her talents to work in her classes through poetic language and visualization. She smiles throughout her classes and exudes a radiant enthusiasm that is infectious. There's no point in trying to hang onto your bad attitude in Tona's class.
Tona took a new path at the age of forty-nine and she's never looked back. Yoga, she says, saved her life.
Rosemary T. Clough is the founder and director of Moving Spirit, The Center for Yoga, Dance and Wellness, a Kripalu-affiliated studio. She will lead Creative Yoga & Movement for Children on Friday morning.
Amanda (not her real name) is a ten-year-old with a rare genetic disorder. She was born with part of her brain missing and she didn't walk until she was four years old. Her speech is limited, her movements irregular and her balance shaky. But Amanda loves to dance.
Before they found my yoga and movement program for children, Amanda's parents had approached many dance studios, none of whom wanted a developmentally challenged child in class. Her mother's face lit up when I told her we would welcome Amanda with open arms.
When Amanda arrived for her first Thursday afternoon class, the other children noticed immediately that she moved differently. I explained to them how important it is to respect each other's ways of using our bodies. By the time we began rehearsing for our yoga and dance concert, about a month later, the other children considered Amanda an equal.
For the concert, the children choreographed and performed a series of asanas and also helped choose their own costumes, black pants with sequined tops of different colors. Amanda chose blue. To see the look on her face when she looked at herself in the mirror was worth the price of admission.
Amanda insisted on wearing her costume for the last class, a week after the concert. As music played and the other children arrived, Amanda danced, moving as best she could to the beat, fully engaged and joyful. As class started, she began to call out encouragement to the other children. This had never happened before. My heart burst with love and happiness for this little girl. Watching Amanda and the other children I teach develop confidence, expand their yoga skills and have fun is the most precious gift I've ever received.
Monique Schubert has been working with the Lineage Project in New York City, teaching yoga at juvenile detention centers, for the past year. She will lead Reaching Out: Teaching Yoga to Incarcerated & At-risk Youth on Friday afternoon.
Teaching yoga and awareness practices to incarcerated juveniles in the South Bronx for the last year, I have been reminded again and again of the constant, natural transformationsmental, physical and emotionalthat define the teenage years. Teenagers enter adolescence with hope and uncertainty about the future. Teens in detention centers face challenges unique to their environment and to the conditions that brought them there. But like all youth, they are in the process of sifting through the information that surrounds them and creating themselves from what they find. At the very least, introducing yogic concepts, practices and vocabulary into their lexicon expands their world of images and ideas.
The policies of the juvenile detention centers are such that I never know the specific reasons for a student's incarceration. To me, they are like any other children: girls and boys ranging from twelve to sixteen years old, mostly African-American and Latino. I take the position that all of them, as students of yoga, desire happiness, understanding and peace of mind, even though it's not always their choice to be in class.
hope that the practice of yoga can eventually become a tool with which these young people can create stability and balance in their lives. For now, I witness transformation in the moment, expressed in gestures as simple as a slow unfolding of tightly crossed arms. I watch as students who previously refused to participate decide to try a pose and then smile with satisfaction as they come out of the posture. I see students risk ridicule from their less-engaged peers in order to give quiet, full attention to their practice.
In working with these young people, I've learned that transformation, by its very nature, is unpredictable and varying, occuring in each moment. And youth, by its very nature, is a time of growth, anticipation and constant change.