Diane is my favorite yoga instructor at the YMCA. She’s been teaching yoga there for over 20 years; I’ve had the good fortune of taking her classes the past two. Last week she announced she’s rolling up her mat and will no longer be teaching. I sniffled all the way home. At my final Gentle Yoga class with her last Wednesday, during savasana, she played “It’s a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong and I bawled like a baby into my towel. Why the sadness?
Gentle Yoga classes with Diane have been my refuge, my Happy Place, these past two years. I have come to love yoga, but it was Diane who instilled that love. She taught me yoga, and so much more. For someone I barely know on a personal level, she became an immensely important part of my life.
As I consider my ‘Alive and Well’ journey, yoga has been a key. It has become an essential part of me. When I think about it, I find this somewhat laughable, almost shocking. I am tall, inflexible (I can’t even touch my toes without seriously bending my knees), fairly uncoordinated (a Pilates instructor at the Y once studied my back up-close, thinking I had a serious curvature of the spine, only to conclude that I “just have no sense of where my body is moving”), I don’t much care for pain, and it is almost impossible for me to be quiet and calm my thoughts for any significant period of time. I tried yoga once years ago and was so turned off that I never went back.
But after I retired, I decided to try Gentle Yoga, thinking maybe I could gradually work myself up to “Big Girl” Yoga. My first 90-minute class with Diane flew by (the worst part was when she turned on the lights at the end while I was blissfully laying in corpse pose and suggested we get up and leave) and I felt both energized and relaxed – like I’d just returned from a two-week beach paradise vacation somewhere. Two years later, I still don’t do the regular yoga class (the one day I tried, they were all doing headstands) and I’m not much more flexible, but I have experienced profound benefits.
So, what exactly are the life lessons I learned from yoga with Diane?
1) That I can do yoga! And more! This may sound silly, but for someone like me who sits frozen at a 90-degree angle, watching in horror as the limber ones effortlessly dip their “third eyes” (foreheads) to the ground, yoga can feel like it’s just not my thing. “Nonsense!” said Diane. She taught me that I could do my own practice, at my own speed and at my own level. She showed me modifications, and use of props (blankets, blocks, weights, straps) to help me with the poses. The very first day I showed up at her class, Diane asked me my name, and from then on, I’d hear “Good, Betsy!” or “Don’t go so low, Betsy” or “Try it with the blocks, Betsy.” Her personal encouragement made me believe in myself and kept me coming back. And learning to do yoga on my own terms gave me tremendous confidence to try other things on my own terms. Just because I am not naturally gifted at something doesn’t mean I can’t learn to do it, and enjoy it, even though I may not do it like anyone else. I now look, unashamed, for the “props” and “modifications” in life that will make tasks attainable to me. And I saw and learned the tremendous power of encouragement.
2) How to listen to my own body. Diane would model poses and suggest modifications, but she would also stress that I am the one who knows my own body best. It was always okay to come out of a pose early, stay in a pose longer, or not do the pose at all. I began to listen to my body and know when I could push myself while also understanding my limits. After years of exercise regimens (jogging, aerobics, biking, hiking, tennis) where “powering through” was a central premise, learning to listen and be kind to myself was liberating. I am learning to apply this to other areas of my life – to stop and listen to signs of fatigue, unhappiness, stress, joy and contentment. I am finding that my body sends signals that I often ignore or overlook but which are important windows into my wellbeing. I find I now know earlier when something is not right with me. Listening is an important step in reaching a state of wholeness and unity between body and soul.
3) The connectedness of body, mind and soul. Diane started our classes with a good twenty minutes of breathing and meditation exercises (“pranayama”). She would dab eucalyptus oil on our wrists to help us follow our breath. At first, my mind would wander relentlessly, but over time, with Diane’s soothing voice and gentle urgings, I learned to focus on my breathing and clear my head. She explained the concept of the “chakras” which in yoga refers to wheels of energy throughout the body. There are seven main chakras, which align the spine, starting from the base of the spine through to the crown of the head. She described the energy coming from each. For example, our crown chakra is our ego, our third eye chakra is wisdom and our heart chakra is love. As we practiced pranayama we would focus on each chakra, seeking awareness of issues that arose. This was a helpful structure for me to experience the link between body, mind and soul. I have found my prayer life enriched, and I can more easily sit in contemplative silence, open to the stirrings that result. And when I am troubled, anxious or sleepless, I have my breathing and meditation exercises for relief.
4) The wisdom of Diane. During our yoga practice, Diane invariably threw out random bits of wisdom. It was uncanny how often those bits were like God’s truth to my ears. She talked about letting go of ego, about finding wisdom and creativity, about concentrating on the important and letting go of the rest. And then, during savasana (final relaxation) she would come around to each of us, dab fragrant oil on the neck and do a pectoral release, gently pushing the shoulders down and then releasing, ending with an outward sweeping motion (signifying the sweeping away of negative emotions). I left each class feeling like a re-filled water can, ready to go out and sprinkle the earth!
I am sorry to lose Diane, but I am grateful that she opened my heart and eyes to yoga and guided me these past two years. Even if I don’t find another teacher I like as much, her lasting gift is leaving me equipped to navigate a class with someone else, knowing I can do the class on my own terms. And who knows, someday you may find me doing headstands in Big Girl’s Yoga!