For about five years I instructed yoga at the Sports Club/L. A. gym in the Ritz Carlton in downtown Washington, D.C. and one of my classes that was on Saturday at noon I called “Yoga Basics.” Averaging around 30 people, this was a popular class that some attended year after year as they liked the mellow pace, mindful instruction and freedom of choice provided. Because of the title, many felt that they were never going to “improve” their practice from a “basic” to an “advanced” level because they couldn’t “do” the postures of other aggressive classes (mind you this is a gym). In actuality, what we did in that class I never offered in my “advanced” classes because the majority of the “advanced” students entirely lacked the patience and maturity for it.
Well, one day a new person literally rolled into the Yoga Basics class on a motorized scooter, and I never found out if this was due to a genetic predisposition or from an accident, but both of her legs were in permanent crooked angles rendering her unable to stand. As I do with all students new to me I ask for their name, it was Alison, and I ask if they have practiced yoga before. Whether she had or not I didn’t hear because the only thing that was going through my mind at that moment was that I was going to teach her, and everyone else in there, a yoga class that was suitable for all. From that first class Alison became my teacher, for I had never worked with an individual like her before, so every movement, posture and breath were absolute and curious experiments for the both of us. Alison came back again and again always to that noon time group class and not once did she ask for a private lesson. She would press the studio door open with the front wheel of her scooter and then park by the wall where I would meet and assist her to the floor. At the end of class I would carry her up onto to her chair, she would thank me, smile and then glide away with the electrical hum of her personal transport. She was not interested with how “advanced” or “basic” her yoga was, she was primarily concerned with maintaining her health – period. I learned from her every single time she showed up, and she would practice in her very own way.
Another year I was again teaching a noon time class this time on a Friday at a public setting in the U Street corridor of Washington, DC. Upon arriving to the space I noticed a student sitting on the floor outside the front door and next to her was a pair of crutches leaning on the wall. I introduced myself to this young lady, for I had not had her in class before, and she told me her name was Margaret. I then asked her the usual, if she was new to yoga, but also inquired if she had injured herself. She said no, that she had been practicing for a while and no, she didn’t injure herself, just that it had been some time since she had walked and she was trying out a new leg. Responding to my puzzlement she swiftly popped off her prosthetic, that was attached to her right shin just below the knee, and laughed. The teacher had revealed herself. “Don’t worry about me Daniel, I’ll create my own modifications in class.” “Cool.” I said and I pondered what it would be like if everyone would take this same creative freedom with their yogic path? Margaret told me that she was unfortunately run over by a New York City bus in downtown Manhattan over a year and a half ago. The accident resulted in a necessary amputation of her lower leg and she adapted her yoga as part of the healing process. She seemed to be handling it quite well and every time she came to practice I learned multitudes watching her shift and modify in and out of asanas in her very own way.
Within this same year at this same place one evening walks in a man with one arm missing. Yet another teacher appears. He was a bit reserved so we ended up speaking to one another about a month later where upon he told me about his accident while water skiing. The tow line got caught up in the propeller of the boat motor and violently yanked him into the spinning metal blades that severed his arm from his torso. I don’t remember his name but I do remember how righteous his yoga practice was from the nobleness of his presence. He taught himself several unilateral arm balances and created variations of the classical asanas using homemade props. He taught me the deepness in aesthetic, even with a history of traumatic circumstance, evident in this man’s concentration and pranayama (control of breath), which he practiced in his very own way.
“What is going on here?” I ruminated… things happen in threes sometimes. It turned out that these three teachers were signs reflecting my future. That became apparent when early the following year a yogini and her student from Florida came to participate in a class of mine. That woman was Annie Okerlin of the Exalted Warrior Foundation and the pupil Admiral Tom Steffens a S.E.A.L. from the United States Navy. The two of them had put together a ground breaking yoga program for the wounded soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were providing their services at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa and were developing a similar course here in Washington, D. C. and were looking for a yogi to help them out. They chose me.
So since the spring of 2007 I have been offering my therapeutic yoga services to the veterans and their family members, the hospital staff and volunteers of the Military Advanced Training Center (MATC) at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC). It has been an uncommon yet powerful learning opportunity and I am grateful as well as altered from working and sharing in this environment. Many of the veterans have been blasted, not shot by bullets, but literally blown up from improvised explosive devices (IED’s) and or by rocket propelled grenades (RPG’s). Many endure unimaginable situations from spinal cord injury (SCI), traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). All are Warriors. So when anyone says to me, “I’m bad at yoga.” Or, “Tell me everything I am doing wrong.” Or, “I’m not ever going to an ‘advanced’ level.” Or even, “What is the ‘right’ way to do this?” I will say that it is impossible to practice yoga wrong, that no one is ‘bad’ at it and that levels are more a question of perspective. I explain that in the continuance on one’s path it is really rather a matter of style and creativity that will allow one to learn how to apply the body and the mind in the exploration one’s self.
I might tell them the story of Alison, Margaret or the man with one arm. I might explain to them a story of one of the dozens of teachers who have been visiting me regularly since the spring of 2007, blown up by pounds of explosives, and that when they practice yoga – none of them are bad at it, doing it wrong or are concerned with it being expert or novice. They have all found their own way to practice yoga, and why don’t you?
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4 responses to “Own Your Way”
Thank you, Eric.
It is nice to see you sharing your knowledge and assisting other’s personal growth as your own flourishes.
great piece, love picturing margaret and also you teaching at walter reed. the one-armed wonder, btw, is named michael. good to see you writing and reflecting and growing.