Becoming a yoga teacher without being 'perfect' at yoga

Oct 12, 2015 at 3:40 p.m. ET
Image: Sasha Brown-Worsham

I used to think all that was required to really practice yoga was the following: a perfect handstand, a blissful outlook on the world, the ability to put one’s head through one’s legs and (of course) a toned and perfect physique.

And this is why I have always told people: “I love yoga. But I really suck at it.” I was not naturally gifted in either strength or flexibility. Give me a 5k and I will win that sucker, but ask me to do a single arm dip? Forget it.

I started practicing early. My mother was a yoga teacher and had me in down dog before I could spell it. It was a common occurrence in our house to walk in the kitchen and find her standing on her head. Every morning, before the sun was up, my mother went into her study and practiced. And like clockwork every summer, she went away for two weeks on retreat.

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Once I was old enough, I joined her, but the chanting and the vegan food was a turn off for me. My mother’s yoga was a slower kind, more restorative than athletic. She loved it, but try as I might, I never did. At least not the way she did. I was a runner. The kind who runs 20 miles on a Sunday just for fun. But yoga had its place in my life. I stretched. I recovered. But I never really loved it like she did. Besides, as I told myself: I wasn’t any good at it.

I took a long yoga break after my mother died when I was 16. No more early morning flute sounds coming from her study or incense burning late at night while she practiced Nadi Shodan Pranayama. And for a few years, there was no yoga in my life either.

It wasn’t until I was 22, when I moved to Boston after college and started practicing at Baptiste in Cambridge, Mass that I discovered my real love of yoga. His version is a vigorous, heated vinyasa flow that spoke to me both as an athlete and in a spiritual way. I have to push my body to the limit to see the universal truths. Give me 105 degrees and a dripping yoga mat and I will see God.

Soon after, I had a new dream: Someday I wanted to teach yoga. But not then. Because then I wasn’t strong enough with inversions. I didn’t have the splits. My jump backs were mediocre and I wasn’t thin enough.

Only once I had those things could I even begin to imagine allowing myself to pay the $4,000 for yoga teacher training and walk into that room without totally embarrassing myself. What would the other yogis in their perfect Lulus think of me with my floppy body parts and less than stellar chaturanga dandasana?

And so I waited. For 15 years, I practiced yoga on and off. I had months of going every day and months where I only went once or twice. I ran three marathons and countless halves. I nursed injury after injury and advanced in my writing and editing career. Someday I will get more into yoga again, I told myself. Someday I will become a teacher.

Last May, I weaned my third (and likely last child) and immediately put on about 20 pounds. In two weeks. This despite running and eating right and basically living a healthy lifestyle. When I visited my doctor, I was looking for an explanation. What I got instead was a question: Are you doing what you love for exercise? And the answer surprised me. I do love running. But it’s not enough. I needed a strength training program that I didn’t hate (I loathe the weight room).

“Have you tried yoga?” she asked.

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I laughed. But I agreed to get back into it. And so I did. One day a week became two, then three, then seven. I couldn’t get enough yoga. I found that as I practiced more, not only did the weight melt off, but other things happened, too. I was happier. I had a new perspective on the stress in my life and I was more patient with my children. I am not a religious person, but I was having a religious experience on my mat no matter where I practiced. I was up at 5 a.m. and standing on my head during my lunch break.

I had become a true yogi. Even though I can’t do the splits. Or lolasana. Or even a perfect wheel. I can’t put my head between my legs and my head stand still needs a spotter. But the difference between me at 37 and me at 22 is this: I don’t care any more.

I am going to practice yoga every day because I love it. And I am going to teach it, too. As a mom, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want for my children. And it’s really quite simple. I want them to do the things they love. I don’t care if they are perfect. No one does. That’s all in our heads. And so I imagine that’s what my own mother wanted, too. When I am in Savasana, the final posture after a vigorous yoga class, I imagine her sometimes.

She is whispering calming words into my ears. I am closest to her in yoga. It’s something we share. No amount of flexibility or perfection could make me love it any more. I might never look like Kino MacGregor on or off my mat. But it doesn’t matter any more. I can teach anyway.

I wish I’d known then what I know now. But as yoga teaches, the only moment that is real is the one in front of us. And so I start my teacher training with the knowledge that perfection is an illusion. I have everything I need to make my dream come true and share yoga with everyone. That is enough.

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