At least once every semester I find myself in a terribly irritable mood. It seems to sneak up on me at first but then settles in contentedly like a cat sleeping in a sunny window. My responses to others get shorter and quicker. My usual positive attitude moves to the back of the bus and Debbie Downer takes the wheel. My creativity becomes blocked. My energy drags. I become a less effective teacher, yogi, friend, and all-around human.
What I’ve learned about these less-than-desirable instances is that I can use gratitude to shake myself out of it. I sit down at my desk, take out a pen and paper, and begin to write down every single thing that leaves me feeling grateful. It usually starts with some of the more basic items like food, clothing, shelter, and chocolate. After some time, however, it morphs into something bigger and better: my nephew calling me in the middle of the night to share some good news that couldn’t wait until morning, the framed photo of my favorite beach in Hawaii where I met my husband and later married him, watching a former student overcome near-impossible odds to walk across a stage to receive his MBA.
Sometimes I have to sit at the desk for an hour; other times I’m in and out in ten minutes. No matter how long it takes, gratitude never fails me. It is my lifeline to my memories and the root to all that I have been fortunate to have and experience. It connects me to the Universe and others. There’s nothing complicated or controversial about it. It’s simply acknowledging and appreciating. When I finally take inventory, gather my wits, and become present, I’m always amazed that I landed myself in this chaotic, ungrateful state in the first place. How? Why? Shouldn’t I know better?
In yoga, there is principle called svadhyaya, which means self-study. The concept is that we have a responsibility to explore ourselves and understand how and why we do what we do. The answers aren’t always pretty. Before studying yoga at Down Under, I took svadhyaya to be a lonely pursuit: me poised in a dark room with a notebook and a box of tissues ready to journey inward and face my demons. I held this limiting belief that I had to be complete to even study myself—that to be vulnerable in my training was weakness. How could I possibly teach something to others when I didn’t yet have it figured out for myself? While I was new to teaching yoga, I’d been a classroom teacher for almost twenty years. Walking in beginners’ shoes was uncomfortable to say the least! I still struggled with cueing asana, never mind imparting enlightenment.
One day I was practicing at home, sweaty and annoyed that with a wrist injury I couldn’t get into urdhva dhanurasana. As I was cursing my practice and about to send myself to the “gratitude” chair, I heard a soft chorus of voices in my head; the collective sound of my teachers saying, “Accept where you are today.” It finally dawned on me that I needed to give myself permission to be a student, to learn, to make mistakes, to relish in the gift of seeing something with new eyes. And more importantly, I wasn’t alone. My teachers were prompting these inquiries and giving me the opportunity to explore my thoughts and actions to help me grow. The only obstacles breaking the flow were my ego and expectations.
Armed with my newfound awareness and proud beginner sash, I got back on my mat ready to relish in learning, even if I mucked it all up. The most amazing thing happened. I began to understand myself better by opening up and trusting my teachers to guide me. I started to own how I really felt, which was often confused and powerless. Yes, I overused my savasana voice throughout the whole class because I was unsure of what I wanted my students to do! Yes, I avoided those core-themed Natasha classes because my core was weak and I was embarrassed!
Turns out emotions aren’t just those things for other people. If my life situation made me sad, angry, bored, nervous, etc., I started to admit it. Once I babbled about it, it had far less power over me. In fact, I noticed that as I exposed my vulnerability, others in my life followed suit. There’s support for the honest struggler. While gratitude is still in my practice, it no longer has to be my coping mechanism. Instead, I rely more on my tribe. Now, as I reflect back on this time period during my teacher training, I am able to see how the whole community aided in my growth. We are all teachers, students, beginners, and experts, just at different times. As yogis, we may be on a journey of self-study, but we need each other to get there.
The beauty of life and yoga lies in new discoveries, if we allow it, even when it’s challenging and uncomfortable. As film legend Clint Eastwood puts it, “If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster.” It helps if you read that with his voice…
Shelli DeMarkles is an english professor at University of Massachusetts Lowell, a Down Under Professional 300 Hour Teacher Training Graduate and long-time student.