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One of my yoga teachers is leaving the area, and the news of his imminent departure was a surprise to me. I have been attending his Sunday vinyasa class for over a year and it played an important part in my practice; it was the first vinyasa class that I ever took. Before I met him, I had only attended Iyengar classes. I was curious about vinyasa, so I showed up for his Sunday evening class. After some leg stretches and abdominal work, we proceeded to do six sun salutations in a row. As my teacher demonstrated the poses, the class followed along moving directly from one asana to another. The class was vigorous and I was sweating within the first half hour. Although I was sore for days afterward, I decided to continue taking the class.
I tend to be serious and analytical, preferring to weigh the pro and cons of a situation carefully before making a decision. In my teacher’s class, I had to abandon this completely because the pace was too fast to ponder every move. When faced with a challenging pose, there was no time to think—only time to do. Although it was a high-energy class, my teacher created a relaxed atmosphere by telling jokes and making us laugh even when we were huffing and puffing through chatarunga dandasana (lowering from a push-up position) and side plank pose. He often asked us to attempt extremely difficult asanas, but he presented these poses in such an easygoing manner that I forgot to feel anxious about attempting them. I have never been able to put my foot behind my head in eka pada sirasana, but I had a lot of fun trying. In this environment, I developed confidence and a little bit of fearlessness.
In his classes, my teacher emphasized the importance of the breath. He often asked us to practice pranayama, the yogic art of breath control. For the first six months, I followed along as he gave instructions on yogic breathing techniques like ujayii, kapalabathi and others. At one point, I realized that I didn’t know what I was doing. It wasn’t a question of whether his instructions were clear and to the point; I just wasn’t ready for this aspect of the practice. I had some body awareness, but my breathing awareness was limited; I had only recently noticed that I held my breath while in backbends like upward bow. After some reflection, I decided not to attempt any pranayama for the time being.
The next time we met, I told my teacher about my decision, letting him know why I would not be doing pranayama in class. After a moment, he asked me how I came to this decision. I told him that I did not feel ready for the practice. Then our conversation ended because class was starting. A couple of days later, my teacher sent me an e-mail with his thoughts on pranayama. The tone of the e-mail was kind and open, but it made me uncomfortable. Although he didn’t state it directly, it seemed to me that he thought I was giving up. He wanted me to reconsider my decision. During the next 24 hours, I reflected on what he said and I thought about what I wanted and how I felt. In my reply to his, I explained that I wasn’t giving up; I wanted to develop my breathing awareness before I took up pranayama again.
When I saw him again, I felt nervous because I was afraid that my decision would affect our interactions in class. It didn’t. He continued to treat me with the kindness and respect that he had always treated me. In class, I sat out on the pranayama exercises, opting to practice breathing awareness instead. Sometimes this made me feel isolated, but I knew that it was the right decision. When my teacher asked about my breathing practice, I always felt comfortable telling him about it. In our interactions, I discovered that there was a way to honor the needs of my practice while still respecting and remaining open to what my teacher wanted to share. Before this incident, I had not thought that it was possible.
At the end of his last class, several students and I took my teacher out to a farewell dinner. Before we parted ways, I gave him a hug and wished him the best of luck; I was going to miss him very much. On my way home, I realized that if I had never met him, I would not have had the chance to miss him at all. I became aware of how grateful I was that I had a chance to connect with a person whose open heart and mind made my life richer.
I rarely know when someone will enter or leave my life. I realized that I have little control over these events. What I do have power over is how I interact with each person I encounter along the way. Getting to know and connect with another person is one of the gifts that life offers. Each time I receive this gift, my heart becomes more open to everyone and everything around me.