The Practice of Self-Acceptance

Below, is an email exchange I had with a 40-something Ashtangi who read a blog I wrote a few years ago, reached out to me this morning to share what a struggle it it has been to accept herself as an aspiring teacher, especially given that she's not as agile or supple as she once was. She writes, "I am 46 years old and have been practsing yoga for 14 years. I had my last child at 42 years old and my back injury and arthritis in my foot seem to hamve acelerated since then. Not to mention the ever present exhaustion. My Ashtanga practise has been a source of solace for me, but lately I have experienced exhaustion and niggly aches and pains. The 32 year old in me strives to continue, to move on, to be able to do chakrasana, watching video after video. I am now training to be a yoga teacher. The inner struggle within me of achieving, reaching my full potential and realising this may be it, is a grieving process I was not prepared for. Ahimsa is hard to accept for yourself.

Dear D,

It touched me to receive your message this morning. I was particularly struck by your statement that “the 32 year old in me strives to continue, to move on…” Oh yes, I know that feeling. It sounds doubly hard given the fact that you’re training to be a yoga teacher, especially because the yoga culture we live in these days tends to put teachers in the category of "spiritual acrobats.” We have this misnomer that in order to teach, we have to be fit, flexible, strong, wise, compassionate, non-violent, etc. To have to fit all those expectations will send anyone into feeling like crap about themselves.

I personally fell in love with yoga because it initially made me feels so good. And then I started teaching because I wanted to share all the bounty I’d discovered with others. And when I did, I inadvertently found myself overlaying all of my old baggage I thought yoga freed me from onto my practice and myself as a teacher. I found myself feeling inadequate: Maybe I wasn't attracting enough students. Maybe I wasn't good enough. Maybe I just didn't have that special thing it takes to be popular. So the practice that once made me feel free became another place where I felt trapped in thoughts, feelings and behaviors that took me farther away from myself.

I discovered that this was an important milestone on my journey of becoming a teacher. It was not that anything had particularly gone wrong. On the contrary, it was exactly what was supposed to happen, except that nobody around me was talking about the "deeper work." It was all about “what pose you were on;” “what series you were practicing;” “how many times you’d been to Mysore;” “who your teacher was;” “whether you were certified or authorized;” and, of course, “how many students you had." This is the typical stupid shit that comes in being in community. Because nobody was talking about it at the time, the way I initially understood my dilemma was that it was an indication that something was wrong on my end. Like everyone, I'm wired to want to fit in, so it felt terribly isolating when I didn’t find solace in my community.

Through a lot of personal exploration, especially on the mat, I discovered that there was a lot to be uncovered here. In many ways, the yoga community represented a surrogate family. When I found my way to Mysore at the tender age of 19, I'd hoped that it would be the better, more enlightened one than the one I was born into. It turned out to be just as dysfunctional, if not more. It, like my family of origin, became another place to project all of the interior issues where I don’t accept myself.

Over the last few years I’ve taken a step back from teaching. That’s helped ease a lot of that feeling of inadequacy. I can just practice again without having to be a "well-liked" teacher. Likewise, my practice has become less and less about being able to “perform" asanas. Instead, it’s about using the asanas to find an embodied way into those knotted places that seek the light of acceptance.

Of course there are days where my vanity takes hold and I notice that I don’t look as fit as I used to, nor am I able to perform all the asanas I once could, and that can be a little frustrating. However, I have finite amount of time to practice, and I can see that I could either do the one that continues to take me further away from myself but helps me avoid my fear of sagging skin, or I can practice the one that takes me home.

Don’t lose heart. Keep seeking your own intuitive way forward. If all you can muster is standing asanas and restorative poses, then you’ve actually listened to the deeper calling. It’s inevitable and human that we compare our current situation to where we previously were. Unfortunately, whenever we compare, we come up short. To become the best teacher you can be, start with yourself. Keep listening to yourself with both honesty and gentleness. They’re both incredible capacities to grow. Ultimately, they will be great gifts for all the students you teach.

From the heart,