On Being a Student

I’ve been practicing yoga for awhile now.

One of the beautiful things about the practice is that you’re never quite done. There’s no endpoint, no final destination where you can say, “Well, I mastered yoga! Glad I can finally check that off my list.” There’s always something more to work on, always a new variation or a new arm balance or a different way to get into an inversion. New edges present themselves in every yoga class you will ever take, and it’s a practice that you can carry with you for literally your entire life in one form or another.

Over the past year or so, however, I’ve found that yoga has truly shifted into a new role in my life. While it was once my main focus in terms of physical fitness and health, it has now become far more of a creative and artistic outlet for me, as well as my form of spirituality and mindfulness practice. While a good Vinyasa class can still kick my ass, and there are many physical goals I have around yoga (I’m coming for you, puppy press), I’ve been craving another way to challenge my body, as well as simply a desire to try something new that will push me out of my comfort zone.

In October, I recorded a podcast with holistic nutritionist, community-builder, and Olympic lifter Steph Gaudreau. Since then, she’s become one of my biggest role models and inspirations. Her message of empowerment, strength, and shame-free health resonates deeply with me and many others, and it’s been a pleasure to get to know her over the past year. If you take a look at Steph’s personal Instagram, the first thing you’ll notice is that she’s a total badass. The more I saw her videos of heavy lifting, complex Olympic movements, and impressive physical feats, the more I started to think, “Hey, maybe I could do that.”

One of my favorite quotes is by Socrates:

“No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”

I wanted to see just what I was capable of, and just how much I could improve, so I headed down to a local gym that specializes in strength training and signed myself up for the summer. With me heading down to Santa Cruz in the fall, I wanted to learn some new skills and ways to challenge my fitness before I got to school, and, honestly, I was excited to test my strength. I definitely feel strong when I’m holding a headstand or arm balance, but recently I’ve felt really drawn to training specifically to develop strength and seeing that linear progression of improvement over time.

Honestly, I was surprised by the fact that I just signed myself up for something I had no background in. In the past, I’ve always been afraid of being a beginner and afraid of looking “dumb” for not knowing the ropes or being the best right off the bat. Part of it is being a perfectionist. Part of it is not finding a sport or a hobby I felt truly drawn to or adequate at until fairly late in life. The comfort level I felt entering a completely foreign environment and admitting that I was a total beginner really proved to myself just how much yoga has changed me. Yoga was the first hobby where I felt so in love with the practice that being a beginner only made me want to dedicate myself to learning more and improving over time instead of frustrated and embarassed. Seeing how much I’ve been able to improve with yoga encouraged me to be a beginner again and reap the rewards of handwork once more.

And so, as a total beginner, I’m now training for Olympic lifting.

Don’t worry, I’ve already heard all the comments about yogi-gone-lifter, and I’m not IMG_3836ignorant to the seemingly ironic title, but honestly, I’ve observed so many similarities between yoga and Olympic lifting. There’s technical alignment, a balance between strength and flexibility, an important emphasis on utilizing your breath. In both practices, there’s an exercise in suppressing the ego: in yoga you can’t hold your body in a pose that doesn’t serve it, in lifting you can’t throw too much on the bar and ignore form and safety for the sake of putting up big numbers. Both are just as much mental sports as they are physical, and both bring me joy in different ways. Yoga makes me feel graceful, spirited, and connected. Lifting makes me feel strong, powerful, and humbled.

Something I’m really loving about this new process, however, is being purely a student again.

Don’t get me wrong, just because I teach yoga doesn’t mean I’m no longer a student, or that I think I know everything and never seek out new information anymore. But there’s something to be said about being immersed in one world (and being a teacher in that world) for awhile- you feel a certain level of responsibility and comfort that you don’t have when you are a total beginner and pure student. When I first started practicing yoga, for the first time I really loved being a new kid- I took comfort in the fact that I didn’t know anything and had so much in front of me to learn, and had no problem asking questions and seeking more. I’m loving exploring lifting from this point of view: I know only what I know about anatomy and exercise physiology from yoga, and definitely not the techniques and rules of Olympic lifts.

 The patience my coaches have had for me as I literally question every step of the process (“Where do I put my hands?”, “Is it a jump, or a step?”, “Should my hips be driving forward or should they remain stable?”) has really humbled me as a teacher. So often I walk into an All-Levels Vinyasa class and forget that some people don’t know that their hips shouldn’t be sagging in their plank, or that a chaturanga should be different from a traditional pushup, or that your core should be engaged throughout nearly your entire practice. Oftentimes I’ll see a room full of people who regularly come to my class, and forget to do an in-depth breakdown of a Vinyasa for the one person in the back who is still figuring things out.

Being a complete beginner at lifting is reminding me of what it was like to be a complete beginner at yoga: things are confusing, and there are a lot of questions you have as a beginner that seem intuitive and simple to more advanced practitioners. 

Last week, I showed up to one of my weekly classes to find only one person. This was very unusual for that particular class, and it just so happened to be only their second yoga class ever. I had to throw out the class I had in my mind and shift my focus to a beginner’s workshop/private class, and was able to put myself in her shoes as a new student by remembering how I had been feeling as a new Olympic lifter. Teaching this way requires me to slow down, break down things I don’t usually break down, and remain patient as I try different ways to explain things if the first cues don’t quite land in the student’s body. It’s an excellent practice in developing my teaching skills, and a reminder of the respect this practice deserves.

At one point during the session, my student was resting in child’s pose, and I took the opportunity to speak a little bit about how intimating yoga can feel at first.

“We always say it takes ten classes,” I said, “The first few, yoga doesn’t feel relaxing at all. It feels complicated, and you feel like to have to focus the entire time in order to keep up. But around the end of your first ten classes, things start to require less conscious effort. It’s less about trying to keep the poses straight and finding perfect alignment and wondering what the teacher or other students are thinking about you, and more about really feeling your body. It takes awhile to get out of your head and down into your skin- that’s why it’s a practice.”

“I remember my first yoga class, I was totally stressed the whole time,” I shared, and I found myself actually smiling at the memory, “I felt like I had no clue what I was doing, and all this new information was being thrown at me all at once, and it didn’t help that the person on the mat next to me only had one arm and was doing handstands and chaturangas while I could barely hold down dog without slipping off my mat.”

But, as continued to tell my student, it just takes time. Everything does. There is no shame in being new and being confused at first- in fact, I have so much respect for the people who put themselves out there and try something they’ve never done before and have no background in. That takes so much bravery. It’s not easy walking into a foreign environment and admitting you have no clue what you’re doing, but if you prove that you’re ready, willing, and excited to learn, people will respect that. And it’s because everyone started somewhere. The most experienced coach, the top-tier level athlete, the elite practitioners…they all started from scratch at one point. The only difference between you and them is time, dedication, and hard work.

Not starting yoga because you’re not flexible, or not starting to lift because you’re not strong, or not starting something because you’ve never done it before, is like not showering because you’re dirty.

maris-22I used to be intimidated by not being the best right off the bat, and by the time it would take to become even proficient at a new hobby or sport. But eventually I had to realize that the time it would take would pass whether or not I took the leap and began practicing. I could either harness that time as an opportunity to improve myself and try something new, or remain frozen by the intimidation of being the new kid. I had to embrace being new and embrace being a student.

People want to share their passions, and when you show interest as a beginner in something like yoga or lifting or dancing, the experienced people don’t look down on you for not already knowing everything. No, they get excited because they have a chance to share what they love with someone who just might fall in love with it, too. As a teacher, I have never been disappointed or frustrated to have a new student in my class. I may have to be more conscious of my cuing or change my original plans, but that is my duty as a teacher- to serve my students and make this practice accessible and welcoming to everyone. And if your mentor is worth anything, I guarantee they feel the same way.

Don’t be afraid to be new. Be afraid to be stagnant. Be afraid to get to the end of your life and realize all the opportunities you missed because you were afraid to start. Be afraid to never explore your abilities and just how capable you truly are. Being a student is an exciting and honorable position to be in, and if you’re not a student in some aspect of your life, you’re not growing or changing.

Embrace the process. It will teach you so much more than just “being the best” ever could on its own.

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