Still very new to this yoga-teaching-thing, I found my first paying gig at a halfway house for newly recovering addicts and alcoholics. They are fresh out of treatment, largely single white guys (boys, to this middle-aged broad), generally between the ages of 18 and 30. Sometimes there's a girl or two.
As part of their participation in this program, they are mandated to practice yoga.
They have to be there.
This presents challenges.
While none of my yogis have actually practiced, at least some of them have learned a thing or two about vinyasa from playing Grand Theft Auto. (I’m not even kidding. Yoga. It’s in there.)
It helps a little that I’m also an addict in recovery. It gives me some credibility (or so I thought).
I’ve been around addicts my whole adult life – in meetings. But I’ve never tried to teach them yoga. I did some things right and I made a few mistakes along the way. Here's an overview:
Mistake number 1: I gave them an easy out.
At the start of my first class, in an effort to assuage some of the anxiety I sensed, I gave my yogis this brilliant little tidbit: “Even if you’re just lying on your back and focused on your breathing, you are practicing yoga.”
True. But ...
The authors of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous refer to something called the “easier, softer way.” It's the tendency of the alcoholic (or any 18 to 25-year-old, really) to find the laziest possible loophole, then reside there in comfort for as long as possible. I totally gave them a loophole. You guessed it: Nine out of ten little yogis camped in savasana for the whole hour. One of them snored.
Mistake number 2: I let it get to me.
Right around Week 3, I showed up for class utterly stressed. I told myself, If they’re all going to lay there like corpses, I’m going to scream.
Five minutes into class, one slouchy blond kid shuffled in wearing an ICP T-shirt.
“There are mats over here,” I told him. “You could take that far corner.”
Without acknowledging me, he pulled out a chair (we practice in a cafeteria), put his head down on a table, and began his hour-long yoga siesta.
“Or you could do that,” I said with disgust. I was pissed, and the whole class noticed. (Hey kids, try yoga! It makes you so happy!)
Mistake number 3: I got all apologetic.
Somewhere around Week 4, I tried a different tone for one class. Something to the effect of Man, I’m just so sorry you have to do this, but hey, let’s make the best of this tough situation.
It didn’t work. You can’t pity your students into moving their bodies. And the few who actually came to practice probably wondered who this strange, under-enthusiastic yoga teacher was and (since I’d tried so many different voices at this point), would the real Slim Shady ... please stand up??
I thought about dropping the class. Then I realized: That would have been the easier, softer way.
So, finally, here are three things I did right:
Right thing number 1: I found some darned compassion.
These guys have been sober for three to six months at the most. Who was I to judge how they practiced? Who was I to begrudge them one whole hour of peace on a yoga mat? I’ve been sober 22 years. Sometimes I still spend half my class in child’s pose. It’s all good. Compassion is what separates yoga from just about any other “workout” I’ve ever heard of.
Right thing number 2: I showed them how much I love yoga.
Week 5 was a humdinger. Because, you know what? I stopped giving a darn. Not that I didn’t care about my students. I did and I do. I stopped caring whether they love it yet. I love yoga. And now I get paid to do it? Booya.
I wrote a sequence based on the first classes I ever took and what it was about them that kept me coming back. I showed them my favorite beginner poses. I explained my methods. I cued the poses with deliberate care. And I worked all our butts off.
I gave a phenomenal, enthusiastic, and somewhat ass-kicking class—to three out of 15 students. We had a righteous time.
I left thinking, I get paid to do something I used to pay for? I hope nobody finds out.
Right thing number 3: I let the little victories win the whole war.
The next week was a little harder. I wasn’t feeling so confident. I was having a messy day again, and I hadn’t given myself enough time to plan a sequence.
But there was this kid. He looked a bit like Skinny Pete on Breaking Bad. He kept his cell phone next to him on the mat and left his sneakers on. But when class began, he was the most engaged of anyone, and the most inspiring. He had never practiced before, he had never been sober for more than a week in the last four years of his life, and he could NOT wait to get to the next pose.
I let his enthusiasm build me up until I realized that seven out of eight of my students were practicing, too. At the end of class, I shared something I’d heard in an AA meeting recently about contentment. I thanked them for their efforts. I wished them peace in their minds, peace in their words, and peace in their hearts.
And what I wished for them was exactly what I left with.