Years ago, I worked as an executive in New York City. For most of my professional life I comfortably defined myself by that experience. Some years later I moved to Florida, but continued to work as a consultant for a New York firm. Then the housing market crashed, the economy tanked, and my life built on the foundation of this professional success started to crumble.
Coincidently, and perhaps not unrelated, I began experiencing incredible back pain. The only pain-free moments were while practicing yoga. I dove more deeply into my yoga practice, ultimately becoming certified to teach.
Eventually I got divorced, most of my consulting work dried up, and I moved into an apartment with my dog. The image of myself as a successful professional vanished. But now, who was I?
With no answer to that question, I began teaching yoga.
One of the first of the Yoga Sutras, written nearly 2000 years ago, states: Yoga Chitta Vritti Neroda. Loosely translated: Yoga is the practice of quieting the mind so that we can see what is.
Practicing and teaching every day brought clarity and peace. For the first time, I could witness my own tumultuous emotions – fear, anger, self-righteousness – and not be either overwhelmed by them or feel that I had to react. Sitting cross-legged on the mat, I could actually perceive these feelings rising up, rolling over me and passing on, like a big wave.
Most of my days were spent practicing or teaching. My identity evolved from professional executive to yoga teacher. I made the discovery described by yogi and former soldier Rolph Gates: “simply by spending time on the mat with ourselves we arrive at the conclusion that we are the ones we have been waiting for.”(Meditations from the Mat) And it felt good.
A year later I came to Colorado, fell in love and before the year was out had moved to Summit County. With no shortage of yoga studios in Summit, I had little doubt that I would soon be teaching in my new home. Many of my previous students had been older, so my first stop was the Senior Center in Frisco.
I confidently offered my services, only to be told that all their yoga needs were covered. Their current instructor advised me: “Summit County seniors are all hiking 14-ers! They don’t think of themselves as old or as needing anything ‘gentle’ or moderate’ as far as yoga is concerned”.
Undaunted, I began offering similar classes to what I had been teaching in Florida at a Frisco yoga studio. Two months went by and most of the time I sat for an hour in an empty studio.
Discouragement set in. I began looking for other types of work, and again ran into a brick wall. I proposed an article to a local editor, on yoga studios in the area. “Great idea” she said, “only I’ll probably hire someone who is a well-known teacher in town to write the piece.” For several years all I had done was teach yoga. To my students – and to myself – I was a yoga teacher. Now, I fumed angrily, I couldn’t find work teaching yoga, or even get hired to write about it. I totally lost my yoga-cool.
Vritti Sarupyam Itaratra: When the seer is not self-realized she mistakenly takes on the identity of her thought patterns. (Yoga Sutras)
In other words, we believe that how we feel is who we are. And I felt like a failure. On a particularly depressing day, my boyfriend Alan turned to me “I wish you could just see yourself as I see you – you are smart, you are beautiful, you are the woman I love. You are not your job.”
The next morning getting out of the shower, I happen to look down and really notice my feet. I lifted and spread my toes, and pressed them firmly back down on the floor. ‘MY feet’ I thought with sudden gratitude, ‘there they are! Supporting me day in and day out.’ A quote attributed to yoga guru B.K.S. Iyengar came to mind: “How can you know God if you don’t know your big toe?”
Time to take a deep breath. I had to stop pinning my identity on what my current employment status was, as some kind of a measure of who I am and how I fit in. Go back to square one, bring my attention to the small things, like my big toe. And next, how blissful it was to take a walk in the woods with Luke, or to sit by the cozy fire in my new home. How loved and supported I felt by Alan. How beautiful it was to practice with awesome Peak One just outside our windows. I turned my focus back to the present, and noticed all that was good in my life.
Not long after, the editor I had pitched the yoga idea to decided to assign the story to me after all. As part of my research I took a class at Blue Lotus Yoga Studio; afterwards, the instructor asked: “Are you a yoga teacher? We’re looking for teachers.” A few weeks later I was teaching at the studio, a class appropriate to Summit County: Mountain Sports Yoga.
The premise of the Yoga Sutras is that we misunderstand a basic truth of our existence: In ignorance we search outside ourselves for pleasure, reassurance or to avoid pain and discomfort, yet all the while our own true nature is one of contentment and even joy. Or as Rolph Gates notes “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”
Work has turned out to be an interesting and unexpected mix of things, and I try not to get too hung up on “what I do.” Instead, I begin each day gazing down at my toes and commit to being present to the pleasures of this beautiful place. To see life the way it is, and to embrace contentment.
This essay ran in The Summit Daily on March 30, 2016