I escape into the sanctuary of soft light and quiet breathing. I unroll my mat and take a seat as Lena invites us to close our eyes and focus our attention inward. Just a few months into motherhood, I am ready to turn my body over to her skilled instruction.
I’ve been teaching yoga for years, but I struggle to maintain a personal practice. I have space. I have time. It wouldn’t be hard to wake earlier and spend a few minutes on my mat. I have audio lessons to follow, but nothing competes with the noise in my head. You know all this. You should be doing this every day. No wonder your hamstrings are so tight. You have no self-discipline, no will power. What’s wrong with you? You should be better at this by now. You’re a fraud.
No one would practice with a guide like that, and I am no exception. I need detailed, in-person instruction filled with enough alignment tips to override my readiness to compare, judge, and condemn. I need postures challenging enough to occupy a runaway mind.
Lena’s class is perfect.
With cool fingertips, she guides me to sit back. Her touch is firm, insistent on the front of my shoulder. “Be here now, Linda.” Her voice is low and soothing, and I rock back to center my weight over my sitz bones. Had I really been that far out of alignment?
“We spend our lives in anxious anticipation of the future or in regret over the past,” she says. “We rush toward the future with the illusion of control; heads forward, chests leaning into an imaginary finish line. Or, we shrink from it, tail tucked between our legs, back rounded and hunched.” She pauses. “These are physical signs of not being in the present moment. Align your ears and shoulders directly over your hips. Breathe in and sit taller. Create space in your spine. Be here now.”
I rock back further and feel my core muscles engage. I reach my crown toward the ceiling and try to find lightness in my torso. I search for the alignment Lena describes and notice unfamiliar sensations. When was the last time I sat like this? Before I got pregnant with Steven? She touches my shoulder again – urges me even further back. Could I be that far away from the present moment?
I steal a look around. Seated to my right is a slim, young yogi, legs in full lotus, hips and knees flat on the mat. Ears, shoulders, and hips in perfect vertical alignment. When will I be able to do that? I shift my weight further back. I can do this.
An older, pot-bellied man sits on a stack of cushions on my left. His pelvis tips backward, his back rounds, shoulders hunch. At least I am not there. The small part of me searches for some proof of worth.
I wanted to be a good mother and a good partner. I believed there was a right way. My stay-at-home plan included teaching yoga part-time and opening a private healing practice. I would offer womens’ circles, private yoga instruction, and individual psychic healing sessions, but I was nervous about such non-traditional work. It triggered all of my imposter feelings. Who did I think I was? Could I really help people? Was psychic healing even real? I created and distributed fliers, years before the internet, but I longed for more conventional work.
When Lena offered a year-long, shiatsu practitioner training one weekend per month, I signed up immediately. This was the legitimacy I craved, work I could do with the right certification. I scoured the local bookstores, ordered the books she recommended, and started reading. Based on Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shiatsu is bodywork done through clothing using acupuncture meridians. It was the ideal intersection of my passions for yoga and anatomy. I loved the metaphor of elements and organs applied to physiological functions. The five energies of fire, water, metal, earth and wood circulated through meridians, seasons, tastes, even colors. Emotion was simply energy: e-motion, energy in motion. Problems arise when energy is depleted or stagnates. Awareness of sensation could be applied to emotions. I saw a future where I didn’t engage in every touch of anger, sadness or fear. This might take years of practice, a deep dive into infinite possibilities.
I anticipated each weekend of training like an eager puppy. But I grew impatient just three months in. New students joined each month, and we spent too much time reviewing previous material. I wanted more information. I wanted it faster. Lena arrived late and unprepared. I wanted a predictable structure so we could cover more ground. It took effort and planning to arrange for a babysitter, and I needed every minute to be worthwhile.
By the fourth month I couldn’t contain my frustration when Lena reviewed material from the first month for yet another new student. During a break I tried to get some kind of schedule from her. “Lena, how many times are we going to go over these same principles?”
She made excuses. This was her first course. She’d cover everything.
I judged her deficient.
She was a gifted yoga teacher, perhaps a phenomenal shiatsu practitioner, but teaching this ancient practice was not one of her strengths. “We really need a syllabus,” I complained. “We need to know where we’re going. We need assigned readings and comments on our journals. When will we talk about what we’ve read?”
If I had been familiar with the material, I would organize and teach it more efficiently. I said as much at the end of the weekend. She offered me a refund, and I withdrew from the course.
She stopped by with a checkbook, signed her name with a flourish, and sighed as she handed it to me. “I feel sorry for you, Linda.” Her green eyes bore into me. I felt tense and confused. I couldn’t hold Lena’s intense gaze. Confrontation was not in my skill set.
I knew I was justified in my criticism. I said nothing.
She continued, “This level of judgment you have for me and this course,” she waited for me to look up. “It is just a fraction of the judgment you turn on yourself.” She got into her car. “You have a hard road ahead.”
Bile rose in my throat. She was turning this into my problem? My stomach tightened into a protective knot, and my breathing slowed. My back bristled; my teeth clenched. I turned and walked away. Anger drowned any feelings of doubt. Lena was projecting her incompetence onto me, passing her own judgement.
Later, I learned that Lena abandoned the course and refunded everyone’s money. I felt freshly vindicated. I found a school of Shiatsu outside of Boston and enrolled. After the first semester, I began seeing clients as a practitioner-in-training.
It was years before I understood the truth Lena spoke that day.
About the Author
Linda Castronovo lives and writes in western Massachusetts, ancestral land of the Nipmuc and Pocumtuck People. She makes her home with her husband, a yellow lab, a black cat, and five chickens on a tiny hobby farm with fruit trees, berry bushes, and too many weeds. Nature is still a daily wonder.