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The other day in yoga, I was being kind of a spaz. I was lost in my head and positioned oddly on my mat.  When the teacher called for Ardha Chandrasana, a pose you do with one foot and one arm on the ground and one foot and one arm in the air, I had to hop backward a few steps so as not to fall into the person in front of me. But ended up hopping so far back that I accidentally kicked the hand of the woman behind me. I turned around, apologized and hopped forward, but not far enough. When I went back up, I grazed her fingers with my foot. “Eep! So sorry,” I whispered, knowing how incredibly jarring it is to get kicked around in yoga–a not-uncommon occurence in packed New York City yoga classes.

A minute later, our teacher, whom I’ll call Lila, came over to me and hissed, “Stay at the front of your mat!” I weakly protested that it was an accident. “And look, your foot!” she added unpleasantly, pointing to my angled toes as if they were rotting meat at a veggie feast.

I silently fumed as we moved through the next poses, feeling ashamed and blamed and hurt and angry, a not-unfamilar stew of feelings. I poutily imagined rolling up my mat and leaving. Tears started to stream down my sweaty face while thoughts sucked me into a pissed self-pity–“Why am I so sensitive? Why is she such a bitch? Why do I keep coming back? What is wrong with me? What is wrong with the world?” Then a clear, calm, all-caps voice came into my head: “USE THIS.” So I took a breath and noticed my thought swirl. And breathed again. And decided to finish this practice. For me. Ok, and to show her I could hack it. But mostly for me. It felt good to keep moving through intense emotions, chaturanga-ing through judgement of myself and of her. If I could keep my center and my breath in something as not-high-stakes as this, it would be good training for the real stuff.

But I still rippled with annoyance in savasana when Lila said “Sometimes this heart-opening practice brings up feelings, anxieties, just let them go.” Arg, she had to mean me, right?  Another opportunity to breathe. As soon as we rose, I apologized wildly to my kickee, who seemed to have almost forgotten, waving my sorries away with a sweaty hand.

 As I tucked my props back in their cubby, I overheard Lila say to someone, “Yep, I’m working like a slave” and sigh in a decidedly unhappy way. So clearly, it wasn’t just me. I considered: I’ve been going to this class for over a year–this was the first time I’d kicked anyone, and not the first time Lila had vented (“the bolster goes like this!” she yapped the other day). And yet, it’s hard to find classes that fit my schedule. And I do, overall, like how I feel after, despite the not  terribly loving vibe. Have I just been jaded by my old Bikram practice where the teachers often wear their harshness like a badge? Or is it New York, where, frankly I have had some excellent teachers but very few I would call remotely warm or fuzzy? I’ve almost completely forgotten what a gentle, loving practice is like, having practiced 10 of my 16 years as a yogi here.  (This 2001 NYT article, “Attack of the Killer Yogis” pretty well nailed much of the scene.) 

Later I posted a slightly martyred Facebook version of the story–“Valerie Reiss is wondering if she should go back to class with the yoga teacher who yelled at her and made her cry. Again.” A flood of responses mostly said NO, no, and, NO. But an art-teacher friend suggested maybe bringing her flowers–saying she was probably having a lousy day. Another asked if the room felt positive or negative to me. A devoted yogi wrote: “I think the lesson here involves tuning into your own spirit and deciding based on that. Also, finding out what needs of yours that teacher is meeting that makes you consider going back. There are so many very good Yoga Teachers in NYC. I have tolerated emotional disturbance from Yogis before but I always had a very clear goal in mindAnd then later at some point, I realized God could find another way for me to learn that didn’t feel so abusive to my spirit. I am all for a good challenge though!”

All good points! I decided to go back, but I’ve also decided if it happens again I will, after class, have a chat. And then see. Ah, to be a grownup. Or a doormat? Or a martyr? Or a true yogi? Unclear. But I did sweat like hell in class today and I feel pretty clear, balanced, and good. Om.

Ever have your own teacher-clashing? 

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