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LAce Posted Monday, April 24th, 2006
Career Profile: I'm a Yoga Teacher
Lela Schneidman

"Inhale, raise your arms. Exhale, swan dive forward. Inhale, hands to your shins. Exhale, plant your hands and hop or step back into plank."

This is the first part of a common sequence called the Sun Salutation and in addition to being the initial contact most students have with yoga, it is also my mantra. I lead this series of poses four to six times per class, two to three times per day. I am a full-time yoga teacher, which means that I make a living off of a phenomenon that has soared in popularity over the past twenty years. At this point, everyone has heard of yoga, and most people have tried it. Are yoga mats soon to be stuffed into the attic alongside Jane Fonda leg warmers and Thighmasters? I sincerely believe that yoga is something entirely different than the fitness world has ever previously touted.

What makes it so unique? Well, try holding your arms up in the air for two to three minutes, engaging every single muscle in your body and breathing long, slow breaths. All at the same time that you are trying to quiet your mind, keep up with the teacher’s pace, and ignore the person next to you who is contorted into a pretzel and appears enlightened. A deeper experience also becomes available to the more committed student. These hour and fifteen minute long forays into tight muscles and stiff joints are not merely an exercise class, but a chance to sharpen your self-awareness. Much like meditation, yoga is intended to be a vehicle for clearing the mind and becoming absorbed in the present moment. The practice is one of literal detoxification, getting blood and vital fluids moving throughout the body. Practitioners can be relieved of their nagging tension and stress through absorption in physical sensations.

Yoga is not religion, though it does stem from 5,000 years of Hindu tradition. Hatha yoga is the physical practice of yoga, and was designed by people seeking enlightenment through uniting body and mind. Under the category of Hatha yoga are dozens of styles, ranging from athletic, sweaty sequences to more restorative or therapeutic traditions. You can just as easily find yoga done in a 105 degree room as you can find classes where you don’t sweat one drop. American yoga has been widely marketed for every body type and mindset imaginable.

What can be most confusing for students is that often teachers from different traditions totally disagree on how to teach the same practice. Some emphasize breath, while others stress alignment. One pose can vary greatly from one class to the next, like rounding the spine versus keeping it straight. This creates some controversy in the yoga community. However, the overarching theme to all styles of Hatha yoga is looking for inner wholeness and tranquility, using the body as a vehicle.

I started off as most folks do, going once or twice a week to a class that was too advanced for me. But it became my sanctuary in the midst of a stressful time, and once I found it, I couldn't let it go. I quickly found that this “yoga thing” was more than just another Pilates or aerobics class. It touches me somewhere much deeper, and affects the way I breathe, the way I stand, and the way I react to my body’s limits. I became so enamored of way yoga made me feel, that I changed my eating habits, quit smoking and went to Asia for a year. I sat silently in meditation retreats for ten days at a time and lugged my yoga mat around in my backpack. When I returned from my journey abroad, I embarked on a two-hundred hour teacher training and then dove into teaching ten to twelve classes a week almost immediately.

The experience of leading a roomful of people through a yoga class is always intense, and has been constantly changing for me since I started a year ago. Speaking off the cuff for sixty to ninety minutes to a roomful of near strangers was not initially appealing to me. People often want some kind of “transcendental” experience, and they are looking to me to create the perfect class for them. Occasionally, it is still intimidating to sit in front of a class and wonder how I'm going to be received. Everyone walks into yoga class with certain expectations and judgments, like "I want to sweat, I hope she knows that." Or "Who is this teacher? She looks like she's only in high school." Or "What’s she doing teaching prenatal yoga without having ever been pregnant?"

But now that I've led nearly five-hundred classes from first inhale to final exhale, I've noticed that I assume a lot of things about people too. The guy in the corner groaning, or the grimacing woman by the window can often become my most loyal students. When I first started teaching, I thought those people were hating me and just waiting for class to be over. For whatever reason, not every student returns to my classes. I used to take it personally, but now I know the wide range of reasons why people might not come back to class. Either they want a different style of yoga than I teach, or maybe they just had some kind of personal crisis or injury. It often has very little to do with me as a person.

I never thought I would become a yoga teacher. I studied education and wanted to be a social worker for kids and families. Instead I followed my heart into a career path that is deeply satisfying, and something I may never master. I feel more effective now than I did as a public school teacher or counselor. I help people find their own answers by looking deeply into their bodies and minds. This is a very transformative type of therapy. People of all ages have a place to come where they can de-stress and strengthen themselves both mentally and physically. I believe that I am doing my part for world peace, in the same way that I did as a school teacher, but with less institutionalized structure. My job is to inspire little droplets of contentment and consciousness in people’s hearts, and most importantly, in my own.

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    Comments [post a comment]

    Posted by jocelyn johnson on Tuesday, April 25th, 2006 at 4:52 PM
    I have kept practicing yoga too, while other physical activities like martial arts and aerobics have been more transitional. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about what makes yoga unique. Also, great webpage.

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