I remember the first yoga class I ever went to. More than the heat (I opted for a 75 minute Moksha class, because help I do not understand), and the way my younger sister’s two-sizes-too-small Lululemons felt against my special parts, I remember being most struck by the teacher.
After ten minutes spent lying on the mat, trying to figure out if what I was smelling was “hot yoga” or just someone’s unwashed feet, the instructor finally opened the door, letting a quick gust of cool air rush in, and made her way delicately to the front of the room. She was poised, her voice was smooth, her smile was knowing and warm, her eyes twinkled like a Disney character’s, and I swear to you, that tranquil bitch was judging me.
She had to be. No one who can wear their ankles as earrings, knows what a chia seed is, and probably farts nag champa clouds could possibly be looking at me (as I stand awkwardly, faintly smelling like cigarette smoke) with anything but pity. I have a better chance of catching a unicorn than I do touching my toes, and it’s written all over my sweaty face. She radiates inner peace. I AM NOT GOOD ENOUGH.
I have always suffered from an intense fear of judgment, and this, coupled with my burning need to be the best at everything, made coming to the mat particularly challenging for my first few months as a student.
Not at all unlike my students today, my head isn’t always 100% free of busy thought while in class. In fact, my head is full of thoughts while I’m teaching. Sometimes, I’ll admit I’m scouring the corners of my memory to retrieve the name of an upcoming pose, sometimes I’m evaluating one particular student’s alignment to see if they’re getting the full benefit from the posture, and sometimes, yes, sometimes, I’m wondering if I remembered to turn off my hair straightener before I left the house.
But with everything that may go through my head while I teach, be it my sequence, the intention I set for my students at the beginning of class, or which syllable I’ll put the emphasis on in my namaste at closing, what I’m NEVER thinking is, gosh, I just wish my students were BETTER at this.
Everyone starts at the beginning. And everyone’s beginning looks different. If there is anyone who understands that, it’s an instructor, because none of us came out of the womb in Gomukhasana. And if you did, thank God for pediatric surgeons.
I used to teach a small group of women a sunset flow on a rooftop in downtown Toronto. It was beautiful, and breezy, and the general experience was usually full of laughter and unity. But I will never forget the time a student approached me after we’d finished, thanking me and saying she only felt comfortable practicing with me because she knew I wouldn’t judge her because we were friends off the mat. “I’ve been wanting to try yoga for so long, but I just didn’t want to go in there and look like an idiot,” she confessed.
I told her the same thing that I was once told in my early days, and that’s that practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes practice. No one is there to judge you, most certainly not your teacher, be she friend or new face. As an instructor, students, especially the wobblier ones, give me purpose.
In the simplest sense, if you could practice perfectly, I’d kind of be out of a job.
Today, I confess that I too can wear my ankles as earrings (hello, boys!), and I know what a chia seed is. But with these skills and this knowledge, I am only able to see more clearly where I need to grow, what I need to learn, and how there is no room for judgment on the mat. Not towards myself. Not towards my students.
So if a fear of judgment is keeping you from approaching your practice (or anything in life, for that matter), remember that no one is judging you harder than you’re judging yourself. And if I do look at you funny, it’s not because you suck, it’s because I’m worrying about a grooming-related house fire that could potentially be taking place where I live.