What I’ve Learned from Yoga

When I was in 6th grade my mom took me to my first yoga class. This was back in 2002. Lululemon was only 4 years old and yoga was mostly practiced in small, mom-and-pop studios and basements. Yoga had yet to permeate pop culture. I certainly hadn’t really heard of yoga, and at that time most people knew it had something to do with stretching and saying “om”. I don’t remember much about the class, the poses, or who else was there, but I do remember falling asleep for much longer than I was supposed to at the end of class. I remember waking up from that 5-minute nap feeling more relaxed than I had from full nights of sleep. Fast forward 16 years and now I teach yoga three times a week and it’s become a big part of my life. Over the course of those years, I had brief run-ins with yoga and I’ve managed to get away with a little bit more away than a few z’s each time.

During my freshmen season as a walk-on swimmer at the George Washington University, a weekly yoga class gave me time to stretch and relax before insane swim practices. In my first year after college, yoga gave me a hobby, a challenge, and a community to grow into to balance out the chaos of adjusting to life out of school. Most recently, as an instructor and practicing yogi, I’ve gained so much more.

As a kid, I developed an interest in history that I’ve failed to shake as I grew older. I’ve always taken interest in various historical figures: their accomplishments, their stories, and their challenges. Part of this was looking for a blueprint for how I, myself, could become a leader in some way. Through all of my studying, the part I’ve always had to work on was owning my authority as a leader and tapping into the natural abilities that others have seen more easily than I have. While there have been a few instances where I’ve been able to do this readily, at times it still feels hard to replicate. Teaching yoga forced me to step into that authority and helped me learn how to feel comfortable in it.

 

 

 

When I first started working, there were times where I would give a presentation, I could feel all of the eyes in the room would be staring right at me. I used to think they were looking to critique me. It wasn’t until later that I realized people were listening intently. Partially because being gifted with a deep voice is a cheat code in public speaking, but also because I spoke with authority and owned the space well. Even after this realization, I at times felt uncomfortable in this position. However, yoga helped me get over this very quickly.

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When I step into the studio to teach, my students look to me as a source of authority. It took a while for me to get used to this because for so much of our lives we’re told it’s our job to follow authority rather than to own it within ourselves. However, students are actually looking to me for every single move. For many of them, it’s hard for them to move without guidance. Over time, I’ve gotten comfortable in this role. As the instructor, I own all parts of the student’s experience: the environment in the studio, the music they listen to, how comfortable students feel taking risks or taking breaks. Teaching yoga has been a great place for me to regularly practice my confidence as a leader and it serves as a strong counterweight to the times I’ve felt as though I’ve fallen short in other aspects. Outside of teaching yoga, I work in advertising full time. In laymen’s terms, my job is to run point on how the agency’s varying expertise come together to solve our clients’ challenges. It can be a bit daunting to command a room of people who may be older, more experienced in their roles, more senior. However, being able to draw from my experience teaching yoga to people from all facets of life has helped me find my voice at work. I’ve learned to trust myself and my decisions. I’ve also given myself room to make mistakes and recover. Leadership requires us to be comfortable being wrong. In classes, I’ll trip over my words, notice that I need to flesh out a part of my sequence, or cue something in a confusing way. In those moments, I’ve learned not to apologize, but to take a deep breath and course correct with confidence. Often, we believe that as leaders it’s our job to be perfect. However, the demands of life, work, business, etc. don’t leave a lot of time for us contemplate the right decision. Leadership is being able to make quick decisions and then being able to quickly adjust on the fly. Most yoga instructors will attest that this is a key part of teaching.

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If yoga, my career, or the fact that I took the time to write this hasn’t given it away yet, creativity is a big part of who I am. I didn’t realize it at first, but I’m a creative through and through. I’m not a painter, nor am I a burgeoning DJ  in Brooklyn, and I’m definitely not a starving artist. I can’t draw to save my life and I haven’t touched a music instrument since I gave up piano lessons in 6th grade. However, advertising is a creative industry and yoga—unbeknownst to me—is a great source of and outlet for creativity. While various styles of yoga have their own sets of guidelines, frameworks, and postures there is a lot of room for creativity in practicing and teaching yoga.

Creating is interesting. It requires us to put something out into the universe that didn’t exist before and observe how people respond. Often, people don’t always know what they’ll like or what they’ll respond to. It takes some insight, empathy, and imagination to create for other people. As Michael Lastoria, co-founder of andPizza, put it: “Creativity is the act of making something from nothing. It requires making public those bets first placed by imagination.”

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As yoga instructors our goal is to provide space for people to feel good. To leave the room feeling better than when they first walked in. To do this, I create space for students to unplug, I push them to challenge themselves, and I encourage them to have fun. There are so many ways to accomplish this.

As an instructor, I spent my first three years teaching a format known in the CorePower Yoga (CPY) world as “C1”, a set beginners’ sequence that doesn’t change and eventually gets an update from CPY Headquarters in Denver, CO every few years. Part of why

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I liked teaching that format for so long was that it didn’t require me to come up with a new sequence every week. I was happy that I didn’t have to create something new each week. Over time, I realized this class was a greater source of creative output than expected. While I wasn’t creating a new sequence each week, I was designing a new experience with each class whether I was intentional about it or not. Over time I noticed how my presence, cues, the music, and even the way I decided to break something down for students in class would change the student’s experience for better or for worse.  As I became more intentional, I started to experiment with how I could make a set sequence feel new for regular students as well as on how to make something completely foreign feel familiar to newcomers. Some experiments went well; some fell flat; and others took a few tries to get right. One day it hit me that what I was doing with my classes was an exercise in the creative process. As an instructor, I got extremely comfortable trying new things in my classes—whether it was incorporating props into my classes, experimenting with music genres that aren’t typically associated with yoga, to eventually making up my own sequences for more advanced yogis.

As comfortable as I got with experimenting, I also got extremely comfortable receiving feedback. Growing up, feedback on things like homework assignments, swimming, or technical writing for school was normal. However, receiving feedback on ideas was and at times still is challenging. We often identify with our ideas and even try to appraise our value by them. So, when feedback falls short of desired praise, we take it too personally and interpret an opportunity to improve as a cease and desist and give up all together. However, feedback is not something we should fear, it’s an opportunity to improve.

 

While creating for others is a somewhat of an intuitive process that relies on our past experiences and insight it to the world, it’s also collaborative. Feedback is the most underrated part of the creative process. Feedback from students and other instructors alike has made me a better instructor. Feedback from students helped me tailor my sequences to serve them better. Feedback from my students also helps me take note of how well I’m serving my students. Teaching yoga has helped me see feedback as information that I can use to improve rather than an appraisal of my ability to teach. This ability to be receptive to feedback and frame it as data has also helped trust my own gut. Feedback serves as a complement, not a replacement for your intuition. The process of experimenting in the studio, receiving feedback, and iterating my approach has helped learn how to take in feedback from others without drowning out my own voice.

One of the most surprising things I’ve taken from yoga is my ability to be a better person to the people around me. Yoga has reminded me that all people, regardless of their background are built for connection.

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” This quote has commonly been attributed to Plato, but its origins have been disputed throughout the years. More importantly, this quote captures the power of sport. Numerous sports have demonstrated the ability of play to bring different groups of people together. Sport effectively and efficiently deciphers ones’ ego and uncovers who we are. When we play, we allow ourselves to be seen. Our strength’s, our weaknesses, how we move, how we rise, how we fall—it’s all unfiltered and out in the open. When we show up to play, whether it be on the field or on a yoga mat, we put it all on display. As we begin to put ourselves on display, we also allow ourselves to see others. This willingness to express shared vulnerability drives connection.

 

In all of the time that I’ve spent in yoga studios, I’ve noticed the power that yoga has to foster genuine connections between diverse groups of people. The face of yoga in America is quite homogenous, but ironically, I believe it can be an effective way to build bridges between cultures. In many of the class I take, I’m almost always the only black male. While I often wish that there were more people who looked like me in class, the apparent lack of diversity hasn’t been a barrier to connection. If anything, it’s shown me how possible it is for us to connect as people. The shared experience as well as the collective display of vulnerability allows yoga to serve as a bridge. Yoga is the common ground that we can all stand upon to embrace and share our differences.

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When one person teaches, two people learn. And I have learned so much from my students and about myself over the past 4 years. It’s helped me step into the challenges of leadership. It’s sharpened my creativity and enhanced my ability to connect. While yoga has been an important path for growth and self-study, it’s not the only path. Yoga is neither an answer, nor a silver bullet. It’s tool that is available for us to use as we try to navigate the world and live out our dreams. I certainly didn’t expect to gain all of this from yoga. My practice started out as mostly physical, but what I’ve taken away goes far beyond physical fitness. While a yoga practice can lead to physical transformation, it can lead to immense growth in other areas. You may take up yoga to carve out your ideal physique, but as you grow in your practice, it will carve you out as well.

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