The Stiffest Yoga Teacher in L.A.
The year was 1998. I was living New York City and working in fashion.
One night, while weight-lifting at Equinox gym on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I noticed about a dozen radiant young women congregating outside of the group fitness room. Strapped to their bare shoulders were rolled-up rubber mats.
These women seemed different from the garden-variety aerobic-types. They were all barefoot, and each had a distinct fairy-like glow.
About halfway through my second set of shoulder presses, the door opened and the fairies began quietly filing into the dimly-lit group fitness room.
With the urgency and precision of a heat-seeking missile, my 25-year old hormones convinced me to skip the rest of my workout and investigate whatever was happening in that room.
And that’s how I ended up taking my first yoga class.
I remember folding forward at the beginning of the class and realizing how, at the deepest point of my bend, my finger tips were suspended about a foot from my toes. I glanced around with envy as nearly everyone else was palming the floor.
Being the only guy in the class, and clearly new to yoga, I got most of the attention. As the teacher attempted to twist my stiff frame into the various poses, I would pop right back like a thick rubber band. I felt like the Tin Man.
Sitting crossed-legged, back-bending, balancing on one leg, all proved to be Herculean efforts for my rusty joints and cardboard muscles.
Even in Downward-Facing Dog pose, it felt like the laws of gravity were somehow stronger on my mat than on everyone else’s, as my arms convulsed under the weight of my upper body and sweat poured from my brow.
My foray into the world of Tree poses and Chaturangas ended in embarrassment, but with a smattering of determination for more.
Perhaps it was the challenge? Or maybe it was because I was the lone heterosexual male in a room full of Jessica Alba and Minka Kelly lookalikes? Whatever the reason, I returned for more — and gradually became addicted.
Over the next six months, I began adopting more of a yogic lifestyle. I retired from weight-lifting, became a strict vegetarian, and started attending yoga classes at studios for more serious study.
The eastern concepts of dharma (“right way of living”) and karma (“the principle of cause and effect”) that I learned in yoga influenced me to re-evaluate my modeling career. Standing in front of a camera and posing for pictures all of the sudden seemed insignificant, when compared with the bigger problems of the world. I had to get on with following my dharmic path.
I liked learning about the spiritual concepts I heard in class and read in books. I loved exploring the physical and subtle bodies. I had a knack for public speaking. And I didn’t mind being outnumbered by healthy, attractive women. I could think of only one profession that would be the perfect confluence of all of my most passionate interests: become a yoga teacher.
I left New York for Los Angeles in 2002 with a vision of teaching vinyasa flow, which was the style of yoga I connected with the most.
The only problem was my secret: my bridge-cable hamstrings severely inhibited my range of motion to the point where I was easily the stiffest yogi in most of the classes I attended. So how in the hell was I going to teach anyone yoga?
I decided to overlook my perceived shortcomings, and just take the next step. Not long after driving across country and settling into Los Angeles, I enrolled in a 200-hour yoga teacher training at The Center for Yoga in the Larchmont neighborhood.
Whenever it came time for me to demonstrate a pose, I grew nervous and insecure, hoping the moment would pass quickly, praying that my body would somehow defy the laws of physics and I would morph into the perfect expression of the pose (of course that never happened). Surprisingly, no one ever mentioned my stiffness during my entire training.
Upon graduation, what I lacked in flexibility I made up for in hustle. I was willing to teach anyone, anywhere, at anytime, paid or for free. But I rarely demonstrated poses, out of the fear that I would be exposed as a fraud.
Coincidentally, I became an expert at giving verbal cues to practitioners of various experience levels, while properly managing the clock, and tending to my music playlist (any one of those skills can take many years for a yoga teacher to master). At the same time, I made sure to always offer words of encouragement like, “Yoga is not about the poses. Rather, it’s about connecting to a deeper, more authentic place within, a place of acceptance,” blah blah blah.
Did I really believe that, or did I feel more like a dentist with two missing front teeth who was afraid to smile? It depended on which day you asked me.
Despite my neuroses, my class sizes grew from just a few people to around ten. The next year I was averaging fifteen people per class. Then twenty.
Either people knew my secret and didn’t care, or I’d turned into the David Copperfield of yoga teachers, and had mastered the smoke and mirrors.
I slowly began to realize from talking to my students how my carefully-guarded secret was a far bigger deal to me than it was to anyone else. What they appreciated was my ability to relate to yogis of all levels, and especially to beginners.
My gift was in making everyone feel good right where they were. Newbies felt safe in my classes because I encouraged them to take it slow, and gave plenty of options for stiff people. My more experienced students appreciated how I emphasized using the practice as a metaphor for meeting challenges in life, with more acceptance and less judgement.
Others reported that I was far less egotistical and more compassionate than many of the more bendy teachers. And a few came just for the great music playlists I would spend hours preparing before each class.
As it turned out, not being flexible was more of an asset than a liability.
“It’s not about wishing you had something you don’t,” I would preach, “But asking yourself, ‘How can I do the most with what I have right now?’” This became one of the mantras I repeated often in class — words I so desperately needed to hear for myself again and again.
The pivotal moment, when I was finally able to let go of the self-judgement that had haunted me since my very first yoga class, came about 4 years after I started teaching. It was during a sunset hike with a close buddy of mine, who also happened to be a yoga teacher.
He knew of my secret, and although we’d never had a conversation about it up to that point, he asked me half jokingly, “So how does it feel to be one of the most popular yoga teachers in LA who can’t even touch his toes?” I remember my heart tightening, and suddenly being at a loss for words.
He sensed my apprehension and, after a moment of awkward silence where I was fishing for the perfect “spiritual” reply, he answered his own question:
“You know, a wise man once told me, you don’t have to beat Michael Jordan in a game of basketball in order to coach him to a championship.”
Light Watkins is a meditation teacher and the author of The Inner Gym: A 30-Day workout for strengthening happiness. Find out more at http://www.theinnergym.com/