A few Sundays ago, I got an email that kept me up all night. It was a request from the president of the other Iyengar yoga studio on the island asking me to sub. There was a catch: the class is for a teacher who succumbed to breast cancer and passed away two weeks ago. Her services were last week.
This request created an internal conflict for me. First of all, I could not even imagine how to approach these students who are bereft of their teacher. The late teacher had taught the class up to two weeks before her passing!
The right thing to was to teach the class. I had known the teacher and she gave many years of service to the community. Yoga Sutra I.4 talks about how sometimes the seer identifies with their mind-stuff agitation and that causes pain. As you can tell, I let my mind go everywhere!
The next task was to design the sequence for the class which is advertised as “Level 1” and is an hour long. The president of the studio requested I do a restorative class, but from my counseling experience (that is what I do for a living) I felt that 10 minutes in Supta Baddhakonasana would only have the students dwell more deeply in their loss.
I considered back bends as they are good for depression. But these students are not depressed, they are just grieving. The first stage of grieving in the Kubler-Ross model is shock. I was shocked when I found out about this teacher’s death as I had known her and saw her looking healthy just a year prior. The students were probably just as shocked because they saw the quick progression of the illness on their teacher.
It is forward-bending week at my studio, and I felt that nothing is better for shock than a forward bending sequence which quiets the nervous system. So my sequence involved a few standing forward bends like Prasarita Padottanasana and Parsvottanasana. I also had them do Janu Sirsasana toward the end finishing in a not-too-long Savasana–remember I did not want them just to lie there and think about their loss.
I arrived at the locked studio 15 minutes early and there were a few students waiting. They did not say much and their body language did not indicate they wanted to socialize. Soon afterwards, the student with the studio key came riding up on her bike–it was my first yoga teacher from 15 years ago! She did not stay for class as she was attending a workshop (thank goodness, as the only thing more stressful than teaching this class, would be to teach it in front of my first yoga teacher).
I started the class with the invocation to Patanjali and informed the students that as an Iyengar community this is how classes begin. Some knew the chant, while others just stayed quiet. The air was thick with stoicism which I could not tell was coming from me or from the students or a little bit of both.
As I started with my first few poses, I even took a few stabs a humor which was met by silence. Ugggh, this was going to be a long hour! I felt much like a comedian who was bombing his act with a hostile crowd. I stuck to the sequence I laid out and got into the instructions. Once I settled into the rhythm of the class, the students lightend up and responded well to my corrections of their poses.
At the end of class I was demonstrating Savasana and had a terrible tongue slip. I said that most people just flop down and “die” in Savasana, and you have to “die formally” by rolling the spine down symmetrically. I grimaced internally at my poor choice of words. But rather than rebuke, the students all laughed heartily. For some odd reason, this was the right thing to say.
After the class, the students thanked me for teaching and commented how good the class made them feel. A few other students stayed back an processed their feelings about the deceased teacher and how traumatic it was for them to watch her deteriorate each week. She had taught the last class in a wheelchair with assistance from another teacher and she could barely talk.
Waiting for me after class was my wife and my hanai niece Sasha. This was supremely normalizing. My niece was happy my wife bought her the “Frozen” dvd, and we all went to the Old Spaghetti Factory for dinner. When I returned home, waiting for me in the mailbox was my diploma signed by BKS Iyengar. Perhaps this was my final rite of passage before becoming fully certified. May my colleague rest in peace and know her teaching has brought peace to many students in her community. I would also like to thank her for the opportunity of teaching her students.