On Courage

Inaugural Off the Mat crew, Sydney

Often, I will teach a class with a theme on courage and the way that yoga prepares us to hold enough space for ourselves so that face up to the tough stuff in our lives, even when we want to run away. When we have sensitivity and courage, we can be of great service to the people in our lives. This past weekend, I was going to teach such a class again. But I was about to learn a deeper level of the very lesson I was there to teach.

The class I was to teach was part of a two day workshop I was co-facilitating for a group of very experienced yogis I’d never met before in a strange city in a studio with which I was not familiar. As someone who has been teaching solo in my own studio space with a pretty consistent group of students for the past five years, this was definitely going to be outside of my comfort zone on a number of levels.

Co-facilitating requires a great amount of trust and surrender. Despite the fact that I’d co-taught with the same pair of folks previously, for me there is always the slightest glimmer of wanting to hold on tight and take control of everything.

Contraction.

The group we were leading were hand-picked yoga community leaders, some of whom have been practicing and teaching longer than I’ve been on the planet and whose student bases number in the thousands. A whole lot of “who am I to take the seat of the teacher in this room” came up for me. The temptation to pull out was ever-present.

Contraction.

On top of those things, was the reality that I had no idea about the individuals as people. Normally, I know lots about the students in front of me, from their names to their injuries to their passions to their secret hopes and dreams. That makes delivering an appropriate class so much easier for me! This time, I didn’t even know their names when I first had to get up and teach.

Contraction.

Finally, I had no familiarity at all with the room. Normally, I can control the music and the light to create the exact nuance that I want. While the room we were in was fantastic for a big workshop, I was daunted by having to throw my voice to what felt like the ends of the earth while planes rushed overhead. The volume control for the music was very far away from me and there was no dimming the full-on natural light that streamed in from the high ceilings above.

Contraction.

All in all, I felt I could not deliver my best work when I most wanted to do so. For a perfectionist like me, the obvious solution is to honour the contractions and just walk away. Or obsess about the details and try to control as much as possible while getting even more contracted. Or get angry to cover up the more tremulous emotions underneath.

But here’s the kicker. As I mentioned before, part of the theme of my class was Courage. The other part was Sensitivity. You can’t be sensitive when you’re contracted. In the moments where I desperately desired to put on my protective shell, to harden up and to disappear, I had to embody the exact opposite in order to have any hope at all of communicating my point effectively.

As I spoke the words

“When you want to be of service, you must go through your own stuff not around it. We turn inward, we observe the sensations, the discomfort, the challenges and then we breathe into them to face them courageously – we go through, not around.  The practice of yoga does not dance around distress and deny the existence of suffering. It asks us to look at it so that we can release its grasp on us. Only by going through our fears and contraction, rather than around, can we find freedom and happiness. May this practice help us cultivate the sensitivity to listen to our own hearts and the courage to deal with our own challenges so that we may be of the greatest service to the people around us and the world at large.”,

I was speaking to myself over and above anyone else in that room. All the while, I could feel my legs twitching to get out of there, my mind trying to disassociate.

But I stayed present. As I asked the participants to breathe into their contracted areas, to release and relax internally, I did too. As the students grappled with the unfamiliar practice I was offering them, I grappled with the sense that some of them really weren’t enjoying it. It was too fast for some, too slow for others, too hard, too easy, too boring, too strange….But the point of the practice I was offering was actually to create a challenging situation and offer them the opportunity to stay sensitive to their own discomfort. I was in total resonance with their experience because it was very difficult for me avoid going into autopilot. It would have been so easy to let my experience teaching the sequence take over so I wouldn’t have to stay with witnessing their struggle and my own.

It’s amazing what your mind can offer you in a challenging situation. And it’s amazing how using the tools of yoga can help you to witness the machinations of the mind without getting swept away. Courage comes from presence. Presence comes from sensitivity. Sensitivity is a choice. Choosing to stay sensitive takes courage. Full circle.

I will admit that I don’t always choose sensitivity – I’m still learning. But I can testify that when I do choose it, every single time, my courage grows. My capacity to respond and deliver expands.

The feedback from that first class was slow in coming. I had to sit with my own projections for a while before anyone said anything at all. And there were mixed reviews, which was expected. What I didn’t expect is how cultivating the sensitivity all throughout the practice with them actually made it easier to receive the “constructive criticism”. The contractions I normally experience with less-than-glowing-reports didn’t happen. What did happen was a spacious enough awareness to inquire deeper about the participants’ experience and learn some pretty valuable lessons from them. Another unexpected happening is that when I got the glowing reviews, there were no triumphant contractions either. I could really see that the participants’ experience had so much to do with them and very little to do with me. I was just the channel, a bystander who could learn from the situation too.

What’s very exciting for me is that because I heeded my own lesson in courage even more fully than ever before and showing up when I was dying to run away, I was able to be of service. Over the course of the weekend, my co-facilitators and I took the participants on a whirlwind journey of self-inquiry about the roles of service we can play in the world. The weekend workshop was just the start of a multitude of projects that the 26 beautiful yogis who participated will take into their communities. They will pay forward the experience so that others may too step up to the service they are called to do. I’d say it was worth a little personal discomfort for that!

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12 Replies to “On Courage”

  1. Wow kelly, this is just beautiful. I have been healing myself through a particularly stubborn experience with adrenal fatigue (accompanied with its best friend, depression) over the last year – and to tell you the truth, was very worried about this class. As a student in it, surrounded by yes – very experienced practitioners, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up, that I wouldn’t be able to ‘measure up’ to the others in the room or, indeed, to your instructions.

    It turned out to be quite the opposite: this class was just what I needed. The difference in teaching (to my own teaching, and to my regular teachers) offered me the perspective that my body is different now (through illness) and that my practice can be different too. And best yet, different isn’t bad. In fact, different can be AWESOME.

    I fell in love with my yoga practice on the mat again this past weekend, and I have you – and me – to thank for it. So THANK YOU for your honesty, for showing up, for your courage and your wisdom. It was greatly appreciated : )
    xx

  2. We say it all the time, and it never stops being true. You don’t get to teach this work without continuously doing this work yourself. Thank you for doing it with me. You are one brave yogini.

  3. Wow – this is beautiful Kelly. I was totally inspired by how you led this class. I knew that you felt intimidated going into it… but that really didn’t show up at all in the room from what I observed. You were totally full of courage, centered and light-hearted. You rock!

  4. You are most welcome Stella. 🙂

  5. hi kelly, i stumbled onto this post of yours by pure chance! I am a senior teacher at Body Mind LIfe in Sydney and was overjoyed to see Nic, Mel, Belinda and stella in the photo! I was sad that I knew nothing about the weekend. I am a big fan of Off the Mat and Into the World… I would love to participate in your work, if that’s possible – mel is coming over tonight for dinner so i can’t wait to pick her brain about the weekend. If I am able to join, please can you let me know how to get involved in any future worskhops. Namaste, Beth

  6. Hi Beth,
    thanks for getting in touch. I’m sure by now Mel has told you about the budding Australian network for OTM. Do stay in touch and get involved!
    Namaste, K

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