Once upon a time--in a former lifetime long before I taught yoga--I tended bar.
I was in my twenties. I didn’t know what I wanted to make of myself, or even what I could make of myself. Instead of figuring it out, I knocked around. I stayed up too late, partied too hard, and dated the wrong men. I was afraid I would never get it together, never figure myself out, never discover what I had to offer, and never learn how to do a grown up job—or how to be a grown up.
I was afraid of pretty much everything.
I was a good bartender, though. I prided myself on the speed with which I mixed drinks. I could survey my bar at a glance and know who’d been waiting, who needed immediate attention, and who wouldn’t mind waiting a moment longer.
In some ways, teaching yoga is a lot like bartending. Both occupations require mad skills—if you don’t believe me, try stepping behind a bar on any busy Friday night! Both bartending and teaching asana require an ability to prioritize, and to connect with people. Also, a sense of humor and a smile will go a long way in both endeavors.
Alex was a quiet guy. He came in every night and ordered one vodka soda. He never ordered more than one, and he never looked drunk.
He was probably in his fifties. I liked him because he never gave me a hard time, and he didn’t leer. Most often he sat alone. He would just order his drink, and drink it, like a gentleman. Sometimes he’d have a joke for me.
Because I liked him--and because I courted regulars who were good tippers--I always bought him back a drink.
“Have another,” I’d urge. “It’s on me.”
He would feign reluctance, and pass his hand across the melting ice in his glass to indicate that he was done. I would settle the debate by pouring another vodka and putting it in front of him. We both knew he would drink it. The steps of this dance became well rehearsed over the several years that I knew Alex.
One night he didn’t come in. He didn’t come in the night after, or the one after that.
He didn’t come in because he was in the hospital dying of cirrhosis.
It turned out that mine wasn’t the only bar he frequented: on his way home from work he stopped into every single bar in the neighborhood.
I took the train uptown to Mt. Sinai to visit him. I was afraid but went anyway. His hospital room was like every hospital room; the light was wan and fluorescent. Alex was in bed. The sheet was pulled up over his belly which was so swollen it looked like a pregnant belly. That’s one of the symptoms of the cirrhosis.
There wasn’t much to say. We made a couple of lame attempts to joke about his belly but, of course, it wasn’t funny.
Then I went home, and he died.
Alex’s death threw fuel my long, combustible history of doubt about my self-worth. Rationally, I understood that I wasn’t responsible for Alex’s death. If I hadn’t been pouring those drinks then someone else would have been. In fact, other people had been pouring them for a lot longer than I’d been in the picture.
But emotionally--I knew damn well that I had poured at least some of those drinks. I regretted every single extra vodka soda I’d ever pressed on him. I’d served them up with a smile, and he’d killed himself with them, one drink at a time.
Was that all I had to offer to the world? I hoped to god it wasn’t but was terrified it might be. I remember praying, please, please, please—let me have something more to give than this.
It was a pretty dark time--so dark that desperation forced me to grope for a different way to be in the world. Those first fumbling steps in the darkness ultimately put my feet on the path that would lead me to enroll in my first yoga teacher training.
That was over a decade ago, and lots of training ago. I had a lot of work to do but it turned out that I was capable of doing more just than putting drinks in the hands of alcoholics.
I love teaching yoga. I love that people leave my class feeling better than they did when they walked in. I love explaining my belief that yoga is about loving life, and I love the look in people’s eyes when they start to actually believe it.
I’ve had the incredible good fortune to stumble upon my life’s purpose, and I don’t take it for granted. In some ways, teaching yoga is a lot like bartending. I still get people intoxicated for a living but yoga is a much better high, and better for them.
All these years later, Alex’s memory still galvanizes me to get better at offering myself through the work that I do.
I believe that individual happiness and fulfillment requires offering something to the evolution of a greater good. I believe that there are gifts that only you can offer--in your own quirky, particular way. I also believe that this kind of offering is exactly what we make every day as yoga teachers.
Leave your gifts ungiven and the entire universe is less than what it could be. Give them away, and all of creation is better off for it.
How did you come to teach yoga? Are you a yoga teacher who has walked in dark places? Is teaching yoga one of your life’s purposes?