By Barb Cooper
When I finished my LOAY teacher training requirements and graduated in 2013, I felt like it was the end of the most transformative chapter in my life. It turned out to be the beginning of an entirely new way of serving the world.
In 2007, I had reconstructive foot surgery, during which something went wrong that left me on the couch in abject chronic pain for three years. It was yoga (and acupuncture) that triggered my healing, and then brought me to study with Sri Dharma Mittra. In Sri Dharma, I found the Guru who resonated with my hungry, directionless soul.
Although I have never had a conversation with Sri Dharma (I am too shy to approach him,) I know he sees me. I feel a deep connection to him. And there have been some funny moments: There was the time I came back after a coffee break to a session during a weekend immersion, sat down in a group in front of him, closed my eyes and tried to connect with my breath. I opened my eyes to find him looking directly at me. “How are you going to find bliss, “ he said, smiling, “when you can’t even give up coffee?”
Yep. He sees me.
So, I began teaching in March of 2013. In August of that year, after my family moved back to Texas, the dream of opening my own small studio became a reality. And things started to get weird and, um, magic started happening.
I know how that sounds.
In addition to the students for my Sri Dharma-inspired regular vinyasa classes, people in chronic pain and with chronic conditions began sort of…well, appearing in front of me, seeking healing through yoga. It wasn’t the usual injuries due to age or over-use, either. These were people with dramatic and excruciating physical needs. The first client who came to me had her entire spine fused except for three vertebrae, a frozen shoulder and muscles that her brain couldn’t talk to!
I had no idea what I was doing.
I did have an enormous desire to see others find the kind of healing that I found. Much of what I learned about yoga therapy, I learned by watching videos and reading medical texts. I did hours of research on the specific conditions of my students. For each student, I developed a customized yoga sequence, modifying poses and sequences to suit their needs. Every few months, we adjusted the sequences together, just seeing what was possible and what accommodations were no longer necessary.
Because I had such a profound experience with chronic pain myself, I know how to touch and talk to people who are hurting. I know, above all, that people in pain need to be reassured that I am not going to hurt them –that they are safe with me. I am very careful to ask permission before I adjust my clients, and then I do so in the gentlest way I can. Often, I just hold people in the poses until they can hold themselves.
One of the most transformative things about my teaching practice has been developing the eyes to really see my students. I’ve learned that my students are used to feeling invisible –this is true of both the healthy and those who are struggling with health issues, actually. I make sure my clients know that I am truly seeing them. I see where they hold their pain, how their bodies change as their pain levels change. Sometimes I see things in their bodies that they aren’t aware of until I mention it.
Healing is happening. It’s amazing and miraculous, and it is real. Recently, over the holidays, I had a 15-year-old concussion victim, who had losses in balance and short-term memory. After three private sessions, she was almost back to normal! My first client’s shoulder unfroze, her brain started talking to her muscles and today, she can do headstands.
I know that this healing isn’t coming from me. (Heck, I still haven’t been able to give up coffee.) First of all, it is in my students’ unwavering willingness to persevere. They come back to every class, and they come willing to work. It is so inspirational.
It’s also the healing power of yoga and, I believe, it’s Sri Dharma’s gentle healing spirit. Before each session, I repeat the Mantra for Purification, and another one where I ask, “free me from my ego, fill me with love and healing.” I know that when I can set aside my own ego, yoga can use me as a channel through which healing comes.
All of this has changed my life in a truly amazing and profound way. Although I still struggle to set my ego aside off the mat, when I can do so, I can really see the people in my life– my yoga students as well as my friends and family. I find I am less reactive to things that might have once angered me or hurt my feelings. I am beginning to see people without judging them. I may never be able to do this as comprehensively as Sri Dharma does, but it has given me a glimpse of how peaceful life can be when lived in a life of service.
Barb Cooper, 50, is a mother, a well-socialized introvert, a Texas-to-New York-to-Texas transplant, and a writer by nature and training. Barb graduated from the Dharma Yoga Life of a Yogi Teacher Training in June 2013 and teaches yoga at Rasna Yoga in Austin, Texas. Read more of her musings at sothethingisblog.blogspot.com