My mother nearly cried tears of devastation when I told her I was signing up for a yoga teacher training program in 2013. I was on the tail-end of earning a Masters degree from Harvard University in Religious Studies and Sociology, and while my peers were deciding on Ph.D. programs or negotiating their starting salary rate at non-profit organizations, I was filling up a suitcase with hand-me-down yoga pants in preparation for a nine-week course that was to take place in a Los Angeles Radisson hotel.
In the days leading up to my graduation from Harvard, I kept being met with the inquiry, "So what's next for you, Gina?" I would be lying if I said there wasn't a small part of me that was slightly embarrassed to answer that question honestly. Everyone around me seemed to be going off to bigger, better things that were apparently going to improve society. By comparison, teaching yoga sounded juvenile. Like a copout, even.
As it turned out, I never ended up second-guessing my decision to become a yoga teacher. No matter how many blank stares or condescending comments I received from friends and family, I knew it was a choice that my future self wouldn't look back on with any regret. That said, I was as suprised as anyone.
I was 15 when I waltzed into my first yoga class. The barely-surviving studio was situated on the second floor of a small office building that used to be a firehouse, and the weathered wooden floor creaked gently under my feet as I walked to the back of the room. There were only two other people present, both mothers who had barely managed to steal an hour out of their day. The instructor commented on how limber I was as we moved through a standing side stretch. I blushed, and my mind quickly wandered elsewhere. When it was all said and done, I rolled up my mat, waited for my mom to pick me up, and continued on with my moody teenage life. As pleasant as it was to stretch out my obliques, I didn't find anything worthwhile with the practice.
When I wasn't beating myself up over my classes and relevant fieldwork, I was spending the majority of my time chasing "skinny" and hopelessly battling my mental illness.
For the next seven years of my life, I became obsessed with other forms of fitness. I played on the tennis team, begged my college roommates to join me on morning runs, and even had a lengthy love affair with CrossFit. I read all the women's health magazines and tried pretty much every diet fad out there. It was all done with a frightening level of intensity, all in an attempt to change the physical body I inhabited.
By the time I got to graduate school, I was exhausted. More than that, I was unwell. I had been diagnosed with ADHD and subsequently prescribed medication that kept me up all night in a terrible sweat. A therapist also diagnosed me with an "unspecified anxiety disorder," recommending I take another round of unsavory medication that was supposed to keep the panic attacks at bay. Even though I was perpetually sluggish, I was exercising compulsively.
Perhaps the most unsettling element of my disheveled life, though, was that I was lonely. When I wasn't beating myself up over my classes and relevant fieldwork, I was spending the majority of my time chasing "skinny" and hopelessly battling my mental illness. I didn't have many friends, at least not the kind I could rely on when my anxiety latched onto every corner of my brain.
It was January of 2013 when I stumbled into a hot yoga class in Cambridge, MA. OK, admittedly, I enrolled because a cute bearded guy invited me and I didn't want to seem like a wet blanket, but within the first few minutes of introductory pranayama breathing, something shifted in me. Everyone around me disappeared, and I was left entirely alone with my demons — and a whole lot of sweat. I know, it sounds unpleasant. And it was. But it was the first time I was ever presented with the truth: I was disconnected, unhappy, and utterly lost.
I walked out that day with a flushed face and a 10-day introductory pass. When my pass came to a close, I requested information on teacher training and boldly convinced the owner to give me a work-study position, which would allow me to practice for free and gain insight into the inner workings of the studio. I felt like I finally understood the phrase "a new lease on life."
Over the next few months, that yoga studio became my second home. I practiced nearly every day, usually struggling to move my stiff body through the simplest of postures. There were a few times I tried to hide the tears that came in final savasana, but I didn't know how else to expel the stagnant loneliness that had settled into my skin, so I just let them fall down my cheeks (also, I saw a few other people crying on the floor, too, so I figured it was kosher).
I was quickly welcomed into a tight-knit community full of people who, like me, were seeking something to help them feel more alive. They were a zany bunch of folks — from the special needs P.E. teacher to the economics professor to the painter — and each of them looked equally relieved to walk into the yoga room after a long, garbled day out in the world. When they asked me how I was doing, they really wanted to know how I was doing. I quickly learned that the attraction of yoga wasn't so much the flexibility and strength that came from bending, but rather the fact that you had a chance to care for others, and be cared for, in a nurturing environment.
To my own surprise, I found that some of the yoga teachers I met during that time had a much greater impact on me than all the professors I ever encountered during my education. To think that I could have the same positive influence on others made me excited for my future.
So I took the leap and endured nine intense weeks of hot yoga, lectures, and anatomy tests. There, I made even more lifelong friends, and that period stands out as one of the most rewarding times of my life. Two years later, after teaching full-time in numerous countries, I was asked to teach a group of upcoming instructors at a training program in Thailand. I led 300 people from around the world through a series of asanas, offering advice and motivation along the way. It was exhilarating. It was humbling. Afterwards, the outpouring of gratitude made it very clear that I hadn't made a wrong turn those years ago.
Today, I only teach yoga part-time, but I still approach my job with the same spirit as I did when I first started. It may not seem like such an affluential occupation from the outside, but it brings joy to people who may be suffering, even if in the smallest of ways. Just as importantly, it's an occupation that brings joy to me. I genuinely enjoy what I do, and I live with a lot less stress than I ever did before. I'm healthier, both physically and emotionally, which is a gift I wouldn't trade for all the money in the world.
When I look at my friends from Harvard who went down the road I previously thought I was meant to follow, I don't feel like I'm missing out. Sure, I see they're making a pretty handsome salary and that the work they do is widely-recognized, but I've also noticed that a lot of these same friends have become more curious about my unassuming job over the years. They message me, excitedly inquiring about where I am and what I'm doing. Most of them insist my life looks like a dream. Sometimes they even ask for advice on how to reduce stress, relieve chronic back pain, and generate a healthier relationship with food. I never hesitate to offer guidance, especially when they respond with so much gratitude.
The healthier they are, the better equipped they will be to successfully embark on the significant work they're doing in the world. So I guess being a yoga teacher is kind of an important job, after all.
Images: Gina Florio/Instagram