This personal essay appeared in The Masters Athlete (themastersathlete.com).
Last February, a few weeks after my 51st birthday and on the twisting road to becoming a middle-aged yoga instructor, I skulked through the orange-themed lobby at a Boulder, Colorado, CorePower Yoga studio. Past the racks of Lululemon yoga pants and T-shirts that read “Spiritual Gangster,” I finally came to a halt in Room 1: a wood-floored space with wall-to-wall mirrors. The other students were mostly about half my age. Their reflected images accentuated my feeling: I’m surrounded by youth.
I saw my reflection, too. I’m a typical fifty-something; salt-and-pepper beard, a few pounds overweight. But I still feel plenty young, and after I spread my well-worn yoga mat to join the cluster of fellow students, I noticed something else in my reflection. I was wearing a shit-eating grin.
Here I was, of AARP age but embarking on a yoga teacher training, and I was excited and fearful at the same time. I had that happy but slightly unhinged feeling you get when you’re about to do something cool but unknown, and perhaps life-changing. And I felt a tinge of arrogance. I thought about how, ahead of this intensive workshop, I’d been practicing yoga, enthusiastically if sporadically, for decades, practically since Nirvana, the band, was playing small halls. I then reassured myself that I’d be able to hang with the youngsters. My extensive life experience would outweigh their flexibility and strength advantages.
In other words, I said to myself: You’ve got this, Brad.
At 7 p.m. sharp, we began. Derise Anjanette, the lead instructor, smiled warmly and introduced herself and three of her colleagues—altogether, four fit, beautiful women ranging in age from 24 to 46. They were all seated perfectly in lotus position.
Derise welcomed me and the other 15 students to the first night of the CorePower Yoga Teacher Training. The training is a big commitment: An eight-week program composed of 24 three-hour sessions, plus written and practical exams. Whoever sufficiently persevered and progressed would be awarded with a teacher certification that would allow them to lead classes in select studios around the globe. That was perfect for me, a semi-rolling stone of a single man and a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. A yoga-teacher certification would serve as one more affirmation that I could roam as I’d please. I fantasized about chucking the American Dream and teaching yoga on the beach in Mexico or Costa Rica. At the thought of landing my certification, I practically burst out in giddy laughter.
Next, one of the other instructors, 30-year-old Laura McKellin, who is blond and fit as a cat, instructed us to sit up tall. “With a long spine,” she said. She then asked us to join her in saying three oms.
“Om is pronounced A-U-M,” she said, emphasizing the sustained, “ah” sound followed by “oo” and then a seemingly endless MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM. The challenge tested my capacity to utter this single word without taking a breath. I eventually gave up before Laura did. All the students gave up before Laura did. The next challenge was harder. Twenty-four-year-old teacher Katie Pine chimed in with a kind but firm request. “Now I’d love it if you all made eye contact with each other,” she said.
As we took turns looking directly into each other’s eyes for about 30 seconds at a time, I saw nothing but nervous smiles, and sensed my own. I found the whole thing awkward.
“Okay,” Derise finally said. “Now I’d like you to introduce yourself. Tell us about your path to teacher training. What is your deepest intention?”
Suddenly the fact that most people in that class were at least 25 years younger than me no longer mattered. I was officially out of my comfort zone. My path? My deepest intention? Her words really weren’t in my lexicon, but I intuited what she meant. She wanted us to talk about our past. My past? I definitely had one. And it had been a mixed bag—exciting successes traveling the world as a writer on assignment for major national magazines, but also some significant bumps along the way.
Then I wondered about the others. Weren’t they too young to have a journey to talk about? I took a drink of coconut water from my insulated bottle and settled deeper into my yoga mat. From Derise’s questions, I quickly understood that this yoga teacher training was going to be about more than strength and flexibility. I’d have to spend the coming two months looking outward at my teachers, and fellow students. And inward aplenty at myself. Ugh.
So began my humbling journey to become a yoga teacher. Now, when I look back almost six months on that remarkable period and challenge, I smile wide. Yes, at times the teacher training had me scratching itches that I didn’t know I had. But that was part of why it became one of the most profound experiences of my adult life. I’ll put it in economic terms: The $2,000 I spent on becoming a yoga teacher made me realize that an old dog is not only capable of new tricks. He must learn new tricks, especially the type that help him to be a more grounded, compassionate person. In these confusing, volatile times, the world benefits whenever we do deep work on ourselves. While yoga teacher training might not seem to be a world-changer to everybody, I believe it was the best money that this grown man has ever spent.
I’ve practiced yoga on and off for two decades. Mostly “off,” I admit. But 18 months ago, my mercurial attitude toward yoga significantly changed. I sought better fitness, and new ways to bring spirituality into my life. I began attending a yoga class just about every day.
At first, getting to the studio was initially hard, and the maiden month of solid practice was difficult. However, I somehow stuck with it. After three months, I noticed that my practice was paying off in ways that I could see and feel. I dropped 10 pounds. My chronically troubled knees felt better. I consistently felt calmer. I also felt more connected to others—neighbors, colleagues, and friends. The relationship I was in improved. I stubbornly admitted to myself that all the clichés about how yoga was good for people contained truth. There are amazing psychological gifts in getting your body into and out of uncomfortable poses, and focusing on breathing. There was magic in yoga. I patted myself on the back for really dedicating myself to a practice.
Then one day after class, Kenda Donahue, 28, who had become one of my favorite instructors, mentioned an upcoming teacher training. Make no mistake: I’m a career journalist, adept at judging others harshly and displaying their dirty laundry on the printed page, ambidextrous at raising both eyebrows at ethical shortcomings and financial malfeasance. I’m aware that yoga studios make a lot of money on teacher trainings. I’m also aware that very few yogis and yoginis who complete yoga teacher training end up actually teaching yoga. Even if they want to pursue teaching as a career, teaching yoga is a simultaneously competitive and low-paying field.
Wetzler: Humbled, and then happy.
But as I drove home that evening from class, I thought about Kenda’s announcement regarding signups for the training. A desire to take the plunge overcame me. Kenda had said that the training had changed her life, and she was serious. But there was more: The commitment I’d given to yoga had felt so good that I thought perhaps more commitment could bring more happiness. I may have been about twice as old as my yoga teacher. However, just like her, apparently all the yoga I’d been doing made me realize that there was room for further exploration. Maybe becoming a yoga teacher was my path forward. Could it make me a happier and healthier person? I wanted that.
Did I need the teacher training? When Kenda spoke up, my life was already pretty good. Yes, I’ve been through the wringer during adulthood. Many of us fortunate enough to reach this age have been through the wringer. The alternative to aging—and the forced growth that happens along the way—is obvious and not attractive: to be dead, if not literally than metaphorically. All of us who are in middle age have friends who’ve taken that path.
Personally, I’d previously struggled with depression, and a long period of being overmedicated on antidepressants and other strong prescription drugs. In fact, I can look back on a several-year stretch during my late 30s and early 40s as lost time. But these many years later I was definitely thriving again. I was writing for publications once more, and building a successful business coaching aspiring writers. Thanks to exercise and healthier living, I hadn’t been depressed in years. Despite these gains, my intuition told me that yoga teacher training was still the perfect thing. I was familiar with the Buddhist idea that all suffering is the gateway to awakening. What if everything I’d done up to now, my successes as well as my lost years on drugs—when I hardly left my house, and was too clumsy and compromised to even ride a bicycle—had in fact led me here to this mirrored yoga studio? What if becoming a yoga teacher was my deepest intention right now?
Five minutes past the touchy-feely and awkward start to teacher training, the work became legitimately hard. We students took turns playing teacher by directing a volunteer among us into different asanas, or yoga poses. The exercise was a disaster.
Watching my peers struggle to sound both authoritative and wise in their directions, I quickly appreciated the elements of a good yoga class. Yoga only feels fluid and intuitive because a knowledgeable teacher skillfully connects one asana to the next, both in terms of physical demands and students’ collective emotional state. You don’t tell someone to go straight from, say, a warm-up of a standing pose into intense backbends.
Nonetheless, when it came to taking my turn, I stammered. I strung together maybe 20 or 30 words as I uneasily directed our guinea pig to move from Mountain Pose (standing) to Downward Dog (on all fours, with tailbone in the air). I felt intensely self-conscious. Was everyone else smirking, at least on the inside?
When my turn ended, I happily receded back into the small crowd. “Man, this isn’t easy,” I whispered to Krisan, a fellow student.
“I think we’re supposed to suck,” she said with a smile. “That’s the point.”
After each of us students struggled, the message was clear: Even the basic mechanics of teaching yoga requires real thinking and mastery.
Later that day, after hours and hours spent attempting to teach via a sequence of poses, Derise pulled me aside. She looked me in the eye. She talked to me with a mixture of directness and care that I found to be different than anything I’d ever heard from a boss or editor.
“Brad, I invite you to breathe when you teach. Stay grounded,” she said. “You’re running away as you teach. Work on being present: like a tree, not a tumbleweed. Remember, you’re doing this work for your students, not yourself. Get out of your own way.”
Whoa! I mean, WTF? How did this woman pick up on this aspect of me only after my few attempts to teach yoga?
I knew that Derise was right on, too, and not just regarding my crappy yoga teaching. She’d crystallized a healthy chunk of my struggles in life. Of being too willing to listen to the voices of doubt. For many of us, these voices began as voices of other people who’ve doubted you in the past and who’ve likely not always had your best interests in mind. These voices say you can’t do this or that. You can’t write that book. You can’t become a yoga teacher. And these voices can be very loud, drowning out your truer voice that knows that you have both the talent and education to JUST DO IT. And here’s the messed up thing: The people who said those discouraging words might be long gone. They are in other states or countries, or maybe deceased. But their voices remain within you, and they are you—or rather, they aren’t you. But it’s easy to believe that they are you. If you don’t deal with them, these voices become your very worst enemy. In the yoga studio, and in life.
I have long since known what was underneath all of my doubt. I deeply feared loneliness and betrayal. I can laugh at my own arrogance now, but I felt that perhaps fate and gods betrayed me at birth by simply plopping me down in conservative Kansas. Personally, for me, my homeland always seemed to pride itself on conformity, and even intolerance. For a long time, I felt lonely in my own town, and for many reasons lonely in my own home.
A product of all this sadness and challenge was, ultimately, the depression. In continuously wanting to be someplace other than where I was, of wanting to flee or back away, I could become increasingly depressed. In fact, it’s my belief that the severe depression I came to suffer at various times during my teenage and adult lives worked in lockstep with my running away. And indeed, through events like ended relationships and abrupt moves, I’ve spent good parts of a lifetime trying to distance myself from the loneliness I’ve felt. I’ve spent an equal amount of time searching for, and trying to get to, a so-called real home.
Sure, to some extent we all run away from our discomforts. But for me the running away ultimately brought me outright self-betrayal. Today, I look back on a seven-year period when I took those antidepressants as me wanting nothing more than my habitually running-away-self to go away. During that rough stretch of life I was unable to face much of anything, and the medications were perfect for helping me escape from the noise going on in my head. I numbed myself. I gave myself a toxic pass, because in reality the drugs came to worsen my state of being by fogging my consciousness, and by separating me from my deepest thoughts and desires. The drugs removed any opportunity for me to help myself. I disappeared.
And some tendencies of that old, uncertain Brad were now showing up at a yoga teacher training, which had quickly turned into a crucible. How’s that for age and experience working in an older guy’s favor?
The night that Derise so acutely critiqued my nascent yoga teaching, I couldn’t sleep. We students had completed three hours of practice-teaching and, since we were each other’s guinea pigs, we’d all done a lot of strenuous yoga. My body hurt and my brain buzzed. As I lay in bed, I endlessly considered Derise’s feedback. I imagined grinding my feet well into the ground. I imagined myself, in the best possible way, going nowhere, which meant running from nothing. I saw myself being like a tree.
The next class, and really for the next seven weeks, I focused on this powerful feedback. “Stay grounded” became something of a mantra. I needed to hang in there, to show up more consistently, for myself and for others. Really the dynamics are intertwined, like a double helix. You can’t show up for others if you don’t show up for yourself. And you really can’t show up for yourself if you’re too consumed by your own sufferings, big and small, at which point you’re also failing to help others.
So how do you skin both cats at the same time? When it came to that teacher training, I figured out that I had to leave my anxiety at the yoga studio door. Be more at home with myself, I surmised, and I could show up for others. I had to be at home, right then and there, in that studio. Over time, I came to realize that the only way to soothe myself was increasingly to serve the people that I was teaching. Double helix. The training was most about me when it really wasn’t about me.
There were other rivers to cross, too. By week four, I was memorizing the routine. But I wasn’t learning it fast enough. As a journalist for decades, I’d always had an easy time with the facts. But memorizing an hour-long yoga sequence—guiding another person’s body and mind through a sort of dance—was an entirely different skill set. It was challenging.
I was convinced that the 20-somethings all around me weren’t grappling with the task. One Sunday during a three-hour stretch of teacher training, I was unquestionably struggling more than the other students. I just could not remember what pose in the sequence came after triangle pose. I thought I knew why I was failing. It was my age. Watching others float through the memorized chain, I felt old. And I felt lonely, too. Like maybe I wanted to retreat, and be anywhere but on that hardwood floor surrounded by mats, blocks, and straps. Unwanted noise came from within my head.
“You’re too old for this, Brad!”
“This whole endeavor is silly and impractical!”
“You will never be any good at this.”
The others must’ve heard me muttering to myself. Because a 23-year-old fellow-student named Andrew swiftly offered me a learning moment, and in the kindest possible way.
“Find compassion for yourself, Brad,” said Andrew soon after I’d misfired. He spoke in the kindest imaginable tone. I was amazed. A damn kid was saying this to me, and I could feel his empathy. A kid!
I immediately said nothing, and only gathered myself. Was this truly about being older? Had I, from a standpoint of memory recall, lost a step? The longer I stood watching the others, the more I thought that this was about my old nemesis, creeping doubt.
Stay grounded, I spoke to myself. Be the tree. I told myself to re-commit to getting out of my own way, even if I didn’t always know how. I wanted to serve others.
Then I turned back to Andrew.
“OK,” I said. “I will.”
At home, I spent every spare moment memorizing the assigned vinyasa sequence. The work paid off. I recited it once, then twice. My faith in myself grew. I went to class, and as my confidence expanded, my anxiousness receded. When I wasn’t anxious, I also noticed something palpable, and beautiful: I was able to put others at ease, too. I felt a growing ability to give the gift of a safe, calm environment for others to explore their physical, emotional, and spiritual selves. If you’ve taken a few yoga classes, you know that many people attend in order to expand themselves, and in myriad ways. They want the opportunity to know themselves better. I finally knew this about myself: I was becoming a yoga teacher.
Left: Brad strikes a victorious warrior pose!
On an afternoon of week eight of the teacher training, we all took a practical final exam. We partnered up, and then took turns teaching an hour-long sequence to a fellow student. The instructors walked around, observing us and writing notes. As I taught my sequence, I thought little about myself (or the sequence, which I now had down). Instead, I couldn’t help but occasionally glance around the room. I cherished what I saw: We’d honestly all arrived. The proof was unfolding all around me. We’d all become proficient beginner yoga teachers.
We’d learned a lot about the history, science, and philosophy of yoga. We understood yoga’s “Eight Limbed Path,” and the difference between the yamas and niyamas, and between ahimsa and asteya. We’d been tutored on the seven chakras, or the spinning centers of spiritual power that supposedly run along the length of every spine. We knew quite a bit about human anatomy, including the differences among tendons, ligaments, and fascia.
But there was more to acknowledge than any book or asana sequence could teach. What the training gave me and my fellow graduates was common ground—both sacred and common ground. No longer was I a slightly forgetful or somewhat fearful old man surrounded by bendy whippersnappers. We were all now ambassadors of yoga, and supportive of each other, our learnings, and our community. We all wanted to bring more of the yoga world—whether as a hobby, daily practice, or complete lifestyle—to ourselves, and to offer that world to those who were interested. During that practical exam, we were all at peace. We were also all pretty psyched.
So now where am I headed with yoga, besides regularly attending class? I’m busy with other work, but I know I’ll teach soon—though I’m not sure where. Maybe I’ll split for a Costa Rica studio someday, but until then I have the desire to teach on a volunteer basis, to people who don’t ordinarily have access to yoga. I’d like to share it with war veterans, or prison inmates. If I get the opportunity, I’ll try to meet them where they are, just as, only a short time ago, my yoga teachers and fellow students met me. Maybe yoga, I’ll be able to tell some folks with some serious life experiences and many thousands of miles on their odometers, will somehow make your world a little better.