by Roche Janken
I used to believe that I did not like people. I think of that time in my life as my Black Swan Period–I spent years dedicating all of my heart and soul (and time and money) to dance. Some days I felt inspired and in love with everyone around me, but most days I felt VERY alone. Wherever I looked, I saw people who were more together, more sophisticated and more successful than me…and they were my competition. I couldn’t even really let loose in front of my friends because I thought that if they saw the hot-mess that I truly was, they’d push me away.
Fast forward to 2009 when I landed on the doorstep of Laughing Lotus San Francisco, ready to start Yoga School and Become A Yoga Teacher. I was prepared to do asana all day. Spiritual readings and introspective writing–no problem! Nothing could be more challenging than my monk-like life as a dancer, right?
I walked into the center…but wait! There were other people there! Yoga buddy?!? Mentor group?!? Tea and cookies and casual chit-chat after yoga class?!?
AND…I was smitten! Across the room there was this person with a beautiful smile and an orange hat…and I just wanted to get closer.
All through Yoga School, I was on 2 journeys; I was learning the incredible teachings from Jasmine and Keith, and also navigating Being Around People and having a GIANT CRUSH.
As we read Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, I realized that the fear and competitiveness that my mind spouted did not have to be the end of the story. We read Jack Kornfield and I felt like perhaps I might be able to love well.
We learned anatomy, we practiced teaching, we memorized the sanskrit names for the yamas and niyamas…and I started to relax with my yoga buddy. I laughed with my mentor group. I started sitting and sipping tea for a few minutes after class instead of bolting to my empty room. Participating in the satsang (aka community) was opening me up as much as practicing adho muka svanasana.
And finally, after 14 agonizing and wonderful weeks, on the day after the last day of Yoga School…my crush and I went to the movies together. And we held hands. And my heart beat so fast–faster than in handstand. But we kept on holding hands…not running in terror but doing our imperfect, human best to just be with each other.
These practices are powerful. The Yoga Sutras talk about the siddhis or supernatural powers that truly devoted yogis can attain with devoted practice. I doubt that being in real friendships, lighthearted conversation or romance was what they had in mind, but practicing love is part of the path of bhakti yoga, and the openness that I feel now in my life truly feels like flying.
I was a chubby kid that wanted everyone to like me. Sometimes the need to be liked made me shy and sometimes it made me work hard in school and sometimes it made me tell jokes and sometimes it made me lie. It made me hate my chubby body because no one could like a chubby girl.
Sometimes it made me kind and sometimes it made me cruel or quiet when others were being cruel. All I wanted was for everyone to like me, but sometimes it seemed like the only way to be saved from being an outcast was to let someone else be an outcast. I was lonely and awkward and lived in constant fear that everyone was making fun of me and at the same time fearful that I was invisible.
Thank God for best friends, especially when you’re 12. Olivia and I created a sort of fortress of jokes and secrets to protect ourselves against the horrors of middle school lunch time. She liked me and wanted to hang out with me and it made me feel like I was someone worth liking.
A few years ago, I was having dinner with Olivia and we were having one of those conversations about puberty that you can only have with someone you have known since forever, and I said something like, “Thank you for liking me even though I was chubby.” And what she said next blew my mind.
She said, “I never noticed you were chubby.” And she meant it. She just accepted my body as the house of the person that she loved. I didn’t realize until that moment, sitting in a restaurant in Manhattan, post college, that an equation I had invented and lived by was flawed.
At some point in early puberty I concluded that having a boyfriend was a way the people liked you. Not only did the popular girls have boyfriends, but having a boyfriend was bona fide proof that someone liked you. And no one would ever date a chubby girl, so I would have to get skinny. So I starved myself resented every ounce of my flesh until it started to get smaller. And it kind of worked, for a while. I started getting more attention from boys and I started getting more acceptance from girls. The fact that it worked was problematic. In my deep dark murky mind it confirmed that total resentment of my physical body made people like me more. And it made me think of my body not as a temple but as a product for everyone else’s consumption. I thought that if I had the right product people would like me. Which is really all I wanted. I was lonely and I just wanted everyone to like me so I would be less lonely.
Almost every decision I made up my early 20’s was based on wanting everyone to like me. So the decision to walk into my first yoga class was based on wanting to be liked. I thought yoga would help me firm up my butt and that would make people like me more. (Really? yes, really) And I did yoga for years for this reason. I would go bikram yoga classes and stare at myself in the mirror and hate everything I saw.
Here’s the thing about the yoga practice though- it will change you even if you don’t think you want to change. It will make you work through your baggage even if you prefer to keep it in the overhead compartment.
Through lots of twists and turns and airplane rides, my yoga practice led me to Laughing Lotus. Slowly, bit-by-bit, my yoga practice and a whole cast of patient teachers made me see my body not as something to be consumed and judged but as a vehicle to take me deeper inside of myself- a place beyond bathing suit sizes.
And it was all so subtle at first I hardly noticed that I was changing. I was going to yoga and I felt better after but beyond that I didn’t put much thought into it. I was burning calories and I felt good so who cared why?
But then I was sitting in class one day and the teacher asked us to find an intention for our practice, and I suddenly realized my intention was not to get skinny. It was to feel better. And after class I felt better and I kept going, religiously even, and I was in another class and the teacher told us to feel our connection to the earth with our feet and I could suddenly feel how I was connected. And even after class I could feel how I was connected to the earth and the earth was connected to me. And then at another class the teacher told me to connect to my body through my breath and I did, and for the first time in my life I was inside my body and I even kind of loved my body. And then I was in a class and the teacher said to breathe with the other people in class and I realized as we breathed together that I wasn’t alone, even if I felt alone. That I was connected to the earth through my feet and connected to my body through my breath and that I was breathing with everyone else. And these connections were not contingent on what my body looked like or even whether or not I could do handstand. The connection I had with my body and with the ground and with people was a gift given by the universe and the universe would not take it back not matter what. That whether or not people liked me I was not alone.
Since those first few months at Laughing Lotus, I have devoted myself to these connections. The connection I have to the earth and the connection I have to my body and the connection I have to all living things and how all of these relationships are just big foils for my connection to the Divine. To me, this commitment to the connection is Bhakti yoga. Bhatkti means to participate, but not in a way where if you do these certain things you win the race and everyone will love you. In Bhakti, you’ve already won, you are already loved. And through participating and opening up to the possibility of seeing and feeling these connections, you will never be alone.