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Monthly Archives: May 2013

Living My Dharma

I guess it comes with age, or perhaps surviving heartbreak and loss has changed me, but something has shifted inside of me these past years which makes everything in my world – my work, my relationships, my interaction with others, my connection to nature and society – all seem sacred, worthy of effort, patience, and gratitude. I guess my immersion in yoga awakened an awareness within that softens how I view and interact with the world. Suddenly, things big and small seem fleeting, meaningful and precious.

I am lucky. Throughout my life, I have forged relationships through teaching that are poignant and make me feel deeply connected to something bigger than myself. These relationships ground me, reminding me that my life has purpose and I’ve used my time on earth for something beyond serving my personal wants and desires. It doesn’t matter if I’m teaching dance or yoga, or writing or teaching a 40 year old how to read the alphabet. Teaching is an act of giving, a way of sharing a part of yourself with the best intentions of inspiring others to help them grow.  I have always made a living teaching, but I didn’t consider myself a “teacher” necessarily. For years I considered myself a dancer.  Then I considered myself a writer. I tagged myself an “artist”, always creating something – dances, jewelry, crafts, stories, creative meals, gardens, even a business that grew due to creative planning. Eventually, I thought of myself as a yogi and started forged new paths. All the while, teaching is what I did to make a living as I embraced these different personas. But when I look at the varied circumstances and people I’ve been involved with in my life, I realize that while I certainly was (and still am) all kinds of an artist and businessperson, the one true consistent thing that defines me is my role as a teacher.  No matter where I live or what passion is fueling my heart in the moment, I have found ways to teach and share those passions and the insight I’ve gained from them.

 It has taken me 54 years to figure out what should have been obvious from the beginning. Teaching is my dharma. So many people never find their dharma (true purpose in life). Some go throughout life pursuing what they think is their dharma, unaware that their frustration and lack of fulfillment is a byproduct of their focusing all their energy in a direction they believe defines them or their dreams, but the truth is, they’ve slightly missed the mark. A person’s true dharma is not so obvious to pinpoint (like when I believed my dharma was dance- I DID commit my life to dance, but my true dharma was teaching others to love the art as I did.) This revelation– discovering my greater purpose, allows me to feel deeply at peace when I am making decisions about my life, because I now understand happiness, for me, lies in devoting my life to something bigger than my petty wants and desires and comforts. Teaching is key to my feeling as if my time on earth counts.  I make my decisions now keeping this in mind. It keeps me on a strong path.  

I’ve always known to teach is to learn. A lifetime of teaching varied ages, subjects, & levels has helped me grow personally more than any class, degree, experience or other means of personal studies I engaged in myself. I have had a fascinating, diverse life. Each time my life has changed, from dancing in New York to moving to Florida, from Florida to Georgia, from married to single, from the city to the country, from dance to writing and yoga – from  owning a business to being retired, from being poor to being rich (and then being poor again) etc. I somehow created situations where I fell into the role of teacher. Now that I think about it, I have never spent any portion of my life NOT teaching someone something. I wasn’t in Georgia a month before I began teaching Kathy to read. I wasn’t back in Florida for two weeks before I started teaching writing to seniors. I have opted to support myself through teaching since my first job teaching dance at the YMCA when I was 16. It has been my advocation, my vocation, and my sideline. I have made a fortune teaching, and I’ve lived at poverty levels so I could teach rather than do any other kind of work. I’ve taught rooms filled with hundreds of students at big conventions, and in classes where only one person showed up as I forced myself to do the job, grumbling about my small audience. But ya know, I was equally committed and content with my work in either case.  And no matter whether I am making money and getting accolades, or scrimping by ignored and unappreciated,  I still get fully engaged and immersed in the process of teaching.
I can honestly say, I fall in love with my students. All of them. The respectful, talented ones, and the pains who cause me grief. It’s OK. The difficult students so often turned out to be the ones I’ve learned the most from. There have been occasions where ego, ambition, hurt and anger has destroyed what should have been a very beloved student/teacher relationship, usually in cases where the student craves respect and/or a career of their own and I am suddenly viewed as an obstacle in their way. This always breaks my heart. But more often than not, my relationship with former students has remained positive and close, proving I indeed did touch their lives and they will not forget it.

I am honored by all those relationships that have remained intact. I have former dance students who stop by to reconnect constantly. Some come and sign their children up for dance classes now, which always feels a bit surreal, because I don’t feel any older, but clearly time has marched on. Some have returned to take yoga or dance classes as adults, and we recapture that great synergy and respect, only with a  more mature slant to our  relationship.   I can’t help but marvel at the evolution of my students as people or as artists. It’s as if I’m on borrowed time. Life tosses us a gift when it comes around circular that way.

Teaching dance is important and I’ve devoted the bulk of my life to doing so. I know my young dance students have learned discipline, poise, become healthier and embraced a sense of self through dance. Some forged careers and earned an education thanks to my contribution to their mastery of the art.  I’m proud of this work, but I also know dance is entertainment for most people, and if all these dancers didn’t work with me to learn to dance, they’d have found another teacher. In some cases,  I was the inspiration to fuel the fire that kept them dancing long enough to really achieve excellence. Without me, they might have moved on to something else. But had they not been bitten by the dance bug because of my influence, something else would have gripped them and filled their childhood with memories, experiences and opportunities. Who’s to say I did them a service and dance was the best door they might have walked through?  Still, it is nice to have been a part of
their journey, and I believe I’ve made a difference in dance as an art form, because I was, and am, good at what I do. But dance, while wonderful and a vastly rewarding part of my existence, is not the most important work I’ve ever done in my life by a long shot. It was a shock to admit that to myself when I first recognized this truth, but dance is just one thread woven into to the complex twisting rope that is my life.

When I moved to Florida again, I spent 18 months teaching seniors to write. I had to let this class go when my daughter finally came to live with me, because she needed my time, attention and energy more than any student ever will, but I kept in touch with my students- or perhaps it is better to say they kept in touch with me. Eighteen months have passed and they are still deeply devoted and insist I was the best writing teacher they’ve had (they’ve had several replacements since I left, but apparently the class has not been as vibrant or progressive since I left, at least in their opinion.) They continue to write me, ask for a bit of help with writing projects and urge me to begin a new class. One student just published a book that he began in my class to help him deal with the passing of his wife of 65 years. I went to his book release party, a fancy affair at Selby Gardens, feeling more than a little thrilled to know I had set an 85 year old man on a new path of writing for healing. I purchased his book and had him sign it, thinking “In this individual’s life, my teaching made a difference.” 

In Georgia I taught a woman to read. When I met her, she only knew 4 letters of the alphabet. Three years later she was at a third grade reading level. We have remained friends. She texts me all the time, and every time I see her short sentences on my phone, I’m thrilled. The fact that she can text at all is proof of how I changed her life. Before meeting me, she tried to tackle her illiteracy several times and failed, but I was the teacher that put it in perspective for her. During our time together she not only learned to read, but became a better citizen, became healthier and shifted her attitude about many things.  Her transformation was partially due to her becoming literate, but also, she says it was having me in her corner against all odds. I was the only person who believed in her, even when she was struggling with meth and spent some time in jail, followed by probation etc.. I kept showing up, fully committed, teaching her despite the conflicts or frustrations, knowing that success was important, no matter how fruitless and inconvenient it felt some days. Today, she says I’m the one who kept her on the right path. I don’t know if it’s true or just her feeling sentimental after the fact, but it is nice to hear her express such kindness.  She recently battled cancer and called me after her doctor’s visit to share her worry . I realized then I was more than just a teacher to her. I was her friend, and a symbol of her overcoming the biggest life challenge she ever faced.  during her health scare, she wanted me around again, perhaps just as a reminder that she was strong and if she stayed the course, things would work out. (It did.)

She recently said her wedding vows again to her husband of 25 years and she sent me this picture. I got it in the middle of a frustrating tiring day. I smiled. Every effort to stay connected precious to me. Heck, I wrote a book about all I learned about myself by teaching her. So when I am feeling down and as if no one cares – when I get that sick feeling that the minute a student has gained all they want from me, they can and will dismiss me with nary a thank you or a glace backward. I remind myself,  “In Kathy’s life, I made a difference.”

For years I used to work with students with Downs syndrome and they had a huge impact on my life. Wrote a book about them too, in fact. About a year after I returned to Florida, they discovered I was in town and teaching again, so they contacted me. We started our class again, and now, this beautiful group of dancers that discovered the joy of movement with me when they were only 7 – 10 years old are in their 30’s and still dancing!  I can say without a doubt, these are the most precious students of my life and career. Every moment I spend with them feels tender, sweet, and as if I am “home” where I belong, doing what God put me on this earth to do. As I watch them struggle with new challenges as adults, their health, weight, and independence  issues serious now, (which causes stress on their aging parents) I have no doubt my relationship with these students has counted. there is never a question of whether or not their parents appreciate me, because they express it constantly in heartfelt ways. But still, on a bad day, I remind myself “In the lives of these families my continuing to teach has made a difference.”

And now, there is yoga. Yoga isn’t subtle like dance or writing. Yoga changes lives in a huge way. I can’t take credit for how yoga drastically heals, but I do know my passion and commitment to the beauty of yoga beyond the mat fuels others and inspires them to embrace yoga as a way of life. Recently I was voted “best yoga teacher in Sarasota”. I made jokes about that- convinced the honor was given because I pay for advertising rather than because I’m all that, but my assistant (someone I taught and mentored and whose life has changed through yoga) insists the award was well earned, even if it is a marketing ploy. She says I deliver the word of yoga in a way that makes others willing to do the work to gain the benefit. She says if she had a different teacher, she probably wouldn’t have embraced yoga with the zeal and determination that she had. I guess that is the point of teaching. It is not about knowing the information, but being gifted at delivering it. And in her case, I know it will be passed on, for she is a dynamic teacher in the making herself. That makes me feel as if my work really counts tenfold.

Unlike dance or writing, when you teach yoga you can see the huge impact your work makes. I’ve seen people overcome addictions, depression, grief, anger, and suicidal behavior in my program. I’ve seen them discover their dharma, make needed change in their lives, feel alive again, and connect with their best self. Yes, teaching yoga has been the most powerful work of my life thus far.  Slowly I add Ayurveda and Reiki, journaling workshops other elements of self-discovery to this yoga journey. It continues to unfold.  Every day is an adventure in learning and passing it on.

I’ve begun to believe that I was never meant to step away from my life as a teacher and retire to live a quiet life focused on art or writing or family or anything else that would only serve me personally. I often wish that life had worked out for the ease of it, and I’ve had my share of mourning for things lost. But at the same time, on a different level, it understand that it would have been a tragedy had&nbsp
;that attempt to withdraw from life to focus on my little wants and desires worked out.  To do the work I am doing now as well as I am doing it, I had to leave my successful dance empire, lose everything and be forced to reinvent myself . I swear it’s as if the universe forced circumstances and opportunities for me to grow – the last few years feel like some massive preparation designed to refill the coffers to give me more to give back.  On days when I am frustrated or exhausted or feeling that horrible sadness over how things unfolded, I find comfort in the idea that perhaps I was meant to experience all that horrid grief and loss and bad treatment too. Because being wounded has made me a  more compassionate teacher. I recognize and empathize with other wounded people now, and I  go to great lengths to help them find balance, reconnect and heal. Just goes to prove something good comes from adversity. I am deeply touched by the harshness and beauty of life. And I use that when I teach.