The Teacher

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Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
— Revelation 3:20

I have had the honor of practicing with many yoga teachers who have shared their wisdom, skill and grace with me, but perhaps none as influential as my maternal grandmother Ruth, who never practiced yoga a day in her life.

My grandmother Ruth left Kansas as a twelve-year-old girl, sent to California by her parents to help her older sister Bernice raise her young children. From her home in San Gabriel, my great-aunt Bernice continued the spiritual tradition into which she and her sister were born, taking Ruth regularly to meetings with the Society of Friends (also known as Quakers).

The Society of Friends share a belief in the possibility of direct, unmediated communion with the Divine, and they don’t rely on a pastor to interpret scripture or to tell them how to live. Instead, they live their lives in accordance with their inward experience. Unlike most religious institutions, the Friends believe in a personal search for divine guidance, and they attempt to live faithfully in harmony with that guidance. Quakers are less concerned with ritual and more concerned with an inward knowledge of the Spirit, both individually and collectively.

When Ruth married at 21, she converted to her husband’s more dramatic pentecostal beliefs, in which your works are evidence of your faith.

I have no idea if this was a difficult decision for Ruth, whether embracing an Evangelical Wesleyan tradition of strict adherence to scripture as law was a painful or welcome shift. I only know that by the time I came along, she exhibited a disciplined routine and a penchant for perfectionism.

Ruth made me memorize large chunks of the books of Daniel and Revelation. She taught me to recite the symbols of Babylon and Balaam, to name the seals and diadems, to describe the seven heads, with ten horns and ten crowns, and to recognize false prophets and the signs and mark of the Beast.

And even though she never recovered from the stroke that almost killed her when I was six-years-old, she painstakingly guided my child self through chords, keys, scales and arpeggios. Though she could hardly move her fingers and she stumbled on her words, she demanded I recite words and play music.

I hated sitting still and I resented every painful moment she required me to parrot back to her what she thought I should know. But she was a forceful woman, and I complied.

By the time I lived with her as teenager, I could play a few songs to her satisfaction and I could walk past her in the kitchen and say, “I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name.” My grandmother never praised me or said she was proud. She didn’t hug me or pat my head or say I love you. But whenever I would depart from her, she would nod her head and enjoin me to, “Be good.”

In my first year of college, Aunt Bernice died and I came home to be with Ruth at her sister’s open-casket funeral. The service was conducted in the unprogrammed Quaker tradition, in which the congregation stays silent until God moves them to speak. There was no pastor or leader up front, no pedestal or podium upon which to turn our gaze. There was simply a group of people who had once known my aunt, who spoke when the spirit moved them. And the dynamic tension of trusting that spirit to inspire people to open their hearts and share their words touches me to this day.

I usually close my yoga classes with words like, “Thank you for sharing your energy with us today. As always, it is an honor and privilege to share in your practice. The light in me recognizes and honors the light in you. Until we meet again, please be good to yourself. Namaste.”

Some of these concepts I have heard in yoga before, but I have never written down or memorized any of the permutations. I say what comes to me, reading the energy of the room, responding to what arises from our shared space.

When I instruct in our teacher training program, I encourage every emerging teacher to listen to what’s inside of them and share with others the truths they’ve discovered for themselves.

For when the student is ready, the teacher will come.

Ruth left the Society of Friends, but I don’t think they ever left her. She continued to see the good in people and believed everyone could behave from the center of their own good. Unlike her husband, who created a community of believers who would adhere to his orders, Grandma Ruth marched to the beat of her own drummer. She held her faith at her center and walked through life lit from her heart space.

If I could sit once more with my grandmother, I would thank her for instilling in me a deep hunger for meaning and a belief that we each have our own inner light to guide us. I would thank her for seeing the good in me, and in each person she met, for training my desire, honing my self-discipline, and modeling how to continually do the next right thing.

Michelle Dowd