In my youth I was a big swimmer. That was my family's sport. Everyone did swim team and, in the summers, my sisters and I would go to overnight swim camp for a week or two at various camps in nearby states, sometimes Wisconsin, sometimes Michigan. When I was nine, I came back with an arsenal of new tools to plug into my regular practice at the Hyde Park YMCA. The Y, as we called it, is where I practiced during the school year. Rip, a young, hip, 20-something coach, stood on the deck of the century-old, sub-standard 20-yard pool with no light and no ventilation, and barked his workout orders. Rip used to tease us when we complained about workouts. He'd hold the world's tiniest imaginary violin to his broad brown shoulder and play while beaming a big fake frown at whomever was whining.
The fall of fourth grade, after my revelatory swim camp summer, Rip told us to do a a 500-yard freestyle warm up. I pushed myself up on the lane rope and leaned toward Rip, "Do you want us to do bilateral breathing?" Silence. My ears started getting hot. Maybe that wasn't the term. Maybe it was bi-coastal or binary or collateral. Rip broke the silence with a huge guffaw, "Bilateral breathing. Yeah Shorty. Do bilateral breathing." I was right. But I was humiliated. This is one of my most indelible memories. It shows up all the time, at random moments.
Last week, in response to my mysterious back tenderness, I was swimming laps to try and move things around. I couldn't do flip turns because it hurt, but of course I did bilateral breathing. Since the summer of my ninth year, I always do bilateral breathing. As I swam, I watched my bilateral breathing episode replay like a video clip. And then my mind moved to another channel.
In 1991, before there were any Bikram studios in Seattle, a friend of mine taught Bikram Yoga, unheated, at the Olympic Health Club. She did it in a huge ball room with close to 60 people. I went periodically but didn't have any kind of regular practice. One day, while practicing in the very back row, I kicked out in standing-head-to-knee pose. As I kicked, I felt a little pop in my lower back. Without hesitation, I bent over, folded my mat and headed for the double doors behind me. The teacher, my friend, yelled over the five rows in front of me, "Laura, where are you going? Don't leave." "I'm leaving," I shouted back. And with that, I marched through the lobby into the dressing room and sat in the hot tub in my t-shirt and shorts until class was over. I waited until everyone from class had left. Again, I was humiliated.
I've heard it said that humiliation is the best teacher. We seldom forget what we've learned in moments of being humiliated. Our greatest lessons come from being snapped out of our safety zones. When we are in conflict with our own comfort and knowing, when we are embarrassed or humiliated, our egos are wounded and we stand at attention.
I learned from Rip's guffaw that grown-ups are supposed to be smarter than kids. While Rip's intention might not have been to silence me, I heard a strong clear message. I kept my smarty pants mouth closed in swim practice. Rip was the coach and I was the swimmer. When I abandoned a practice I knew very little about, I learned that I wasn't as smart as I thought I was. I've never left any class since that day at the Olympic Health Club.
My humiliation experiences, while not pleasant at the time, have helped me to be a good student and a good teacher. As a student of yoga, I trust that my teacher is guiding me, that he or she knows how to hold the form and get me where I need to go. As a yoga teacher, I recognize how important it is to do just this, to be confident in my teaching and lead my students through their process with sureness and strength. Like everyone, I'm still humiliated sometimes. My ego gets bruised and I feel like an idiot. Then the dust settles, the wound heals a little bit, and there it is, a little lesson.