On choosing happiness and building new dreams
I was extraordinarily lucky growing up. My parents told me from the moment I can first remember, and in every moment thereafter, that I could do and be anything I wanted. They did everything they could to help make that happen. I went from an academically rigorous school straight to one of best universities in America, and directly onto my M.Phil, which led to my PhD. At the age of 26, I had a doctoral degree and I was on track to a career in academia, which was what I thought I wanted.
I happened to earn my PhD the year the global economy took a turn for the worse, and a lot of the jobs that had previously existed in academia dried up. After a one-year post-doc, I found myself under-employed or unemployed for three years. I had been practising yoga since I was 22, but my interest and commitment to yoga skyrocketed during that stretch of unemployment. Thanks to some incredibly supportive teachers, I trained to be a teacher, began teaching full-time, and realised that I love teaching yoga at least as much as I love practising yoga. But my ego felt bruised. I felt pushed out of academia. At that point, I still wanted to be working as an archaeologist, but I couldn't find a job. So I was "teaching yoga instead." I felt lucky to have an alternative career I enjoyed so much, but my ego was unsettled by the fact that I hadn't really been as successful in academia as I had hoped I might be.
And then, as luck would have it, my final application for research funding, which I had filed before I qualified to become a yoga teacher, was successful, about 9 months after I started teaching yoga full-time. I was over the moon, and I happily re-balanced my schedule to accommodate both my rejuvenated career as an archaeologist and my new-found passion for teaching yoga. So for the past three years, that's been my thing: I teach yoga "part-time" and I work "full-time" as an academic researcher in archaeology at a University.
On May 1st, everything changes again. My three year contract at the University expires, and I have decided not to seek another academic job.
Because teaching yoga makes me happy. And I can thank my yoga practice for the self-awareness and self-confidence to choose to pursue what makes me happy.
Over the past 12 years, while I have been learning to backbend, forward fold, twist, invert, float, and often face-plant, I have also learned a lot about myself. I often say that I believe asana is as good of a tool for building self-awareness and exploring self-study as any of the other seven limbs of yoga, and this belief is rooted in my own experience of yoga. For me, asana has always been the most effective way for me to understand myself. Trying to work out where my legs, arms, and butt are in an inversion is just another way to sort out what's going on internally too. My yoga practice has also helped me build courage and self-confidence in my own decisions. It takes a whole heck of a lot of self-awareness, a certain degree of self-confidence, and probably a considerable amount of insanity, to nose dive from scorpion handstand towards ganda bherundasana. I believe these daily practices on the mat for the past 12 years, every failed jump into handstand, every less-than-elegant backbend, every time I flip-flopped out of trying something in a busy class and knew everyone had witnessed it, have given me the courage to take similar leaps of faith off the mat.
As my friend and fellow yoga teacher Lolo Lam often says in her classes, "No effort is ever wasted." She's right. All of that effort I have made on my yoga mat, every drop of sweat, hasn't really been about nailing the asanas. My asana practice has ultimately helped me to step away from the concerns, expectations, and illusions that swirl around me (most of them originating in my own head), and to try to remain focused on what brings me contentment (santosha) within myself. Truthfully, I'm still working on that one. I probably will be for the rest of my life. If you think it is sometimes hard not to compare yourself to that person in class doing the crazy circus tricks, it is infinitely more work for me, as a classic type-A over-achiever, to stop comparing myself off the mat to those around me. And it is even harder still for me to stop comparing myself to illusions I have constructed in my head of what I should/could/might be doing with my career.
(Edited to add: I also believe that the effort I spent on my academic degrees and career was not wasted. I am proud of my academic work, and I believe it was enjoyable, worthwhile, and valuable, even if I'm not "using" my degrees in a traditional way.)
"As I read about Hemingway having been to Spain and France, I was amazed. I couldn't believe that an actual person had gotten to go to Spain and France. What was even more amazing was that this man had done it without being a doctor or an engineer. Till then I had thought that the only way to have a good life was to have one of these two professions. As I sat there reading, I got happier and happier. To have a life where one traveled, where one did what one wanted, seemed like being rich." (Akhil Sharma, Family Life)
Ultimately, deciding to teach yoga full-time was easy. All I had to do was build up enough courage to decide I wanted to redefine (and largely throw out) the rules I had constructed all of my life of what it meant for me to be "successful." I knew it in my bones within a few months of starting my academic research again that my true passion was for teaching yoga, not for archaeological research. Just because you are good at something doesn't mean it makes you happy.
"It's not about what vocation you choose to pursue--I believe you can be of service to others no matter what you do--it's about how you pursue your chosen vocation." -Princeton President Chris Eisgruber
Here's to new beginnings, and here's to yoga, for making them possible for me in so many ways.
Patanjali's Yoga Sutra 1.1.
Atha yoga anushasanam.
And now, yoga begins.