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What To Do - Or Not To Do- When You're Stuck In An Elevator


There’s actually more than one reason to go to yoga school. Yes, some people want to teach yoga so they can either add to their career or switch it up entirely. Others are there to ‘deepen their practice’ which means getting into a better handstand than Wendy on the mat next to you. Some are there because they think it will look good on a resume. And the few people in the class who don’t fit any of those categories are there because the experience came *highly recommended* by their therapist/ psycho-pharmacologist who ran out of tools/meds to calm them down. You never know why someone is in that warmly lit room smelling faintly of foot, but it’s fun to guess.

I went to yoga school to become a yoga teacher which is the most boring reason of them all. I was sick of bartending and not getting home until 6 am and was also realizing that most people were not hungover on a Tuesday because they *worked* the night before. I was trying to take vitamins and eat kale and do a backbend so I figured, why not change my job to something healthier too? I applied (um, yeah, you have to apply to yoga school,) and got into a teacher training program at Laughing Lotus on 16th Street in New York City.

Laughing Lotus was run by two hip lesbians who were into yoga before Sting allegedly introduced all the white people to the practice. Walking into the studio, one noted a very Georgia O’Keefe motif and it was hard to ignore the feeling that it was a bit like walking into a giant, pink vagina. I loved it and wanted to be the favorite student.

The program was interesting. There were cool people and we learned a lot about the culture and history of yoga while still trying to put our ankles behind our necks. There were hours of discussion about the eight limbs of yoga, an arguably solid guide on how to live a healthy life. One of the concepts we studied was called Ishvara pranidhana which is the idea of the ‘ultimate surrender.’ The gist of this word that you skimmed over is the doctrine that you should put everything you have into making something happen. Only then, after you’ve given it all you’ve got, do you let go completely and, essentially, give it all up to God.

We’d been discussing this idea at great length as it pertained to both our physical and mental practices. You work hard, get to your breaking point, then you have to just take a deep breath and let something bigger than you take over. It makes sense and is actually applicable in real life which was not something I found to work in all of the eight limbs of yoga. I wasn’t living in an ashram in India. I was slinging drinks till 5 am, living in downtown New York in my 20s. There was only so much grace I had in my heart. During this week of study, I got stuck in the elevator on my way to yoga school.

Now, I’m super claustrophobic. I despise small spaces the way other people are fearful of snakes or small children or being buried alive. The level of fear I have of being in a space with no escape makes me panic to my bones. Living in New York I avoided elevators as best I could - which was not great since the city is built vertically. I burned more calories going up and down creepy, dark, mostly unused staircases than I ever did at Crunch. And the elevators in the old buildings are not clean or new or maintained. And I don’t trust the rushed-looking inspection certificates that hang on the upper right-hand corner of every single one. I could forge that in Microsoft Word in 1992 with one eye open.

When the elevator stopped and my heart dropped to my knees, I wasn’t alone. My yoga ‘mentor’ was in there with me. She was a lovely person who was a couple of years older than me and had been teaching at the studio for a while. And she was calm. She was born to be a yoga teacher. Everything about her exuded this unflappability that I will never know. I am very flappable. The elevator screeched to a halt and the doors didn’t open. After approximately eleven seconds, I was drenched in sweat and couldn’t see straight. I explained to her that this was my worst nightmare. In this cold, dark, scary box that could drop to our deaths at any second. She looked deep into my soul.

“Jo,” she breathed in a voice that I deemed way too relaxed for the situation, “this is an excellent time to practice Ishvara pranidhana. You have to surrender and trust that everything will be ok.”

Now, I had bought into most of what I’d learned at Laughing Lotus. I had put what I thought was a considerable amount of effort into changing my lifestyle and outlook to be aligned with what I was learning about yoga, but this was too much. As my head started to spin and the oxygen was depleting, I looked right past her, to the doors. I was paranoid enough about being in one that I always listened for the sound the elevator makes when it reached the floor and I thought I had heard it.

I attacked those old, steel doors with everything I had, prying my fingers in between and pushing them with my newfound upper body strength.

“Let it go,” my mentor urged, “Ishvara pranidhana.”

“Right,” I grunted, “but don’t you have to do everything you can before you fucking surrender?”

And with that, the doors opened. As the world came back into focus, I saw that we were only a foot and a half from the floor and I climbed out easily, reaching a sweaty palm out to the meditating woman next to me.

I’m not saying that it wouldn’t have been healthier to calmly breathe and wait, I’m just saying that we can only change ourselves so much. To a certain degree, and for better or worse, we are who we are. And maybe there’s some strength in our weaknesses. But I was definitely not the favorite student.

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