When I was first beginning my yoga practice, one of my teachers would always end class the same way:
"I bow to my heart, my inner teacher. Namaste."
For the longest time, I never fully processed what she was saying. Partly because of the end-of-yoga bliss. Partly because I was still acclimating to the- admittedly, sometimes overwhelmingly different- world of yoga. But one day, I remember vividly, hearing the meaning behind her words. She was bowing to the guiding force within her, that she felt connected to and listened to.
And I remember thinking, "Oh shit, I think my inner teacher took some time off, because I don't hear anything goin' on in there."
It's true, the time during which I found yoga was the most tumultuous period of my life thus far. I was coming off a lifelong battle with depression and anxiety, and a few years-long battle with an eating disorder. I'd just begun my recovery, but it wasn't at all a smooth or graceful transition where I had a tearful realization I needed to change or go on a spiritual journey or become a monk or something. I'd run into recovery like I'd smacked into a brick wall: no warning, jarringly abrupt, and leaving me covered in bruises.
In fact, I only began recovery because I was forced into a hospital by a doctor I'd only seen once before she decided I was beyond her treatment. One minute I was sitting in a doctor's office, thinking I'd tricked everyone into believing I was "fine" for the millionth time, and the next my mom was crying in the passenger seat of my dad's car while we sped off to a hospital two hours away I'd never heard of before. If my inner teacher was saying anything to me back then, it was telling me to run.
In truth, I'd spent years stifling my inner teacher. I stifled her voice every time I'd continue to hurt myself in some way throughout my life: whether that be through my relentless perfectionism, ruthless self-criticism, or blatant disregard for my body's need of nourishment. I'd become quite adept at ignoring the signs of my intuition, and it'd become a twisted kind of pride for me. I saw it as a form of self-control, being able to overcome the signals of my body and soul. I saw it as being disciplined and dutiful, like I was somehow above the rest because I knew how to numb out instead of feel what was going on inside.
It may seem a bit obvious to point out now, but stifling that inner teacher was a mistake, and one that nearly stole my life. And when it couldn't claim that, it took my sanity, peace of mind, and happiness instead.
So when I sat in that yoga class every Sunday morning for months, and heard time and time again the importance of honoring your inner teacher, I was left with a few questions. How could I coax my inner teacher back? How could I learn to trust my intuition? How could I learn to listen, truly listen, to what was going on inside?
These are not easy questions for even those years into their spiritual journey, and I was a sickly little 14-year-old still trying to figure out how to get out of bed every morning and face the day. But, perhaps unintentionally, I'd already taken the first step to reclaiming my inner voice: finding a guide.
Now guides, unfortunately, are not people who tell us what to do. In fact, I'd go so far as to say they'll never tell you exactly what to do. They'll offer suggestions, guidance, perspective, and related experiences, sure. But the word "should" will likely be very minimally used in their guidance. No "you should do this," or "it should be like this." As I once said to one of my friends when acting momentarily as her guide: If someone uses the word "should" too much, it's probably all bullshit.
Guides aren't people who have all the answers, but they do have the tools to help you find your own. And that's why, at least in my experience, yoga is a powerful source for guidance. The practice itself is a guide, one that encourages us to go inside and listen to our own body's signals instead of relying on only once source of information. There is no one perfect way to do yoga, just as there's no one true way to live or be, and the practice is rooted in this belief. If there's one tenant of dogma in yoga, it's to breathe, listen, and listen to your inner voice more than the teacher's...at least, once you learn to hear her again.
Just as yoga itself is a guide, it attracts guides. Truly masterful yoga teachers, at least the ones I've been lucky enough to meet, are guides in spirit and action. They openly acknowledge that they are not all-knowing beings who have all the answers for you, and encourage you to look to the breath for truth. Because if there's one thing that will rarely lie to you, it's your body. Your body lets you know when things are headed down the wrong path with unabashed shame. Like a toddler, it throws tantrums when it knows its needs are not being met; it gets sick, it gets injured and achy, it holds its breath and tension until it gets what it wants.
Learning to listen to these cues are the first steps to practicing yoga and fully reaping the benefits it has to offer. But these physical manifestations of the inner teacher can be found on or off the mat by anyone, whether they claim to be a yogi or not. The only problem here, of course, is that the nature of our society doesn't encourage listening very well. We're pressured to wake up earlier, do more work, stay up later, do more hustling every day, all year long, and this kind of hustle requires tuning out the inner voice. We learn to ignore the grogginess, the aches and the pains, until it's too late and we're forced to sit down and rest only after we're beaten up.
It's in this vicious cycle, of course, that we can learn perhaps one of the greatest lessons of the inner teacher. You can choose to listen early, or you can choose to listen late. But at some point, you will have to listen. Listening early leaves room for change and growth before the pain gets too great, but listening late can make the process all that much slower and painful. And in an attempt to fill the role of a guide for a moment, I won't tell you which one to choose. But I assume all of us have had an experience similar to this:
You're working hard. You're hustling. You're hardly getting any sleep right now, but that's what coffee is for, right? You know you spend too much time at work/in your car/in front of a computer screen/away from your family, but you've become adept at transforming that guilt into a point of pride for how hard you're hustling right now. Of course, this schedule makes it hard to eat good food or get enough sleep, but that's the price you pay for being one of these elite, hardworking hustlers, right? Sure, your head hurts and your joints ache and you can't remember the last time you got to move your body for fun or exercise, but you'll make time for it. Later. When things aren't so crazy. When it makes sense to take time off. When it's the perfect time...
And then bam. You're sick. Really sick. Pounding headache. Nausea. Fever. Bedridden. Chicken soup diet for awhile until you can stomach anything else.
Or you get an injury. Pull a muscle, pinch a nerve.
Or any number of things that send a message from the Universe as clear as day: Slow the fuck down already.
The Universe and the inner teacher, as it turns out, doesn't like being ignored. When I find myself sick or injured as a result of ignoring these inner knowings, I can practically imagine my inner teacher somewhere, looking smug as though to say, "I tried to warn you, didn't I?"
The good news is, if you've had an experience like this, you've heard your inner teacher before. She's in there. You just haven't learned how to listen yet. And this, like any skill, takes time. It took me years, which is still relatively quick in the grand scheme of things, to become even remotely adept at it. About a year after the moment when I first began to think on this idea of "the inner teacher" and wondering how I could find her again, one of my guides offered me the opportunity of a lifetime: teacher training.
Teacher training changed my life in many ways. It offered me confidence, a sense of purpose and belonging, a happiness I never thought I could find after my disorder. But perhaps the greatest gift it gave me (and perhaps the root of all the others) was the ability to listen again. Not just listen to school teachers and regurgitate back to them the answers they were looking for, not just listen so I could get better at hiding my pain, not just listen and ignore. I learned to stop seeking the end-all-be-all answers from individuals on the outside, but to go inside and truly hear what was being said.
When I first began therapy two years before teacher training, I thought my therapist would tell me all the answers. I thought I would plop down in a reclining chair, spill my guts about something, and be told how to handle it, easy. And when I was met with only more questions and some gently worded, broad advice such as, "What would happen if you tried it a different way?" or, "What would it be like if you didn't feel that way?" I thought either I was doing therapy wrong or she was. At the time, I was frustrated with the lack of concrete answers. She's the expert, I thought, Why is she asking me to figure it out?
As I went through teacher training, I was initially frustrated at the similarity. There were no concrete answers, no one right way to teach this pose or sequence that class. When we'd discuss our personal lives and struggles in sacred circle, no one was told what to do to "fix" it all. We were all offered ways and tools to reflect, offered similar stories or experiences in solidarity. But no one ever claimed to know what the right answer was.
Slowly, and over a long time, I came to see the beauty in this process. Guides- whether that be a guru or a yoga teacher or just a friend offering advice- simply can't give us concrete answers and meaningfully inspire growth at the same time. For many reasons this is true, but the greatest one may be the simple fact that humans tend to learn lessons better the hard way. As kids we know we're not supposed to talk back or skip our chores, but rarely do we change our behavior until some kind of punishment comes along that make it clear exactly why things should be that way. Or we don't change our behavior until we put in the effort, trusting the process, and end up with some kind of reward at the end. B.S. Skinner, renowned behavioral psychologist, taught us long ago that behavior changes only through understanding consequence, whether positive or negative.
And hearing about consequence certainly isn't the same thing as experiencing it.
And one person's consequence isn't the same as another person's, either.
So when we ignore the inner voice and end up sick or injured or otherwise unwell, we experience the negative consequences and have an opportunity to change our behavior. We can listen better next time; prioritize our sleep, eat more lovingly, get out of the office earlier. Or we can repeat the cycle over and over again until we either A) get tired of it and listen or B) break.
The beauty of this cycle is that the learning is entirely between you and your inner teacher. There's is no one on the outside who can fully teach you this lesson, because if there was every health magazine or Oprah guest or mindfully podcast would've completely overhauled your behavior years ago. These lessons are developed through listening, through connecting to intuition, and through falling on your face a few times. That's how behavior develops. That's how life unfolds.
But once you connect that first time, things start to get easier. Like any skill, listening to intuition strengthens over time. You start to stop seeking concrete answers out there in the world and begin to seek guidance, signs, and signals. You start to see everything as an opportunity for reflection or a lesson, start to see the patterns in things. You start to know your body and breath better, start to know when to push forward and when to pull back. You start to not look to replicate others lives, but to find the lessons they've learned and ponder on the things that resonate with you and leave behind the things that don't.
You start to listen more than you speak. You start to do the things that inspire listening, like practicing yoga and becoming comfortable with modifying when the sequence the teacher offers doesn't feel quite right. Or you journal not just to record your life but to explore it, to ask questions your inner teacher can go on and ponder. Or you get outside in nature to see what it's like to be quiet, to see what it's like to not expect to find anything in particular. Or you have long conversations with others, to give your inner teacher someone to bounce ideas off of, to help coax new insights out of your intuition. Or you do any number of things that inspire creativity, curiosity, and trust in the process that everything will eventually find its place.
Learning to listen to the inner teacher is inherently scary, because by nature it means trusting in yourself- something many of us find incredibly hard to do. But the more you listen, the more you realize that this isn't about just you. It's about connecting to something greater than yourself, whatever that may mean to you. For some it's God. For some it's Mother Nature. For some it's the Universe and the many magical ways it works in synchronicity and happenstance. For some it's fate. Whatever it is that makes this world go round filled with coincidences and things unfolding as they should (even if it's not the way we thought it would), it's there. And we can learn to hear its hum inside of us.
But to start, just listen. You don't need to be seeking any specific answers at the moment. Just go inside, and ask, "What am I feeling?"
That's where it starts.
Photos by Tamalyn Ann Matney. Shared with love.