I started taking yoga in my late twenties, and was intrigued enough to sign up for the yoga-teacher training at Jivamukti in New York City with David Life and Sharon Gannon. About halfway through the 800-hour training, I went to see Sharon and David in their office. They invited me in as if they’d been expecting me and looked at each other as if they knew what I was going to say. I nervously told them that I wasn’t going to become a yoga teacher, but that I was taking the training to deepen my practice. I said I wanted them to know that. Then I launched into my laundry list of why I would never become a teacher.
“First,” I said, “I’m shy, and talking in front of a group of people isn’t my thing. Second, I’m tone deaf, and won’t be able to lead chants. Third, I’m slightly dyslexic and I can’t mirror a class”—when you’re facing a roomful of students and demonstrating a pose you describe the opposite of what you’re doing, as if students were looking into a mirror—“fourth, I have epilepsy and if I had a seizure while teaching it would traumatize the students and embarrass me.”
They sat there listening patiently while I talked. Then they nodded and said something like, “Well, those are the reasons you should be a teacher. If you’re going to stand in front of a class, tone deaf, and chant, that’s going to be very empowering to people.” They told me that as people face their own fears, they give others the courage to face their fears, too.
At three o’clock that afternoon, my phone rang. It was Sharon. “Colleen, you’re teaching my 6:15 class tonight,” she said. “It’s sold out, and I’ll be taking the class.”
Never in a million years had I thought I would ever be a teacher of any kind—especially a yoga teacher! I had been headed in a completely different (and darker) direction for much of my life. I had run away from and covered up my internal struggles with perfectionism, with drugs, and with compulsive exercise. I had become a fashion model and, though I loved the work, I had to deal with a lot of the unhealthy baggage that comes with that line of work.
So how do you “find” a fulfilling career?
- First, don’t shut any doors, or count anything out. What you’re capable of is far greater than what your mind may be telling you.
- Begin to find out who you are. In my early years, I was a druggie and a college dropout. Fortunately, I kicked drugs and got a break that led to professional modeling, which I’ve done for nearly 30 years. I loved the work—I loved making clothes look good, highlighting a zipper, or a sleeve—but underneath I was confused about my value beyond my looks.
The most important question yoga asks is: who am I?
This is a question most people don’t have a clue about. They don’t know what it means, or how to find the answer. How could you know what job would be fulfilling, and what it might feel like to be fulfilled, if you have no idea who you are or what really makes you sing?
Start a practice, either yoga or something else, that will give you discipline in your life that may also create insight. Practicing yoga postures hones the body and stabilizes the mind. You begin to notice things about your body: which side is stronger? How are you out of balance? When you navigate the inner landscapes of your body through breath work, mindfulness, and postures, you notice if what you have just said, done, or thought makes you feel lousy or good. This awareness is the first step toward right thought, right word, right action, and self-knowledge.
Know that everything worthwhile takes diligence and sheer hard work. All successful and fulfilled people have failed and learned from it. Use your failure as an opportunity, not a defeat (Donna Karan failed draping in college!). It’s great if you can make your work something you love getting up for every morning. Love and career don’t have to be separate. If your work is something you hate, you’ll spend much of your life with feelings of discord in your gut and your heart. Life is too precious to spend it like that.
Be realistic. I understand there are life situations in which you might not be able to do what you love for your work, but there are other ways to find fulfillment. One of those is the knowledge that your work (and sacrifice) is sustaining those you love. My father is a perfect example of this. He’s the smartest, most fulfilled man I know. He was married to my mother, the love of his life, for 63 years (sadly, she passed away a few years ago). Dad didn’t have a college education. He worked the swing shifts in a factory for 45 years in order to feed, house, and educate these beings that he loved so dearly. Did he love his job? No. He was working for people half his age who were nowhere near as intelligent or experienced, but who had a degree that said they were. Was he happy? Absolutely. He had a wife and seven children who adored him, and he adored us. He made peace with his situation, and learned to let go. He came home to the arms of his beloved every night, and had the satisfaction of providing for the beings he brought into the world.
Would he have been happier if he hadn’t had kids so young, and had the opportunity to go to college? Possibly. But he has no regrets and feels like the luckiest man alive. Ideally, we should try to take the risks that are reasonable, and be willing to fail as many times as it takes until we begin to know who we are and what fulfills us. However, if life commitments mean we don’t have the freedom or latitude to do so, then acceptance and gratitude will get you through.
Search. A lot. I have always searched for something beyond what I could see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. I have broken every rule (some I regret) to get to something that I knew not. I had glimpses of a mystery that I wanted to know more of. Initially, my modes were prayer, intense exercise, and drugs. Yet it was yoga that took me back to myself and made me realize that the magic I spent my lifetime searching for was right inside of me. All I had to do was stop covering it up and running from it. Yoga broke me open and made me see the real me, which took work to get to know and love. It took work to realize what made me thrive.
Keep Searching. Don’t reach a plateau and think you are done, or that you have it figured out. Dig deeper. The well gets sweeter. I knew that service was important in my life, but I didn’t know what kind of service would be right for me. So I went to India to work with Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity for six months. We bathed and cared for the destitute, the homeless, the dying. When you have lost a sense of peace, serve in whatever way you can.
Mother Teresa said, “What you spend years creating, someone could destroy overnight. Create anyway.” It’s become a mantra for me. Beauty lives in the present moment, in the journey, not in the end game or in the future. Every encounter is sacred. Work anyway. Create anyway. Teach anyway. Love anyway. Buddhist monks spend weeks painstakingly creating intricate mandalas out of colored sand, and then, in an instant, they wipe them away. This symbolizes the impermanence of life, and is a powerful example of “create anyway.”
Read, meditate, create space to work on understanding yourself. I love the prayer from Mother Teresa: “The fruit of silence is prayer, the fruit of prayer is faith, the fruit of faith is love, the fruit of love is service, and the fruit of service is peace.”
Teaching yoga is my service. Yoga helped me understand that what I spent years frantically searching for ironically was never missing. Yoga isn’t just about being able to put your feet on your head in scorpion pose (even though that can be fun). Yoga is the practice that brings me home—to me. It’s a dear and seasoned friend I now count on in every circumstance—from the burying of my mother and the departure of my daughter to college, to the trauma and disappointment of my epileptic seizures.
Thank god I didn’t run when Sharon called me and informed me that I was going to teach class that evening. Who knew that I, the druggie college dropout from Indiana would one day be a yoga teacher? An author? I can’t say that it’s a dream come true because I would never have even dreamed that I was capable of teaching a yoga class, or writing a book.
If we don’t let our bratty little voices of self-doubt get it in the way, we will surprise ourselves with what is actually possible. If we don’t hold on too tightly to what we think we know of our capabilities, then the possibilities are endless. You have just scratched the surface, but to go below the surface takes courage. Have courage and enjoy the ride.