Yoga Culture

A Life of Practice: Reflecting on 30 years of teaching yoga in Salt Lake City

By Charlotte Bell

I attended my first yoga class in early 1982 in a small studio with pink plush carpet. After an hour-plus of slow, mindful movement and a nice long Savasana, I pretty much floated out to my car. I’d never felt so clear and calm. I was hooked.

A few months later, my teacher announced that she’d soon be offering a teacher training. My first reaction was, “Yes!” This, even though I was not—and still am not—a person who loves to be in front of groups. The reason I was willing to venture out of my comfort zone was that I loved yoga so much that the idea of sharing it seemed like my perfect fit. I knew, even then, that teaching yoga wasn’t likely to make me rich. But it felt like home somehow.

While I was not able to swing that original training that had inspired me, I instead apprenticed with local Salt Lake teachers, Cita Mason Riley and David Riley, a physical therapist and medical doctor in their non-teaching lives. When they left town in 1986, they gifted me with their classes. Ready or not, I began teaching that July. I’ve taught yoga continuously since then and could not be more grateful for the calling that chose me.

The faces of gratitude

It would be impossible for me to remember all the many gifts that have come from teaching yoga for so many years, but here are a few that come to mind:

Commitment: Even after 30 years, when I step back and reflect on the fact that my students make time in their busy lives to attend my classes, I feel deeply humbled. It seems that busyness is the norm these days. The things we do to replenish ourselves so often take a back burner to the commitments we have to others. The fact that people value their practice enough to show up week after week reminds me what I love about yoga.

Years ago, I went out of town for a few days and my sub, who is one of the most reliable and conscientious people I know, forgot she was supposed to teach. Because I was teaching at the First Unitarian Church, the door was open and students came in and set up as usual. When it was clear that no one was going to show up to teach, the students stayed anyway, some for more than an hour, and did their own practices. When my students told me about it the next week, I was elated. I was so happy that their commitment to practice didn’t depend on me. Their commitment was to the value of practice itself.

Learning opportunities: I can’t begin to list the multitude of gems I’ve gathered from my students and teachers over the decades. Many yoga teachers, body workers and medical professionals have attended my classes. I’ve deeply appreciated their insights and yes, corrections, when I’ve not completely understood the applications of anatomy to asana. One class in particular is so heavily populated with these knowledgeable people that we trust each other as resources. I’m immeasurably grateful for their generosity in sharing what they know with me and with our community.

Longevity: My longest-standing students have been attending classes with me since the early 1990s; probably two-thirds of my students have been coming to classes for 10 years or more. I’ve seen these people grow from busy young parents to happy grandparents. We’ve grown and evolved together. My teaching has matured and become more subtle and mindful because of these longstanding students. They inspire me to continue to learn and grow in my own practice.

Because this base of students has practiced for so many years, they’ve pretty much let go of the whole ego-based pose-performance paradigm. When a new student comes to class, he/she is quickly and warmly welcomed. Often new students remark on how they never feel pressured to perform. Everyone is just practicing at his/her own pace. This is not simply because I often remind them that comparing and competing are not productive; it’s because more than half of the class is walking the talk.

Sangha: My classes are relatively small. This gives me the opportunity to know something about my students’ lives outside of yoga. Over time, our weekly meetings have allowed us all to get to know each other as people, not just as fellow practitioners. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to see new friendships form among my students. We know and are genuinely interested in each others’ trials and triumphs. My students share gardening tips, book recommendations and beekeeping wisdom. And when one of us faces illness, injury or loss, the sangha provides a safe, caring haven.

The most powerful residue of my 30 years of teaching is the feeling of gratitude, for all the people who have come and gone, or who came and stayed, from my fairly uninformed beginnings to my humbler and somewhat more wizened present. I’m honored beyond measure for this path and all its peaks and valleys, and the wondrous souls I’ve met along the way.

Charlotte Bell has been practicing yoga since 1982.

She is the author of several yoga-related books and founder of Mindful Yoga Collective in Salt Lake City.

This article was originally published on September 1, 2016.