Today is my Birthday!

I opened my eyes and the first thing I saw was my toes sticking out from the blanket. They were not cold nor hot. Examining them closer, I realized I couldn’t feel them. I wiggled them, stretched them, rotated my whole foot- all was in order. But, somehow, I still couldn’t feel my toes. They didn’t feel like they belonged to me! I moved my eyes over to my hands and gave my fingers a good look. Still there-all 10 of them! But they too didn’t feel like they belonged to me. And after staring at my hands and feet for about five minutes, no actionable thought came to my mind other than that those toes and fingers really need a mani-pedi soon! But whom do they belong to?! Not to me! For sure. This body is NOT mine. Nope. “I” am something other than…

But if this body is not me, who am “I” then?

I lay in bed thinking about this question and what came to my mind was an experience I had in the “Happiness workshop” through Art of Living in India a bunch of years ago. It was a one-week-long daily group-based discussion and activity joy ride, except for when a handful of us started pouring our eyes out. I was one of those weirdos. The exercise we did was sitting down in pairs facing each other looking directly into each other’s eyes (sort of like a staring competition game we all played when we were little. Who’s going to blink first?”) But this time, one person had to ask the other “Who are you?” on repeat for a given amount of time. The woman sitting opposite to me started asking me first, “Who are you?” I said, “I am Svetlana”. “Who are you?” followed. I said, “I am a mom”. She said, “Who are you?” I said, “I’m a teacher”, “I am a friend”, “a wife”, “a woman”, “I am a person”, “I am a human being”….eventually, I ran out of answers. But she persisted: “Who are you?”

I didn’t know what else to say, so closing my eyes for a second to think of what else I could be (what am I leaving out from my resume?!), I had a sudden image of myself being a tree. I was a tree! My arms, my fingers were the branches reaching upwards toward the sun. I had a rough trunk. My legs and feet were in the ground and I couldn’t move. Was this a memory or my imagination?! I do not know. But definitely, it was a feeling of being something other than…

A voice sounded, “Who are you?”

I opened my eyes and said excitedly, “I am a tree!” My partner did not flinch. “Who are you?”, she continued the interrogation. Someone walked past us-the group leader rotating through the groups checking on everyone’s progress. I looked at him and said, “I’m him!” My partner still pursued, “Who are you?” (Did she work for the CIA or FBI?!) Then suddenly, I was a dog without a leash: “I am the stars!” I was so thrilled! I was the moon, the sun, the universe! She pressed on: “Who are you?” I looked into her eyes and saw myself. I told her, “I am You!” and that’s when I started to cry. She cried along with me but didn’t give up. “Who are you?” I was so confused and overwhelmed, I said, “I am everything!” But in my head, I heard, “I’m God!” – a whisper so loud I got a shiver down to my bones. It was like opening a door of your house and realizing there is a hurricane going on outside and you had no idea because you were sheltered indoors! The most frightening experience of my life! I couldn’t breathe! I opened that door and immediately shut it, retreating into my house for safety. In fact, I ran down to the basement, found a corner, and curled into a ball for a few years! My mind kept shouting at me: “How dare you? God is God! You’re not! Shame on you. This isn’t humble and this is not OK! Return to normal! as you were!” I tried to (somewhat). But failed. From childhood, I developed a bad habit of sticking my long nose where it does not belong. Just ask my family!

The Yoga Teacher Training Batch of 2017

That’s when I came to Total Yoga. My yoga classes with Manish and Neetu, and eventually my teacher training (Round #1), were like carefully taking a periodic peek through window curtains to see if the storm had passed. “Is it over? Is it safe to come outside now?” It wasn’t. Sometimes, the fear of the storm was paralysing. As we all know, it was curiosity that killed the cat! Tread lightly, Svet! So, what should I do?! I can’t just sit in my house forever! (this was, of course, during the pre-pandemic times when sitting in the house became a heroic thing to do!) Three years passed, life went on, and we moved back from India to the US – a rough transition for our family. Then last year, just as the pandemic hit, TTY went virtual and I did the same course again (Round #2). Video asana lessons on my own (thankfully no one besides my teachers had to be subjected to watching me struggle through that piece!), studying and non-stop laughing with peers/friends through Zoom in what we call our “Santolan club” (You know who you are! Wink, wink!), and more of my internal debates of “me with me”. And, of course, more crying! Rivers and streams. Remember “The Pool of Tears” chapter of Alice in Wonderland? That wasn’t Alice; it was me. (Sorry, bad plug for teacher training!) But now, it has been almost a year and the odd thing is that despite a global pandemic, the world does not seem as scary anymore. Nothing much does. This is not normal. But it is OK!

What changed for me is that this time, I realized – I am not witnessing the storm outside “my house” anymore. I AM the storm! I am the hurricane, but without the destruction. (Not a bad birthday present to myself!)

My question to you is: “Who are you?”

This blog is dedicated to Manish and Neetu – my teachers, Gurus, and forever friends.
With love and gratitude to you both for putting up with me through 2 rounds of yoga teacher training and 7 years of my “fear of the storm”. I am not done. I am just getting started! (Wink, wink!)

Svetlana Iyer is a special educator and a behavior analyst by professional training. She runs a school for children with Autism in India and teaches future generations of teachers and therapists in a graduate program for Applied Behavior Analysis in the US.
She has been a yoga student with Total Yoga during her 6-year stint in India and is continuing her learning virtually with 21st Century Yoga. She loves painting, swimming, dog walking, goofing around with her family, and as you may have guessed it – yoga!

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