Leigh McMullen died today. She was in an automobile accident yesterday and this morning, she is gone. I am overwhelmed with sadness.
Leigh has been my yoga teacher for several years. Tuesday evenings have been a precious time for me because I spend them with Leigh. On Monday nights, I think, Oh Good, Yoga class is tomorrow. In the morning, I think about how many hours there are before I am with Leigh. She offered an experience that was like a warm bath, a good meal, a quiet restful sleep--a nurturing experience that felt essential.
My first yoga class with Leigh was a gift from a friend when my husband was out of work. My friend felt that I needed something to help me stay calm in a time of uncertainty. I worried that I would not be able to do yoga at all and indeed, I still don't do anything that looks like the yoga I have seen some more flexible bodies do. But, as intended, from the first day, Leigh showed me things and said things that helped me manage my emotions as well as my out of shape body. On the first day, she said The only place to start, is exactly where you are. The implication was that where ever I was, was a very fine place to start and a place that offered great potential for growth. Every week she would say, Thank your body for getting you through another day. And I would. The sincerity of Leigh's appreciation for the moment was contagious and calming. For ninety minutes, I just enjoyed stretching out my stiff body, breathing the evening air into my lungs, and being me. Even if I was just as stiff and monkey brained the next week, I felt like I was growing and learning--like the real lesson was enjoying being me.
It is hard to explain why a class with so little explicit ambition should have led to so many mental and emotional doors opening for me. Leigh was the very best kind of teacher that this world has to offer. She modeled the concepts that she taught but expected me to discover what I needed to learn independently. She taught me new ways to move and breathe each week, but she was perfectly content with whatever I chose to do with that knowledge. I could sleep through the class and she would be delighted that I had done what my body needed me to do. Her trust in me as a learner was her strength as a teacher. She provided a wonderful alternative to the over-ambitious goal driven world in which I live. I work in the world of Treatment Plans, Goals, Objectives, Teaching Strategies and Outcome Driven Instruction. There is clearly a value in thinking like this but there is a danger in this kind of thinking as well. Each child I work with has a unique and unknowable capacity. It is perfectly possible to make the life of a child more difficult by conveying expectations that are unachievable or ill-timed. Likewise, a parent, who is often stretched to the limit already can perceive him or herself as a failure in my explicitly parent involved model of intervention. Leigh became a kind of model of genuine acceptance that I have tried to follow in my work as a therapist. Like Leigh, I try to show children and parents ideas that might be useful but trust them to know which ideas are useful and which ideas are not right for the moment.
Leigh was precious to me because of another aspect of my work, as well. I walk beside many people who are feeling fragmented and anxious and I strive to be a source of calm reassurance as well as useful information. In my line of work, if one is not empathetic there is no possibility of being helpful so I feel the emotional tribulation that my young friends and their devoted parents feel. But, at the same time, if I don't have a well of hope and confidence, I don't have much to offer. So, I need to be able to find my own sense of hopefulness and confidence and share this over and over each day. Each week at Leigh's class I have had a place to refill my emotional well. I will miss Leigh more than words can express.