That Time I Took a Life-Changing Class at Wanderlust (Yes, Really)
by Steph Auteri
I was leaning up against the wall outside of the Shala—a darkened yoga studio on the ground floor of the Inn at Stratton that had well-worn flip-flops and backpacks piled up outside the door—when the Buoyant Backbends class let out. A woman emerged, close on the heels of the teacher. She leaned in to her. “That was life-changing,” she gushed. I quickly ducked down to hide behind the book I was reading so that she (and the teacher) wouldn't see me roll my eyes.
My goals at Wanderlust were simple and grounded in practicality.
Santosha bracelet, singing bowl obsession, and meditation practice aside, I was the type of yogi who approached everything with a healthy dose of skepticism, and who shied away from anything that smacked of the slightest bit of “woo-woo” mysticism. My goals at Wanderlust were simple and grounded in practicality: Get out of my vinyasa comfort zone and try lots of new things. Collect ideas to incorporate into my own teaching. Gather tips on how to turn my brain off at bedtime.
I tried walking meditation, which helped me realize that “quieting my mind” was beside the point, that mindfulness was key. I went to a business of yoga panel, which helped me to think about the demographics I wanted to reach with my teaching. I sweated my way through a Hula-Hoop vinyasa class, where I learned that when you put two difficult practices together, it makes them both more difficult. I took notes in a hip-opening restorative class, and discovered that restorative poses could sometimes be active. I went to a sound healing meditation class where crystal singing bowls were played over my body. It made my heart thrum, and it made me feel as though I were being rocked softly and slowly to sleep.
On my last day at the festival, I entered Suzanne Sterling's “Sing Yourself Awake” class with some trepidation. As a singer, I was curious about how she would incorporate voice work into the yoga practice. But I had also heard from several people that her classes were a bit…different. That students were asked to let go of their inhibitions in order to experience the power of singing out loud.
This made me nervous—I felt like a bundle of inhibitions on two legs. I rolled out my mat near the back left corner of the room. As I settled into sukhasana, I began fiddling with my water bottle, my notebook, my bag, and the space filled up around me. As bright-eyed and energized yogis surrounded me, chatting about their favorite classes of the weekend, I ran a fingernail over the surface of my mat, trying not to appear too awkward (though almost surely failing). Then Suzanne Sterling strode to the front of the room.
I suspected I might be in for something completely out of my comfort zone.
She liked to incorporate haphazard bits of singing into her verbal communication. She sang snippets of her opening speech. Her voice was full, rich, and gorgeous. The way she presented herself was unlike anything I had ever seen, and I suspected I might be in for something completely out of my comfort zone. But now that I was there, walled in by lululemon-clad women and bearded men, there was no backing out.
First, Suzanne guided us through some voice exercises in order to warm up our vocal cords. She then led us through a quick, gentle vinyasa flow in order to warm up our bodies. As this short asana sequence reached its end point, she told us to sit back on our heels, stretch our arms forward, and rest in child's pose.
My stomach lurched as we rolled up our mats and returned them to a corner of the room. I lingered beside my bag and my flip-flops as those around me dispersed freely throughout the studio. And then she told us to dance.
I was unprepared for this sudden, unexpected development. I shuffled awkwardly across the floor as everyone else twisted, and shimmied, and strutted in an endless loop. Suzanne was at the center of the crowd—and all of us clapped vigorously, and we sang at the tops of our lungs.
When I told my mother about this experience days later, she said, “Sounds like you were hanging out with a bunch of hippies up there.” And only a few days earlier, I would have smirked, nodded my head, and agreed with her. But as I writhed around in that circle, and faced the center of the room, and glanced at the people around me who were singing prayers, something extraordinary happened to me. It might have been when I looked across the circle and noticed the joy in one man's face. It might have been when I met the eyes of the person dancing next to me and grinned at her so hard my cheekbones ached. It might have been when I waved my hands around in the air and suddenly realized I just didn't care.
Suddenly, all the walls I'd built around myself came down. And I realized that, for all these years, the “healthy” dose of skepticism I'd been carrying around with me was really fear. The fear of putting myself out there and being humiliated. The fear of how others might see me.
As I danced and sang in that prayer circle, and as my voice rose up out of my chest, I felt as though I was being broken open, and broken down. I had never let myself go like that before, and my head buzzed with the exhilaration of it all.
As I wiped sweat and wet strands of hair off my cheek, I realized I was crying too.
When we finally settled down at the end of class into a quiet sukhasana, I looked at the faces around me. Most were beaming. Some were crying. And as I wiped sweat and wet strands of hair off my cheek, I realized I was crying too.
After our closing Om, I gathered my things in a daze, and wandered tentatively outside the room. “Holy crap,” I thought to myself. “That was life-changing.”