In the spring of 2012, I took a yoga class that completely changed my life. It was taught by a teacher I had never met before or even heard of. She hadn’t produced any practice DVDs, her studio didn’t boast spa-quality facilities, and her class pricing package was ridiculously cheap: all her lessons were free.
I took only one hour-long class with May, and in that time, she taught me to redefine true gratitude.
Our class was held outside on a rainy day in a small village in the Copperbelt Region of Zambia. The dappled African sun kissed our damp faces as we sat together in May’s yard, sharing the small stone ledge of her home’s foundation as a bench. As we shared together, a chicken wandered out of her back door, stopping to peck near my feet before continuing on to the scavenge in the garden a few yards away. Class was also punctuated by a sweater-and-nappie-clad toddler who snuck in to extend formal greetings with a tentative handshake and smile. May shared a home with her two sons, three daughters, and one grandchild. Her husband had passed away several years prior and she was on her own to look after her children. Under the dripping branches of the tree that sheltered her tin-roofed home, May began her class by sharing her story.
Three years prior, May was so destitute that she did not leave her home for days at a time. Her body was so weak and her spirit so ravished that all she could do was lie on the dirt floor of her home, praying her children would not starve. May had just been diagnosed HIV+. She felt as if nothing she did would bring meaning back into her body or into her life. Then, a nurse in her community came to her home for a visit. This visit changed May’s life. The home-health nurse, known in the community as a Kafwa, encouraged May to seek treatment.
The Kafwa nurse came back the next day. And the next. And the next.
She assured May that her life was not over—assured her that healing was possible. This persistent caring proved to May that her life was worth living and May’s adoration for life began to develop again. With treatment and encouragement, May began a slow recovery; eventually her children were able to go back to school. One of her boys began attending high school, something May was very proud of. She continued staying healthy, began learning new skills in order to bring income to her home, and visited the treatment clinic as scheduled. As she told her story, joyful animation crept into May’s once exhausted voice. The class ended with a prayer, a chant, a celebration of gratitude for love, for healing, and for life.
Leaving May’s home, I slipped and slid through rain-washed roads that demanded concentrated finesse to navigate. I pictured her walking these roads, weak with illness, to the local clinic to seek medical attention. I was in awe of her dedication.
May’s disciplined practice was to stand up, show up, and move. From this practice, May rediscovered the joy in simply being alive, simply being able to breathe, simply being able to move. And now, her gift was to teach others the joy to be found in living with gratitude for every single moment. May’s class taught me the most profound lesson of the human experience without doing a single asana.
She taught me that to practice with presence is to be grateful you can practice at all.
Now, every class I teach, I end with the earnest suggestion to engage in gratitude.
I truly believe that the deepest lesson that physical asana practice teaches is to be grateful for our bodies and what they can do, be grateful for our chance to move and breathe, and be grateful for the many things in our lives that bring us joy.
Practice with me and extend deep gratitude for every moment in life. It is, in fact, the only reasonable response to being alive.