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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Once again it’s the time of the year we search for inspiration in order to improve aspects of ourselves and our lives. Rosh Chodesh begins the long process extending throughout the month, culminating on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The wailing sound of the shofar, which is meant to stir our souls and awaken us to grow spiritually, is the symbolic and communal source of inspiration. We connect to the twists and turns of the shofar’s structure, the ups and downs, which is like the trajectory of our own lives. We also remember the special times as little children being lifted high up by our parents to watch the blowing of the shofar. Long winding and short staccato sounds emanating from the round horn thrilled us. Almost as intriguing, was the utter and unusual silence of the shul that enveloped those moments.

Individual sources of inspiration, however, are nuanced and come in many forms and shapes. What moves me may not move you. It can come from an evocative speech, or a book where the protagonist survives despite all the odds or even a touching scene in a movie. Especially moving are true stories of real people who have overcome obstacles in their lives. Perhaps you’ve known these people for a lifetime, a few years or just a few minutes. Inspiration doesn’t necessarily have to be from an earth-shattering event, often hitting in more subtle ways.

It seems fitting that on Rosh Chodesh Elul, the day right after the solar eclipse, inspiration came to me from an unlikely source. Karen, a yoga teacher, warmly greeted me as I walked in the door. I noticed that Karen was a mature woman, around my own age. She was chatting animatedly with several other yoga ladies. While busy gathering my yoga props, I heard little snippets of conversation about a doctor and six weeks from some event. Karen continued her boisterous conversation in a high-pitched voice, and I wondered if she would switch to the more mellifluous teaching tones of typical yoga instructors.

Right before class began, Karen scanned the room and asked if I had taken yoga before since I was new to her class. This is standard practice for yoga teachers to understand the various levels in the class and make modifications accordingly. One size doesn’t fit all in any classroom, yoga or otherwise. As school teachers we call this differentiation, whereby instruction is based upon the needs of small and large groups.

Sure enough, Karen’s voice descended at least 10 octaves into yoga mellow yellow as the class began. Deep and cleansing breathing (my almost favorite part) was followed by yoga poses and stretches. Karen was agile and twisted-pretzel flexible as she demonstrated every pose. She included the modifications and reminded us to listen to our bodies. In yoga, students are encouraged to focus within and not compare themselves to anyone else. “Don’t look at what your neighbor on the next mat is doing,” is a common refrain. No keeping up with the Joneses—a great metaphor for everyday living.

Then, Karen raised her legs upwards and backwards over her head into a graceful plow pose. Now, some of these poses are not for the faint of heart or for those of us who are somewhat out of shape. And so, I opted to slide into the resting child’s pose because in true yoga fashion, there was a need to honor my body, which prefers being pain free. Finally, after a few more poses, we were ready for shavasana, which is the concluding resting pose where you lie down in darkness and just breathe—that’s it. No more bending, stretching and doing upside downward facing dogs. It’s a few minutes of delicious relaxation, and this is my absolute favorite part. While just breathing in and out and relaxing, the yoga instructor usually imparts a spiritual message.

As we were lying down, Karen said, “Take chances—today is the day you are the youngest and the oldest you will ever be.” “Be crazy.” Wait. Did she say, be crazy? That sounded strange coming from a yoga teacher. Mostly, you hear messages like—”Open your heart, be kind, notice your breath throughout the day.”

After class, Karen again resumed her chatting. This time, while replacing yoga props, I listened to the conversation around me. Then I went over and thanked her for a great class, but needed to ask the question. “What did you mean about being crazy?” I asked. Karen smiled and said that six weeks ago she wasn’t well and had a stroke, and now she feels that it’s important to take chances in life. After six weeks she just did that gorgeous plow pose? “You look amazing!” was all I could manage to say when I really felt like saying, “Really, are you kidding?”

I walked away from class inspired by this brave and resilient lady who I had just met. Truth is, when you think about it there are inspiring people everywhere you go, in surprising places. All we need is to stop, listen to the message and let it move us during this month of Elul.

By Esther Kook

 Esther is a teacher at Yavneh Academy and a part-time writer.