From 3 to 33: Becoming a Yogini

sarah blog

My Story of yoga and dance

I was 3 when I took my first dance class and in a couple months I will turn 33. Dance was the only thing I ever knew for sure I loved as a child – well let’s face it, also as an adult – and as I grew older I also knew it was the only thing that had kept me whole in times of trial, though I never could have explained why.

As a young adult, dancing, teaching and working in Washington, DC, I found myself drawn to yoga as a supplement to my dancing. Too poor to afford classes I landed a work/study job at a local studio in Adams Morgan. In exchange for classes the owner tasked me with transcribing the many notebooks that she had accumulated from her training in India. Previously I’d only known yoga as a series of postures and the experience of those on my mat. But as I typed, I slowly began to see, through her short-hand, the underpinnings of an ancient tradition, embodied in the wisdom of generations of yogis, and how deliberately that wisdom had been given to me  – – – as if it had started to “wink” at me from the depths of history.

Several years later, no longer dancing regularly or even really connected to a dance community, I found myself regularly returning to Barefoot Studio in Little Rock, Arkansas. At the time I was searching for that thing that had kept me whole during periods of grief as a child and had finally found it again on a yoga mat. While still having no words to express why, I knew I was once again under the influence of grace each time I hit my mat.

Deepening my understanding

By the time I was 30 yoga had become a necessary grounding space and I decided that I wanted to deepen my understanding of it, and perhaps to share that with others. So I contacted Matt and Holly Krepps, and after talking to Holly on the phone for a few minutes my intuition said there was something well worth gaining in their teacher training program. I was ready and excited even though I knew little of what I was getting into. Well, ready mentally but not financially.

Looking for every crevice in my budget to cut funds, I cut off my TV subscription that fall and started saving the money I’d need to begin the training program at Circle Yoga Shala the next summer. By the time summer finally arrived I’d received a major promotion at work and was so intensely busy I had to put off the program start until fall. A year after speaking to Holly for the first time, I drove up the highway into the Ozarks on a Tuesday night after another insane day at work, cursing myself for trying to start my yoga teacher training at such a crazy time in my career – yet knowing deep down that somehow it would be the perfect timing.

And it was…

The journey of training

That October session was on Pranayama and I not only learned about the effects of the breath on the body and mind but got to experience them first hand. In a time when I had been feeling almost no time to breathe, I learned to harmonise the destabilising effects of the external environment on my internal state through the breath. It was a simple, physiological truth to understand and experience, but felt divine as it helped me return to my day job and battle the intensity of a manic Monday-Friday schedule, turning pure chaos into calm.

The January session was on Meditation. The scribbling of notes that the trainees had been doing in previous sessions came to a quiet halt as we all began to see that yoga is the art of self-investigation – which no note taking can expand upon. We found ourselves on a journey that went way below the surface and began to understand that the asana practice was simply a gateway to such a journey. It was scary at times, but for me, that journey led to a new understanding and experience of forgiveness. Another story all together…

Throughout the next couple of sessions I began to understand many things about teaching yoga, but these primarily stood out:

First, posture practice is nothing other than action, done in an intensely intimate way to familiarize us with the edge of what we are capable of in any given moment. It is the breath, the body, and the spirit mingling as one in a new and beautiful revelation. It cannot be fully embodied without extreme internal awareness, sensitivity, and ease. It is Yama and Niyama in action.

Second, a good teacher sees and understands the effects of action at the level of body, breath and mind, and designs practices to take those things into account as the student moves gradually in the direction of a goal, rather than tossing her into a sequence or posture where insensitivity predominates, and harm can occur. Yoga is the embodiment of compassionate learning, or what is known as Vinyasa Krama.

And third, as Holly says: “yoga is truly a backwards teaching”.   Dance, interestingly enough, succinctly embodies the first two lessons outlined above. It is a series of actions that take more than physical effort to achieve. It requires not just athleticism, but extreme awareness of one’s self as a part of an over-arching rhythm, a willingness to surrender and become part of that rhythm, and letting one’s internal light shine for all to see – – even those sitting in the back row of the theater. That’s what creates beauty. And like yoga posture practice, dance is a careful discipline that builds on the simplest of concepts, challenging your mastering of those concepts through more and more physical complexity. So a good sequence in a modern dance class in effect follows the wisdom of Vinyasa Krama.

Turning inwards

But the key difference between dance and yoga is that dance has always been forwards, or outwards. It was taught to me as a performance, a physical and external goal: get the leg higher, make the knee straighter, the arch in the foot prettier, shoot for a higher leap, a faster turn, all to invite the applause of an audience looking on from the outside. And I will forever love it and never fault it for any of that. But what I eventually realised as a young adult dancer was that none of those things made dance appealing to me. What made it so was the “thing” I had found as a child, and had lost for a while in the following years. Yoga eventually returned me to that.

Now, thanks to Holly, Matt and everyone at Circle Yoga Shala, I can name that “thing” as my heart, my breath, and my light. From an external standpoint, a posture like Scorpion has no practical use to me in this life. But the ability to breathe into chaos, to forgive the most egregious of faults, and the willingness to accept that nothing will ever stay the same –especially the ability to point my toe or lift my leg high – – that’s the great wisdom that lives deep in my heart. And I am so grateful someone has helped me put words to that.

People often say to me, ‘I can’t dance’ and ‘I can’t do yoga’. And I laugh a little inside when I hear these things, because I know as Circle Yoga Shala knows, we all are always dancing and all are always striving to be yogis. The difference is simply whether or not we know it. Matt and Holly…thank you for letting me dance with you along this journey called Life. And thank you for being my teachers.

With Love,


– Entry by Sarah Hemphill


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