TBY Teacher Feature
(Bette Plass, on one of her many journeys, pictured in Parighasana)
Interviewed by Julia Jonson
Your very presence is peaceful and when you’re in teacher mode you have an eloquent way of sharing that energy. How do you maintain your center so that you can be a source of healing for others?
So funny you should say that – I often don’t feel that way on my way to class. I have a tendency to always be in a hurry resulting in not being centered. When I reflect on having polio, I realize that a gift of polio was to slow me down so that I could live more in the present moment. When I enter the studio classroom and see my students, I mentally notice everyone and send gratitude their way for showing up to my yoga class. Checking in with them and asking for requests helps me feel a connection and calms me. I begin my class with gentle flowing movements connected to the breath helping both my students and myself to feel centered and to come together in the practice of yoga. If I feel the class is rushing or I have lost my focus I join the class in a slow flowing movement matching the rhythm of the breath. Deep breaths are always so calming.
Incorporating strengthening postures during your gentle classes is something you do so beautifully. Give us a snippet of your own healing journey to build strength in the wake of Polio.
It was a long journey of constantly trying new techniques to help my body move through life with greater ease and strength. For many years I searched for that one expert that could tell me what my body needed to get through the physical demands of life. It wasn’t until I became a yoga teacher that I realized I was the expert. I needed to learn as much as I could from other experts but it was up to me to figure out what helped my body and what harmed my body. I have seen many doctors who specialize in polio, physical therapists, chiropractors, personal trainers and acupuncturists. From all of them I have learned more about my body and about healing. I have taken many types of exercise classes including aerobics, step classes, and dance classes. I have studied tai chi, feldenkraise, pilates and self massage. Learning many exercises helped my body but it wasn’t until I took the yoga teacher training that I was able to put it all together to improve my physical being. This also helped me create a nurturing, gentle practice that helped students gain flexibility, build strength and increase their ability to heal their bodies.
You are the epitome of someone who ages gracefully (and we all start aging as 20-somethings). How has yoga helped?
Aging gracefully is a constant challenge but has become easier as I constantly rely on yoga’s gifts to help me face new challenges. Physically, yoga has helped me with balance, strength, alignment, deeper breathes, flexibility, and pain management. Mentally, yoga has helped me listen to my body and come up with a yoga approach to help the body cope with aging. Meditation practice has helped me listen more to my intuition on what my body needs and helped me discover its amazing healing ability. Through meditation practice, I have realized and more importantly, accepted that I am on a life journey with a beginning and an end. This has resulted in my effort to face every new day with gratitude and try to make the most of each day I am given. Emotionally, yoga has helped me accept difficult times in my life and know that although I may be having a rough or sad day it will not last forever. Socially, the yoga community has supported me through hard times, has given me wonderful new friends, given me the opportunity to teach my love of yoga and take part in new adventures. All of my students have touched my heart, inspired me and enriched my life.
And to that end, tell us about some of things you’ve been working on, such as Ananta and your upcoming, September workshop, to help guide anyone of any age through this inevitable process of life?
I have the honor of working with Wendy Dahl on a shared passion of getting the message out that anyone can do yoga. We have created the workshop Ananta with Maryanna Gibbs on the inclusiveness of yoga and how to modify yoga so that anyone can do this powerful practice. In September, I am doing a workshop on coping with midlife stiffness (September 10th, 2:00 – 4:00pm, watch TBY’s website for details). I noticed that people become aware of stiffness sometime during their middle years. I want to challenge the assumption that stiffness is something you just have to accept as part of aging. I have spent my lifetime working with a body that is physically challenged. I want to take all I learned about coping with changes in the body and help students develop a practice to improve their physical ability and get in touch with all that is beautiful within themselves during this journey in life. In this workshop I will be explaining the aging process and how to cope and actually improve your physical well-being through your journey of life. The students will experience how to open the body, how to discover what the body needs, and how to build muscles to support the alignment and flexibility they have gained. The workshop will end with the wonderful nurturing practice of restorative yoga.
Hard work honing your craft has culminated with the final stages of earning your 500 hour certification. Please share about your latest learning endeavors and share how your studies have helped you to grow your teaching ability?
I enjoy working and studying with many different instructors. Everyone has their own approach which gives me even more options when I create a class plan or work with a private student. Last year I had the privilege of studying with David Lurvey and Mirjam Wagner In an advanced therapeutic training in Brazil to complete my 500 hour certification. I learned so much more about therapeutic and yin yoga. I am fascinated by how our amazing bodies work and how we can help them when they are in pain. It was so rewarding to spend a full week focused on teaching yoga. I was very touched by how they approached their students. They dedicated time to get to know each student’s life story. They were extremely supportive and very inspiring. It was fascinating to meet yogis from around the world and learn from their approaches to yoga classes.
We talked about how hard it used to be to find yoga, let alone yoga studios, in the Midwest decades ago. What are your thoughts on yoga’s rise in popularity in Western culture?
When working with a physical therapist after an injury I was surprised how many of their stretches were from yoga. A few years ago I was taking classes from a personal trainer and would constantly laugh about several of the things we did that came directly from yoga. When I was taking Pilates classes to be certified, I was surprised at how many movements came from the physical practice of yoga. Many health practitioners are learning the wisdom of yoga practice. I get referrals from several practitioners because they are impressed with not only the physical practice, but also the holistic approach of yoga. If we want to change our bodies and improve our lifestyle we need more than physical exercise. We need to treat the whole person, looking at their attitude about their body, their motivation, their lifestyle choices, how they view the world, their reaction to stress — so much more goes into being healthy. It is not just a matter of physical exercise. Yoga is popular because it effectively changes how a person lives their life since it includes healing the body, the mind and getting in touch with our beautiful spirits.
My all-time favorite poem is by Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken (“two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by and that has made all the difference”). It certainly seems as if you’ve chosen to live this way. Your career adventures alone read like a good novel. Give us a snapshot of some of the amazing things you’ve done and jobs you’ve had.
I went to college in the late sixties, a time of rebellion, rapid change and a whole world of possibilities opening up for women. I wanted to lead an exciting, adventurous life. I was fascinated by psychology and became a social worker working with young people in street gangs. We had a unique program were we would meet young people wherever they were: on the streets, in the schools, at a drop-in center or at their homes. It was an exciting, scary, amazing time in my life. During this time, I went to funerals of young people and could not cope with the sadness. I would lay awake at night wondering how could we save these young people. It was at this time I discovered the wonderful world of yoga. Savasana taught me how to relax and get sleep so I could continue my work.
After my children were born I started training other people how to work effectively with young people. I became in charge of an outdoor adventure training program which included rock climbing and high rope courses. I trained police officers, parents, teachers and other social workers. I then decided to go to law school and became a prosecutor for Cook County working in family court and later in criminal court. The transition between nurturing social worker and aggressive lawyer helped me experience the yin and yang parts of my personality and the two different approaches to life. I then started my own business consulting with corporations on team building and leadership skills. I was also an adjunct professor teaching leadership skills. After I retired from these jobs I sat at home and asked myself: “Now what?” “What can I offer the world to stay involved and try to improve this human experience?” I decided to take a yoga teacher training course to improve my own practice. With the support and encouragement of Wendy Dahl I became a teacher and love every moment of my latest career.
How does your personal practice affect your role as mother and grandmother?
Throughout my life as a mother I have encouraged my children to keep moving and respond to the needs of the body. When a body becomes stiff or is in pain it should not be ignored. I love when one of my five children comes to me and asks about a physical discomfort they are experiencing. We discuss it and discover together how to take care of the problem. Teaching yoga to my grandchildren is a joyful experience. They have such a fun outlook on yoga. They really experiment and play with the poses. They are so proud of themselves when they learn a new pose.
When I retired, I wondered what I would do with my life. I wondered if I had anything to offer. I wondered if I would be looked upon as one of those old people who just lived in the past and had nothing to offer in conversations but memories. My love and passion for yoga keeps me interesting. My search to learn more about yoga has introduced me to amazing people. The rewards of helping people feel more comfortable in their bodies and enjoy movement is so amazing and rewarding. I am truly blessed by yoga.