My Proudest Failure
“Failure is where all of the lessons are. Successful people fail a lot. They fail a whole lot more than they succeed. They extract the lessons from the failure and they use the wisdom to come around to the next phase of success.” ~Will Smith
After months of training, I taught my first public yoga class. It was a virtual event hosted by my training organization, and I had invited friends and family to attend. Nine people outside of my training group showed up which made the class size 15. Up until that point, the biggest group I had practiced teaching to was a group of three.
I was feeling equal parts nervous and grateful. The night before, I had a moment of clarity about how special the occasion was. I made up my mind to treat the experience and those who showed up, with as much humanity as I could through computer screens. I made a point to greet people by name, ask how they were doing, and thank them for allowing me to teach them.
I went on to teach the group an hour of yoga. I had been practicing my sequence for weeks, and I’d been practicing at 9am — the time I taught the group — every day for a week leading up to the event. I felt confident my sequence was sufficient, especially because my trainers had praised my practice class just weeks beforehand.
Class ended, and I was buzzing with energy. I knew I hadn’t done a perfect job of teaching, but I felt like I did pretty well. A friend who joined the class sent me an email almost immediately afterward. She wrote a beautiful account of her experience, saying she initially felt like running away but in the end, I allowed her to feel vulnerable and safe at the same time. I couldn’t think of any better feedback to receive. I was elated.
Then, my trainers called to debrief. They asked how I was feeling. Then they asked me what my understanding of their philosophy of yoga was. Then they proceeded to tell me the ways I had failed. In my mind, that’s all I heard, even though I know they also told me the ways I’d succeeded. I was crushed.
I spent hours frozen. Everything I had ever learned about trauma was playing out in my body and mind as I tried to keep moving through the rest of the day. Another of my training mates taught 30 minutes after me, and I went through her class in a haze of shock.
I went through all the feelings. Sadness, anger, despair. I thought about running away from everything, from my trainers, from yoga, from life. I complained and I cried. And then, I sent a message to my trainers telling them I wanted to teach them again as soon as possible (something they had requested), and I followed up with them about their feedback. And even though I was angry with them and everything, I knew I needed to keep moving forward.
The next morning, I woke up feeling awful. I couldn’t remember ever taking failure so hard. But then again, I couldn’t remember ever allowing myself to really sit with the feelings of failure. I let myself lay around and rest all day. I let myself feel it all. And then the next day, I drove.
I knew where I needed to go. From where I live, it’s only a two hour drive to reach the nearest redwood forest. I had done some research on Sequoia National Forest and knew of a grove I’d never visited, in the southwest section of the park. Black Mountain Grove, home to redwoods and the Tule River Reservation. There was something about it that called to me.
I left home early and drove north. I turned East and went through Porterville until I entered the park. I drove the winding mountain roads until I reached the turn to climb up to Black Mountain. I took my wagon onto dirt road as we climbed higher and higher. Following the directions of a blogger, I found a place to pull over on the side of the mountain, and started walking. I wasn’t sure how far the trees would be or if the blogger was even real. I went looking anyway.
There is a feeling that cannot be sufficiently described. The rush of reverence you feel when you see the first giant sequoia is euphoric. Time stops. The only thing is now, this moment, this tree, this sense of perspective. Powerful, little you amongst the powerful giant trees and the rest of the universe. A glimpse of beyond.
I took my time with the trees at Black Mountain. I walked up to the border of the reservation and felt a sliver of the significance of the land I had visited. Then, I drove on.
I decided to visit some trees I had met before, so I continued on the main road through the mountains. As I drove to the next grove, I allowed myself to revisit my feelings of anger and sadness and failure. I decided to speak my mind to my trainers, right there in my car as I drove. I ended up screaming and crying and saying I hoped they could hear me.
First came catharsis, then came clarity. I started to look back at my class through a lens of loving, constructive criticism and then the learning began. I knew I had taken some risks and done some things I wasn’t sure of — things I should have cleared with my trainers. I felt the weight of teaching yoga poorly — how I’m in a position to help heal or hurt people — and I realized they were right in correcting me, on certain points. They had said they expected more from me, and I was inching towards gratitude that they had called me out on my mistakes.
I arrived at Trail of 100 Giants and took my time exploring the area. There was a tree I didn’t get to befriend the last time I’d visited, because the area was too crowded then. This time, I took my time with it. I had noticed an interesting formation at the base of the tree as I approached, so I stopped to read the information plaque:
“At the base of this giant sequoia is an area resembling a bench. It was created when an upper limb broke off during a storm and injured the tree as it fell. The bench was created as new bark started growing in an effort to heal the wound. These formations are called burls and take hundreds of years to form. Inside of the burned out cavity is a hard shiny black material that looks and feels like glass or obsidian… More than likely, it is tannin that solidified during a fire. In time the bark will grow over the scar, hiding it forever.”
I sat there, staring at the giant tree with its wound and thought about how beautiful it was. This tree had survived storms and fires and had demonstrated resilience and adapted to move on to the next stage of its inspiring life.
This is why the redwoods call to me. They are wildly beautiful, yes. That is obvious. They are also some of the greatest teachers of my life. They give me joy and perspective and healing. They help me be more present with myself and the world around me. They inspire me to keep growing in my resilience.
After a full day driving through the mountains and redwood forest, I returned home. Two days later, I taught my trainers a revised version of my class. I recorded it so I would have reference points for criticisms, and for my own growth. I was nervous but I also felt powerful going into the teaching. Afterward, they congratulated me on teaching a great class and moving through all the discomfort.
And so it goes on like this. I’m only at the beginning of my yoga teaching journey, but I’m aware there will be more challenging times ahead. I will need to continue battling my ego and feelings of inadequacy and failure. And I will need to keep celebrating how far I’ve come and allowing myself to bask in the light of my own beauty and resilience.
“You gotta live where you’re almost certain you’re going to fail. Practice is controlled failure… Failure actually helps you to evolve. So fail early, fail often, fail forward.” ~Will Smith