In this article, ArtSmart mentor Stacey Geyer shares how her training to become a yoga instructor helped her through her struggles with anxiety, self-judgement and perfectionism.

What is the stuff of passionate endeavor? Is it drive, tenacity, single-mindedness, force? Is it focused attention to craft or some adage about ‘right place, right time?’ Is it about who surrounds us or who is within us? My intuition points me in the uncomfortable direction of the gray; a special cocktail of the lot with twisted complexity and comforting clarity entwined in a deep embrace. But who wants to exist in the dreaded gray? All questions, no answers, closed doors, open windows, gusts of wind, blinding sunlight. Many people prefer to (and do) exist in the dualistic world of eithers; the uncomplicated and ever predictable black and white. The allure is undeniable. Choosing between yes and no is far less daunting than contemplating the infinite possibilities of the maybe. I sometimes yearn for a sip of a simpler cocktail, numbing me to the intricacies, making my choices seem easier. Despite my best efforts, however, I currently find myself stone sober, without a map, inhabiting this forest of feasible. 

I am no stranger to the wooded expanse. Growing up in central Pennsylvania provided a wealth of raw material with which to color Gretel’s lilting folk tunes in Humperdinck’s operatic adaptation of the Grimm brothers’ tale. Simply put, I was lost among the trees a lot. I never really minded. My exploration of the natural world had an uncanny resemblance to the rehearsal space in the wood-paneled basement of my childhood home: my dad’s colorful vintage drum set crashed like the oak who had met its final thunderstorm;  I could have sworn I heard my mother’s limpid tone in the robin’s round; the dancing feet of my brother fell as steadily as the summer rain; my sister’s flute devotedly harmonized with the wind. This combination of wild landscape and even wilder musical expression planted seeds of candor, vulnerability, freedom, creation. The organic magic of music beckoned me to cultivate these freshly sown seeds. As seeds grew into seedlings, I found the fresh leaves of my childhood opening toward the warm glow of music school. 

My next steps seemed obvious. It all felt so foolproof. My love affair with the performing arts felt nourishing, uninhibited, instinctive; why wouldn’t everything go exactly according to plan? Little did I know, I was utterly unprepared for the world of classical music. Natural talent and a blinding set of pearly whites will only get you so far. I was overwhelmed with how much I didn’t know. My colleagues were budding pianists, brilliant composers, meticulously educated young musicians and I was… just me; smiley Stacey. Simple Stacey. Stupid Stacey?

That last one really got to me. The terrifying thought of being “the stupid singer” catapulted me into action. Oh, did I say action? I meant anxiety. Definitely anxiety. I did everything I could to keep up with my colleagues: I went to every study group, spent countless nights wide awake preparing for the next theory test, practiced solfege melodies until I heard them in my dreams. I felt like a mouse endlessly stumbling forward on a wheel that I chose to step onto. The world started to lose its color. I slowly started to feel my instinct slip away while fear slithered in to take its place. I feverishly sought out anything that I could hold onto; anything I could control. My voice suffered the brunt of the constriction. The idea of correct and incorrect vocal production became an obsession. I spent years neurotically monitoring my singing, to the point that I couldn’t make a sound without manipulating it in some way. The joyful, intuitive expression I had enjoyed as a child was suddenly so foreign to me. I had allowed the black and white to suck the color out of my sanctuary; to demolish its walls. The questions of right or wrong, good or bad, smart or stupid became the only questions I asked. I frantically leapt from one extreme to the other, exhausting myself, dismantling myself, neglecting myself. I didn’t know who I was anymore.

During a particularly trying year of grad school I started searching for ways to navigate my cornucopia of difficult emotions. I started exercising more, eating better, making time for friends, getting outside of my comfort zone. I thought I’d try some yoga next. After attending some public classes with a friend, I quickly started to feel what the hype was all about. Even though I was laughably inflexible and a good deal weaker than I thought, black and white seemed to enter the conversation less and less frequently. I noticed a lot about myself but didn’t feel as compelled to assign a judgement; I simply noticed. This practice of noticing seemed to expand every time I attended class and, if I’m being honest, was rather intoxicating. The practice had so many avenues of real-world application: the deep layers of tension in my singing started to melt away; being vulnerable with friends and family became less terrifying; my capacity for patience and understanding, both of myself and others, transformed before my eyes. I felt like I was starting to rebuild my sanctuary brick by brick, mindfully, gently, honestly. I felt more open, more relaxed, more trusting than I had in a long time. Wrong, bad, stupid, all fell away. The formidable tower that judgement had build around me, the one I felt like I’d be locked in forever, was a cage of my own creation. I had the key the entire time. I slipped it from my pocket, took a deep breath, and stepped back into the forest. I surrendered. 

I decided it was time to relinquish control. The process of relearning to trust ourselves is a delicate one; one that is so much easier to navigate if we let go of all the white knuckling. After I chose to loosen the grip, I started to see who I was behind all that anxiety. I was so proud of who I saw. I finally started to behold Stacey, the woman who studied hard, tirelessly sought to deepen her understanding of her instrument, strengthened and lengthened her body, built her capacity for awareness, tended to her nervous system, found new vulnerability in her relationships and with herself, was strong as a mountain and as flexible as the wind. And the journey continues. One of my favorite new adages from the yoga world is No Mud, No Lotus. Before the lotus flower can bloom, it must find its way through the mud, toward the light. I’ve definitely waded through my fair share of mud, as we all have, but without those struggles we are incapable of seeing and truly appreciating the lotuses we are privileged to behold. As I start my journey into becoming a certified yoga instructor, I’m insanely grateful for all the dark spots I’ve encountered along the way. I wouldn’t be who I am without them. 

So, what is the stuff of passionate endeavor? I know my intuition is right on this one. It’s everything. It’s the hard work, the dedication, the joy, the discoveries, the pain, the self-inquiry, the honesty, and, perhaps most importantly, the surrender. May I propose a toast: Here’s to the maybe, the gray, the uncertainty to which we must inevitably surrender to find light in this crazy world. Here’s to the mud, my friends. May we be absolutely filthy with it. Maybe on the other side we’ll find that we, in fact, are the elusive, magnificent flowers we seek. We just need a little more muck to pry us open.

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By Stacey Geyer - ArtSmart Mentor  |  Published on 05/28/2020