Heart to Heart

Do you remember who your first yoga teacher was?

By Liz Lowe

A few months ago I put my eye pillow back in rotation. With its perfectly weighted little beans on my eyes I rested. I placed my hands on my belly to begin to cultivate a relationship with this person growing inside me. As I inhaled the sweet smell of lavender I was immediately swept away to The Mindful Body yoga studio on California St in San Francisco. It was the fall of 1999. Our senses have an intense connection to our memories and at that moment I was 22 and had just completed my first asana class. It is here that I met my first yoga teacher, Michael Cooper. At the end of each class he would place an eye pillow on each of our eyes and I would immediately surrender to the earth beneath me. I was introduced to yoga by Hilary Kinloch. She gave me a book, The Power of Yoga by Beryl Bender Birch. I read. Reread. Highlighted. Underlined. I did yoga alone in my house with a book and an eager appetite. I did this for a bit over a year. After college my girlfriend and I decided to drive west and I took a chance emailing this amazing author hoping to get a list of teachers in either Colorado or California I should begin my studies with. I assumed an administrative assistant would send me a generic email. I received back the warmest, most inspiring email from Beryl and my life changed forever. She gave me Micheal’s name, among others. I spoke to him on the phone once or twice before I drove across the country. Upon arrival to The Mindful Body during the Indian summer San Francisco so lovingly offers I was greeted by Michael Cooper and his twinkling blue eyes (not unlike the jolly ol’ elf I am waiting for this Saturday night). I knew then I was in the right place at the right time.
Michael and I had tea together. I attended satsaang at the ashram where he lived. I took his classes every day, sometimes twice a day. Most life altering was him introducing me to Glide Memorial Church on Ellis St. Michael was raised Christian and I, Catholic. As he mystified me with stories of some far east land, taught me how to chant and stand on my head he more importantly told me to “love Jesus how I know how to love Jesus” as we discussed the difficulties I was having with my relationship to my family and my church. Glide awoke every cell in my body. More than any yoga class, meditation or kirtan. It was more than Sharon Stone holding a baby a few pews away from me. More than the packed house of EVERY spiritual walk of life listening to the Christian words. I saw bindis and yamakas, sarongs, saris and izods. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and, yes, atheists all gathered here. Maybe it was this same versatile group singing along with a choir and a band born to sing and play their love for God. Maybe it was the hugs instead of the handshakes when it was time to offer the sign of peace. Maybe it was that all of these people stood in a line for blocks and around corners to commune. Yes, I think that was the simultaneous heart-warming-spine-chilling moment: driving up to see a line of people that would rival any rock concert. Twice. When we left our service there were more lines of more diverse people around more blocks waiting for the second service of the day.
I write so much here about Michael before I move on because I have lost him. I think. When I moved back home he gave me my favorite book. His tattered, beloved book. He inscribed it. We spoke a bit after I left. I wrote him and he wrote me. Years passed. A few years ago I heard he was very ill. I tried, pathetically, to find a connection to him. I failed. I forgot. The eye pillow sent me in search again and I reached out to a teacher in San Francisco that I have never met. He wonders, too, what may have happened to this man he also has the pleasure of listing as a first yoga teacher. He will, hopefully, get back to me with an answer.
I could go on for days about Michael. I could fill books with stories of the first few years after San Francisco that I spent studying and then teaching with Beryl. She lives her yoga. She is company you feel lucky to have and want to have often. She practices what she preaches. She ordered a beer on a 100 degree night in NYC after we co-taught our first class on the upper east side and I, still awestruck by her and yoga in general, fell in love. She gave me blessings to go off and study with others and always welcomed me back. She taught me moderation. She repeatedly said a great teacher teaches with the hopes the student will surpass them in knowledge, inspired to know more. She is yoga defined and I love her.
Donna and Tracy have created a sacred space. This space sees one character after another step in front of a class and inspire. I am amazed at the group of teachers that bless this studio with their time and passion. This blog has been a forum of honesty. Beautiful people have shared stories, private feelings. Think about what you bring to your own yoga mat. The days you feel awful. The weeks of struggle, fear, sadness. The anger you carried in from an argument with a loved one. A shitty night turned into a gloomy day. Grief. Now think about having to step in front of an audience of people waiting for joyful inspiration in the midst of it. Crazy, right? I can’t count how many insane conversations I have had with a teacher or two in the back office right before one of us steps into the studio. Or how many tears have been shed. Or curse words sworn.
We are all teachers. Someone has learned something from you. He or she may think of you often. Your imprint has been left.
Wayne Dyer rocks my world. Natural Awakenings printed his 5 Intentions for the New Year. The first one is “commit to at least one daily experience where you share something of yourself with no expectation of being acknowledged or thanked.” Each of the teachers at SYJ sits in front of their audience with an interest in sharing. We hope we move someone, anyone, maybe two. We give ourselves to the moment, to the class, in an honest attempt to pass on something that has helped us on our own wild ride. Today, after class, a student I haven’t seen in a very long time thanked me. He rushed to get to the studio in hopes to hear my centering and it was exactly what he needed he to hear, as if it were it meant especially for him. Another student, who I love dearly and can say what she pleases to me in good friendship warfare, interjected and said, I was hoping she would stop talking and just say get into down dog. She made me laugh. He made me smile. My day started off pretty damn good.
After I finish writing this blog I am going to write a few more emails to try to find Michael Cooper or a story about him. I am also going to write Leslie Abbatiello a thank you note. She was my 12th grade English teacher. She gave me a D on my first paper I wrote in her class. I had never seen a D before. I met with her after class a few times and she tore apart my writing. She demanded something of me I was too lazy and afraid to offer. I got an A in her class. She wrote me a stellar recommendation for college that makes me cry when I rifle through that box of papers. I ran into her when I first moved to New Haven. A year and a half ago I moved a few blocks from her. She has met my son. She is on my mind and I want her to know it.
Opportunities can be missed. If you are moved to reach out to someone I challenge you to do so. Be courageous in your conversations knowing a spoken word of yours may forever change the life of another. Offer yourself. Seek. Learn. Teach. It is a cycle not unlike your breath. Most importantly, express your gratitude.
Merry Holidays to you all.
Happy Birthday to Donna and Tracy this 21st of December.

6 Responses

  1. Amy Weiss January 10, 2012 11:36 pmReply

    HI Liz,
    I was just searching the Internet for Michael Cooper, yoga instructor, and came upon your blog. I also took some of my first yoga classes with him @ Mindful Body and I thought he was amazing. I remember at the end of class as we lay still on the floor, he would ask “where are you?” a pause then “here”. “what time is it?” a pause and then “Now”. That really helped me get into the moment and those words have stuck with me nearly 12 years later. I’m sad to hear that he may have fallen ill. Please post again if you hear anything. Thank you.

  2. Deedee Vinci January 19, 2012 8:43 pmReply

    I forgot how much Michael meant to you…..He would be very proud of you, as I am sure Beryl is….and always, me.

  3. Sir tom January 21, 2012 7:22 amReply

    It is Saturday morning slightly after 7AM. I had intended to go to your 8:15AM class. However it is snowing and I believe the studio will be closed. I am sad because I love your class. So instead I decided to read your blog. How wonderful and enlightening. Whenever I take your class I feel invigorated spiritually and physically. And as always namaste

  4. Vanessa January 22, 2012 7:26 amReply

    Dear Liz, that is such a beautiful post. It humbles me to think of my first teacher (shout out Diana Rilov) and how in a packed NYC equinox class she gave separate instruction for EACH transition to me as I had just had back surgery and was “sent” to yoga by my surgeon in lieu of PT.

    She became so much too me, and Isaac Pena too. “you learn yoga cell-by-cell” was a phrase I always liked.

    I teach school and ground myself before every encounter with my students so I can bring my fullest awareness and by greatest presence to them.
    Love your class.

  5. Ana Delgado November 20, 2012 3:10 pmReply

    I came across your blog because I just found out Michael passed away last month and was looking to reach out to his community. There will be a memorial for him at Glide (of course!) on Dec. 8 at 1 pm.

    • David Benninghoff December 18, 2012 3:26 pmReply

      Michael Cooper was very influential to me in ways Liz mentions in her blog. Michael was my main yoga teacher in San Francisco from 1997-2003. He also became my friend, and brought me to Glide – which was truly one of the most powerful weekly rituals of my life. When I visit San Francisco, I always return to Glide.

      I also lost touch with Michael, and tried to find him. For several years his name along with an old phone number has been posted on my bulletin board here at work. It’s still here.

      I’ll never forget attending a yoga class Michael was teaching on Christmas Eve. As we were all getting settled in on our mats, right before class, he had the Doobie Brothers playing – “Jesus is Just Alright with Me.”

      Michael was light and funny like that – and had a gift to touch what was deep inside, and bring if forth – because there was respect for the potential intensity, but no judgment or fear. He was a healer in that way. His kind energy burst out of him – and does even now was I imagine being in his presence.

      I would love to talk or write people who loved Michael, because he was such a lovable human – the kind that makes the world a better place. I would like to keep his spirit alive – because I know it is possible – because he had the heart of a giant. So, if anyone out there is reading this, please write back (david@barefootyoga.com).

      I feel sadness over Michael’s sudden passing, but love never dies – and Michael exuded love as purely as anyone I have ever known.


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