A couple years ago a regular student in my yoga class, who happens to also run the public speaking department at a city college, invited me to come present to her Public Speaking 101 class. She wanted me to offer a yoga teacher perspective on how to step up in front of a group. I was happy to oblige.
The main thing I was compelled to emphasize in my presentation was that if you truly want to communicate something, that’s the best way to get over the nerves of public speaking. Sure there are helpful tools like feeling your feet on the ground, calming your breath, etc. But if you really want to say what you have to say, there’s less energy to give to fear.
For instance, if I am really excited about the theme I am offering to a class I am about to teach, I’m not even thinking about myself. I’m thinking about them, and how excited I am to share. I’m thinking about how I hope it will improve their lives, bring them hope and joy. My body becomes an instrument for that.
So I put together two exercises for the students to work on this concept. The first one was really simple. I cut up pieces of paper and each had a physical instruction on it like, “raise your right arm” or “look over your left shoulder”.
Two students stood up in front of the class, and the idea was that the one with the paper had to deliver the instruction clearly, with enough volume and intention, so that the other person would be compelled to follow it. (As a yoga teacher if you don’t intend your instructions as you give them, often students won’t follow them.) The public speaking students did okay with this.
The next exercise took it to the next level. The little pieces of paper carried big life messages. Messages like “the answer can be found in your heart”, or “It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else’s life with perfection” (from the Bhagavad Gita).
I told the student who was delivering the message that they should imagine that the other student really needed to hear this message. The point wasn’t to pontificate, it was to give valuable information to someone who needed it.
As the exercise got underway, some really wonderful things started happening. The students were from all different backgrounds, and some clearly had self-protective resistance in the beginning. But as they connected with the importance of passing on each message, and the gravitas of the words, really poignant moments emerged.
Finally, we were getting down to the end and there was just one girl who hadn’t stepped up to participate. She was extremely shy, hiding behind a curtain of long hair, too afraid to get out of her chair. So I said to her “it’s okay, you can stay there, your partner will still deliver the message to you.”
Her partner was a tall young man with dark brown skin and kind eyes. He pulled the last piece of paper, looked at it, went over and stood in front of her, and with such sincerity said, “you are stronger than you think.” The whole class got really quiet. Whoa. It was such a crazy moment of serendipity that he randomly pulled that message to give to her. It was beautiful.
After the class ended, the students milled out, and I was getting my things together to go. Then the shy girl came back in with one of her friends and said “can I say something to you?” I said, “sure.” She said, “I’m really sorry I didn’t do the exercise. I should have done it.”
I said, “you did do it. And that moment between you and that young man was so incredible. It was the best moment of the whole night. You felt it didn’t you?” She said, “yes.” And I said, “it’s true isn’t it? You’re stronger than you think?” She smiled. Already the message had sunk in – it was her new inner feeling of strength that suddenly made the exercise seem like not that big of a deal. She got it.
I think that this is true for most of us. We think we need to protect ourselves from relationships and weather and challenging working conditions. We think if something is hard or ugly we can’t handle it. But we can.
You can bathe your parents when they are old and frail. You can walk miles and miles instead of getting a car. You can live on the simplest foods. You can love someone unconditionally who doesn’t know how to love you in the same way. You can function on not much sleep. You can survive heartbreak. You can move the contents of a whole house. You can speak your truth. You can get beaten down over and over and still get back up and feel the divine all around you. You can do what you have to do, and get kinder and more real and more compassionate every single day. You can dust yourself off and try again. And even if your clothes are more ragged and torn than ever, you can stand even taller and prouder.
You are stronger than you think. I am certain of it.
photo: Keith Wittenstein