Sitting on his yoga mat at the end of class, deep in his zen, he must’ve been at least 50. Not old, but not young. He was bright eyed, his arms the sinewy limbs of someone who’s worked hard his whole life, the slow and tender movements of his practice showing the twinges of a body well-used.
At 6:45 am I don’t usually ask new students their life stories.
We’re both groggy and just happy to be upright on our mats, stretching the knots of the night from our shoulders.
After the rest of the students padded out on bare feet to begin their days, he remained resting, cross-legged, facing me.
He became my teacher, and began to tell me why he practices yoga.
He grew up the conservative son of a Morgan-Stanley exec in Cincinnati, Ohio. His life was privileged, he said, but it was always drilled into him that he had to work hard to earn success- money, a nice house, a nice car, the markers that were afforded him by his father’s epic work weeks.
He followed suit when he came of age- 60 hour work weeks, 98 days in a row without a day off, 32 hour shifts at times. He worked in the oil fields first, and then- for 27 years, he hauled trash.
He was a trash man.
I don’t think my face belied my surprise- I’ve had lots of practice at that by now- so his story continued.
He had also been deep into endurance sports- triathlons and competitive swimming kept him strong and active in the hours he wasn’t riding the trucks. He loved the thrill of the raw numbers. Personal records, training sprints, calculable achievements. They felt like climbing somewhere higher. Advancing.
And he played banjo in a bluegrass quartet. Clawhammer. Which, if you don’t know, is really freaking hard. I’m not sure when he had time for it all- and he did it all. Raised a family somewhere in there too.
But what he explained in quiet tones- and what many of my older students have also shared- is this:
I wish it hadn’t taken me this long to realize that success and achievement have nothing to do with all that.
I wish it hadn’t taken me this long to get it.
The nice house, the horses and the barn to keep them in, it’s all nice- but only now, in my retirement, have I realized- there’s something deeper, beneath it all. An undercurrent, he said- something that reminds me that our truest pursuit is to expand into our own being.
The light in me honors the light in you. When we are together in this place, we are one.
And now- now that he’s retired, now that he’s older, now that he’s got one foot out of the rat race- now he is realizing the gift of time. The gift of health. The gift of family, love, community, silence, space. Of downward dog. And of turning inward.
Realizing that it’s all been at his fingertips all along, but he’s chosen to keep reaching beyond- towards the brighter lights, the money, and the sense of achievement that we cling to at the end of a 60 hour work week.
We convince ourselves that if we’re busy, exhausted, and working hard, we must be worth something.
It’s not true, he said. And I wish I’d realized that earlier.
I wish I’d known- that no matter how much “success” I had by my father’s standards, no matter how many other people I measured myself against, no matter how fast I could swim… none of it mattered if I couldn’t be comfortable within myself.
I could only sit in silence and listen.
He told me he’s happy to see someone my age on this path too- dancing the fuzzy line between “achievement” and diving in to deep living. To the vibration that’s underneath all the Shoulds and Standards and Pursuit of Something Better.
I had to stop and take a deep breath…
And offer a silent thank you for his reminder. For being a mirror. I’ve been distracted- swept up. And he brought me gently, kindly, back to earth. To the present.
Gratitude, Trash Man John. Gratitude.