Since the fall of 2018, I’ve been doing a (mostly) weekly yoga session with my friend Goode Dethero and Sarah Baxter, our teacher. This is one of the few moments in the week that I make time for myself and self-care. Sarah is a different, irreverent, non-spiritual/spiritual, knowledgeable, strong and gentle teacher and friend—as you’ll discover in our talk below. Over the course of our time together, we’ve lain down beside one another with our aches and pains, desires and disappointments, in health and illness, and in laughter and tears. This is retreat at its best. I told them recently, “I am a better person, a better leader, and a better mother when I make time for our weekly meeting.” This sentiment is so deeply true, but the practice is so difficult to prioritize in a busy world. But, it is always Sarah who reminds us, “We are not perfect. We are human. We are here.” We’re learning grace for ourselves through yoga.
Last year, Sarah also started leading some special classes at The Factory (she’s also modeled for The School of Making. We’ve loved opening this opportunity to our community. Last week, Sarah, Goode, and I sat at our favorite local wine shop and market, The Carriage, to talk yoga, retreat, self-care, and healing. Here’s a bit of our conversation:
Sarah is (and has been) a nurse, a tour manager, a merch table organizer, a yoga and Pilates instructor, and, currently, an interior decorator. If you didn’t know her, you’d think this is all an impossible combination; however, you only have to spend a few minutes in her effusive presence to understand that ALL of this is, in fact, possible. (And she makes an awesome playlist.)
Sarah and her husband, Andy Baxter (one-half of duo Penny & Sparrow), were living in Texas where Sarah was working as a Psychiatric & Mental Health Nurse Practitioner and, when Andy was spending too much time on the road, they decided that Sarah would travel with them as tour manager (and decorator of the merch table). After their second year of touring together, and one year living out of a suitcase, they landed in The Shoals in 2015 as a stopping place and to work on an album with Single Lock Records. Sarah and Andy fell in love with the community, bought a house, and settled in. Sarah put down her roots to fix their house while Andy continued to tour, with The Shoals as their home base.
NATALIE: Can you just give us the background of how you started teaching yoga? I think it’s important to how you teach.
SARAH: After we bought the house here in The Shoals, I realized that I wasn’t doing anything that gave me a lot of life, so I decided I was done with touring and wanted to find my own creative outlet. I also realized that I wasn’t taking care of myself. I was eating terrible food, my sleep schedule was off. In fact, everything internally and externally was off; I was exhausted.
I’d always loved interior design, so I decided that I wanted to renovate our house myself. After the renovation was more-or-less complete, I ended up in Florence with nothing to do. The house was done, I was no longer a tour manager, for the first time in my life I didn’t have a job, and every time I thought about going back to nursing, I was filled with anxiety. I entered a phase of melancholy. I’d never thought about a creative job, but I knew that I wanted a creative outlet. I would wake up and watch television. It was the first time in my life I didn’t have commitments, and I realized that so much of my self-worth was wrapped up in what I DID. That lasted for at least four months and I realized that every time I practiced yoga, I had clarity of mind—it made me feel good in my body.
I started going to Grit Fitness—my husband Andy was working as a trainer there part-time. Our friend Eliza, who owns the studio, asked me one day if I was interested in teaching yoga. I pushed back, but she asked me to come up with a simple 30-minute class. I agreed and because I obsess, I spent hours watching YouTube videos, listening to the instructors, how they inflected, when they took an inhale, when they would exhale; I was memorizing, not feeling it in my own body. After a few weeks, I tested a 30-minute introduction class with Eliza and a few other people and everything I’d been obsessively rehearsing went out the window and we just started moving together. After we finished, Eliza looked at me and said, “You need to be doing this.”
So that next summer, I became certified in Buti Yoga—which is dance mixed with yoga, mixed with plyometrics, and is a very free and expressive practice. It is high energy and primal. At that stage in my life, not working, I felt as though I had lost my voice. I didn’t trust myself; I was so insecure, and I’d almost stopped speaking. Going through the Buti training was so impactful for me; there are times you are beating your chest and yelling out. It helped me come back to myself; it helped me find my voice again. I remembered that I am a badass bitch, and I am smart, and I am creative. You know, all of us are afraid of acting out or looking silly or feeling stupid or falling down. After Buti training, I wasn’t afraid of those things anymore.
When I was teaching Buti, I’d come out in these teeny, tiny little bootie shorts and a sports bra. I’ve never had a super toned body so you could see my realness right there in front of you. I wanted to show people, look, this is my real body. This is the only body I get so I’m going to love it and be kind to it. I’d say, “I love her, I’m going to be kind to her, and I’m going to work her out.” My hope was that people would see me and think, “Okay, if she can do it, I can do it too.”
Once I started teaching yoga, [another friend] Jan Cartwright asked me if I’d also be interested in teaching Stott Pilates Reformer at North Corner Pilates. Getting certified in Pilates is where I learned fundamentals, posture, and alignment. Pilates training made me fall in love with yoga even more.
In doing all of this, I started challenging myself and I always made it a point to celebrate myself when I attempt something I’d never attempted before. Now, I’m at a place in my life that even when I accomplish a small movement, I get so excited. I push because life is too short to keep doing the same thing over and over again.
NATALIE: All that you talk about has such resonance with me. When we do yoga, there is this sense that you have a very deep understanding of all the muscles of the body and a desire to heal those muscles. And then there is this sense of celebrating every success and a hands-on healing component. Do you think this is a combination of your work as a nurse, yoga, and Pilates combined?
SARAH: It is all connected. Part of it is wanting to be there with you in your pain and discomfort—let’s acknowledge that the pain is there together and then let’s breathe and work through it. I also have a “fixer mentality” that comes from nursing. “Let me fix this for you.” I’m working on that, acknowledging the emotions around that and continuing to work with the constrictions that we all have. I was a psychiatric nurse, so there is also the desire for emotional well-being. Yoga can bring out emotional blockages that we’ve experienced in our lives. It is important to learn not to ignore these emotions but let them rise, sitting with them.
GOODE: I feel like you’ve taken the practice of yoga away from it being a discipline and into this introduction of turning inwards in combination with movement. For example, you use traditional poses but add movements that seem to change and open things up in a new way. It is more fluid and not traditional at all.
SARAH: No, it’s not traditional. I think the thing that has stuck with me since my nursing days is seeing people who can’t move, people who are stuck in their own bodies, people who are confined to a hospital bed, and people who can’t stand up straight. When your body CAN do things—even just balancing on one foot—that is HUGE. It is an incredible gift we have that we didn’t earn, we just have it. I want to encourage everyone to take a moment to be amazed about what their body is capable of accomplishing. I want us to be amazed that our lungs breathe on their own because that isn’t the case for everybody. I want us to be amazed that our kidneys are filtering out toxins. We’re going to have disorders and dysfunctions in different areas of our lives, but our bodies are always working for us.
GOODE: Both Natalie and I have pain issues, injuries, and limitations. You have brought us through by teaching us to talk to ourselves in a kinder way that has been very helpful. Changing the word “pain” to “sensation” was a reminder to use a gentler voice with ourselves. Not assigning value to the pain, just being with it. “It just is.”
SARAH: If you assign that value, “Oh, there is pain,” the next step is, “Oh, what is wrong with me?” That is a big question that we are constantly asking ourselves, “What’s wrong with me?”
There is nothing wrong with you, you are a human. You are going to hurt, you are going to make mistakes, you are going to fuck up royally. That is part of the human experience. I want to change that around to think, “Ok, I’ve got this going on but how can this help me in the long run?” A lot of the time, our pain is just a way of telling us that we’ve not been treating our body well. We need to move, we need to work it out. The other thing is that as women, we are born and from a very young age, we are dealing with pain. We need to work through and celebrate the fact that we can handle this pain. We can and do handle some really tough things.
GOODE: In class, you always address what a safe place you are building. You say, “Do what’s in your practice.” Stand up, lie down, cry, you embrace it all. You always have us acknowledge and embrace our own limitations.
SARAH: We have to get to this place where we know that this is where we are right now. I have to listen to my own body. I believe that my body is wiser than my brain, so I have to pay attention. My body is going to tell me if I am doing something that is not good for me. The teacher can’t tell me, my best friend can’t tell me, only my body can tell me what is good for ME. When I teach, I’m going to make suggestions for things that feel good in my skeleton, but I don’t live in your skeleton or in your skin or in your mind and I can’t know what feels good to you. In class, I encourage everyone to do what feels good to them. I do understand that people can be scared to do something different than what the teacher is doing but my hope is that one day I’ll look around the class and people will be doing what feels good to them, regardless of what I’m cueing. When that happens, I’ll feel like my work is done.
I always say in class, “If you want to sit on your mat and cry, sit on your mat and cry. If you want to sit in the corner and cry, sit in the corner.” I want everyone to experience freedom as they are learning to know their bodies, as they are experiencing their emotions and thoughts. It is a constant relearning that we’re having to do and a constant reintroduction to ourselves. A lot of times, we assume things about ourselves and our own bodies; if we challenge ourselves, we can also surprise ourselves. When I get to be there for other people as they surprise themselves, it is the best feeling in the world.
A heartfelt thank you to Sarah and Goode for playing along.
Since we started our practice together, we choose a word each year that we concentrate on for our lives and learning. For the last two years (as I can be a slow learner), my word was “unfurl.” It was about unfurling unhealthy attachments and letting go of difficult parts of myself. For 2020, I’m moving on to new ideas. I’ll let you know when I figure it out.
Sarah has chosen a lovely word for 2020: Sankalpa
She simplifies this for us as a deep intention or heartfelt desire, asking yourself, “What is the end result of why I want this?” This questioning can bring out deep truths about oneself. WHY do I really want this? Why do I want to change this thing about myself?
Of course, the goal for most of us is coming to the point where we feel deeply that “I am enough.”
This post barely scratches the surface: movement, trauma, joy, and healing are a constant part of retreat and self-care. Share your retreat tips in the comments section below. Visit our Retreat collection for all the things I’m loving as I retreat and practice self-care this season.
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Note from Natalie:
Because of a long-ago injury, I live with deep pain and limitations in my right hip. I credit Sarah, Eliza Hyatt of Grit Fitness, Jan Cartwright at North Corner Pilates, and lots of physical therapy for the fact that I can still walk (and dance). If you are visiting or live in our community, make sure to sign up for a class or private lesson with one of these ladies. They are badasses one and all.