30 Lessons from Yoga Teacher Training

I had said that I would blog my experiences of my first 200-hour yoga teacher training in California throughout, that I would chronicle in glorious detail the dance with the Dionysian, serpentine parts of myself in real time, as they made themselves known to me during the inevitable threshold-crossings, revelations and openings of the heart that occurred in the course of the training.

And now, six months after that initial promise, I am back in the UK, writing my first little series of reflections on this blog.

Perhaps this is not surprising. The wealth of teachings, conversations, movement workshops, musical rhapsodies, ecstatic silences, beatitudes, and agonies I would encounter every week of the training were a lived experience, my impressions of which often resisted immediate recording in words, or when recorded, felt too fragile to be revealed on a public platform.

The integration of some practices encountered in the training will take considerable time.

Overall, I derived an excellent foundation of the nuts-and-bolts knowledge of alignment, anatomy, sequencing of a yoga class, and the major philosophical schools and history of the practice. Every week I taught fellow trainees, friends, and family members. I took lots of notes, in the teacher training sessions and in yoga classes I would attend outside of those sessions. Minutes after a class I would plant myself in the café around the corner and record as much of the sequence as I could remember, including cues and thematic talking points. Then I would write a report of what worked well, as far as I was concerned, in terms of pacing, sequencing, safety, music, and theme. Some days this process would take hours.

Many of the things I learned constitute a personal curriculum of lessons I fancied sharing here. The following, in haphazard order, are the essentials I have derived from the many teaching techniques, stories, songs, wise one-liners, challenges, and other sources of comforting and confronting lessons I absorbed during the training.  These will no doubt change as my practice evolves, and I am certain that even my recollections of the insights gained in the training will shift as life continues to inform them…

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One April night in the midst of the teacher training, I dreamt that I sat on this bench outside the  studio and waited for my teacher. I waited for an afternoon and an evening. I spent a sleepless night in the cold, struggling to curl myself onto the once beautifully quaint wicker bench that had in the painful hours of darkness become a spiky Procrustean prison. The sky brightened, and it was dawn, and my teacher did not show. 
Then the realization hit: I was awaiting no one, because I was my teacher. 
I rose from the bench and began to walk. With each step I became more curious about and devoted to the teachings of ineffable value I could find within the quiet, spacious parts of myself.

30 Lessons

  1. A forearm balance is called pincha mayurasana in Sanskrit, and shortly after the training ended I managed, with kick after hesitant kick up to the elusive wall in front of me, to integrate that inversion into my practice after thinking of it as a posture “off-limits” to me for my fear of falling on my face.
  2. Proprioception, the perception of the body’s movement in space, is a key area of development in a yoga practice, in addition to strength and flexibility. For instance, sure, you can bring yourself into wheel pose, but can you work the adductors of your pinky toe without moving your other toes? So many adventures in fine motor skills to be had!
  3. The physical and subtle bodies store memories, traumas, remedies, stories, images, and quiet spaciousness, and the practice of yoga joins the practitioner in compassionate relationship with the experience of embodied centers of wisdom.
  4. I can accept that visceral insight and instinctual wisdom will not always satisfy my mind’s definition of what is rational or comprehensible.
  5. The mind, like Hesiod’s Muse he invokes at the beginning of the Theogony, is a brilliant, time-honored teller of truths and untruths. It can be loved and accepted as a part of a person, even with its fabrication of illusions and areas of ignorance and misperception (avidyas).
  6. A commitment to a personal daily yoga practice is essential for a committed teacher to uphold, for continuous work on oneself through a regular process of svadhyaya (self-study) experienced through postural practice, meditation, and breathing exercises will inform one’s teaching holistically.
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Beach, and garudasana

7.  A good teacher will use intelligent sequencing (with modifications and alternative poses for injuries and differently abled bodies), to forge a sequencing path that is sustainable and focuses on specific muscle groups/areas of connective tissue (hip/shoulder/chest/hamstrings) to prepare students for a “peak pose” that succeeds the final preparatory pose in a natural step, not a giant leap, of challenge and focused attention.

8. Though sometimes a good leap of faith – for instance, the momentum for the transition from a high lunge to a warrior 3  – is well-cued in a yoga class.

9. Music (or silence) can be a powerful way to support students’ development of embodied awareness and self-inquiry. But music also consequentially influences mood, and can inhibit students’ organic connection with their emotions and bodily sensations, so care must be taken in compiling a playlist that supports, rather than defines the students’ practice.

10. I love teaching because I love supporting people in their practice, and allowing time for students to explore intuitive movement within postures and make the practice their own.

11. When I become nervous in my yoga teaching, my instinct is to ground myself, and to read the room. I can readily work off-script (away from the written sequence). I can prioritize maintaining a safe container for students in my class to foster their unique experiences of the practice.

12. My fellow trainees, in their courage, integrity, kindness, support, humility, and inspiring consistency in showing up every week for all the challenges with which the training presented us, taught me time and time again that each person’s yoga is his/her/their yoga. Their work. Their struggle. Their experience of union. Their peace.

13. Guru is often translated as “the one who removes darkness”. I find it useful to understand that the guru can come in many forms: a friend; a teacher; a sunset; a painting; an article of clothing discarded on the sidewalk that alerts you to the literal and behavioral costumes you assume and discard from situation to situation, and makes you curious about what is being adorned; the tree branches, the blades of grass, and the strands of your hair that weave themselves into the fabric of the wind and remind you of interconnectedness at the times when you feel the greatest loneliness and separation; when you catch a stranger’s eye and notice the engage of the simple, consequential message “I see you”; the act of grace that sets things in motion just when you were about to give up.

14. The teachers/authors encountered in the training who inspired me include Lal Ded, T.K.V. Desikachar, Ramana Maharshi, Sally Kempton, Byron Katie, Adyashanti, and Neem Karoli Baba (as transmitted by Ram Dass). The ones who got under my skin are Michael Singer and Jed McKenna/whoever he really is (for the paternalistic tone and contempt for the mind I found prominent in their writing, and for the latter’s anonymity, which I know has a spiritual basis but also conveniently releases him from engaging in critical dialogue about his ideas with students, who take to Reddit to make heads, tails, and innumerable other appendages of his writings…).

15. The ethical principles of yoga, the yamas and the niyamas, are rarely introduced comprehensively in contemporary vinyasa flow classes, yet they comprise the first two of the eight limbs of yoga, found in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the foundational texts of yoga philosophy. My teacher Luca taught me by her example the grace of weaving these principles mindfully, humbly, and lovingly into a yoga class, and into the fabric of community. 

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Yoga in the garden with Yoga in Practice (ed. David Gordon White, 2012), a reader from which I find passages from the major yogic philosophical texts (Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras, Upanishads, and others) to inspire my daily practice.

16. Physical posture (asana) is only one of the eight limbs of yoga in the Yoga Sutras. Posture work, and the outward appearance of postures we often see on Insta and other repositories of “ideal” – and idolized – “yoga bodies”, is by itself not necessarily an accurate representation of a person’s yoga practice. My anatomy teacher Kendall inspired me to appreciate and respect the diversity of bodies in a yoga class, and my own body. From her I learned that my spine’s flexibility is not “something I need to work on”, but is determined by the inherent positioning of my spinous processes, and can be welcomed and accepted with joy in asana practice and in life.

17. The decision to acknowledge another person’s humanity, and the choice to perceive the luminosity of being that rests in the other person and reflects my own, is called namaste.

18. The unifying practice of namaste is only reinforced by creating clear, mutually understood boundaries in relationship that affirm each person’s safety and psychospiritual integrity.

19. The more of another’s joys, sufferings, grievances, loves, and fears I learn, the less defensive I become, and the more willing I am to surrender my judgements and open my heart to another person.

20. The facilitators and trainees who surrounded me in the teacher training over that four-month period were the very teachers I needed, the ones who could show me how to unbind the parts of myself I had held hostage and starved of value, and how to meet them when they raged.

21. I can accept the periods of loneliness and fellowship, community and isolation that add texture to a practice, to a life.

22. I have a sense of humor, a resourcefulness, an intellect, and a strength of character that are ready to make themselves of service to the world when I choose to value them.

23. In my experience, resistance stretching exercises (contracting the muscle as you stretch it) can do a world of good for relieving sticky connective tissue, excessive mental rumination, and emotional quagmires, and are a delightful gift to share with yourself, or a friend or two.

24. It is a good idea to breathe in the sweet scent of fresh jasmine, or good essential oil blends and let the fragrance open windows in the mind.

25. It is a good idea to breathe and move, in that order.

26. Do “play your edge” in asana (postural) practice, i.e. find the limits of your comfort zone and consciously open yourself to the opportunity for expanding them. This requires staying present amidst boredom, the desire to check out/dissociate, and perhaps intense sensation, but coming out of the posture if there is pain in order to avoid physical injury.

27. Do NOT play your edge in pranayama (breath control) practice. Forcing the breath (especially in breath retention exercises) when there is discomfort can cause physical and psychological injury and trauma. If there is any anxiety or discomfort met in pranayama practice, drop the practice and pick it up again from a relaxed and grounded space. Do right by yourself, if that means releasing the breath when the teacher instructs you to hold it, or abstaining from kapalabhati or other vigorous breathing practices if it feels taxing and unsustainable.

28. Each day, and each shape and breath we take brings the occasion for acknowledging the roses, thorns, buds, and withered petals: the gifts, the wounds, the burgeoning adventures, the bygone things that fall in their natural way. Do not stop the petals from falling, for that is an affront to death; nor cut away the growth before it has had a good chance to thrive, for that is an affront to life.

29. Why do we twist? As my teacher Eddie demonstrated for us, props and all, with his accustomed ebullience in our final session with him, it is easier to drain water from a saturated sponge by wringing it out rather than pressing it in between the hands. Hence, we twist. We move laterally, frontwards, backwards, upside down. We stay still. We harness the breath, we play loud music, we pound the floor with our feet and our fists, we trampoline, we slide across floors and up walls. We draw and journal. We scream. We cry. We ask for help when we need it. We teach in the way we know how. We give the knowledge and resources that are ours to give. We feed each other. We give hugs when they are welcome. We deepen the twist. It is from this place where we can ask the difficult questions of ourselves, and prepare to make the tough decisions, to have the tough conversations. All to wring out what keeps us feeling paralyzed and powerless to connect authentically with ourselves and others. So many associated lessons stemmed from that symbol that we each received a sponge in addition to our training certificate, a talisman for the road ahead.

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A quiet breakfast with the Madonna at the studio before my final evaluation. Sitting on the bench depicted above…

30. Savasana, corpse pose, is “the ultimate peak pose”, as my teacher Cynthia once elucidated with resonant conviction. Indeed, it is the end and the beginning, the pose that teaches yoga in the oldest way, through total relaxation of muscular tension, mental attachments, and conscious control over the breath. Yoga in the oldest way, in the practice of dying to everything that keeps us from resting in the essence of ourselves. In total awareness. In noticing what we notice, as Cynthia would say. In expanding the awareness to claim all the complex, contradictory human pieces that lie within us, that we use to navigate our world until the moment when we don’t. In appreciating the fact that awareness pervades the pose of death, and is thus a celebration of, and a union with life.

Savasana teaches yoga in the oldest way, for, if we take as a reference point the boon of yogic knowledge given to the boy Nachiketa by Yama, Lord of Death in the Katha Upanishad, an early  textual treatment of yoga that far predates the Sutras, the first yoga teacher was Death.

Nachiketa and Yama

 

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