On high stress workdays I am often heard fake-threatening to pack in all in and become a yoga teacher.
Teaching yoga is my fantasy alternate career. We can all have a fantasy (maybe more than one) right? My plan B life looks like a surf movie in which I hop from one tropical beach town to the next, teaching sun salutations on the sand. In my free time I play guitar, look after Labrador puppies that never grow up, surf, and write books full of wry observations about travel and life.
What? It’s a fantasy.
This year I took a few steps down this alternate path when I quit my awesome job and completed my 200 hour vinyasa yoga teacher training.
I spent June at a teacher training intensive in Southern Thailand. I lived at a jungle retreat centre with 21 other women and one male anatomy teacher with a necessarily good sense of humour. Ten hours a day, 6 days a week, I chanted and meditated and tried to contort my body into various pretzel-like shapes. I got my Sanskrit pose names mixed up with my Latin anatomy words. I had to write and talk about my feelings in front of a bunch of strangers who didn’t stay strangers for long.
Since returning to North America and normal life, people have been asking me what I learned. What gets covered in 200 hours of learning about yoga?
Well, as expected, I learned a lot about the physical postures and how to teach them to other people. I studied how each pose benefits the body, how to string poses together to make an interesting class with the greatest physical benefit, and how to talk people into and out of positions. I was also exposed to the seven other limbs of the yogic path that are often skipped over in a 60 minute Power class – things like conscious detachment and the yogic moral code. My post-training understanding of yoga is a lot bigger than the physical poses.
Some of the deepest lessons were more philosophical than technical. Here are a few that have hit me so far.
1. You can be a great yogi even if you can’t do arm balances.
Or the splits. Or unsupported handstand. Or chill with your ankles behind your ears. Or any of the other poses you see all over Instagram and on sunset-hued promotional posters for yoga retreats.
Before teacher training, there were days when I despaired that I would ever get “good at yoga” because I’d been practicing for years already and was still really far away from being a contortionist. Turns out that’s okay. The physical benefits of yoga – getting stronger and more flexible, squeezing toxins out of the internal organs, calming the nervous system – can all be achieved with postures that can be taught in the most beginner classes. In fact, yoga is more about the mind than the body, and the poses are mostly a means to limber up and focus in preparation for meditation. Any one-handed whatever-asanas are totally optional.
2. If you don’t have your health….
About a week in to training, most of us got sick. It felt like poison but was probably just unclean food or water. I had a relatively light case compared to others and I still felt like my body was filled with cement and someone was forcing razor blades through my digestive system.
For those two days, the simplest things were almost impossible. I couldn’t keep down water. It took forever to get anywhere because I walked like a slow, crippled zombie. I couldn’t think about anything besides a) how bad I felt, and b) whether I would ever feel better.
As a (relatively) young, healthy person I often take my physical health for granted. Getting sick was a good reminder that I am not exempt from Maslow’s hierarchy, and that without my health I can’t focus on all of the higher order things that consume most of my time and mental space.
3. Difficult is relative.
Teacher training was hard. If my hamstrings could cry, they would have sobbed through the middle two weeks where we were doing four hours of physical practice a day. Lunge became a four letter word. And just like in the movies, the mental/psychological challenges were even harder. We did one of our 6am classes wearing blindfolds and I got so angry at not being able to balance that I cried. I cried! Sometimes the repetition was crazy-making, when we were workshopping each pose in great detail or chanting unintelligible Sanskrit verses 108 times before the sun came up. Around the three week mark, my brain was so full that it was a struggle just to get out of bed and start another day of trying to learn, absorb, integrate.
But we rarely got to quit. In fact, many times when we were struggling with a tough-to-grasp concept or a challenging class full of handstands and ab work, instead of stopping we were asked to go further, to do something even harder. When we went back to the thing we were originally struggling with, it felt easier than before, because it was easier than the harder thing we had just done. It was kind of like interval training for life and it worked for me for both physical and mental things.
Since training wrapped, I’ve been playing with the “when something is hard, do something harder” strategy and I think there’s potential for broad application in life. Maybe I’ll pitch it to Oprah.
4. I had it all wrong about meditation.
I have been trying to cultivate a daily meditation practice for over a year. My attempts look like this.
a) Do a few days of internet reading about the magic of meditation and feel like a yoga fake because I don’t meditate regularly. Resolve to meditate every day.
b) On the First Day, force myself to get up early and sit cross-legged on the floor, back straight, eyes closed, trying not to think about anything.
c) Endure what feels like the longest 15 minutes of my life. Foot falls asleep, non-stop thinking (what will I have for breakfast/did I send that memo/I shouldn’t have said that/what is the weather going to be like today/etc.).
d) Feel like a failure.
e) Repeat 5 to 10 more days, feeling increasingly disappointed with myself each day for not “getting it”, quit, lick my wounds, and try again a couple months later.
I learned a few things at teacher training that changed all of this and I now have a willing, even enjoyable, daily meditation practice.
Here’s the secret. All you have to do to be a meditation success is practice concentrating on just one thing.
You can do this standing, or sitting, or walking. You can do it for five minutes. You can concentrate on any one thing that works for you – your breath, saying the same word over and over again in your head, a picture. I generally practice sitting, eyes closed, with my back leaning against something so lower back pain isn’t the one thing I concentrate on.
It’s okay if thoughts come into your mind. It’s completely normal. It’s called practicing, not being perfect. The point is to get better and faster at noticing that your mind has wandered off your one thing and then bring it back into focus. Practicing concentration is like teaching a puppy to heel: it’s low progress in between lots of running off the path to sniff stuff.
Yogic philosophy separates this concentration practice (dharana) from the blank mind/bliss feeling (dhyana) that I used to call meditation. That same philosophy is clear that our job is just to practice concentration, the conditions where dhyana can happen. When that empty mind feeling will occur is out of our control so it’s silly to get worked up because we can’t make it happen.
Thank you, Patanjali, for taking the pressure off.
You never know when dhyana will happen, but you’ll know it when you feel it. It’s unmistakable as much as it is indescribable.
So that’s the debrief. I’m sure more will surface. Since coming home, I practice on my own most days and I teach my friends once a week or so. That’s enough. For now, the career change threats are empty.