Have you ever wondered what it is like to do your yoga teacher training? Perhaps you're considering it yourself, but tentative about taking the plunge. Whether it is to deepen your practise or start you on a new career path, I simply can't recommend YTT more. The layers of self you'll unravel, the depths you'll plumb, the strength you'll acquire; my experience was profound and one of the best decisions I've made. I didn't know if I'd teach, but I was excited to know more and to better my own understanding and practise. Now, I love teaching and the people I met on my course are some of the greatest inspirations and teachers that I hold dear. I wrote about my experience in this month's Australian Yoga Life Magazine which you can order here or pick up in all great newsagents!
We start our class at 6.30am in an open aired shala overlooking the sea. In the pre-dawn darkness, the inky ocean is spliced by the moon’s glittering scythe. As we move through our practise the sky softens and dimples, the moon thickening to the colour of heavy cream, before the dawn breaks yolk yellow and the day spills forth. Gazing at the view through the swaying palm trees, I feel a heavy contentment in my stomach grow like a flickering flame, licking the hollows of my chest. It feels dusty, a nostalgic feeling I recognise from my childhood. Simple, sweet happiness.
I’m in South Goa, India, undergoing my yoga teacher training. Living in a small touristy village clustered on the periphery of Agonda Beach, a much-touted long stretch of sand and sea, I’m one of 85 students from all corners of the world, here for a month of challenges as we sweat through 200 hours of Ashtanga Vinyasa training. My life as a news reporter feels a million miles away. I’m not sure if I’ll teach professionally, but I’m curious to see if I have what it takes to do so and I’m excited to deepen my understanding about this practise that I love.
“Unconditional, uninterrupted joy is the true nature of the self.” So comes the unassuming voice of the school’s director and philosophy teacher Sudhir Rishi. He is standing barefoot, a pair of faded Levi jeans rolled to the ankles, guiding our cohort through the biweekly satsang – Sanskrit for a chat with an enlightened dude. He’s the wisest person I’ve ever met, wearing his peace like a cloak. I wonder not for the first time if he can read our thoughts. “Our mind gets in our way with emotional blockages,” he continues. “The mind is ‘antahkarana’ – an inner instrument. We must learn to use our mind as we do our hands and feet.”
Sudhir is a seeker. A mechanical engineer working towards the top of his field, it took the death of his mother when he was 27-years-old to shake the foundations of the life he had built. “I left my job soon after,” he says to me later over masala chai. “I wanted to understand what is life, what is death, what this sorrow was and why I couldn’t escape it. Life is painful, and I suffered. I joined a monastery for guidance, but found none there. There was a time when I was in the monastery for nearly two years, I cried every night.” For eight years Sudhir remained clothed in the robes of a monk. He lost contact with his family and at one point was homeless, sleeping on the side of the river Ganges. He feared he would go insane or end his own life. “Then I moved to Rishikesh and started learning the scriptures… I finally had guidance.” He went on to practise and meditate for 19 years, knowing he would eventually share what he had learnt and become a teacher. “I saw others contribute,” he says, “and I knew it was right.”
Judging by the school’s numbers, this teaching is in hot demand. The school held its first yoga teacher training in 2009 with 12 students. This jumped to 80 participants in 2014 and now sits at 500 graduates every season – 80 per cent of those found the school through word of mouth.
“Modern life is creating more stress in the world, the consumer and corporate culture that focuses on profit economy,” Sudhir says. “People are stressed, so they’re looking for answers…it’s naturally opening the door for yoga. Yoga should help the individual, personally, physically and mentally. Family should get the benefit; friends should get the benefit. And then society at large. Let us change ourselves, and help a few people around us, they in turn will start helping others.”
The Ashtanga Primary Series is tough. Every morning we sweat our way through the asanas. It’s my first dedication to the practise and I struggle with the militant discipline it demands, the stilling of internal chatter during the quiet of Mysore. A dynamic system that ties together breath and movement, it has been practised for some 3,000 years, first systemised by Sage Patanjali and then popularised by Pattabhi Jois in the mid-20th century. Our hours are busy. Six days a week we start with a two-hour class at 6.30am, followed by an unwavering schedule of anatomy, philosophy and alignment lessons. Mealtimes are accompanied by a hum of chatter, the students sitting around low-slung tables chowing down on vegan curries and heaped bowls of vegetables. They hail from Europe, Australia, Mongolia and the United States, their stories like brightly coloured strings, criss-crossing continents and tragedies, love and despair.
Midya Sofie is one of them. With a cloud of long dark hair, she is a mix of dualities. Yin and yang, ice and fire. The 26-year old Swiss national speaks six languages; her Kurdish father met her Iranian mother in a European refugee camp. Working in finance for a multinational corporation, her yoga journey has transformed her life. “We discovered my scoliosis when I was 14 years old,” she says in her lovely lilting accent. “I was in a lot of pain, at times struggling to walk. When I was 21 my spine had curved 32 degrees to the right. It was getting worse and my doctor proposed a high-risk spinal surgery.” Midya then stumbled upon a yoga studio. “I learnt about asymmetric yoga. I would stay in a posture for double the time one way, to realign the spine. I haven’t read any scientific backing for asymmetric yoga, the only thing I can say, is that in three years practising it, and in the eight months I have been practising Ashtanga, my scoliosis is now at 29 degrees. I have no pain, I literally forget I have scoliosis.’
Midya has travelled to India to test the waters of a different life. “I started finance because I love numbers. But I’ve become a cold person. And I don’t have a purpose…I wake up and think, today I will spend 12 hours of my day handling money for people to turn a profit. It feels almost like stealing.” By the end of the year, she has decided to quit her job and jump in the deep end as a full-time yogi. “Life is amazing,” she says. “I think the easy path would have been to stay blind and continue my routine life and satisfy what everyone expects from me. The difficult path, is to question yourself constantly, question again every single day, every choice you make.”
The anatomy classes are hard, especially for my unscientific self who last looked at a femur in high school biology. While it’s fascinating stuff, it’s the teacher who really makes the classes thrilling, his energy as ebullient as a child’s. 44-year-old Olivier Charles was born in the Caribbean before moving to London as a teenager. He’s almost effeminate, with extraordinary posture, languid movement and a face captivating in its animation. He started out in business and fashion design, working as a physiotherapist in rehabilitation as well as founding a successful advertising agency. It wasn’t until he opened a company in New York that change dawned. “I just couldn’t commit to New York,” he says over a very un-yogi gin and tonic at a beach bar, the sun sinking in pink rhapsody in front of us. “We thought OK, let’s do the opposite.” He moved to Japan, his wife’s home country, and set about revitalising her family’s mountainside home into a yoga retreat and studio. “I remember saying to my wife, if we want to have an exceptional life we’ve got to make the impossible, possible. Let’s make us a plan. Gradually I started teaching. I couldn’t speak Japanese at the time. But people were so nice.”
Olivier started yoga 13 years ago, a natural fit to his Buddhism practise. As a marathon runner, he thought the asanas might help him ease his back and knee pain, but quickly his obsession with learning took a foothold. He was one of the first students to study here in Agonda and now spends two months in the village every year teaching.
“When I first did my training I didn’t know I was going to teach because I couldn’t see how to make money out of it at the time. I just wanted to know how to do it,” he says. “I love coming here to India, but this isn’t a life I can lead at home. I have children, I have to pay the bills, so you have to find a middle way for you. And I think it’s important to find something that makes sense to the life you have, rather than the other way around.” He credits the success of his business to setting the right intention. “It’s so similar the way you live your life and the way you run your business…the heart is the most important. When something makes sense, surrender.”
As our final days of training come to a close in a flurry of revising and exams, I want to still time, harbouring the deep gratitude I feel here. But life awaits back home. Some answers have been offered, a peace like I’ve never known, but it seems the more I learn, the less I know. We finish our month in the same way it started; a fire ceremony that has been practised for thousands of years. A holy man draped in cloth intones in Sanskrit, the students in white chant mantras. While it should feel almost ridiculous in my Western skin, I shiver as the ghee and fragrant herbs are tossed into the fire, the flames oscillating as they swallow the offerings. In this tiny moment, a breath in the span of my lifetime, I feel something beautiful, begin to shift.