Two weeks ago, I qualified as an ashtanga vinyasa and rocket yoga teacher (RYT200). On the list of sentences I’d been expecting to say this year, this ranks just below ‘moved to a cave in the Outer Hebrides and couldn’t be happier’ and only slightly above ‘joined the Freemasons’.
True, ‘train to be a yoga teacher’ made an appearance on my ‘30 things to do before I’m 30’, but it was always a wild card entry. I didn’t really think I’d go through with it; the level of commitment required seemed pretty high compared to ‘watch five films recommended by sister’ and ‘go for dinner at Burger and Lobster’.
The course lasted ten weeks in total, every Friday night and weekend day from October to December, with a ‘half term’ in the middle. That half term (a weekend off) comprised my only two rest days of the course: I was working my normal job Monday to Friday, during what turned out to be the busiest time of the year. Factor in the online anatomy course, additional yoga classes on weeknights, and intermittent homework, and it’s easy to see why I didn’t make much of an effort with the washing up. (Sorry housemates!)
Of course, I always knew it would be a slog, but didn’t really KNOW know until it hit me. In the summer, when I signed up, it was a gung-ho sort of decision: not impulsive exactly, but definitely more along the lines of ‘just do it!’ than ‘stop and analyse everything that might possibly make this difficult’.
Questions a normal person might ask themselves before signing up to a yoga teacher training course include the following:
- Am I the sort of person who handles stress well, is good at organising their time and can handle having just two days off in 10 weeks while staying relatively even-tempered?
- Am I definitely sure I want to spend a big wad of hard-earned cash this way, as opposed to putting it into savings (or, I don’t know, blowing the lot on a massive party with gold-plated canapés?)
- Can I cope with the fact I’ll have no social life for three months? Or am I a prototypal millennial who will get antsy about the fun I’m missing out on? Will I put the OMMMM in FOMO?
Instead of asking these questions, I stuck with the rhetorical: “Why not?”
Now, I may sound as though I’m full of regrets. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The fact I found the course so difficult – harder than, say, university finals or starting out as a freelance writer – has made its completion all the sweeter.
Every single weekend that I was there, at the beautiful yoga studio under the railway arch in Haggerston, I considered quitting. The temptation lurked at the periphery of my mind, like a loaf of bread at arm’s reach from a Paleo nut. Whenever things got on top of me, I flirted with leaving during the lunch break and just not coming back.
So when I was presented with my certificate on 13th December, I didn’t just experience the natural validation of someone who’d worked hard for what they’ve earned. I felt like I’d slayed a bloody dragon.
According to the Yoga Sutras, ‘yoga chitta vrittis nirodha’, which roughly translates to ‘yoga is the restraint of mental modifications’. Our course teachers, Jamie and Dulce, used the analogy that the mind (‘chitta’) is like a lake. Look into its surface, when it’s undisturbed, and you’ll see your reflection clearly. Throw rocks into that lake (‘vrittis’, an onslaught of sensory impressions) and you get ripples distorting the reflection.
Yoga, as I came to think of it, is a tool not just to calm the surface, but to dredge out whatever pondweed, sea monsters and leathery old boots you have buried away in its depths. And if this process is less than peaceful – well, that’s part of the point.
I’d always been cognisant of the first bit. The simple act of syncing breath and movement is enough to bring a host of physiological benefits. It stills anxiety, lowers your blood pressure, works as a kind of circuit breaker if you’re close to blowing a fuse.
For sure, the practice is great for building strength, balance, and body awareness (my flexibility I fear is a lost cause) but as someone whose monkey mind often gets the better of me, I really care more about chilling the hell out than I do about hypertrophied triceps.
However. The really deep-rooted, psychological component of yoga – the same stuff you’d encounter on a meditation retreat or Sigmund’s couch – is unlikely to bubble up during a lunchtime session at Virgin Active. As a result, I wasn’t prepared for how confronting this course would be.
Personally, my biggest ‘vritti’ / sea monster was a sense of not being good enough. At the start of the course, I dipped from feeling pretty confident about my prowess (look! I’m really strong! I can do all these crazy arm balances and headstands!) to realising I’d been doing the most basic moves wrong all along. My alignment was way off. Like, laughably off. I couldn’t even manage to keep my back straight during a basic forward fold.
I felt awkward, ungainly, and all kinds of wrong, with some of my newfound insecurities (my femurs are set too deeply into my hip sockets!) the sort of thing Nora Ephron would have written off as unfeasibly neurotic.
As the course went on, my practice improved enormously – and I eventually managed some of the showier, party trick poses like Pincha – but the fact of my own glaring mediocrity continued to be a battle. I’d always erred on the side of doing stuff I was already good at; here, my achievement-fuelled ego took quite a battering.
This very battle, however, seems integral to yoga in a way that perfectly executed asanas are not. Even if you’re not down with the more woo aspects of yoga philosophy, there’s a lot to be said for trying to let go of ego – and knocking down the walls you put up to protect it.
A common refrain in yoga is ‘keep your eyes on your own mat’ (and not just because you start wobbling all over the place if you swivel your head around). While this is much easier said than done, it was refreshing to spend so much time in a non-competitive, non-hierarchical environment, in which striving for improvement was balanced against a larger quest for acceptance.
For me, this meant trying to accept my awkward body – including its injuries and imbalances – and my even more awkward mind. And not to get all ‘#blessed’ about it, but the key to that seemed to be gratitude. For sure, I may never be lithe and graceful and effortlessly flexible, but hey, I’m here and doing yoga. And for sure, I may be feeling annoyed about all the fun stuff I’m missing out on, but the fact I have people in my life to envy – people I care about – says an awful lot.
I can’t say I really nailed this way of thinking but it got easier towards the end, and by the time our final exam day came round, the clouds had parted and the storm had calmed. Considering the amazing people I met, and the tricky lessons I learnt, I reckon the course was a sound investment.
As for the teaching? I’ll see you on the mat next year!
British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands