Yoga Teacher Training: A Pilgrimage

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The Graduates: Lumi Power Yoga’s 2014 Teacher Trainee Tribe (L-R Corey Frazer, Francesca Hall,  Audrey Cadel, Rory Hopkins, Ari Iso-Rautio, Matilda Iso-Rautio, Elina Iso-Rautio,  Pippa Berger, Natalie Smikle, Erin Dewar)

In the same week that I stuffed my bag full of excess yoga pants, nuts and notebooks to leap into my yoga teacher training, my Mum strapped on her walking boots, her freshly pressed quick-dry man suit, adorned her rucksack and took her first steps along the 820-odd kilometres of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage track. Talk about competition…

But as she and I kicked back over this last weekend in my hometown of London – she still many miles from our Australian home – sipping wine on the Thames, hoeing into gastronomic pub meals and sharing of our stories, I quickly realised how startlingly similar our experiences have been over the past two months.

We both climbed up to cliff tops,

We walked through fields,

We stumbled onto friendships that then themselves found secret crevices of our being to lodge in.

She met people from all walks of life  – and loved them all.

I met souls and hearts and minds: I met warriors of love and of grace. I met battle-shielded knights and soldiers of gentle courage. I met wounded children and mothers and lovers. I met angels of luminous energy and light.

We laughed, we cried, we loved, we fought, we broke apart, we held our hearts up to the world and we wailed out into the deafening silence, ‘I am here!’ before planting those pounding hearts back inside our chests and taking one more step.

And just when we thought we’d gone the distance, a great mountain rose up before us. We climbed to the top and there was planted the path of forgiveness, coiling itself round and round into a point at the centre of it all.

Slowly and delicately we made our way into the heart of it. The place where we met ourselves. Where we stared straight into the centre of our universe and said, ‘It’s time to come home.’

We laid a piece of ourselves down and walked away without another word.

It seems the path we choose to take is irrelevant. So to is the destination.

It is the journey that is the thing. And may it always be full of unexpected wonder.

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My declaration: I am letting go of my stories of the past and those of the future. I believe that my life is yet to be written. And so as I step into the present moment, it will be with a practice of connection, acceptance and lightness.

I will follow the path of least resistance and trust that this will lead me home.

And that is who I am.

X-Ray Visions of Love

REAL FRIENDSHIP OR LOVE IS NOT MANUFACTURED or achieved. Friendship is always an act of recognition. This metaphor of friendship can be grounded in the clay nature of the human body. When you find the person you love, an act of ancient recognition brings you together. It is as if millions of years before the silence of nature broke, his or her clay and your clay lay side by side. Then, in the turning of the seasons, your one clay divided and separated. You began to ride as distinct clay forms, each housing a different individuality and destiny. Without even knowing it, your secret memory mourned your loss of each other. While your clay selves wandered for thousands of years through the universe, your longing for each other never faded. This metaphor helps to explain how in the moment of friendship two souls suddenly recognise each other. It could be a meeting on the street, or at a party, a lecture or just a simple, banal introduction, then, suddenly there is a flash of recognition and the embers of kinship glow. There is an awakening between you, a sense of ancient knowing. Love opens the door of ancient recognition. You enter. You come home to each other at last. As Euripides says, ‘Two friends, one soul.’

In the classical tradition this is wonderfully expressed in Plato’s magical dialogue on the nature of love, the Symposium. Plato adverts to the myth that humans in the beginning were not single individuals. Each person was two selves in one. Then they became separated; consequently, you spend your life looking for your other half. When you find and discover each other, it is through this act of profound recognition. In friendship, an ancient circle closes. That which is ancient between you will mind you, shelter you and hold you together. When two people fall in love, each comes in our of the loneliness of exile, home to the one house of belonging.  At weddings, it is appropriate to acknowledge the gracious destiny that enabled this couple to recognise each other when they met. Each recognised the other as the one in whom their heart could be at home. Love should never be a burden, for there is more between you than your mutual presence.

– Extract from John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World

Water World

Have you ever practiced the physical difference in the qualities of Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space?

Baron Baptiste talks about The Principles of True North Alignment in his Power Yoga practice. These principles are fundamental cues for speaking to our physical alignment, as well as – or in conjunction with – the alignment of our physical, mental and spiritual worlds.

I’ve always felt like quite a grounded individual. I move from my base, I make decisions with my gut and my sense of the spiritual has always been bedded down with a heavy cloak of reasoning and logic. Call me a typical Virgoan – if that’s your thing – but if I had any more earth in my being I’d probably start growing roots and plant myself. I love being close to the ground, this is when I feel the most free, my most authentic. Being a relatively short person most of my life, you’d think I’d be craving length and flight.

And you’d be right. I’ve discovered my body’s own true intelligence. And guess what: it already knows what is best for it.

Throughout this yoga teacher training I seem to have unlocked one of the big reasons why I thrive so much on the kinaesthetic experience of life. In yoga asana we talk about grounding down through our base in order to create space and freedom in our spine. In yogic meditation we speak to sitting in concentration, with focus in order to release our spirit from the burden of the mind. In a spiritual practice we might focus on finding support and stability in our life, to allow our hearts to open to the possibility of the divine.

sthira sukham asanam

– Sutra 2.46: The posture (asanam) for yoga meditation should be steady (sthira), stable, and motionless, as well as comfortable (sukham).

My default is sthira. I’m really good at that. So good, in fact, that I’m also exceptional at inaction. However, through this training I have realised that finding sukham and freedom within this is something my body, and my mind, craves. Possibly one of the biggest shifts in my physical practice has been in exploring a sense of fluidity, a water-like quality. I am now that student who appears like they can’t sit still in class. I’m often adjusting and moving in and out of the edge of my postures because it feels good. It also means that when I do find steadiness, stability and stillness, something lands much more authentically. I actually arrive in the posture, in the moment.

Water in it’s natural state always finds the path of least resistance. It’s not confrontational. It abides by it’s own natural laws, without question, without doubt. It just is. And yet, it is determined to go somewhere, to keep a constant forward motion, to arrive somewhere new. Even upon arriving, it immediately lets that go and keeps on in its relentless quest for something more, something beyond.

Consider this…

You are not that which gives rise to what the body can do. You are not the body, yet it has it’s own intelligence. What comes with this idea is the dread of death, illness and time-wasting. But this is not the case: you are that which is behind your body.

The body needs maintenance and a lot of attention. It gives you a location. But we do not start and end with it. It has its own destiny – it is our vehicle to ride to our own true destiny.

Many people believe that they are trapped in the torture of the ‘cage’ that they are housed in. But if you look at a child, this idea is absent. Children are fluid by nature. They don’t get in the way of themselves. However, what comes with this fluidity is their openness: they are highly impressionable. Tensions that arise in an adult may have been born out of hereditary conditioning. Consider that in later life, you will be moving just as your parents do in their later life. I was relieved to hear my own mother say to me a couple of days ago after struggling bravely through her very first yoga class, ‘You girls (my sister and I) are so much more supple than I ever was at your age’. But this does not mean that either of us escaped playing that mirror game of physical and mental tension with our parents.

Through yoga, we are attempting to lift the veils of maya so that we can see our true selves. While some view maya as meaning that nothing is real, and turn this into a cold-hearted intellectual practice, others view the illusion of maya as being shakti, the creative force of the universe – a divine mist in front of our eyes that obscures our vision of the truth. 

Sutra 1.12 These mental modifications are restrained by practice and non-attachment.

Sutra 1.13 Of these two, effort toward steadiness of mind is practice.

Sutra 1.15 The consciousness of self-mastery in one who is free from craving for objects seen or heard is non-attachment.

Sutra 1.3 The the Seer (self) abides in His/Her own nature.

As adults, therefore we need to come back to that child-like source of fluidity, and for some of us – certainly, me being one of them – yoga is that access point. The promise of yoga is freedom, is Being-ness, is our plug in to our natural state. It allows us to undo these tensions or habits – those that actually don’t even belong to us! – so that we live in our story, not one that we have adopted.  

This is your body, your mind, your life. Here and now.

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Virabhadra: The Time Travelling Warrior

FLASHBACK to The Present: 6 April 2014

I am writing this in the early hours of the day. I love these hours. They are all mine. I still find it fascinating that this is how I see it these days. I have never been an early riser. In fact, if I didn’t sleep for eight hours of a night I was sure to feel quite physically ill during the day. My Mum once told me this was her story about her relationship to sleep. I’m not entirely sure if I used her story to understand my experience, or if it is a story that we share. But these days I am lucky if I get five or six hours a night. My disrupted sleep patterns started after a car accident a few years ago and so I was sure that it was a sign that something wasn’t right, something was broken, and hopefully with time it would heal and I would go back to ‘normal’. According to Chinese medicine, depending on what hour of the night you wake up, relates to a different body part’s ailment. If memory serves me, the 4am slot is associated with the respiratory system and anxiety. With this in mind, I tried to work through where I thought I needed help and healing. But to this day, I’ve never quite managed to go back to whatever I was before. It didn’t quite work out like that. And I find myself up before dawn more often than not. This is the new me. However, what I have discovered only recently is that I haven’t lost my sleep – my all important time for rest and repair – I have gained invaluable time for other things that I always thought I never had time for before. So now I write a lot, I read, I meditate. My story changed and then I changed my story of me.

This feels like a pretty amazing time for this kind of reflection to have cropped up, as it is the day that I am about to walk into teacher training and teach my first class with Natalie. Just us. It’s all ours. And so… what is it that is important to me – what do I want to share? What is my intention for the class? Why am I becoming a yoga teacher?! What does that mean to me?

Yoga is not just about a physical practice. Yoga is about connection. And we access this through stories. The stories we read about, the stories we hear about, and the stories we tell ourselves. Stories can be very powerful, wherever they come from. For example, I can read about Virabhadrasana and learn where this pose comes from – why the yogi’s before us have continued to tell this story. Why they – and now we – continue to practice this pose. If you’ll entertain me for a moment, I will summarise it for you now…

Shiva, the Lord of the Universe, had a wife called Sati whom he loved greatly with all his heart. However, her father, King Daksha, did not approve of their partnership. Since the beginning of the universe, his job was to oversee and regulate rituals and make sure they were done properly. Daksha, clearly making a point, made the terrible mistake of not inviting Shiva and Sati to a very special religious ceremony, a fire sacrifice. Distraught, Sati went along anyway and found that the ceremony was a farce; it was more about Daksha flaunting his wealth than any meaningful ritual. More importantly though, how can you hold a sacrificial ceremony without The Lord of the Universe – The Destroyer, as he is known – in attendance, from whom all sacrifice comes?

Sati could not bear it and took it upon herself to be the sacrifice. She threw herself into the fire.

Shiva, upon hearing what had happened, was overcome by grief. This soon turned to rage and he tore a hair from his head and threw it to the ground. This hair transformed into the personification of his emotions. Thus the warrior, Virabhadra, was born – the symbol of righteous anger, nobility and the defender of the innocent.

It is mostly irrelevant to me that this just happens to be a tale attached to the ancient religion of Hinduism, insofar as to say, where the story comes from is of less importance to me than the message behind it. Whilst I deeply respect the religious traditions, for me, yoga itself is not a religion, rather it is an art, a science and a philosophy for life. So, when I come to my mat, it is the message that resonates with me – the religious element does not get in the way for me. When I work through the warriors, yes, I am going on a physical journey; yes, my mental faculties are turned on in order to allow my body to work through the asanas, however what is most powerful is my state during this practice – what am I focusing on? What am I practising? These stories offer a point of focus i.e. what does noble mean to me? Where do I find strength or power? What do I stand in defence of – or quite simply, what do I stand for? Am I a warrior of peace? Of love? Of strength? Or am I practicing sadness, fear, anger, resentment; righteousness born out of ego rather than out of intuition and innocence?

By practicing in this way and by reflecting upon the way in which I practice, I can shift my focus not only on the mat, but also out in the big, wide world that is my life. This is when the practice becomes its’ most powerful. This is how it can open us up to allow our full potential to be illuminated: when we begin to rewrite those stories that we tell ourselves, in particular the ones that do not serve us.

FLASH FORWARD to Then and Now: The Unrelenting Mind Stuff 

 

Righto. Thanks for sharing. So… what? You really think you’ve worked it all out? You think you’re ‘The Shit’?

Wow, ok aggressive…I never said I was ‘The Shit’.

Thank goodness. Youre not. Trust me.

I know that.

Do you? I dont think you know who you are.

Oh ok, we’re playing that card are we? Careful! ‘Don’t make the baby cry!’ That’s sarcasm, in case you can’t read it.

You really think its that easy? You think you can just get up there, spout a few stories, assist a few people, project your voice, pretend youve got your shit together and people wont notice?

Why are you doing this?

Why are YOU doing THIS?

Because I love yoga. I love teaching. I love…

You love…what?! Go onyou cant even say it.

I was pausing for effect!

Thats bullshit.

What do you want me to say?

I want you to say I accept who I am. I love all of my weaknesses and all of my strengths!

It’s just fucking yoga. You don’t need to get so intrusive.

Oh yeah? Go on then. If its just fucking yoga then say it.

Why should I?!

Because its not just fucking yoga this is your fucking life. Wake up. Get involved.

What’s that supposed to mean?

It means, stop ignoring this conversation with yourself. It means keep blogging, keep exploring. Keep in touch with people. Be vulnerable. Actually find your edge, dont just look at it. You need to stay on the path to your authenticity. Only then can you truly start to live in the present. Enough of this flashing back and forward in time, arguing with yourself, with your habits of mind, your ego.

Really practice. Really live. Really talk to people. Really love. Really feel. Really connect. Really be here. In your body. In the world.

‘Unite the blueprint with the reality. Be the change I want to see.’ That kind of thing?

Are they your words?

Well, no, but I believe them.

Ok. But whats your story?

Oh…

Only you can create your own happiness. You said that, remember?

Yeah, yeah. I remember.

So

So…?

What are you waiting for?

It’s time to fly

 

…are you coming?

I’ll tell you what, if you like stories so much, why don’t you start here…this should get you going…

the unending search for home

My mother is there. Her hands are made of pure gold. They are warm on my face as she gently cradles my cheeks, softly stroking my face with her thumbs. She places her hand on my heart and holds it in her warm ray of golden light. My heart throbs and swells as tears roll down my face. I fall into her body and sit inside it like a cocoon, wrapped up in her warmth and comfort and let her walk me through these beautiful fields as she hums a precious tune that’s only for my ears. Our secret melody. Our hands are bound together, our feet walk as one, our minds are ecstatic, pulsing with electricity. There is only us, and we only need each other. My eyelids droop and slowly shut, locking the warmth inside. I feel her stroke my hair and kiss my eyelids and when I reopen them again, she is gone.

***

Bhole Prabhu wrote in his article The Meaning and Purpose of Yoga:

The most important teaching of yoga has to do with our nature as human beings. It states that our “true nature” goes far beyond the limits of the human mind and personality-that instead, our human potential is infinite and transcends our individual minds and our sense of self. The very word “yoga” makes reference to this. The root, “yuj” (meaning “unity” or “yoke”), indicates that the purpose of yoga is to unite ourselves with our highest nature. This re-integration is accomplished through the practices of the various yoga disciplines. Until this re-integration takes place, we identify ourselves with our limitations-the limitations of the body, mind, and senses. Thus we feel incomplete and limited, and are subject to feelings of sorrow, insecurity, fear, and separation, because we have separated ourselves from the experience of the whole.

The Practice of Teaching

What is yoga teaching?

Are we really what or who we say we are?

Or can we simply allow things – ourselves – to arise and just see what comes up?

 

‘When you teach from your own practice it resonates more profoundly with your students.’ As a primary school teacher, this was a revelation for me as often you need to keep you as ‘Teacher’ and you as a ‘Human Being in The World’ quite separate. Clearly, it is all too easy to be blocked by my own ideas of what ‘teaching’ is or what it should be.

New teachers often have a natural ability to or affinity with trial and error. They don’t necessarily have the density of experience weighing on them. Of course, they have a gammett of other weights dragging them down – am I good enough? Do I know what I’m doing? Will people like me?

We have to let ourselves off he hook to be who we are as yoga teachers so that our students feel they have the space to do the same.

The habits of mind are extremely powerful. What we tend to practice is what our mind is focusing on at any given moment. When we use it as a focusing tool or energy source it can be a very powerful teaching tool. Often students don’t realize they have this access point, but as teachers we can see things that they can’t or may not realize that they are practicing. It saddened me to learn that more often than not people are practicing disgust for their bodies. Furthermore, the amount of information coming at us in today’s technological age is continually reminding us why we should continue to live in various states of fear.

However, if as teachers we can identify this in the moment, our language can ease them off of their self-punishment and direct them somewhere else. In this way, we can take students from distraction to direction. Distraction is our most common state of mind, but often this leaves us in a heightened state of anxiety or fear. The physical practice of yoga can be a great source of releasing students from these distractions.

Teachers are like tuning forks: we vibrate our energy out and others tune in. We make offers and our students are invited to try on these tools and ideas. But as teachers, we are always students. Teaching, in itself, is a practice. The contradiction of teaching is that we have to bring ourselves to the class but also get ourselves out of the way.

The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is yoga – Book 1, Sutra 2

What we practice on the mat as movements of our mind, this is what we take into our yoga teaching.

The books by the mystics say that what we are is LOVE.

Love is being the other.

Love is wanting for the other what they want for themselves.

Love arises when the division of connection is no longer present and we become an expression or extension of the other.

In practice: When we feel separate from our students we feel fearful, but when we are in it together this dissipates. When we want for them what we want for ourselves, then our self-concern for ‘doing a good job’ falls away. In other words, whatever the student’s get, I get too. Often we assume that the role of the teacher is one where they hold a position of ‘I know more than you and/or am better than you and you should listen to me and do things my way.’ Rather, the practice of yoga and of love is such that, as teachers we come to the practice with an attitude of ‘Here I am, sharing this experience with you.’ When we drop the limitations that we put on ourselves, we become more affective. What we are working towards in our personal practice and in our teaching is that the contrast of how we are before class is not so different to when we walk out. In this way we can live as an expression of our yoga, and our teaching.

An offering…

Set an Intention for Teaching Your students leave feeling better than when they arrived. They leave your class and they feel equipped, they feel recharged, they feel more inspired. They feel more capable and they go home feeling better about themselves and their lives. They may not know how or what made it happen but they do know that it happened and if they stay with it their lives will get better.

Portrait of the sky

‘Erin, why can’t we see the stars in the daytime?’ Her little eyes looked up at me, willing an answer.
I peered back out my bedroom window, searching the blue sky. Other than a few clouds sprinkled about, it was a clear, bright morning.
‘Hmm…that is a great question, Kitti. I think it’s because the sun is so bright that we can’t see them. But they haven’t gone away, they’re still out there.’
She furrowed her brow for a moment, thinking this over.
‘I think it’s because stars are yellow and the sky is blue.’ She contested.
‘Well, that’s absolutely true too. It’s like the sun paints over them every morning with the sky.’
She smiled at that. ‘Yeah, you know, when you paint dark blue on yellow then it becomes light blue.’
Smart little cookie…
I smiled back at her and said, ‘But look, we can still see the moon. Isn’t that funny?’ I pointed to the half moon still high in the morning sky. Her big, blue eyes followed my finger outside.
‘Oh yeah! Why is the moon still there?’
Why indeed.
Why doesn’t the moon just move on, like she’s supposed to? Why does she just sit there, so vulnerable, slowly burning up? Her gaze fixed on one point, never flinching.
‘Maybe the moon likes painting too.’ Kitti said, finally.
I was stumped. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Well you need the white of the moon to make the blue in the sky.’
‘Ok…so is the moon the painter, or the sun?’ I asked, clearly in the presence of genius.
‘The sun is painting, and the moon likes to watch. But then the moon puts the stars on later.’
‘Do you think the moon likes watching?’
‘Yeah.’
‘It is a pretty picture the sun paints every morning, isn’t it?’
‘Yeah, but when the clouds come they have to go away.’
‘Oh, well where do they go?’
‘I don’t know.’ She said, sadly.
It was my turn to squish my face into an inquisition, searching for answers, shuffling around thoughts. At last, I said, ‘Maybe they run away together while no one can see them. Maybe they’re playing hide and seek with the world when the clouds cover for them. They work pretty hard at their jobs, don’t you think? To light up the world, keep everything alive, and well after they have put the world to bed, they continue to make sure everything stays in running order. Day in, day out. So every now and then, they just need a little rest. A quiet place to flop into. A world just for them. A place to call home.’
‘That’s like when I get home from school. I just want to play with Bunny in my room because I miss her so much when I’m gone.’
‘Yeah, you’re not allowed to take her to school, right?’
‘Yeah, that makes me sad.’
‘I know, sweetheart. Does Bunny get sad too?’
‘Sometimes…’
‘Have you ever thought that maybe Bunny thinks you’re just playing a game? Just like the sun and the moon playing hide and seek?’
‘Yeah.’ A grin spread over her little face. ‘I love hide and seek! You wanna play with me?’
How can I say no to that face? I sighed.
‘I sure do. You’ve got until the count of ten!’
As I closed my eyes, I could hear her scuttling away, squealing involuntarily.

And for a moment, there, behind my eyes, the sun and the moon sat gazing into one another. Captivated. In their own private universe.

The next moment, they were gone.

I began to count.