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.

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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 Sounds of Prana

As I race towards the final week of yoga teacher training, I have been madly writing essays, reflecting on my practice and prepping for the final practical elements of the course. This weekend I am scheduled to host a meditation session – something I have never done for a group of people before. Sure, I feel very cosy in my little yoga family bubble, however, this only inspired me to want to make the experience extra special. There’s been a variety of relaxation and visualisation practices in my fellow trainees sessions, but I decided I want to opt for something a little different. Step outside my comfort zone. I can hear my mentors’, Ari and Elina’s, voices in my head saying ‘You can’t control your students’ experience, Erin…!’ Yeah, yeah… I know! But it did make me reflect on when my experience was a little bit different – when I allowed myself to try something new. And loved it.

Back when I first discovered yoga, one late Sunday afternoon, I sheepishly walked through the door of my local studio  to what was entitled a ‘Sea of Om’s’ group meditation class. I felt like a total hippy – but not the calm, cool and collected ones you just want to while away the afternoons with, I’m talking the far-out-dude-I’m-totally-wacked-out-on-love-juice-bro(-wanna-toke?) ones. Yep. I went there. Judgement 101.

What I experienced though, was something really special.

I spent a lot of my childhood with music – either listening to it, singing it, bashing it out on a piano or tootling it on a clarinet – it was and always has been a huge part of my life.

I lose time with music. And I find my self.

So I have decided to take on The Sea of Om’s with my meditation session. I have been on an investigation to get to the bottom of why we chant in yoga and what it actually means to integrate this love of music and sound into my teaching and my practice.

What follows here are extracts from the Prana and Mantra chapter in Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati’s Prana and Pranayama. I believe it goes some way to explaining why chanting and music has such a profound affect on me.

An intrinsic relationship between sound and prana underlies all creation. At the beginning of creation, when the first movement arose within the field of dormant consciousness and mahaprana manifested, sound also came into being. With the first movement of cosmic energy the first sound manifested, which was Om. This transcendental sound is also called nada, the highest level of sound vibration. From nada came kalaa, the manifest universe of time, space and object. In scientific terms, this may be related to the event of the Big Bang.

In the Bible also it has been said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” In order to become manifest, the unmanifest and indivisible has to take on form. The first form was sound, and it came into existence through the medium of energy or prana.

Aren’t we all just looking at the same world through our own lens and making meaning out of the song that resonates deep inside our ‘self’?

Sound is a form of energy that has frequency, pitch, volume, and tone, as well as subtle qualities. Scientifically, sound is a vibration at a particular frequency, and it is able to produce physical changes in an organism. Some vibrations can be harmful while others are beneficial. Sound can be concentrated to such degrees of intensity that it can shatter and destroy objects. Holes can be driven into solid metal by using sound alone. It is thought that the great stones of Stonehenge, Easter Island and the Mayan monuments were moved into place using the principles of sound.

The principle behind the use of mantra in pranic practices relates to this intrinsic relationship between sound and energy. Every movement of energy manifests sound, and every sound carries energy. The pranas are activated with the chanting of mantras, and the orientation of existing pranic flows are altered or emphasised, so that the mind and perception changes.

Ever wondered why music makes us feel so good?

In scientific terms, mantra repetition regulates and balances the autonomic nervous system. It facilitates synchronous breathing, directly resulting  in cardio-pulmonary resonance, which is indicative of autonomic balance. The powerful and coherent electromagnetic heart field of one person can affect the heart fields of others, leading them to coherent synchrony. There is a greater concentration and the mind can be utilised for higher flights. Therefore, when pranayama is performed with mantra, the practice is more effective.

The best mantra is Gayatri, as it corresponds to the ideal breathing pattern of pranayama. It is comprised of twenty-four syllables which contain the entire form of prana. As it appears in the Rig Veda (3:62:11) is:

Om tatsaviturvarenyam

Bhargo devasya dheemahi dhiyo yo nah prachodayaat.

Om. We meditate on the divine light of that adorable Sun of spiritual consciousness. May it stimulate our power of spiritual perception.

Gayatri is created from Om. In the order of creation, this sound is further developed, and the developed state of the mantra Om is known was Gayatri.

According to Vedic philosophy, prana has three forms. So Gayatri, as the presiding deity of prana, is seen as a little girl, innocent and childish, in the early morning; as a charming young woman in full bloom at noon, and as an old woman, embodying wisdom or jnana, in the evening. The colour of Gayatri in the morning is red like the rising sun; at noon she is golden, and in the evening smoky grey. These are the characteristics of prana, represented by the different forms of Gayatri, and this is how Gayatri worshippers may visualise her during their thrice-daily worship.

Some believe that the Gayatri mantra is directed  towards the external sun, but ultimately it is directed towards the brilliance of the internal sun. The internal sun must shine so that the consciousness becomes enlightened. In the external firmament, first there is darkness, broken only by the flickering light of stars. Then a dim light shoots forth from the horizon, indicating the break of dawn, and finally the brilliant sun rises, lighting up everything. As it happens in the external horizon, so it is in the inner horizon. That breaking of light is called Gayatri. It represents the sun which illuminates the whole world and also the inner self which illuminates all the planes of existence and consciousness. The external sun only illumines the gross world, but when inner enlightenment takes place all the planes of existence become perceptible.

Gayatri is referred to as the Mother of the Vedas and the Gayatri mantra appears in the Rig Veda, the oldest written literature  int he library of humankind. Thus, human beings have been chanting the Gayatri mantra for a long time.

The Upanishads say that Om (or Aum) is the primordial sound. Everything has come from Om and, at the time of dissolution, everything will revert back to Om. The word Om is the universe. Everything that exists in the past, present and future is Om, and that which exists beyond the threefold division of time is Om.

And so there you have it. Our course it set. Come Saturday, I shall endeavour to set sail with my yogi crew as we take on the Sea of Om’s. Who knows where – or when – we will end up.