Day 118: Day in the Life of a Yogi in Training
“This is no yoga holiday"
Kamal-Ji, Opening Puja Ceremony
“Knowledge can be found in the stillness of your heart"
Ram-Ji, Philosophy Class
And so it begins, everything really.
You might remember that my first week of January was spent at a quiet ashram tucked away in the Himalayas, focusing on slowing down by the conscious act of not being busy. Busy with the ‘tools’ of meditation and contemplation, but nothing more. My very brief introductory taste of these ‘tools’ came and went in the blink of an eye, and what followed next couldn’t have been more overwhelming, and perfect.
200 hours of yoga teacher training at Tattvvaa Yogashala.
What could possibly be overwhelming?
Well, let’s start with the schedule, serving up a daily grind of 5:45am wake up calls and back to back classes through dinner. Two meals daily to be had in one of the yoga shalas (no tables or chairs, mind you). Tiny bathroom breaks in between classes and “free time” following brunch, allowing for a quick caffeine run before bee-lining straight to an active “art of adjustments” class (while on a semi-full belly from brunch only an hour or so earlier). Sundays no longer exist – in place are full days off on the new and full moon, because apparently the emotional quality of moon days is not suitable for practicing yoga. There’s much more, but I’ll get to that all in a bit.
As I was saying before, coming off the cloud of “don’t be busy” was a bit of a shock on the nervous system. After settling into my new room in a new part of town called Ram Jhula (still in Rishikesh), I quite literally stepped into the big yoga shala (hall) for a mysterious opening ceremony called a ‘puja.’ Nothing to ring in the course than with an indoor fire intention setting ceremony with songs chanted in Sanskrit to an audience of westerners.
Only in India.
I remember scanning the room during introductions completely in awe of the diversity in the room. I saw the world: Egypt, Lebanon, UK, Spain, Mexico, Canada, India, China, and the list just continues. We came from all tribes – yoga teachers, body workers, mountaineers, ski instructors, entrepreneurs, pharmacists, PhD students, unemployed wanderlusters (what up!), and so much more. We were strangers to each other, naturally, but something powerful took hold during that puja. The intense inner chatter of “I’m a total newbie to Ashtanga, what I am doing here?” took brief pause and I could feel the gravity of acceptance take root.
Unlike most intention setting ceremonies that I’ve had with myself or close groups of friends, this one had a different resonance, almost like it was mandatory and essential for making it through the course. We sat in meditation and then scribbled down what came to mind, and were told to hang them up ever so visibly in our rooms so we could reference them in the next three-ish weeks for the motivation that we would inevitably need. There were many moments of humor, but the intensity of what would soon follow was conveyed with crystal clarity.
“This is no yoga holiday”
Twas the night before day one and everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. We came home to a family of cockroaches that Wylie so generously removed. The severity of Indian winter struck hard and we felt the freeze wash over (guesthouses don’t come with heaters). Trembling with cold, we attempted to go to sleep but were quickly woken up by strong smoke seeping through the door. Apparently someone had attempted to plug in a heater and blew out a fuse, so a fire almost erupted? Oh yeah, and when we were woken up only a few hours later by our 5:45am alarm, we had no electricity and scrambled to get ready with headlamps on our heads. A perfect start to yoga teacher training in perfect Indian form J
But here we are now: the end. But also the beginning. We ended in puja ceremony just like we began, but as entirely new people. Before I get ahead of myself, let me clue you into the last month of my life, taking you through a typical day of yoga teacher training at Tattvaa Yogashala with our cast of teachers: Kamal-Ji, Opendra-Ji, Sunil-Ji and Ram-Ji.
Much to digest below, but for simplicity sake, I hope to bring wisdom, experiments for trying, and real talk about how this practice called yoga can truly change everything.
5:45am: Wake up
I can’t remember the last time a daily schedule mandated this early of a wake up call. I guess I had some practice waking up earlier at the ashram, but the idea of going hard all day made waking up in darkness a grueling mental exercise. It surely got easier over time, but the first week was madness. Kamal-Ji, our Ashtanga teacher, gave us a pep talk in the early days about true commitment. The first mistake we can make for our minds is to snooze or set 3 different alarm times. If we snooze, we actually lose – confusing our minds about what to do. His conviction somehow resonated with me, and from there on out, Wylie and I got our routine down: hit the alarm off, immediately turn on the lights, and get up all the way. The simple act of waking up at the time you decided sets the tone for the day. For those of you already doing this, I admire and commend you.
Wisdom: Be Certain. Set the tone of the day the moment you wake up.
Experiments: Wake up when you said you would wake up, there should be no confusion. Stick with your commitments, and keep things simple.
So it must be said – yoga has become understood in the West in very narrow terms. It has almost become synonymous with physical exercise or “asanas” (Sanskrit for ‘postures’) with very little context for how yogis prepare and purify the mind and body system for practice. No matter what kind of yoga you find yourself doing, learning to manage the inhalation, retention and exhalation of the breath must be top of mind. Translated as “control of energy,” pranayama takes on many different techniques but the ultimate goal is the same – to restore our natural breathing in the diaphragm. The stresses of daily life, not to mention our poor ‘office’ posture, have limited our ability to take full deep breaths, which is why if you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you can probably agree that you feel a huge swell of oxygen circulating your body by the end when you’re in savasana, the final pose. But what they don’t teach you in 1-hour yoga class is that the body’s energy channels need to be purified and exhalations deepened so the body can receive all the benefits of physical practice.
And most mind blowing to me is this: you prepare your breath for the physical practice to ultimately come back to the most important pose in yoga: sitting. Sitting comfortably with a straight spine so that all the energy in your body can move freely in harmony. Sounds simple, but it’s the hardest.
I absolutely adored our pranayama teacher, Opendra. A beacon of shining light and purity, he came to every class with a huge smile and patience of a saint. Imagine, your job is to show up every morning to motivate a bunch of clueless westerners about the importance of training the breath while they’re all either half asleep or thinking about going back to sleep. His sincerity about the practice, not to mention, incredibly soothing melodic voice may have been the main source of motivation for me to keep me going.
Wisdom: Your breath moves your thought. Your thoughts move your breath. When you learn to sit with your breath and deepen your exhalations, you will find so much more in your capacity physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Best done before yoga asana practice.
Experiments: Pranayama techniques help to heat and cool the body, expanding our ability to practice physical postures in whatever yoga practice is preferred (ashtanga, hatha, iyengar, whatever). My intention is to keep up my favorite two and learn to integrate them slowly but surely into the practice:
* Kapal Bhati (heating): Sit in a comfortable upright position and focus on the exhalation through your nose (contraction of the belly). Take a full deep inhale and then breathe out continuously and quickly for as long as you can go, but aim for 3 rounds of 5-10 minutes. Then, sit and feel the prana move through your belly and notice the heat created. In no time, you’ll find the practice will purify your oxygen, improve digestion, calm the nervous system, and energize your body.
* Brahmari (cooling): Before lying down in savanasa, sit in a comfortable upright position and use your fingers to close your ears and eyes. After a full inhalation through the nose, keep your mouth closed and teeth slightly apart while humming an “om” sound allowing the vibrations to fill your head. With continuous practice, you’ll find this simple exercise can calm your body and cool your internal system.
8:30-10:15am: Ashtanga Led or Mysore Practice
Ashtanga yoga is a unique practice that focuses on one breath and one movement in the body. The sequence is fixed with a variety of 84 postures that develop our bodies through vinyasas, balance, twists, bends, and inversions. Unlike other forms of yoga, this practice is dynamic and fast-moving with a strong focus on being present with breath. No matter where you are in the world, ashtanga is practiced the same everywhere. The idea of developing intimacy with one sequence really appeals to me – imagine becoming so familiar with a sequence that one day, you eliminate the mind’s energy of having to remember it, focusing only on the body’s meditation within the flow itself. All body meditation, no/little mind. The joy!
Upon first glance, the ashtanga practice looks intimidating on the surface. If you’ve ever seen anyone in a crazy looking seemingly impossible pose, it’s likely part of the ashtanga sequence. The beautiful thing I’ve come to learn is that while it may be an incredible accomplishment to perform handstand on command, it’s really not about that at all. As long as you practice every day, focusing on what you can do and what you can modify, the sequence reveals itself automatically over time. The simple act of trying and finished the sequence brought me the most intense sensations of release I’ve ever experienced on a pure vibration level, finding stillness and space in a way that I never quite had before – I don’t think I’ve cried so much in savasana in my life. Spending an hour-hour and a half with yourself every day in this capacity will do that to you J
Let’s not forget the ultimate goal of yoga – resolving the fluctuations of the mind and finding stillness in every pose however difficult and stressful mentally or physically. Only through stillness will you silence the mind and begin to naturally harmonize. Whatever practice enables you that connection is one worth pursuing and nurturing.
And let me present to you our ashtanga teacher, Kamal. Kamal-Ji is the face of Tattvaa Yogashala, the poster child and celebrity yogi whose face I’m sure you remember (cue in Prince in a peaceful Namaste prayer position, with a strong hint of Michael Jackson vibes). A full head of fresh wavy locks and a permanent teethy smile glued to his face, I have never met a yogi so upbeat with such passion and energy for the practice, who also somehow made time to learn Chinese fluently as he teaches abroad regularly in China. He’s got Maestro vibes (for those of you who’ve watched Mozart in the Jungle) and can be found jumping on the bodies of the more advanced yogis to make them hustle harder and hold up more weight. If you want to know what that’s like, you can ask Wylie about it. I was luckily spared J
Wisdom: Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t. What’s the point in that? Embrace your pains, injuries and what you come to class with. Only then can you work with the raw material of your own being to begin the process of awareness, development and healing.
Experiments: Practice everyday (or as regularly as you can, even if only for 30 minutes daily) and know when to relax when you’ve hit your limits. As strict as this sounds, there is no “if you have time.” “If” implies conditionality and non-commitment. Prepare the soil and you will transform, if that’s what you really want. There are no casual results when you fully commit. That much is certain J #toughlove
Such deep thoughts and it’s not even 10:30am yet…
It’s amazing how much my mind focuses on food, the pure act of filling hunger (and emotions). No lie, this was one of the highlights of my day and let’s not forget, when you’re given two meals daily, you better pack her in wisely. Not sure how I feel about eating beans and lentils so early in the morning, but it does check off the protein box.
Wisdom: Intention setting before eating food does do wonders. Also, two meals a day became much more doable over time with the right snacks squeezed in throughout the day (cashews, fruits, and maybe the occasional coconut and nutella cookie).
Experiments: Learn more about the ayurvedic approach to food, or the basic idea behind it. Food is medicine, and how we choose to eat food (the energy we bring to it) will affect us on every level. Understand how everything that goes in can heal, and anything no longer needed will find its way out. Better to regulate this in some capacity and chances are, you and your intestines and organs will love you all the more. No better time to start than now.
11:15a-noon: Free time
Forty-five minutes was definitely better than nothing, and on most days, this little slice of freedom gave ample time for a quick cappuccino break in the sun. Rest was not part of the Tattvaa vocabulary J
Wisdom: Appreciate your free time and use it consciously. Even if it means committing to not doing anything. So much time is used without intention, no wonder time flies away from us sometimes. I found that sitting in the sun, baba and monkey watching were again, my favorite moments of enjoying non-planned time. Also, doing Surya Namaskar C (code for drinking cappuccino) and ordering guilty pleasure sweets at my daily spot.
Experiments: Definitely plan on having much more free time now that training is over. Balance is always key.
Noon-1:30p: Art of Adjustments
Remember I mentioned that ashtanga is a fixed sequence that is practiced everywhere the same way? In most ashtanga communities, you’ll find the Mysore format, where students practice at their own pace and breath without instruction from a teacher. Instead, you’ll find teachers in the room providing adjustments to help bring your postures into alignment so that breath can move with greater ease.
For those of you who always wondered how your different body parts should relate together in a posture, this was your class. Super technical and hands-on, I found myself a bit overwhelmed here because there was so much to learn about the body (also, may it have been a Freudian slip that our teacher Kamal called me “Stiff-any”?). However, as the classes progressed, I realized that almost all the adjustments follow a certain pattern, whether the posture is standing, seated, balancing or bending – engaging the internal‘ locks’ in the body (aka tucking the tailbone and ribs externally) to activate the core allows every posture to deepen and lengthen. Bringing the awareness to the body is the challenge. In the west, the adjustments I’ve received have been few and far in between, but here, the playing field was much more involved. Adjusting another body, especially ones that are twice your size, can be another form of yoga in and of itself. Basically, adjustments can be magic – with the right one, you can easily modify any pose with greater sensitivity and understanding of the body. Translation: the body is boss and can do so much more than the mind thinks.
I can’t count how many times Kamal referred to the shorties in the class as “tiny teachers.” I get it! I may need to use a few more blocks than the average sized yoga teacher when adjusting students. I’ll just have to practice on Wylie until I get them all down J
Favorite adjustment to give and receive: Savasana, obviously.
Wisdom: Learning the adjustments were probably the hardest part of the curriculum -- the last thing you want to do is potentially injure another human. But I can’t tell you how much it helps you learn the posture for yourself (self-adjustment) and for that, I will try to commit as much as I can to memory.
Experiments: Practice, practice, practice.
1:45-3:15pm: Yoga Nidra (I need ya)
So, when I first learned about this mysterious yoga nidra, I remember thinking it would be some form of “nap time” for yogis. This made me very happy.
What I came to learn was that while technically it looked like nap time from the outside, it was actually a form of deep relaxation that involved lying down in savanasa for an hour while Sunil- Ji led a guided meditation. While the body remains still, the aim is to keep the mind awake in calmness. There is nothing to perform or do in this hour. The mind will be the mind and you begin to hear the chatter and distractions fade in and out, bringing awareness back to the present moment with the help of Sunil’s hypnotic and rhythmic voice. For some, it can definitely be a time to pass out and enjoy much needed rest. For others, it can be a journey into an altered state of consciousness. I found myself facing all types of emotion and fluctuation, especially a strong sense of boredom at times. I think as humans, we’re wired to ‘be productive,’ fill the time, and identify with something even if that something is a thought. Perhaps, yoga nidra can acquaint us with ourselves in the moments between thought, allowing the no-mind to find a path to peace.
Wisdom: What is opposite of being productive? Do you know how that really feels? Being un-productive and totally with yourself in that space is a choice, one that we don’t often give attention to, or value sometimes. Turns out that the practice of doing nothing can be the best medicine for truly getting to know yourself, whether that takes the form of yoga nidra or something else. With practice, you can develop the greatest sensitivities and actually feel “ripples of thought” as they pass through your mind. The goal? -- Non-reaction and equanimity in mind and body, training the muscle that is your stillness in any situation.
Experiments: Whether or not I keep up the practice of yoga nidra, I hope to create more time and space for just being in the moment, without feeling the need to “do” or “fill time.” I think a blend of what I learned at Himalayan Yog and yoga nidra will make for greater quality of attention and presence. In case you’re curious, I snuck in a recording of Opendra leading us in yoga nidra with the most incredibly angelic voice I think has ever passed through my recorder.
Before pressing play, be sure to create a comfy nest of blankets and pillows, and bring yourself into a relaxed horizontal position. Press play and gently close your eyes.
See you on the other side.
So much to say here, but I’ll keep it light. As someone practicing Nichiren Buddhism for three years (though I honestly haven’t chanted on this trip, to make space for exploring other spiritualities and practices), I can’t tell you how much overlap exists between the two.
Yoga, like Buddhism, is a tool for seeing yourself and others more clearly and truly. The philosophy is ancient yet timeless, speaking to people of all creeds, genders, cultures, and ages for a reason that is so essential – there is no God or hierarchy or discrimination of who can or cannot practice. They both recognize that as humans, we all share the potential for suffering and enlightenment. Both are choices, and when we make the choice (and daily commitment) to purify our mind and body, we can direct our senses in the right direction to make room for the wisdom and light that always already exists within. Call it practice, chanting, prayer, tuning in with intention, yoga, Buddhism. It all comes down to union with self, and union with the collective consciousness that holds this entire planet and universe together. The practices may differ slightly, but the wisdom remains the same.
Wisdom: Considering I’ve written an entire novel about this already (in the form of our final exam), I’ll stop here for now. It was most refreshing to feel at home within the yogic philosophy – a feeling of coming home to ideas that transcend cultures and religion. Also, when things got real deep, Sunil-Ji had a nice way of bringing some good self-deprecating humor into the mix. Often times, he’d remind us that Rishikesh is just one big “mass market of yoga schools.” So true.
Oh, while we’re on the topic of wisdom, I can’t count how many times Sunil told us to “read less and experience more.” That seems to be a theme in teacher-student exchanges in India (cue up Himalayan Yog with Yogi Ram). While the Western rational over-analyzing mind has a time, place and purpose, that didn’t seem to be a pre-requisite for understanding yoga philosophy, the mind and body.
“Knowledge can be found in the stillness of your heart”
“All disease comes from the faulty functioning of the intellect” [intellect in the context of yoga and ayurveda: discriminative faculty of knowing what is permanent and non-permanent]
Experiments: Practice above everything else (sense the theme here?). Reading material to check out once I have had the time to digest everything else I learned: Bhagavad Gita and Hatha Pradikipa.
About 80% of all yoga related injuries come from an overall lack of knowledge about the body. That is one seriously sad statistic, considering how many smart and capable people practice yoga all over the world…
That said, I definitely feel like I’m less a part of that 80% now, but still very much in the dark about understanding the mechanics of our internal organs, muscle groups, different systems of the body and how they all interrelate. Realistically, I think you can get by just fine by listening to your body and understanding what your personal limits are. We can’t expect a one-hour yoga classes to delve deep into the respiratory and muscoskeletal systems; that would be just as absurd. However, with some self-awareness and self-study/continuing education, everyone interested in yoga and health could use a little refresher on the body’s physiology – myself included of course.
As someone with a history of scoliosis and wearing a back brace every night for a year and a half, I was definitely most curious about the workings of the spine. It’s crazy to think that lack of knowledge about the body could actually make the curvature worse, which fingers crossed I haven’t been doing too much of in past yoga classes.
Of all the takeaways, this one spoke to me most: bad posture must be corrected for the muscles, joints and breath to come to back natural equilibrium. Sometimes, different aspects of the body can give us clues about the nature of our posture. Did you know: tight hamstrings indicate a weak core and unhealthy spine? For that, we must continuously pay our cores attention, not simply for the sculpted ab look, but more importantly for essential realignment. You have no choice!
In proper Sumit form, we ended each class with a little ritual of laughter yoga. On Sumit’s command, we were told to “laugh from your juicy belly” which prompted forced laughter from everyone in the room, which on good (and most) days, would turn into natural belly laughs and feel good release.
Random, but Wylie just found out that Sumit is related to the other OG Sumit, who I first learned ashtanga from when I came to Rishikesh. They are apparently cousins, and have a small studio together. Small world and typical Rishikesh.
Wisdom: As a yoga practitioner or teacher, it’s helpful to know at least three variations of each asana so that in any class, no yogi is ever left behind. Practical and wise, I think I’ll have no problem with that considering I do almost half the ashtanga postures with some sort of modification. Represent represent.
Experiments: Keep tabs on Sumit through his Facebook group: Sumit Physio-Yoga where he’s building a movement around designing postures for every body type. No two bodies are alike, and that same principle should naturally apply to postures too!
Also, note to self: stop cracking your knuckles especially your toes. The myth has been officially debunked. Constant cracking with dry up the synovial fluids and leave me with nothing but a bunch of useless stiff joints, aka arthritis. Must give this up pronto!
Hooray! Countdown till bedtime (sort of).
Dinner always served up deliciously flavored lentils, potatoes and the occasional hot sauce. There was never a shortage of white rice, chappati, and raw veggies of the cucumber and carrot families.
While this was a time to wind down, there was still one more activity on the schedule.
Though this technically should have been the most relaxing and easiest thing to do on the schedule, it was personally the hardest commitment to make (on a fully belly after a long physically and mentally exhausting day). The style of meditation and teacher changed up quite a bit, so on some days, we might be sitting in silence, others chanting mantras and chakra seed sounds, others gazing meditatively at candlelight and on the occasional day of celebration, ecstatic dancing to live harmonium and tabla music.
Wisdom: Remember I mentioned that the goal of all yoga asanas is to develop the ability to sit upright in a comfortable meditative position? During meditation, I tuned in to this union and realized that finding stillness in a seated pose is a lot harder than it looks. It’s funny to think that we are never really trained to sit properly -- no surprise if you think about the kind of postures we default to in typical office jobs.
Experiments: Make small but regular pockets of time to find stillness in meditation.
9:30pm: Lights out!
And just like that, almost four weeks flew by. Our graduation closing ceremony on January 31st arrived and quite honestly took me by complete surprise. Not to mention, we still hadn’t been officially told we had passed our practical exams (teaching a small class of either 20, 30 or 40 minutes), so lots of loose ends had not yet been tied.
Well, lemme tell you, we got some serious closure, and some…
It was a perfect full circle moment, beginning with a beautiful fire ceremony similar to the one that opened our course. The closeness of the Tattvaa family could be felt strongly, and the clarity of what I wished to release did too. I had the great benefit of sitting through two rounds of releasing sacred herbs into the fire while repeating mantra. It was a moment of clarity -- that while something incredibly powerful was coming to an end; something else was simultaneously beginning and taking shape. Having gone through something similar when Burning Man ended, I knew an unknown but very essential period of decompression and integration would soon take its natural course.
The ceremony was followed by closing words from each of the teachers, imparting final words of wisdom that brought everything full circle – from the joy to the suffering and everything in between. Without butchering too much of what was said, here’s what I could remember in between blowing my nose and drying my eyes:
“Prepare the soil with your practice. Never feel you have to control the situation, as long as you prepare the soil, whatever you truly want will come to you.”
“Your essence is very subtle, but powerful. Please nurture your essence each and everyday with practice. It’s up to you to continue planting and cultivating seeds.”
“Love fully. We live in an impermanent world, and we must cherish everything we have as much as we can right now.”
The moment was perfect, authentic and real. Everything was in its right place. I am filled with gratitude for the experience, and for what’s to come.
Thank you Tattvaa family.