There seems to be at least one yoga teacher for about every 10 people these days, with more and more of us attracted to completing the initial training. There are various reasons why so many are drawn towards it, and the chance to learn more about yoga and immerse yourself in that environment is just part of it. I have loved yoga since I started a beginners’ course in 2009 and it has helped me change my life, so I couldn’t wait to start my teacher training in Bali.
However, I spent just over four weeks on my course with a knee injury and a parasite which made me very ill. I wondered at one point whether I was actually going to learn anything at all, but invariably I did – just not what I thought I went there to learn. My teacher training course didn’t teach me to do any new asanas; in fact, as my teacher said at one point, “You already know how to do them; you are here to learn something else”.
Yoga is a several millennia old method of being curious about the essential issues of the human condition and how to help improve those issues. I learned about compassion, about my ego, about the real meaning of letting go; about that ‘separate’ feeling we all experience, when we feel like we don’t fit in. More importantly, the lessons I learned off the mat are useful for us all, whether we practise yoga or not. So here are the top five things I learned.
1) You can learn more in a contracted state – if you allow yourself to
We all know the contracted state, even though we may not call it that
– Underlying physical tension, which you may not even be aware of
– Feeling angry at everything; weepy and emotional; anxious – although not necessarily aware of the underlying emotions driving this ‘emotionality’
– Lethargic, depressed, bored
– A feeling of separateness, not feeling connected
Despite its unpleasantness, I am going to argue that this state is essential: we cannot always be in perpetual growth. Something has to die back to allow room for new things to come in, or for old things to change. The trick is to be aware that you are in a contracted state, accept that’s where you are and just experience it – and then perhaps start to understand why that might be.
In my contracted state of injury and illness on my course, I learned that I had been abusing my body and pushing too hard, and my body was preventing me from doing any more. I had ignored all the warning signs over a considerable period (niggles, soreness, tightness) until eventually I experienced real pain and an illness which meant I couldn’t get out of bed.
We contract as an act of protection, as my body did when I pushed it too hard. When we feel frightened or anxious, maybe approaching a new life or job, or when a relationship isn’t going too well, notice how contracted you become: your body language, aches or pains in the body, perhaps being emotionally rigid. Gripping and clinging onto something or someone. This is a sign that something or someone isn’t quite right at that moment and the key point here is about learning how to listen to those signs. We often treat the symptoms: sore muscles, have a massage; feeling anxious or depressed, see the doctor (or have a drink). Rarely do we stop to think that maybe these symptoms are trying to tell us something.
Developing compassion towards yourself is essential here: how to nurture yourself emotionally and physically. Not to be too hard on yourself. Accepting that is how you are right now. This will help you become more compassionate towards others, as you will be better placed to empathise with those also in a contracted state. It is this softening that will start to allow the contracted state to ease.
2) Soften, don’t push
Whilst injured, I had a couple of strong, deep massages. You know the feeling – that ‘good’ pain of someone’s elbow in your glutes. But nothing ever seemed to shift or improve. Likewise I was pushing and pushing myself mentally and emotionally to move beyond the state I was in, yet nothing ever happened. My lovely yoga therapist explained that when muscles are tight and gripping, a very deep massage can often mean that the muscles will just re-grip afterwards as the pressure adds to the trauma they are experiencing – it is seen as a threat so the muscles move to protect. Therefore, the massage doesn’t release tension long term. Likewise, pushing yourself too much, too often: to be better, to be thinner, and to be perfect doesn’t work long term either. Making myself get up when I was ill, or be cheerful and social when I was exhausted.
A more gentle and compassionate approach would have been to rest and listen to my body. Have gentle relaxing massages which encourage the muscles to release, and to allow my body to heal. My injuries only started to feel better when I started to do more yin yoga rather than vinyasa, to meditate more, to spend an evening with my book rather than rushing around. Allow the tension to release when it was ready to go. If you can accept that it’s OK to be contracted, that maybe you’re contracted for a reason, then it becomes much easier to allow yourself to soften and release. If your reaction is ‘oh no, I’m stressed, I must fix this now’, then the solution you choose might just be making things worse.
3) “Just Let Go” can be one of the most unhelpful things you can say to someone
When I was feeling contracted, unhappy, stuck; when I was comparing myself to others, all of whom seemed perfect; when I was so caught up in my ego’s pity party, what I really wanted was someone to re-assure me that it was OK to feel this way. When I was sitting in a class listening to a teacher say how we needed to ‘let go’, or if how I did let go or expanded, I would grow and feel better was not helpful. Even when it is said with the best intentions, I felt a failure for not being able to let go, either physically (every muscle was contracted and sore from hour after hour of practice), to emotionally and mentally: being so tense I couldn’t release all the feelings I was experiencing. Just lots of really unhelpful thoughts: bored, hating, comparing, pain. I interpreted this ‘letting go’ as somehow becoming a better person, and when I couldn’t do it, I felt worthless.
The thing is, you can’t just let go and drop all that stuff all at once. It’s not like dropping a heavy bag of shopping. With compassion and understanding, what you can start to do is loosen your grip on the thoughts and feelings that are keeping you contracted. This is a moment by moment experience, using breath and asana to relax and soften, talking to others and developing self-awareness. Perhaps handing over something to the universe or God, when you realise it’s no longer all up to you. What I learned was that empathy and understanding go a long way in this process, and that we all feel contracted and curled up like a snail under our (very fragile) shells sometimes. That it passes. And that it is not only normal but also essential for growth.
4) It is possible to get really bored about something you love – and that’s OK
You would think spending over four weeks doing something you love would be heaven. I had certainly loved all the yoga retreats I had been on. I couldn’t wait to immerse myself in yoga.
What happened? After about a week I was bored of yoga. Some of this was being injured and not being able to fully join in, that horrible ‘feeling left out’ or separate feeling – boredom being one of the ego’s biggest and most effective defence mechanisms. But also 13 hours a day of yoga was boring! I learned that balance is crucial. I loved yoga as a banker as it provided such a complement to my ego driven, desk bound office life. Likewise, now I am out of the intensity of the course, I am loving yoga again, now that it is a part of my life, but not all of it.
Being bored doesn’t mean it’s not your passion anymore (although it might, long term). Boredom is a factor of resistance, not liking the uncomfortableness of a situation. The question to ask is why am I resisting, where does the uncomfortable feeling come from? It is also normal to fall out of love with something that means a lot to you, especially when you go deep and learn more about it and yourself than you ever did before.
I fully understand that this is actually the point of intensive courses: to give yourself up to the discipline of the intensive environment and watching your resistance is all part of the process; giving up control to the larger group energy. My key learning was that I maybe do better in a ‘little and often ‘environment rather than a big bang approach.
5) Use the handstand to learn about life
So if I didn’t learn how to do a handstand, then did the handstand teach me anything? To do any new asana, especially one that we find physically and mentally challenging, requires the ability to set an intention, but also to detach from the outcome at the same time. To practice the shoulder strengthening and opening exercises, to strengthen the core, to practise against the wall. To trust yourself and your partner. These are all intentional ways of preparing for a handstand. At the same time, we must not become attached to executing the perfect handstand. Being attached is not the same as caring: we can care very much about doing a handstand, but we demonstrate this through our intentional practice.
When we attach, we are doing something with an agenda, driven by ego. The handstand captures this beautifully: to show or say we can do it, to be somehow a better yogi, to get lots of ‘likes’ on social media. When driven by an agenda, we can end up forcing ourselves or pushing ourselves to meet those requirements. I desperately wanted to do more advanced poses so I could convince myself I was ‘good’ at yoga, and in doing so I ended up injured because I pushed myself towards the outcome (sometimes literally squished myself into the pose!) rather than practising and preparing intentionally, with my ego left off the mat.
Yoga off the mat
Yoga is increasingly popular in the West and it is attracting all kinds of people that might not have been interested before. A lot of that is due to the poses on Instagram, the expensive leggings, the toned arms, and the cool music. I do all those things as a quick look on my Facebook or website will show – but yoga is not just another workout. Some may be drawn in by how it makes them feel physically, be that more energised or relaxed or less stressed. But yoga is there to be practised off the mat as well as on it and it is up to us teachers to start spreading the word about the other things we can learn from our practice.
My philosophy teacher on my course said that there is chance for humanity to expand its consciousness, to come to a new place of love and acceptance and compassion – and that it is up to us teachers to take others there. That’s why it doesn’t matter if more and more people train to teach yoga – we need all the help we can get. We can only do this by practising compassion, developing awareness and battling with our egos ourselves – living yoga off our mats as well as on them, and encouraging our students to do the same.
And I still can’t do a handstand unassisted