I wasn’t really sure what I hoped to learn during a month-long, 200-hour yoga teacher training at the Kripalu Center, nor was I sure, when I left home just four weeks ago, whether my fifty-two year old body was up to the challenges ahead. Three to eight hours of yoga a day sounded like a lot. Having gotten through four years of college without a room mate, I was about to bunk with five complete strangers in a small room — would I ever get a good night’s sleep? I’d been warned by a recent graduate that the program was “intense,” and I worried about what that might mean. “Intense” as in physically demanding? I asked her. “Intense” as in emotionally wrenching? “Intense” because morning sadhana would begin at 6:30 am every single day, follwed by hours of lecture and posture clinics, another yoga class at 4:15, and a program that continued right through till 9 at night?
I noticed that my friend wasn’t really answering any of those questions to my satisfaction; her advice consisted of things like: dress in layers for class, have a notebook for anatomy, bring flip flops for the shower, don’t make any plans for the so-called “day off,” as you’ll need that time to study and do laundry and catch up on the reading. I wrote all of this down on a piece of paper, in the innocent hope that with the right packing list and a few words of wisdom from one who’d survived the course, I would be prepared.
Less than five minutes after my friend and I had parted on that winter afternoon that now feels like a lifetime ago, my cell phone rang. “Just remember this,” she said when I answered, “it’s all about love.”
It will take a while, I think, for me to fully understand what the last month has meant, how this full immersion into a 200-hour certification program was in fact only superficially about learning the proper alignment for Warrior I pose and much more about what it means to bring one’s self into alignment — both on and off the yoga mat. Of course, aligning the breath with the movement, or the knee with the ankle, is the easy part. What the last month has taught me is that my real practice — of life, of yoga, of being human — comes down to commitment. It seems that growing up, even at my age, is all about making the commitment, again and again and again, to bring my outer persona into alignment with my inner truth, my words into alignment with my deeds, my thoughts into alignment with my actions, my deepest values into alignment with my smallest choices, my heart into alignment with my mind, until what I do and how I live is a reflection of who I truly am. I’m beginning to think that what I’ve just experienced was in fact a profoundly transformational course in how to live more skillfully, very well disguised as a first-rate yoga teacher training.
It also happened to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for sixty-three randomly self-selected people of all ages and sizes and backgrounds to live and work and sleep and eat together every day for a month. As a group, and individually, we had to make a decision to trust the process, and then, under the guidance of our two very amazing teachers, we began to open up our hearts to one another, to open them just as wide as they would go. The only thing we had to lose, it turned out, was our sense of separateness, our well-defended images of who we already were. And what we had to gain, simply by being fully present, was a glimpse of our own true selves: lovable, vulnerable, imperfect, human.
There were many amazing moments. Two days after a graduation ceremony that is already fading in my memory into a blur of tears, music, candlelight, ringing bells, rice and rose petals, whispered words of appreciation and encouragement from my classmates, an orange smear of blessed oil placed reverently upon my forehead and a certificate of completion pressed into my hands, I remember one moment of the month above all others.
It was the second night, a candle-lit ceremony in which we students were to be presented with our own mala beads and then guided through our first extended exercise in meditation. Our teacher placed the string of carved rosewood beads into my open palm and looked into my eyes as he said the Sanskrit words “Om Namo Bhagavade Vasudevayah,” which translates loosely into “thy will be done.” Something deep inside me simply cracked open under that unwavering, unguarded, utterly loving gaze. I looked back at him, my own eyes full of tears, and knew suddenly exactly what it was that I had come here to learn: to be able to look into the eyes of another human being with such compassion, such acceptance, such unconditional tenderness and devotion. I closed my fingers around the smooth strand of beads. My education had begun.