Teacher Training

“Love is not far away; it is as close as your heart.  You can find it there without walking a single step.” — Swami Kripalu

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.

First day of school

I have had it only a few times, a sudden sense of arriving at my own front door, of being home without even knowing that I’d been away.  I felt it twelve years ago, when I first unrolled a yoga mat in the back corner of the Baron Baptiste Power Yoga Studio in Cambridge.  Never mind that the room was heated to 102 degrees and I’d dressed, unwittingly, in sweatpants and a heavy, long-sleeved shirt.  Never mind that I couldn’t bend over and come any where close to touching my toes, that I had no idea what a downward-dog was, that my body felt so ungainly and awkward and disconnected from my brain (not to mention my heart) that I spent most of the class sweating desperately and watching everyone else flow through a series of poses that looked at once impossible, and impossibly lovely, to me.  I did what I could (which wasn’t much) and knew, the way we sometimes do know these things, that I’d finally arrived at a place I’d been seeking all my life.

There was a part of me even then that dreamed of full immersion.  Sometimes, I fantasized about what it might be like to study deeply, to practice for more than an hour and a half a couple of times a week, perhaps even to one day teach this practice I loved so much to others.  And always the ever-ready critic in my brain responded with all the reasons why that would never happen:  It was too late.  I already had a job, a well-paid sedentary one that required me to be at my desk every day. My kids and husband needed me. I’ve never been athletic and never will be. No matter how many years I spend on a yoga mat, I won’t have a “yoga body.” I can’t do a handstand. I’m too shy. Too uncoordinated.  Too old.

Twelve years later, and I’m even older than I was then.  But I’m also sensing that it’s time to attend more closely to my soul’s deepest longings, rather than to that inner voice that tells me what I’m not and can never be.  The truth is, my children no longer need me day in and day out, the way they once did, and my husband is quite able to take care of himself.  I don’t get paid to edit books on someone else’s schedule anymore.  And a yoga body is not the goal or the point of what I do on my yoga mat (although I certainly appreciate every little bit of core strength I manage to acquire).  The reasons I practice, the reasons I keep a mat spread on the floor between my kitchen and living room, have more to do with learning than with doing.  I practice yoga because I clench my jaw till my teeth ache, and tuning in to my breath is a gentle, necessary lesson in letting go.  I practice because so often I fail at being the wife, the mother, the friend I yearn to be, and learning to accept myself as I am on my yoga mat helps me accept who I am in the world.  I practice because I tend toward judgment, and yoga softens my rough edges.  I practice because I get so easily lost in worry or regret or plans that I miss the beauty right under my nose, and yoga is a lovely wake up call, my own daily reminder to be fully present in the moment–by-moment experience of being alive.

Early this morning, I threw all of my doubts and fears and nerves and excitement into the car, along with my yoga mat and duffel bag, and drove to the Kripalu Center in Western Massachusetts.  For the next month, I’ll live in a dorm room here with a bunch of other aspiring teachers and practice yoga two to eight hours a day.  All afternoon yesterday, as I vacuumed and dusted, watered plants and changed the beds, I fought back tears, wondering if I’d been nuts to think I could do this, and how I could possibly have imagined that being away from my home and family for such a long time was a good idea.   Every insecurity that’s ever plagued me came roaring back:  the embarrassment of showing up for the first day of first grade with a lunch box that was horribly wrong; third grade – the wrong stockings; eighth grade – the wrong friends; tenth grade – the wrong everything.  It’s been years since I’ve endured the butterflies in the stomach that always marked the first day of school —  but today is the first day of school all over again, and those butterflies knew just where to find me.

Funny, how I almost had myself convinced that I’d constructed a solid, reasonably confident  grown-up self —  and then all it took was the anticipation of a single step out of my  own well-established comfort zone to bring me right back in touch with the uncertain child I once was.

“Nervous?” my own son Jack asked me at breakfast this morning.  “Very,”  I admitted, “but in a good way.  And grateful, too.”  As a girl, I took refuge in books and the world of my imagination.  Since I didn’t quite fit in, I mostly opted out, choosing solitude and stories over socializing and physical activity, both of which were too scary to deal with.  So much easier to disappear than to negotiate the complicated social hierarchy of my more with-it peers or to risk embarrassment in gym class.  I was the master of the independent study, the sick note, the excused absence.  Given that I also managed to get through four years of college without spending a single night with a room mate, setting foot in the gym, or donning a pair of sneakers, what I’m about to do now does seem a little radical. Or, maybe I’m just finally ready to show up – not only on my yoga mat, not only for my family and my friends, but also for the beautiful, challenging privilege of finding out who I am, who I might, even yet, turn out to be.

(Internet is limited at Kripalu, and my schedule these next four weeks will be intense.  I’m a rusty student, with a fat textbook to read and lots of homework to do.  So. . .while I hope to continue with a weekly blog post, I may be a little less connected here so that I can be a little more connected with matters of breath, spirit, and awareness. )