Yoga, Quiet, & My Place In It
Beginnings of a month-long advanced teacher training in the peace and wilds of southern India
It’s week two of a month long intensive advanced yoga teacher training in rural India, an hour outside of Mysore, at a 20 acre eco ashram on a river. I am asking myself: What do I want if not this one moment, this enviable moment?
What moment: I am sitting on a Western toilet, a luxurious reprieve from the usual Indian pit toilet crouch in the big tile bathroom of this two-bed cottage room I share with a woman from San Francisco who quit her engineering career and sold everything to travel Asia.
The bathroom is also the shower, so we are equipped with a giant, broom-sized squeegy to help half-dry every uneven wet surface post shower. Half-effective, we know not to walk in blindly with socks on.
I arrived from Mysore to AyurYoga Eco Ashram by taxi, shared with two other students, a bald sarcastic Brit (redundant?) and a smiley Malaysian woman who, turns out, likes to hug as much as I do. The Brit slept off a Bangalore party night while the woman and I got to know each other in the back seat, taking breaks to quietly watch the green leafy countryside pass. The cow traffic thinned in proportion to our distance from Mysore, and the silence settled on me.
A man met us at the entrance, led us to the open air dining room and served us tea while he made copies of our passports. He showed us each to our rooms and left us to settle till dinner.
Ah, the food. Twice a day, kind-eyed staff fill the compartments of our pizza-size round metal trays with warm ciapattis, flavor bomb curries, rich daals, and raw “salad,” which here means cucumber and carrot cut in different shapes each meal (greens don’t grow so abundantly in the south of India). I’m trying not to let eating be my favorite part of the day, but I have, no hyperbole, never felt so much pure joy in my mouth. And after our 2 1/2 hour yoga practices, meal times are a particular delight.
The morning after my first night’s ashram sleep I walked out of the room to a mist in what feels like jungle, fields of big leaves and chirps of strong birds. I can see the river to the left of my porch, so wide it looks to be barely moving. A crocodile lives in the river, a mythic being that proved real during yesterday morning’s practice. Our teacher spotted it mid-pose and called us over to the semi-open, window-walled studio’s edge by the river to prove to us the legend’s reality. I saw the slow angles of an ancient body moving upstream.
The Australian in my class said fresh water crocs are a joke, though, so I went swimming yesterday. Consensus is it feeds in the morning and at night, so even if it wanted human, an afternoon swim is safe-ish. I was so in need of some body movement beyond a stretch or a backbend that the risk felt worth it, though I’m not sure I’ll brave it again after seeing the thing IRL.
The first day we sat for a puja ceremony in what would become our main classroom, a round, maroon-floored, light-filled hall with a view of both sunrise and sunset. Then orientation, facilitated by the owner of the ashram, bright eyes behind rimless glasses. I’ve never seen shirts as white, as new, as those of our teachers. I wonder if we’ll see them wear and lose their starchiness over the course of the month, in proportion to our development on the yogic path.
The teachers passed out bags of books and neti pots, and let us choose from a stack of colorful cloth yoga mats that would see us through our month of intensive practice.
The program’s schedule is rigorous, keeping all 15 of us busy in meditation, asana practice, and theory classes from 5:15 a.m. till sometimes 8:30 p.m. Since Intensity is basically my middle name, it suits me.
We spend the first part of the morning meditating to the deep, heartfelt, practiced chanting and articulate instruction of a monk dressed head to toe in maroon. From there we drink ginger tea and rise our sinuses with salt-water-filled neti pots, then start the first of the day’s two 2.5 hour yoga practices. We practice silence from evening till after 10 a.m., but I can nearly hear the chorus of everyone thinking “Why is it hard” and “Who am I becoming” and “What time is lunch.”
This 300hr course is what the Yoga Alliance wants next for teachers looking to go beyond the base-level 200hr teacher certification. One week in, though, and it is clear already that 500 hours aren’t the half of it. The history, theory, and potential impact of yoga is so beyond our western definition of the practice. I’m deeply grateful to have found my way to a deeper learning, and am only clear that the more I learn, the more I realize I have yet to learn.
So in the spirit of right effort, I am steeping myself in this learning environment, spending 5 hours a day on my asana practice and 6 more in classes under the instruction of masters in comparison (my five teachers, all Indian, range from lifelong practitioners/teachers to full on monks/swamis), so I can better understand this practice that so moves and has so changed me. Big questions of cultural appropriation, of accountability, of Who am I to be here, are daily on my mind, and I’m realizing just how complex the answers need to be.
An example: A white teacher at a Core Power yoga class chants something in sanskrit, or even says Namaste, and I boil a little in the “Who do you think you are, anyway?” But while it might not be relevant or appropriate to chant sanskrit at every group of students in the West, there is also the truth of what the words mean, and which chants are meant to serve what purpose.
Some, for example, act as shields for the teacher so she can best support the students without taking on their emotional processes. And some create energies of shared learning instead of hierarchy or ill-will. With knowledge, we can be intentional about their usefulness and clear about our relationship to a language not ours.
So I come then to questions like: How can I keep myself On Purpose? How can I hold the impact and violence of my privilege without letting ot fester into a wound, without letting it detract or distract me from the potential positive impact I can have? The conclusion can’t be as simple as Westerners Shouldn’t Teach Yoga. But it can’t be as simple as They Should, either.
Maybe this is the work. To be doing this and committed, but staying critical and self-aware, still letting it change me so I can change (and be further changed by) the world I move through.