Ever dreamed of becoming a yoga teacher? Ally McManus reflects on her journey
It began like any regular experience I had with yoga. I took off my shoes, rolled out my mat and started stretching out my limbs. I was curious, in anticipation of what was to come. But I was deeply comfortable with this sense of intrigue; I had practised yoga for many years.
So, naturally, the discomfort took me by surprise. It wasn’t from the asana. It preceded it, but in such a deep and entrenched way that it could be argued as subconscious. It started as a whisper; a message deep from within that something didn’t feel right. I couldn’t tell if it was my head or my heart, but I knew it was something I was ready to start listening to.
It didn’t feel nice, which was why I kept resisting it. Whenever an opportunity came to explore it, I noticed my urges to avoid, distract and, worse of all, bury. It started bubbling like water in a kettle. Which you know inevitably boils.
“I started to become mindful in the other 23 hours of the day/off the yoga mat. I practise less yoga these days, but I feel much more conscious and calm in everyday life.”
Everything started to fall into place in the last week of yoga teacher training (YTT). We had touched on this particular element of yoga in the first few days of the course, but it was a very different experience revisiting it after almost 200 hours of training to become a yoga teacher.
It holds different value for people, and I became aware of this from my reaction to it. I felt shame and fear when we started talking about it as a group. My chest stiffened, my stomach started to clench and my heart rate sped up. Then we were asked to stand up; we were going to do a group exercise.
“Place your left hand on the left shoulder of the person who has shown you the most kindness over these past few weeks,” said Kat Clayton, our head yoga teacher trainer at BodyMindLife in Sydney. She was talking about it. Two wonderful women popped into my mind and I froze, struggling to decide between the two. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder and then another one above that. Then the two women I was deciding between also placed their hands on me. Before I knew it, there was a heavy weight of support on my shoulder that could only be measured in love. I was in disbelief, until I realised I was actually bearing witness to the truth.
But I’m not a compassionate person, said my mind.
Oh yes, yes, you really are, said my heart.
Eight limbs of yoga
I, along with 2.18 million other Australians (according to recent Roy Morgan findings), am a student of yoga. And like many of my fellow yogis and yoginis, I had heard of the first two limbs of yoga — the yamas and niyamas — prior to undertaking YTT. Despite this, knowing something in a theoretical sense is very different to embodying it on a somatic level, which is what the kindness exercise showed me first-hand. Clayton was talking in particular about ahimsa, one of the yamas (moral, ethical and societal disciplines). Ahimsa is the practise of non-violence in thought, word and deed towards others, the environment and — most relevant to my experience — yourself.
Most Western YTT courses offer an overview of the eight limbs in their syllabus. The depth of learning about each limb is dependent on the style of yoga the course relates to, as well as the curiosity of the student.
“What most people experience as yoga are the postures. But that is only a small part of what yoga is. In an authentic yoga teacher training, you get to explore the rest of what yoga is as well as what it can be,” explains John Ogilvie, founder of Byron Yoga Centre. Ogilvie has been practising yoga for 40 years and teaching for the past 35.
“Many come to the realisation once they start teaching that asana is only the starting point for yoga. The practice of asana alone has many benefits but that combined with the other aspects within the eight limbs of yoga provides a holistic health regimen,” adds Shyamala Benakovic, CEO of Yoga Australia and qualified yoga teacher.
This is exactly what journalist Jenna Clarke experienced upon completing her 200-hour YTT at Sydney studio Flow Athletic. “Doing YTT made me fall even more in love with all eight limbs equally,” she reflects. “My practice has evolved off the mat. I find myself applying the concepts to everyday life, not just the physical parts when practising.”
A clean slate
Expectations are useful in some contexts, but a profound journey awaits one who enters an experience devoid of pre-conceived notions, like a blank canvas. “I didn’t expect so many ‘aha’ moments, awakenings and personal growth,” reflects Carly Taber, a business coach to wellness entrepreneurs, on her 200-hour Embodied Flow yoga teacher training in Ubud, Bali.
“YTT really broke down my practice. I had to start all over again, which was humbling. I think that’s part of the yoga process of letting your ego go,” suggests personal trainer and professional lifeguard Dean Gladstone, who also undertook his YTT at BodyMindLife. “You figure out what [yoga] means for you and what you need to do and it becomes your process. You’ve gotta embody it,” he continues.
Clarke was left emotionally spent after her YTT, but acknowledges the profoundness of this process. “It’s not just learning poses; expect to take a very deep, and often confronting, tour of your inner solar system,” she admits. “By the end of my training, I was sick and tired of having to spend so much time on ‘me’. But in retrospect, it was so beneficial as it taught me so much about myself and the person I want to be, not only for myself but for others.”
Expectations were definitely surpassed for Laura Hopes, a yoga teacher, director of HopesConsult and BodyMindLife YTT graduate. “I think the expectation is that you will just learn how to stand at the front of a class and teach yoga, which is only one aspect of what you do in YTT! The layers to the practice and to becoming a teacher are much deeper,” she says.
Kintsugi in practice
On one particularly challenging two-hour asana practice during my YTT, which dove deep into the chakras, I felt a sense of falling apart. I didn’t realise until the wonderful gift of hindsight arrived that I was actually recalibrating — making space for things to fall back into place stronger than before. Holding plank pose (utthita chaturanga dandasana) is challenging enough on a physical level, let alone when you’re experiencing emotional vulnerability.
“Imagine someone who has hurt you,” said Rachael Coopes, a senior yoga teacher trainer at BodyMindLife and yoga philosophy devotee. “Get very acquainted with that feeling of pain,” she continued. I had a very clear image in my head and my heart of someone. “Now visualise them on your back,” she said. That offering took me by surprise. I didn’t expect her to have the audacity to bring up something so agonising in plank pose, allowing it to feel as raw as the day it had happened.
“That’s what you learn from the yoga. You learn to listen to your own intuition.”
“Hold them. Support them. Make space for them,” she guided. In that moment, I felt myself break again. But not in the way I had from the initial experience. This was different, because every person shaking on his or her mat beside me was breaking with me. I was held just as much as I was holding others. Although I couldn’t see it at the time, Coopes was peeling us apart so we could rebuild with a newfound layer of strength.
The experience was a profound example of the Japanese term kintsugi, the art of repairing brokenness to establish a newfound sense of strength. I’ve never been the same since that practice. What had once felt like broken beyond repair had become growth from deep despair. A breakdown that was necessary for a breakthrough.
So much of the inner work we do can be a solo journey. But on an experience like YTT, you are gifted the opportunity to share some of that experience with your fellow yogis. This is done by expressing your vulnerability and holding space for others to do the same. As more often than not, they are resonating deeply with your experience.
Taber was “held” throughout her YTT and encourages people to warm to the experience. “Don’t be scared of the physical challenges, your body will surprise you. And if you’re scared about the mental/spiritual challenges, yep, they’ll happen but you’ll have a supportive community of people to help you through — they’ll be having the same experience,” she shares.
“I learned to actively listen, be more observant and allow things to ‘sit’. For example, if I see someone crying, the initial reaction is to reach out and physically console them. Within YTT, I discovered that it’s OK to feel things and just holding space for someone can sometimes be more powerful and calming than a hug,” reflects Clarke.
The kindness exercise during YTT demonstrated the power of holding space for others. A profound transfer of energy occurs when you show up and allow yourself to be “held” by the support not only of people, but of something greater than you, too. In Japan, there is a word for feelings like this that go deep beyond the surface: yūgen. “[Yūgen] has been likened to the beauty of grace, of mystery and of realising we are a small part of something so much greater than ourselves,” writes Beth Kempton in her book Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life. Yūgen is a way to describe that profound feeling of deep connection to something. That experience of being “held” stays with you long after the physical presence of people is gone. It’s connectedness without condition.
Embodying yoga for life
Awareness is a powerful thing when you’re ready to acknowledge it. And if there’s one thing yoga helps to fine-tune, it’s the practice of becoming self-aware.
“If you are asking your students to delve deeper, to work on those things they don’t necessarily want to face and to use the practice as a tool for healing, you [as the teacher] also have to honour that [and lead by example],” acknowledges Hopes.
What drew you initially to yoga often is not what keeps you returning to your mat. The intention behind your practice is ever changing, just like you. “It becomes not only an exploration of why you do yoga, but also why you continue to do yoga,” suggests Ogilvie. “A person first comes to yoga because they usually have a problem they want to find a solution to. Then their ailment starts to get sorted out with yoga and they ask, ‘Why am I still doing yoga?’”
“Learning how to teach yoga, whether you make this your profession or not, provides you with knowledge of this practice that shows you it is a way of living that will enrich your life,” shares Benakovic.
“That’s what you learn from the yoga. You learn to listen to your own intuition.”
That sentiment of yoga as a way of life rings true for Taber, too. “I started to become mindful in the other 23 hours of the day, off the yoga mat. I practise less yoga these days, but I feel much more conscious and calm in everyday life,” she explains. “I still see it as a practice to unify my body and mind and I continue to see each class as a container where I recalibrate and become inspired, but I think what’s changed is how I turn up to class. I’m more present.”
“Yoga is a lifelong journey and you never stop learning. Teacher training is only the beginning of learning the tools to live your life to the best of your ability,” adds Katie Haire, International Yoga Teachers Association’s marketing and social media manager and ashtanga yoga teacher.
Intuition is an influential force that often has a contributing factor in people choosing a YTT course. Upon reflection, many yogis say they just knew they needed to do a specific training program. Gladstone experienced this first-hand: “My intuition drew me to this course. Maybe that’s what you learn from the yoga. You learn to listen to your own intuition.
“You find yourself. You learn tools for life. You learn so much about your body. You grow inwards and outwards. Each person has something different that they take away and gain from the course,” continues Gladstone.
“This practice is built to last a lifetime, so you need to use your intuition to continually check in and ensure you are offering your body and mind what it needs,” says Hopes. “As a teacher, intuition is a huge part of holding space for a practice. To be able to read the energy in the room, to shift that energy and to offer students what they need, you need to be able to check in to that intuition. Sometimes you walk into a completely different vibe to what you thought you might be getting, and using your gut feeling to create an atmosphere that is nourishing is fundamental.”
At some stage in your YTT journey, you may experience a feeling of brokenness, like I did in the chakra asana. At that point, the only thing holding you besides your fellow yogis is trust. Trust in something greater than you, as well as the trust that comes from deep listening — by tapping into the power of your intuition. In yoga, this can be described as vairagya: the practice of accepting your situation and being non-attached to the outcome. It is necessary to take the leap of faith and trust every part of the messy process, because you’re more often than not experiencing authentic realignment. That, after all, is the yoga. That, after all, is the yoga.
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