For five years I’ve diligently practiced yoga and written about it for three, including an earlier essay published here in HelloYoga. To kick off the next chapter in my yoga journey, I took a 200-hour yoga teacher training course in July. It was a sixteen-day intensive led by Cassandra Bright of Gilbert Yoga at the Retreat Center for Truth in Pine, Arizona. I’d like to share with you the insights gained from this reflective experience.
Disclaimer: I have no professional affiliation with Gilbert Yoga or the Retreat Center for Truth.
“To acquire knowledge, one must study; but to acquire wisdom, one must observe.” — Marilyn vos Savant
The Sights and Sounds
I’m grateful for the training I received in a special place that was entirely devoted to yoga. The concentrated period of time worked well for my schedule. This particular venue offered wealth for the eyes and ears by its location alone.
Frequently, our day started with silent meditation at 5 am. We heard owls hooting their final goodnight to the dawn before they retreated into silence. Our early meditations were followed by mindful walks at 6 am. Some days, we heard the bugling of elks in the Mogollon Rim valley. Their cries echoed for miles through the quiet landscape. Once in a while, we heard a barking dog or clanging pots and pans from distant cabins and homes.
One day, our group ventured into the forest to pick wild blackberries. Upon return, our chef promptly blended some into smoothies and used the rest to make a syrup.
Another day, we journeyed to the top of the mountain edge to practice asana (yoga postures) and discussed the concept of kleshas (spiritual pitfalls to be avoided). Meanwhile, our chef prepared breakfast with outdoor cookware.
And one evening, The Band of Now, of which Cassandra is a member, came to the retreat center where the community was invited for kirtan (chanting of mantras or hymns). Everything was a feast for ears, eyes, and stomach; the setting and training invited opening heart space.
The Studies and Learning
As a dedicated reader of yoga literature, some of the training and core concepts we studied came easily to me. Of course, some were challenging. However, all were revealing.
Cassandra gave each of us a copy of the Yoga Teachers’ Toolbox by Joseph and Lilian Le Page. This is an ideal manual for new students attempting to learn traditional poses and their modifications. It is also a fantastic resource for the advanced teacher.
On the back of each colorful page, one can find detailed teaching points and benefits of the pose highlighting their relationship to each of the koshas (layers of the spirit). They show what each pose looks like in its well-known form, offer adaptations, and explore the finer points of integrated mind-body-spirit teaching.
ashva=horse, sanchala=movement + asana=posture
You are then given the pose’s core quality, which for this one is a combination of determination with equanimity. This is followed by variations, cautions, a list and illustration of systems balanced, doshas (elements) balanced, pranas (energies) balanced, and chakras (energy centers) activated. You also get a bar graph rating the pose on a scale from zero (calming) or ten (energizing).
Each page and its information is a rich presentation, and the toolbox is introduced with suggestions for the teacher or student in preparing class sequencing or practicing on their own. Introductory material summarizes yoga’s eight limbs, the bandhas (body locks), the gunas (virtues), the chakras, vayus (components of energy), discussion of the doshas and explanations of the body systems and the koshas.
An index groups the postures into ten categories, such as inversions, twists, standing postures, and then provides page references for the pose’s full card.
The Experiences and Reflection
The study of this technical information and philosophy, combined with actual yoga practice and spread out over a sixteen-day retreat gave all of us an opportunity to look at our perceptions, see ourselves through the eyes of others, and reflect. Anyone holding space in silence knows how the encounter with self is challenging. Often, in silence and meditation, we are buffeted by thoughts of past and the future rather than staying in the present moment.
One might say that completing an intensive retreat is like earning a degree in self-awareness. A sixteen-day intensive retreat is a unique and rich laboratory for self-discovery. When given the opportunity to stop and focus on life, guide the monkey mind towards stillness, halt our ego’s identification with our history, quit planning for the future, and just come into living here and now . . . Stuff happens. It happens with others, and this teaches important life skills often referred to as emotional intelligence: communication, cooperation, compassion.
While silence and awareness are catalysts for personal growth, they can be difficult to teach. They require of us a vulnerability to put ourselves forward and learn once again that we are not perfect, and we don’t have to be.
The Explorations and Lessons
After discussions or during social sessions, following silent meals or practice teaching sessions, our trainer would always bring us back to ourselves, reiterating that, “Is-ness is being comfortable with The Now.” What is it we see and don’t like? To identify this is to identify our own learning curve.
When Cassandra taught by sharing a story from the Bhagavad Gita, or a legendary mystic or yogi’s teaching, we were offered moments to look at our perceptions and witness our ego at work. This lead to exploring ways to find a path through our kleshas, chief of which is asmita or identification of self with ego.
Such identification keeps us separate from one another and bound by our identification with “our” story. These boundaries lead to avidya (wrong perception) and a world of heartache. One story she shared, common to our daily practice of judging based on what we see, was the story of a young servant boy and the priest.
A young boy was fascinated by the offerings a priest was making to a lingam (an abstract representation of a deity) in the temple. He wanted to do the same, so he began stealing a small amount of the offering before handing it to the priest. He took the offering, found a tree with a lingam shape, and began to imitate the worship he’d witnessed by the priest.
The priest became suspicious, followed the boy, and saw him offer a sacrifice to the lingam shape within the tree. The priest, enraged by the wasted offering, approached the boy, berating and cursing him. But when the child turned around, he transfigured and revealed himself to be Krishna. Shamefully, the priest fell to his knees and begged for forgiveness.
What Is It All For?
Completing a yoga teacher training course will not magically solve all your problems or reveal your destiny. However, a course such as the one I took can lead to powerful revelations and shifts in your mindset which could change the direction of your life.
Teacher training is not only for the chosen or self-appointed — although it can be. Rather, it is an invitation to grow closer to one’s self and witness your own transformation. Training is daring to see and come to terms with this play of life. The awareness gained is ours for the keeping.
When the veil of division fades for a moment, we become conscious in the midst of an encounter. When we realize our avidya, the mask is peeled back, our persona cracks open space for new learning. When we are an open vessel, we may carry new wine. When the sound of an elk through a mountain valley reminds us that the forces which shape our ends are in everything, we may surrender to deeper levels of awareness, and the next stage of our life’s marvelous story begins to unfold.
This unfoldment is like asana, extending mind and spine until the humble warrior is bent low in humility and shaped by a divinity into an encounter. It’s a daring journey, and its symbol — for me — is Baddha Virabhadrasana (Humble Warrior Pose).
The Yoga Toolbox lists the core quality of Warrior I Pose as courage.
Vira=warrior or brave + bradha=virtuous+asana=posture
Daring to see and endure the encounter with self is indeed brave work, for in it the challenge arises to surround self and others with compassion and the light of love. Letting compassion guide is the heroic work. When connected to the Source, be prepared to embrace sorrow. But if we are brave, if we trust, we take on the Humble Warrior Pose’s essence and bring it into our lives and teaching of yoga.
Be brave in your courageous task, humble warriors; I fold my hands at heart and salute you. Namaste!