The last month was an intense learning experience spent completing the Siddhi Yoga Teacher Training Certification. It became clear early on that to get the most out of the programme I would need to fully immerse myself physically, mentally and socially. Free time was sparse which meant the blog took a back seat, but what a month it turned out to be.
The teaching began at 7:00 am Monday to Saturday, finishing at 7:00 pm Monday to Friday, and at 1:00 pm on Saturdays. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were provided Monday to Friday, which meant following the evening meal there was little time (or energy) left for much more than sleeping.
Each day began with two hours of Yoga before breakfast and a further hour and a half at 4 pm in the afternoon. The rest of the time was spent learning about Yogic philosophy, anatomy, teaching methodology, adjustments and meditation.
The physical practice of asanas (postures) are only one of eight limbs that comprise ‘Yoga’, and it was during the philosophy lessons we learned about the other seven; Yama (social conduct), Niyama (personal conduct), Pranyama (control of breath), Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), Dharana (one pointed concentration), Dhyana (meditation), Samadhi (bliss, joy, enlightenment). There are no stones left unturned.
Yoga means ‘union’ – the bringing together of body, mind and soul. The purpose of Yoga is to facilitate the process of self-realisation; Yoga is both the journey and the destination, the union of the self-consciousness with universal consciousness. It is a road map of principles and practices to follow, each complimenting the other, and necessary to progress towards Samadhi; bliss, joy, enlightenment. As such, Yoga is so much more than a series of postures; it is a way of life.
We were encouraged to follow all eight limbs diligently throughout the month. Because each limb compliments the others, our progress in becoming practitioners and teachers would be enhanced by living the Yogic life, which included eating a vegetarian diet, limiting stimulants like tea, coffee, spices, abstaining from consuming intoxicants and from having sex willy-nilly – meaningful sex with a life partner was allowed.
Staying physically and mentally clean; having a shower in the morning and evening was fairly straight forward, the internal cleansing processes were less so, more on them later. Maintaining a clean mind was especially challenging. In essence, our thoughts represent our intentions, some of which then lead to actions. In Yogic philosophy, however, even our thoughts count towards the balance of good and bad doing in our lives, our karma. Which all stems from the universal law of cause and effect; every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Our thoughts are counted as actions in that equation, and from my experience there is truth in it; focusing your mind (thinking) positively improves bodily functions, reduces stress and leads to better decisions and actions. Focusing your mind negatively has the reverse effect. Eradicating your mind of all negative thoughts towards yourself and others, regardless of the circumstances, however, is no small task.
So how did I get on?
Overall, absolutely fantastic.
The course began with an opening ceremony which involved wearing white clothes, meeting the instructors and fellow students, and a very smoky ritual, which was conducted in Hindi. Without a formal introduction or commentary the ritual, and the people conducting it, were a mystery. Only after the ceremony was over did we congregate in the Yoga studio for introductions of the teachers and students.
After spending so much time on my own, and after awkwardly re-engaging the social functions of my brain, being part of an amazing group of like-minded people made the month a truly rewarding and transformative experience.
It was an international group with participants travelling from Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Germany, France, Hungary, Israel, England, Ireland, USA, Chile, Canada, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Mauritias and Turkey. The group contained artists, teachers of French, English, Surfing, Palates, Capoeira, an investment banker, performers of song, musical instruments and dance, a stand-up comedian, a music therapist, a strength and conditioning coach, farmers, a medical doctor, and massage therapists. There were also a high percentage of people living without a fixed abode, practicing their skills while travelling, or in the process of transitioning between careers or countries.
As you might imagine, this mixture of cultures and skills combined with the common interests of learning, practicing and teaching Yoga made for an incredibly stimulating, entertaining and supportive environment in which to bond, learn and grow. It was a real pleasure to spend time with such an interesting group of people living life on their own terms.
The intensity of the training pushed us all to our limits and often beyond. If not for the kindness, support, and encouragement of everyone involved, it would have been a far less transformative experience for all.
During the first two hours of Yoga I wondered what on earth I had gotten myself into. Nine months hunched over Shurly Anne for the best part of eight thousand miles appeared to be rather poor preparation for the body. Working through the various asanas, I looked around the room baffled to see supple bodies contorting into graceful shapes that looked entirely unattainable to my board-like limbs. What I lacked in flexibility I hoped to make up for in determination.
As the days passed by my body began to hurt in places I didn’t know existed. Gradually it began to open up and by the end of the course there were noticeable changes to my posture. In particular my shoulders now sit farther back and lower, and my chest is more open than before. My legs were noticeably smaller and I shrunk a bit everywhere else. I also lost five kilograms despite consuming an unhealthy amount of ice cream and Bhagsu cake, a delicious and addictive local sweet. Obviously not part of the Yogic diet but with so much will-power being exerted on a daily basis something had to give at the weekends!
Yoga is a hands on physical pursuit and many of the asanas expose more about your body than you may want to share, but there is nowhere to hide – together we became more intimately acquainted than we would have had we been studying knitting for example (although knitting was surprisingly a pastime for Kristine, Emel and Lara).
In addition to the Yoga, each evening ended with one and a half hours of meditation with Jayo. We started not with the sort of tranquil, sitting with your eyes closed in a dimly lit room repeating a mantra sort of meditation you may be thinking of, no. We started with ‘dancing’ meditation, which as the name suggests, means losing yourself to the music and ‘dancing like no-one is watching.’ Which in a brightly lit room full of complete strangers wearing yoga attire, stone cold sober, was about as far from conducive to ‘dancing like no-one is watching’ as it gets. The idea was to go beyond the stream of thoughts running through your head, thoughts like ‘this is awkward, I feel like a complete plumb, how has it come to this? Make it end, someone shoot me, PLEEEEEASE!’
I reasoned that my struggle to let go was because all learning is state dependent, meaning that to remember something that you previously learnt you need to revisit the same mental state you were in when you created the learning. I learnt how to dance when inebriated, and every subsequent ‘learning’ in gradually worsening states of inebriation. To say I lacked rhythm would be an understatement; I must have looked like I was ‘dancing’ to something else.
As I looked around the room, though, everyone was clearly struggling with the same inhibitions, some more than others, and then there were the extroverts.
The daily meditations continued along a similarly cringe-worthy theme until at some point, for all of us, the inhibitions just disappeared. This became abundantly clear while during a morning warm-up before Hatha Yoga, we were instructed to run around the room like mental patients, to which we all immediately responded without question. Before a week of ‘dancing’ meditation, ‘shaking’ meditation and inducing anger, sadness and laughter together, it might have seemed like an odd thing to do. The realisation that we had all become separated from our inhibitions spontaneously released hysterical laughter.
Laughter was an unscheduled and ever present part of the daily grind, at times I laughed so hard and uncontrollably, I worried I might not be able to stop. I could think of worse afflictions to fall foul of.
Speaking of falling foul reminds me of the morning we carried out a number of internal purification practices referred to as Shatkarma. The aim of Hatha Yoga and therefore Shatkarma is to create harmony between the two major pranic (energy) flows Ida and Pingala. In doing so, physical and mental purification and balance are attained. There are six Shatkarma (shat means ‘six’ and karma, ‘action’), each encompass several techniques of varying intensity and er.. courage.
We practiced two Neti techniques; cleansing and purification of the nasal passages. The first, Jala Neti, was relatively simple but quite minging, and involved pouring warm salty water in one nostril while tilting your head to one side. The water flows into your nasal cavity and gradually flushes the excess mucus out the other nostril. Repeat on the other side to complete the cleanse, nice.
The second, Sutra Neti, was rather uncomfortable and in the end comical. The aim is to push a rubber hose up your nostril until you are able to pull it out of your mouth from where it has emerged in your throat. Then, by simultaneously pushing and pulling the hose with either hand, your nostril is cleaned, like a pipe. Sounds simple enough, however, pushing the hose up my nose caused spontaneous sneezing, which after a while became very amusing, and messy, very messy.
Next up was Dhauti which comprises a series of internal cleanses separated into three regions; intestinal, head and thoracic. We completed only one practice from this delightful group, Vaman Dhauti, ‘regurgitative cleansing’. We completed the Shatkarma’s in the morning with an empty stomach, then drank glasses of warm salty water as quickly as we could until our stomachs’ were full and we felt physically sick. Then, with the aid of our least favourite hand, pressed the base of our tongues until all of the salty water was vomited back out. It was a good job we had gotten to know each other by then.
Yogesh then demonstrated a more involved version in which he slowly swallowed a thirty foot cotton cloth soaked in salty water. It was pretty uncomfortable viewing as he fought against the body’s natural gag reflex for ten minutes, before regurgitating it back out. There are many more purification practices which wallow along a scale from comfortable to gruesome. I, like most, was pleased to leave it where we did.
The process of breaking down physical and mental boundaries together caused bonds and friendships to form which would normally happen over much longer periods of time, if at all. To top it all off we even met the Dalai Lama!!
The course was far from perfect; some of the scheduling was poorly thought out, many of the student rooms suffered from damp, and despite written assurances that the maximum number of students per class would be no greater than twenty-five, thirty-two students had been enrolled. The Yoga studio really wasn’t big enough to comfortably accommodate thirty-two students, furthermore, there often wasn’t sufficient teaching assistants to ensure everyone received the tuition and feedback they required. The class size further effected the last week of teaching by reducing the number of lessons in order to shoe-horn in all of the practical examinations. The oversize class was a significant gripe for all participants, and, frankly, saying one thing and doing another is incongruent with Yogic philosophy on many levels. It really boiled down to greed. The best teachers are those who walk the talk and in my opinion this was totally unacceptable.
That said, the teachers were a unique and mostly inspiring bunch. Yogesh taught philosophy and Hatha Yoga, and for me was the epitome of what a Yoga teacher should be. With deep knowledge and wisdom, Yogesh was a shining example of a Yogi who walks the talk in every way.
In total we had five different Yoga teachers covering four different yoga styles; Yogesh teaching Hatha, Suzanne teaching Vinyassa, Manu and Mahi teaching Ashtanga and Hari teaching Iyengar. At times, learning four different styles was confusing. There were subtle differences between styles which effect how the asanas were performed. Hatha and Iyenger are performed slower and spend more time holding postures. Iyenger also uses props which included belts, cushions, wooden blocks, foam blocks, chairs, walls, and occasionally a combination of all of the above (to assist the most rigid of students.. ahem).
Vinyassa flows between asanas and, as a result, works up more of a sweat. Ashtanga has gymnastic roots, is the most physically strenuous, and at the higher levels has some of the most athletic and visually impressive asanas. Although confusing to learn, as a practitioner and teacher, understanding multiple styles will be of benefit when offering classes to different groups of people with different goals.
Mahi, one of the company Directors, also taught adjustments, which examined individual asanas with the aim of enabling students to get into, hold, and get out of them safely. Using props where necessary, incredibly, almost all postures were achievable to some degree, for almost everyone. Mahi is a high energy teacher with an ego the size of India, which could be an understatement for a man who wears a t-shirt saying ‘god is busy’ on the front, and ‘Mahi will help you’ on the back. The first Ashtanga class was essentially an exhibition of Mahi’s greatest Yogic asanas, being ‘performed’, while teaching us mere mortals the lesser versions. Honestly, I quite enjoyed seeing what was possible after twenty-six years of practice; however, his focus was on ‘performing’ not teaching. Add in his cringe-worthy habit of telling sexist jokes, and you have a marmite Yogi. What cannot be disputed is his incredible ability to see where adjustments are required to correctly exact an asana. And, his knowledge of how to make the adjustments, with and without props, depending on the physique of the student. Being exposed to that level of knowledge and understanding was a huge benefit which was, on balance, worth the cringing.
Guru Mukh was responsible for the day to day running of the course and taught teaching methodology along with assisting in Yoga classes and guest appearances on the Sitar (Indian Guitar) during student practical exams. Guru Mukh was the go-to man for any problems and did a fantastic job of juggling the wants and needs of thirty-one people for a month (one left early on due to language problems). He was very warm hearted, peaceful and humble throughout, and I only hope his experiences and opinions are valued and acted upon during future trainings.
The last week of the training was predominantly spent in student practical exams either as a student, or a teacher when the time came. We were split in to teams of three, with one team of four, and tasked with teaching an hour and a half of Yoga, to include; Pranyhama (breathing exercises) and Asanas. This made for a pretty physical end to the month, with two classes a day, most ran over to two hours and some ran over to three (Dustin, Rhys)!
The rest of the time in the final week was split between exam preparation, adjustments, philosophy and anatomy. Anatomy was very detailed and, at times, seemed like too much information. Medical terminology is like a foreign language and often the sheer volume of new words with only one specific meaning caused many of them to merge into gobbledygook, never to be untangled and recited the same again. It was during the last few lessons of the very last week that we learnt the relationships between the anatomy and specific asanas. This seemed to be the wrong way round, as we would have benefited far more from understanding the relationship between the anatomical structure and the asanas at the beginning of the course.
Finally, after all practical examinations had been completed, only the written examination stood between us and our Yoga Alliance accredited certificates. We all passed.
I believe the intentions of the team at Siddhi Yoga are good, and that between them they have the foundations to create an outstanding teacher training school. Whether they do or not depends largely on their ability to listen to, and act upon, the feedback they receive from their students.
I would recommend the Siddhi Yoga Teacher Training Program to others, warts and all. It must be viewed as the starting point towards becoming a Yoga teacher, there is so much more to learn than can be absorbed in a month of teacher training. The next step for me is self-study and assisting in Yoga classes.
With my Indian Visa due to run out at the start of July I have begun cycling towards Kathmandu, Nepal, where I have arranged to visit a non-profit Ashram, and two other Yoga teacher training schools with the aim of continuing my practice, assisting and, if possible, teaching.
But first I have enrolled in a ten day Vipasana Meditation, starting on the first of July. More on that, and the journey to Kathmandu, to follow. Better get pedalling….
[This post is soooo late due to problems accessing wi-fi and electricity along with a fairly demanding daily cycling schedule to make the start date of the Vipassana course in Kathmandu. I am now in Kathmandu and have today completed the ten course and will be publishing another couple of blog posts during the next week to bring the blog up to date.]