Before coming to India I had semi-joked that I wanted to become a pretzel. That is, to have bronzed, sun-kissed skin, lightly salted from a dip in the ocean, with limbs that could be contortioned into any pretzel shape.
So it wasn’t entirely a coincidence that my yoga teacher training happened to be located on one of Goa’s most stunning beaches. Agonda Beach has 2km of beautiful white sand framed between two forest headlands, with warm seas and a sun that sets right in front of you. Every lunch break I headed to the beach for a quick swim in the ocean and a 15 minute sunbathe to dry off. Elements one and two of becoming a pretzel were covered.
The course was intense. The physical asana classes were full-on, with the first day starting with full Ashtanga Primary Series. Gradually, I became stronger and began to find a steadiness and ease in the more familiar poses. It felt good to notice subtle differences in my body from day to day.
The asana classes also taught me a lot about my limitations. In vinyasa classes I watched my teacher’s body gracefully glide into a new pose. I enthusiastically made my attempt, only to find that, for some reason, my foot didn’t seem to want to go behind my head. I sat on my mat, with my foot in my hand, genuinely baffled at the differences in our range of movement.
Nonetheless, I still loved to learn new poses, playing around with my balance and flexibility, and falling around on the mat. I often teamed up with my friend, Dalia the Dancer, who backflipped her way through classes. She would patiently help me to try (she invariably nailed the pose first time around), before we fell about laughing on the floor. I made several attempts at chakrasana (it’s a bit like a backward roll, except as you go over you spring out into a lowered-down press-up position). Mine was only ever an awkwardly slow backward roll. Sometimes straight. Mostly wonky.
Other times I found myself stuck in rather unfortunate positions. For example, in Bhujapidasana (a pose where, essentially, you tie your arms and legs in a knot and then balance upside down on your head and hands) it is apparently possible to lift your head from the ground and right yourself by contracting your middle. I swear my mind had entire conversations with my muscles, pleading with them to lift me up, but everyday they refused. I couldn’t move. I was completely stuck with my bottom in the air. The only way out was to face plant.
In anatomy class our teacher bounced around with a smile from ear to ear, singing the praises of yoga as a healing therapy for the body. He showed me muscles I never knew I had (the one I need to right myself in Bhujapidasana) and explained why we could or couldn’t do different poses.
One thing that struck me was that absolutely everyone struggled with something. Anatomical differences in our bone structure (or whatever else) mean that some people will never be able to do certain poses. As it turns out, my right hip is super tight (who knows what emotions I’ve got stored deep in there) and pretzel shapes are a long way off.
I started to realise that it didn’t really matter that I couldn’t make my body look like the textbook in all the poses. We discussed how asanas were created thousands of years ago to prepare the body to sit comfortably for meditation. Thousands of years ago, these gurus didn’t have Instagram or Facebook and I’m guessing they cared more about enlightenment than having the perfect bum, or great abs. So I dropped the goal of wanting to become a pretzel and decided to enjoy the process instead, whether I get there in the end or not.
A month of practising yoga for 4-5hrs a day in almost 40 degree heat was really taking its toll and exhaustion finally took over. I had no choice but to surrender and take my body as it came each day. Sometimes stretchy, but mostly feeling very stiff and slow moving. Honestly, it felt so good to give up always trying to go deeper and instead working with where I was that day. Props became my new best friend and I was modifying (yoga word for changing the pose to make it easier) left, right and centre.
In addition to the physical exhaustion, the asana practice also brought emotional exhaustion. I experienced several cliché moments of randomly bursting into tears in the middle of the class and not really knowing why. I also discovered a new found fear in headstand. I had thought I could do this pose, but actually, what I thought was straight, wasn’t quite. Every time I tried to go that tiny bit extra to be perfectly straight (upside down), I burst into tears. Still haven’t figured out what that’s all about.
After we’d hauled our bodies through two hours of asana, I had the tricky task of trying not to fall asleep, or wet myself, in meditation class. We meditated in the Hilltop Shala, with a stunning view of the ocean. Sitting as comfortably as I could, I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of ocean waves breaking, the rustling of monkeys in the trees nearby and sometimes the sound of soothing music. It was so relaxing that I struggled not to slip into a momentary nap. I could hear the gentle snoring of my neighbour…
On other days, presumably to try and keep us awake, our teacher was keen on introducing us to a range of utterly bizarre breathing and meditation techniques, including screaming om (as in actual screaming, at the top of your lungs), pretending to be a dog on heat and panting, and dancing to music so slow you could only really move your arms. My screams, panting and dance moves were always interspersed with fits of hysterical giggling.
We had the same wonderful teacher for yoga philosophy. He explained that the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga (in short, self-restraints, personal observances, physical asana practice, breathing techniques and meditation) lead a practitioner to discover unconditional and uninterrupted happiness. How great does that sound?! He told us not to look for happiness in a new handbag or boyfriend. It already lies within us, we just have to rediscover it.
He explained that yoga is a method of training the mind to achieve a state of balance and inner peace. I thought back to when I first started yoga a couple of years ago. I was bursting with anxiety and felt myself slipping into darkness. Someone told me that yoga would help. I was reluctant (I was a die-hard Pilates fan and had previously found yoga to be super boring), but out of sheer desperation I gave it a go. I found a class that I liked. I loved that in order to hold the postures I had to concentrate on keeping my balance, otherwise I fell over. When I focused my mind in this way, there was no room for the anxious thoughts. For that hour of yoga, I felt calm. Over time, the calmness extended to outside the yoga practice and some balance and inner peace returned. I started to feel like myself again.
Although obvious from the course title, I hadn’t really considered the fact that I would actually have to TEACH yoga. It was nerve wracking at first, but I slowly found my way.
I was first up for the teaching exam. I knew that all my “students” were just as anxious about their teaching exams as I was. So I taught a 30 minute slow-flow, focussing on balancing postures, to help calm the mind and relieve stress. It felt as though it came from the heart and in the end I really enjoyed teaching the class. I felt quite overwhelmed by all the lovely feedback.
Our final class was slow, relaxing yin yoga, accompanied by some wonderful music. As it ended, I opened my eyes to a view of the sun setting over the ocean ahead. I felt total peace as the sun gently warmed my face. It was done. We had finished. It was a perfect moment that I wanted to savour forever. I turned to my friend and she was crying her eyes out. As was the next friend. Oh God. I felt the tears coming too. I tried to swallow them, but couldn’t. I was so grateful for the experience, for having had the courage to go, and for the wonderful people I had shared it with. It has truly been one of the most joyous times of my life.
We dried our eyes and celebrated with the closing fire ceremony and a cocktail on the beach. In the evening we headed to the nearest beach shack to dance barefoot to questionable music on a sandy dance floor. I looked around at the friends I had made on the course. I’d fallen in love with them all. Such beautiful people, to whom I’d bared my soul. We danced in white dresses, grinning from ear to ear, in a carefree moment.
Apologies for the “X Factor” reference, but it really has been an incredible journey. I appreciate that the tricky part now is trying to put it all into practice in the Real World, but I really feel like I’m at the beginning of a new adventure and I can’t wait to enjoy the process.