Somehow I had made a horrible mistake
Days before I was to fly to Nicaragua, Serge sent me a message to say that there had been a mix-up and that my room was unfortunately double-booked. He had found me a lovely Bed & Breakfast nearby to spend the first 2 nights at before I was to make my way to Casa Aromansse to start my training towards becoming a certified yoga instructor. La Orquidea was a gorgeous home with lush tropical gardens full of orchids, and handcrafted hammocks overlooking Laguna de Apoyo — a dormant volcano that had filled with rain water over the past 23, 000 years to create a beautiful fresh water lake. Although there was a language barrier and the owners didn’t speak any English (and I only spoke minimal Spanish), they ensured I was relaxed and made me feel welcome in their home.
I was actually grateful for the accidental double-booking at Serge’s, as the R&R at La Orquidea would be exactly what I needed before my 6-week intensive training began on Monday.
Although sometimes impulsive (read: moving to Australia on a whim), I consider myself a highly organized person, and my days of working as a journalist have instilled a desire to strongly research everything before I jump in with both feet. Somehow though, I hadn’t researched my schooling enough, and had accidentally signed up for a certification course in a style of yoga I had never even attempted before. Sure, I had been practising Vinyasa, hot yoga and hatha yoga outside in the parks and along the beaches in groups, but I’d never done a solo practice with a set plan, or been able to master a proper series of sequences.
I was briefly relieved when I learned that there was only one other student in my class, Nancy, and that she was actually over the age of 60. I figured my sharp wit and young body would have an advantage over her, unaware that she had nearly already mastered Ashtanga yoga over the course of the past 25 years, and that she was an ex-dancer with seemingly unnatural flexibility.
Day one began with a 5:00am wake up, the skies still dark and the staff at the Bed & Breakfast / Shala not even arrived yet for work. My brain was excited to start the day, but my body wanted to crawl back into bed, despite the humid air in my non-air conditioned room making my mosquito netting stick to my skin every time I turned over. I groggily made my way to the shower, hoping the cold waters would wake me up before I made my way down to the kitchen to start my task of preparing morning tea for the yogis. Once I’d steeped the Rosemary tea, I decided to assist Nancy with her chore of setting up the shala, lighting candles and incense, rolling out the yoga mats and scattering flower petals from nearby climbing clematis for an added zen-like touch. Serge, Nancy and I silently sipped our tea on the outdoor deck of the dining room for a few minutes, as we looked out on the still waters of the Lagoon. It was incredibly peaceful and serene. Once the sun had risen, Serge whispered to us that we’d be going back up to the shala for a half hour of silent meditation, still gazing out towards the water. I was at such incredible ease. I felt confident in my decision to travel 6,000km away from home to do something to nurture my body, mind and soul, and was happy to soon be gaining an added education in something I was passionate about. Thankfully I was excited enough to keep myself from nodding off, as my body was still very tired and I’d need all the energy I could muster for the intense morning ahead.
Our meditation ended with Serge ringing a small, delicate Tibetan bell, and he instructed us to stand in Samasthiti. Nancy diligently hopped to the top of her mat, and I followed her suit, confused by what Serge had just said. He began to give further instructions for moves I knew of, but didn’t often practice, and he used the Sanskrit names for each asana. At first, I had thought that perhaps I was just mishearing him, as his accent was thick. He was French, but had moved to Nicaragua only a few years before hand, so although his Spanish was fluent, it wasn’t his native tongue. It soon became apparent that I wasn’t breathing correctly, and I was scolded for not using my Ujahi breath. “My what?! How do you breathe incorrectly?!?” I accidentally said aloud. Shocked, both Nancy and Serge stopped and stared at me, almost horrified. My North American commercialized yoga classes never practiced Pranayama (the movement of breath) during classes, nor did they use anything but fun English names for the yoga positions. I suddenly felt embarrassed and overwhelmed with the fact that I had come all this way and made all of these arrangements to be here, yet I had no idea what I was doing. Tears began to well up in my eyes, but I fought hard to hide my frustrations. Serge sensed my panic, and decided instead to ease our way into training by leading a simple class rather than insisting we jump into a full Mysore routine. After a 90 minute practice, we finished in Savasna with guided meditation, then were instructed to make our way to the dining deck for our vegan breakfast. I sat with Nancy, and we discussed the morning’s routine. I explained my confusion and my prior yoga experiences, which were received with her horrified shock but matronly comfort and reassurance that everything would be okay. She on the other hand, was more concerned with the fact that our meals for the next 6 weeks would be entirely vegan, caffeine-free and alcohol-free. She was a “meat and potatoes gal” and a self-professed “coffee fiend” who also enjoyed a glass of wine with dinner, so she wasn’t sure how she was going to fare with our yogi diet. I for one hated coffee, and was so far enjoying the abundance of freshly picked fruits and vegetables on our plates, so I couldn’t complain. I was however, going to be spending 13 hours every day for the rest of the summer living and breathing a type of yoga I wasn’t familiar with, so my dilemma was a bit more pressing.
After breakfast, we met back at the shala with our study books, and began to learn the basics of Pranayama and some simple breathing exercises to aid in meditation. As we weren’t expected to have known many of these techniques, I felt at ease knowing that these exercises were just as new to Nancy as they were to me. This seemed to actually give me a stronger lust for learning, and studying different Pranayamas would quickly become my favourite part of the day. Being able to control and modify the breath made me feel cleansed and more open to being able to look inward a little deeper. Kapalabhati breathing (or skull shine breathing) gave me a sense of “opening up my third eye” so that I could observe my surroundings clearer, and Surya Bhedana (single nostril breathing) made me feel more focused and present. We practiced trying to teach each other our favourite pranayamas — which you wouldn’t think would be hard, telling someone when to inhale and when to exhale, but it’s surprisingly difficult to get the timing right — and after an hour or so, we moved onto the Mantra portion of our syllabus.
In today’s world, a mantra is seen as a personal motto to live by, always positive and uplifting, and a phrase to help motivate and inspire you. An example one might use as their positive mantra could be “what doesn’t kill me can only make me stronger” as inspiration to help get them through the tough times, and as a reminder to stay positive about their future. Our mantras during class were much the same, but of course in Sanskrit, and to be repeated 108 times as a melodic chant. A common mantra that just about every yogi knows is Om, which for only being one syllable and 2 letters long, surprisingly translates to “The sacred sound, the Yes!, the Vedas, the Udgitha (song of the universe), the infinite, the all encompassing, the whole world, the truth, the ultimate reality, the finest essence, the cause of the Universe, the essence of life, the Brahman, the Atman, the vehicle of deepest knowledge, and Self-knowledge.”
So although you could quickly repeat Om 108 times, it was more beneficial to actually concentrate on the sound and reverberations, and really focus on the meaning behind the word. To help keep count of our mantras, Serge presented us with beautiful locally handcrafted mala beads, adorned with a wooden charm to fasten the long strand of 108 beads into a long necklace. I decided to practice my mantras at the mouth of the dormant volcano along the water’s edge, sitting in padmasana (lotus pose) and surrounding myself with the beautiful pebbles and stones I’d found on my journey to my sacred spot amongst the lime and banana trees. As we’d recite our mantras, we’d move from bead to bead until we’d make our way to the end where the charm sat, and once we’d finished our mantra, we were to have felt enlightened. Hari Om, Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Jai Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram were the “beginner” mantras we started with, which over the first week, would become so ingrained that I’d find myself humming throughout the day the melodies I’d created for them. I loved the hour of mantras, and still to this day enjoy finding a quiet, private place to chant to myself and run my fingers along the now shiny beads (in fact, when not in use, my mala is always hanging from my bedroom’s closet door). After an hour of chanting and feeling more spiritual, we had worked up an appetite, and it was time for another freshly prepared delicious vegan feast, followed by a dip in the Laguna to help calm our tired minds.
During our break, I spent the majority of my time battling feelings of anxiety about my physical practice, yet contentment over my metal practice. I worried that perhaps I wouldn’t be able to retain any knowledge of the Ashtanga series let alone be certified to teach it, and my muscles were already aching from the intensity of the morning’s practice. I felt embarrassed yet again, thinking that perhaps this time away from home could have been considered somewhat of a vacation and that maybe this certification would be easy, and similar to that of a long yoga retreat. I tried hard to focus my anxious feelings into a more positive light, and to concentrate on how proud I was of myself for feeling like I’d gotten a firm grasp on the other aspects of the course. After attempting to swim in the volcano’s crater to clear my head and relax, my arms and legs were overexerted and I resorted to floating on my back until the gentle waves brought me back to shore. It was time to dry off, and make my way back to the shala for our next lesson, Kriya yoga.
Again, not knowing anything about Kriya yoga, I was coming into this portion of the course with an open mind and no prior knowledge or ideas whatsoever of what this practice would be. Unbeknownst to me, this was another form of mental yoga, and I breathed a sigh of relief in believing that this should be easier for me to learn than mastering the complicated vinyasa of 40 asanas in the Ashtanga series. I have always believed that there are 3 major topics that are best avoided in casual conversation (especially when meeting new people): sex, religion & politics. I winced as Serge began the class by asking what our personal religious beliefs were…and meekly answered Agnostic with the hopes that a debate wouldn’t arise on why I wasn’t Christian or Buddhist. Thankfully, my answer was accepted (I had to keep reminding myself that this was not a place of judgement), and this portion of the day was the most tranquil and a time to reconnect with each other through discussion of peace, happiness and love. Serge talked us through mental stimulation exercises and simple “ice breaker” practices so that we could get to know one another, and ended the session with guided meditation where we learned to focus our dristis, connect with our chakras and control our bandhas. It was emotionally moving, and I remember never feeling so connected to myself. Most importantly, I felt the desire to share this tool with others, so that they too could better get in tune with themselves.
At the end of the day, we were to practice writing down a lesson plan, and use our fellow classmate as our student. As it turns out, not knowing anything about Ashtanga yoga, and coming into the course with a “blank slate” actually worked to my advantage, as I didn’t have any bad habits to break, or assumptions on how to do certain poses. An added bonus was of course that my “young mind” was able to retain information better and organise my thoughts with more ease than Nancy’s, which also gave me a leg-up. To boot, my background in public speaking meant that I wasn’t nervous with leading a room full of people, and my years of writing experience worked in my favour when it came to verbalising the instructions to lead into the next asana. We were able to learn a lot from each other when it came to patience, and finding ways to help each other remember the next steps and how to confidently lead one another in the practice.
The course was challenging. There were frustrations when it came to the Ashtanga physical practice — not being able to remember the next sequence and having to start from the beginning of the practice, forgetting the Sanskrit name of the asanas, inhaling instead of exhaling in to and out of poses, my inflexibility prohibiting me from entering specific asanas, endurance failing me as weakness set in and I’d fall out of a pose, and some minor injuries when I’d try to force an asana my body wasn’t ready for yet (bruises resulting from falls, blisters and rug burn from repeated chatarangas on my yoga mat, and a dislocated shoulder coming out of astavakrasana and going into urdhva kukkutasana). There were tears that came with the frustrations of trying to learn so much, along with the emotional aspect of the Kriya yoga and feeling drained after an intense mental exercise. For the first week, there was the constant nagging thought of “Am I good enough? Will I be able to obtain my certification? Why did I think this would be easy? Why did I sign up for something so difficult?” and several times I tried to throw in the towel and even looked into flights back home. I had a great support network of friends and family back home though, and after my long days of study, once dinner was finished and homework completed (usually around 9:00pm), I was able to send messages to them and vent about my frustrations. They’d calmly remind me not to give up, and to stick this out (I think they believed that as I was in a tropical paradise, I must surely be relaxing on a beach with a cocktail in hand, despite there not being an alcohol on the yogi’s menu). Besides, I was tired of having my past failed accomplishments haunt me, and this was an expensive and non-refundable certification.
I learned a lot about myself and the study of yoga. I quickly realised that Yoga is a mental practice above a physical practice — increasing your flexibility is just an added bonus along with the benefits of moving your muscles and burning calories. And with that being said, you need the mental discipline to harness your focus to meditate. I learned that you can spend a small fortune on name brand clothing and gear, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to reap the benefits of yoga unless you’re frequently stepping on your mat. I learned that not every practice is going to be a good practice, and that sometimes there are days where you’ll feel rushed and will think that the final savasna is never going to come. Most importantly though, I learned that there are always going to be challenges, but the most important challenge you’ll face is the competition — and not with anyone else, but yourself. Yoga is considered a practice for a reason. No one is perfect, and that’s what you’re continually striving to do: perfect YOUR yoga practice.
There were highs and lows, but in the end, I graduated as a Registered Yoga Teacher with Yoga Alliance and was now internationally recognised to teach anywhere in the world. Not only had my strength and flexibility increased, but mentally I felt as if I’d gained a stronger sense of self, and a desire live life to the fullest.
With practice and dedication, you can put your mind towards anything, even if that something turned out to be not at all what you’d initially expected. It’s important to keep active, both physically and mentally, and what better way to do so than by challenging yourself to learn something new?