In a month’s time I’m starting something new – the meeting of two streams that I’ve dipped in an out of over the past 12 years.
That first stream is yoga, a practice I first met when I was a student in London and I took my first yoga class with a characteristically stern Iyengar teacher. Despite the slightly unfriendly beginning, I was intrigued and, over the years, I dabbled in various styles, eventually settling in Ashtanga / Vinyasa. In the post-glow of a great class, I’d sometimes dream of being a teacher myself, and took the first steps towards that in October 2012 when I completed a teacher training in Mexico. I did the training primarily to deepen my own practice, but ended up teaching community lessons by donation for six months after – a time filled with beautiful memories and the sense I was doing the right thing. But I also knew I needed to learn more, so I decided to spend some time in Bali, one of the world’s most popular yoga hotspots – and a place that changed my view of yoga.
Yoga’s dark side
I’d always had an inkling of the unhealthy side of yoga and its preoccupation with image. I had come up against it in my own practice and in the pages of magazines such as Yoga Journal where the image of a lithe “yoga body” reigned supreme. I’d heard a little of Lululemon, the clothing brand that has become synonymous with yoga’s troubled reputation. The CEO of that company once made comments that more or less said Lululemon pants weren’t for fat people, adding to the idea that yoga is the realm of the thin.
I knew that yoga could serve the ego, but in Ubud I saw these issues in full colour, and plenty more to boot. I found myself in packed classes with teachers pushing students way beyond what was good for them. Competition and comparison were rife and attention to detail fell by the wayside, often leading to injuries big and small. Some teachers cloaked their lessons in spiritual hyperbole, satisfying their students’ desire for something “higher” but simultaneously massaging everyone involved’s ego. Like in the culture of high school, physical appearance was a measure of success.
Yoga in Ubud sat side by side with the consumerism of health and fitness, again evident in Yoga Journal where there is a proliferation of ads for “miracle” vitamins, diet pills and potions to make you “better”. There’s a desperate striving for health and “perfection”, which sometimes feels like no more than a grasping avoidance of the reality of one’s mortality.
I felt uncomfortable amid this. I even found myself compelled to push my body too and compare myself to those around me. Even though I knew better than that, it was easy to get caught in the flow. But I knew this wasn’t yoga, at least not the yoga I loved. I put the brakes on and took a step back from the practice. I started to fall out of love with the fast-paced yoga I’d practiced for years and once again found myself drawn to the alignment-focused Iyengar method I’d started with. Over the years, I’d encountered problems with my knees and some one-on-one lessons with an Iyengar teacher identified the root of my issues – a slight bow-legged tendency that I and every other teacher had failed to notice. That one insight – confirmed by a physiotherapist since – transformed my practice, and confirmed the importance of anatomical knowledge – something that is only touched upon in basic yoga teacher training. I started reading around the subject and opened a well of conflicting and often confusing info, eventually deciding to take an in-depth 9-month yoga anatomy course, which I’ve just started now.
However, despite my rediscovered appreciation for Iyengar yoga, I didn’t feel that this was the method I wanted to teach. It wasn’t the perfect fit and I still longed to find my niche. That’s where the second stream came in.
I became interested in Buddhism many years ago when I went to Sri Lanka on my gap year. I remember visiting the local temples and then buying a book called What Buddhists Believe in the airport as I left. But it wasn’t until the early days of my relationship with Steve that my interest was re-ignited. He gave me a book called Re-enchantment and I felt like it was the most sense I’d read in years. I quickly followed it with more – by Pema Chodron, Thubten Chodron, Thich Nhat Hanh and others –until I eventually signed up for an intro to meditation course at my local Buddhist centre. I became a regular at the centre, joining its publicity group and taking a trip to its partner monastery in Scotland for a mini retreat. I kept this up for around a year, but gradually started to back off. I loved the ideas taught through Buddhism, but I struggled with the traditions and wasn’t ready to call myself “Buddhist”.
Next step was a training in transpersonal psychotherapy at a school that had Buddhist concepts at its core. Throughout that year, on the course and in my own therapy, I became more closely acquainted with modern-day interpretations of Buddhism – such as mindfulness and cognitive therapy. As with the words of Re-Enchantment, it all made so much sense. I slowly started to learn how to respond rather than react. And, following my Mum’s death, the practices of meditation and mindfulness, alongside the teachings of Buddhist philosophy, were key to finding my way through the grief. I felt like I wanted to put that experience and those teachings to use somehow within my professional life, but beyond my own personal practice, I wasn’t sure what form that would take. So off I went to travel and see what might happen next.
And that’s where this blog begins. I have, throughout the course of my travels, sometimes expressed Buddhist ideas – talking about living in the moment, and avoiding the pitfalls of comparison or concrete plans. Aside from my own interest in the subject, having a Buddhist boyfriend who is making a film filled with Buddhists and Buddhist ideas, means it’s a philosophy that’s never far from my mind, and it forms a backdrop to much of my life. But it wasn’t until Bali that I began to re-activate my own inquiry and start to see the threads of my own journey, separate to Steve’s.
Searching for a teacher
One of the key ideas in Buddhism is the need for a teacher, an elder who can help guide you on your path. The same goes for yoga. You can try to do things yourself, but all is enriched by good guidance. In the midst of my confusion in Bali, not only in yoga but through the entire Don’t Knock it Til You’ve Tried It experiment, one thing became hyper clear: I needed a teacher to guide me. But where could I look? A nomadic lifestyle makes it tricky to commit, and although I’d found great teachers along the way – my first Ashtanga teachers Gingi and Karen, my teacher trainers Carri and Sarah, and my Iyengar teacher Christine in Bali – I now needed one that embodied the type of yoga that I was drawn to. So I resorted to a Google search. I searched for the things that mattered to me – the words mindfulness, compassion and yoga – and amid the forest of results. I eventually found one that stuck.
It was a website about a woman named Jill Satterfield who integrates Buddhist meditation and philosophy into the practice of yoga. She calls it Vajra Yoga, and as I delved into her story and the descriptions of the practice, I felt an excitement build inside me. Perhaps I’d found my teacher? Not only did Vajra Yoga bring together yoga and Buddhism, Jill had also started an organization called The School for Compassionate Action: Meditation, Yoga and Educational Support for Communities in Need – the type of community-based work that I am also drawn to.
I was excited, but cautious in my approach. Experience has taught me that high hopes are easy to dash. The biggest hurdle was distance. Jill was based in America and at the time I was in Bali. We were in contact a little via email but most of all I wanted to meet her. Eventually that opportunity arose through a serendipitous collection of events. Jill was teaching a workshop in Utrecht on the day that Steve and I were due to drive back to the UK from Berlin. An hour’s detour would take us through the Netherlands. We both signed up to the course, and in the meantime I also learned that Jill planned to offer a teacher training near Amsterdam later that year. If I enjoyed the workshop, and she felt I was ready, I began to think I might sign up.
And that brings us up to now. Steve and I did go to Utrecht; we loved the workshop; Jill and her gentle, intelligent teaching impressed us; she did think I was ready; and I did sign up to the teacher training. I begin in one month’s time.
My journey so far in yoga has taught me one main thing: mindfulness is key. Yoga is not about achieving complex poses or looking a certain way – it’s about becoming comfortable with, and exploring, what is, regardless of how that feels. I am interested in being a yoga teacher who teaches and celebrates all bodies. This teacher training is a step along that path, and I’m also doing a course in MBSR and am thinking about further study as time goes on. I’m at the start of this journey, but it feels right and I’m excited about how the various threads have merged into a stream that seems to fit.
I’ll keep you updated as I go along.
The first part of the Vajra Yoga Teacher Training I’m doing can be done as a stand alone retreat for yoga practitioners not interested in teaching. If you’ll be in or near the Netherlands from 5-14th October, I highly recommend it.