This was my first time travelling abroad and the longest amount of time I have spent away from home. In the weeks leading up to this trip I was filled with nerves and admittedly some fears. I was worried about being in a new place and was anxious about meeting the people I would be spending every day practicing and studying with for a whole month. Prior to the course I was required to read The Bhagavad Gita, The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali, the Science of the Breath, and a book on basic anatomy and physiology. Along with that were written reports reflecting on what we had read. These readings helped to give me a better understanding of the tradition, philosophy, and history of yoga. I also learned a lot about anatomy and how our breath directly affects the state of our minds and bodies, which my inner science geek found seriously fascinating. Mike was competing in the National Skydiving Championships in Arizona the week before I was scheduled to leave and returned home in time to take me to airport the following evening. We said our goodbyes, and I boarded my first of three flights and beginning my 26 hours of travel, headed to a retreat center that would be my home for the next month. Thankfully my commute went as smoothly as I could have hoped for, and I arrived at Samahita Retreat on the morning of October 31st, 2015. We had our meet-and-greet that afternoon where I was introduced to my classmates who came from all over the world, and by dinnertime we were all chatting away excitedly about the days ahead. Any fears and doubts that I had before I left home were instantly gone, and I quickly made myself at home.
Samahita is located directly on the beach on the southern coast of Koh Samui, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand. The yoga school there is called Centered Yoga, and it is an Ashtanga Vinyasa based course. The facilities are all indoor/outdoor, something I am not used to having here in Illinois. We practiced in the yoga shala with the doors and windows wide open, we ate outside, we studied outside, and I woke up most mornings early enough to walk along the beach as the sun was rising. Even with it being rainy season I fell in love with the climate, low 90's and high humidity with a continuous cool breeze that made the temperature feel absolutely perfect. Unless I was practicing or sleeping I was outdoors, and I quickly realized how amazing and connected that made me feel. The food provided for us consisted of fresh, wholesome, and local ingredients and was mostly vegetarian aside from the occasional seafood dishes. As a vegan I had plenty of options to choose from, and every meal was delicious and full of color. The head chef, Nui even went out of her way to make special desserts at night for those us with food restrictions which we were always so thankful for! We were encouraged to fast for 14-16 hours each day, usually from 7pm until 11am. It took me about a week to get used to that sort of eating schedule, but I grew to like it so much that I've continued with it now that I am at home. Since then I have learned so much about the benefits of intermittment fasting and am really intrigued!
Our course began at 7am the very next morning on Sunday, November 1st. Sundays were set up as partial rest days with time set aside for Karma yoga where we would spend about an hour picking up garbage on the beach (which unfortunately there was a lot). We followed the same schedule for the whole month, and it was nothing short of intense. We started our practice at 7am with an opening chant as a group, followed by 15-20 minutes of contemplation practice. I want to share this because it is a practice that ANYONE can do and benefit from. It is so simple but can be so profound when practiced consistently. It begins with focusing on something or someone you are grateful for, aiming to eventually FEEL gratitude throughout your entire body rather just thinking it. From there, you move to apologizing for something you have done either to yourself or to another that you would do differently now and then on to forgiving someone for something they may have done to hurt you...not condoning their actions, but rather accepting that they were acting from their own level of consciousness at the time and then allowing yourself to let it go. To end the contemplation practice you ask for help or guidance, and it could be for anything that is going on in your life. With this you are recognizing that you cannot do everything by yourself and that sometimes it is necessary to ask for assistance. Doing this first thing in the morning, even before looking at your phone, is such a powerful practice that I highly recommend everyone try! It has had such a positive impact on the way that I view and interact with the people and situations around me.
Our contemplation practice was followed by 20-30 minutes of chanting (mantra japa) as a group in order to channel and focus the mind for pranayama (breathwork). As part of our chanting practice we would recite OṂ together 21 times (pranava japa), letting the vibrations flow through us and allowing any external thoughts to subside. Japa means repetition, and it is a powerful and transformative practice that deserves its own blog post because there's so much I could write about! If you are interested you can read more about it here. This first hour of practice in the morning was my favorite part of the training. Much of the personal growth, emotionally and spiritually, that I experienced during this month was due to the time spent sitting on my mat focusing, singing, and simply just BEING. All of this was done on an empty stomach, and I made it a habit to wake up early every morning early and head to the beach for a quick walk before class. I wouldn't touch my phone until after class because I didn't want any added stimulation prior to my meditation and breathing practices. It was actually difficult the first week, and I realized how dependent and borderline addicted I was to my phone...and for what reason? It wasn't like I was ever looking at anything important anyway. I quickly learned that my state of mind and my attitude for the entire day are significantly affected by how I spend my first moments after waking. After our OṂ's we would sit in silence, or as my teacher Paul calls it "the residue" leftover by the vibrations and channelization of the mind or a state before meditation that he calls "proto-meditation". It is difficult to describe this experience because for me it was different every day. Some days my mind just had too much inner noise, and I could hardly seem to focus at all. Other days I was able to really focus and feel everything, and then the space or "residue" leftover from chanting brought about a sense of calm that I'm not sure I've ever felt before. It was almost as if I got swallowed by darkness and felt like I barely needed to breathe at all...sometimes breathing even felt like a distraction. There were days I could have sat in that space for an hour, just focusing on my breathing and witnessing how each breath took me further and further away from the physical sensations in my body. For someone like me who has suffered from anxiety most of her life, this feeling of stillness was so unfamiliar but so welcoming.
Śanti Pataḥ - The Vedic peace mantra that we began each class or meeting with together:
ōṁ sa̱ha nāvavatu |
sa̱ha nau bhunaktu |
sa̱ha vīryaṁ karavāvahai |
mā vidviṣāvahai ||
oṃ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ ||
May both of us together be protected.
May both of us together be nourished.
May we work together with great energy.
May our study together be brilliant and effective.
May we not hate or dispute with each other.
Oṁ, Peace, Peace, Peace.
The last portion of our seated practice was spent doing pranayama and its preparations (kriyas). Pranayama means controlling the breath. When first starting a practice it is typical to begin with a 1:2 inhale to exhale ratio, meaning if you inhale for 8 counts you exhale for 16 counts. As you develop a consistent practice retention (kumbhaka) is introduced, and the ratio changes to 1:1:2 (ex: inhale for 8, hold for 8, exhale for 16). We either would count in our heads or count along to a metronome. There are different pranayama practices that all follow this breathing pattern but have different ways of breathing, like inhaling and exhaling through individual nostrils in a specific pattern or inhaling through a curled tongue, for example. It requires a lot of focus to be able to count breaths while simultaneously keeping track of which round you are on and with which nostril you are breathing out of, but that's the point. Pranayama improves concentration in order to prepare for meditation. It teaches you to control your thoughts, balances the nervous system, and on a physical level strengthens the muscles involved in respiration, allowing you to breathe more efficiently and effectively.
After our seated practice we would move right into our asana (physical) practice, usually around 9am going until 10:30-11am. Centered Yoga teaches Ashtanga Yoga in the tradition of Sri K. Patthabi Jois, to which they have a direct lineage, while including some additional poses that serve as preparations for other poses. In Ashtanga, classes are not verbally directed by a teacher like in most yoga styles. Instead we do a self-practice, called a Mysore practice, where we go through our practice at our own pace and with the rhythm of our own breath. There are teachers in the room that adjust your alignment as needed or who assist you in moving deeper into postures. Prior to this training, I had only attended Vinyasa Flow classes, where the instructor leads the class and the sequence of poses are different every time. In Ashtanga, the postures are organized in a specific sequence and are grouped into different series, each series getting progressively more advanced. In our training we focused only on the Primary Series (Yoga Chikitsa), unless otherwise instructed. Before committing to this training I wasn't sure how I would feel about practicing the same sequence of poses because I was so used to variety. However, I discovered that Ashtanga was actually exactly what I needed. Yes, the poses and sequence are the same, but my body was not the same from one day to the next. In this way, Ashtanga is a science; you keep the poses and sequence fixed, while your body and mind act as the variables for which you can experiment on. The practice challenges you; if there are poses you don't like or that you find difficult you are forced to face them every time you practice. You cannot avoid them or hide from them. This translates to life, too. Whenever I felt uncomfortable about or afraid of something I simply just avoided it because that's the easiest thing to do. The problem there was that I was robbing myself of the opportunity to work on myself and to grow.
By the second week of daily practice I was exhausted, and my entire body was sore. I also learned an important lesson: your ego often does not have your health in its best interest. I learned this when I pushed myself a little too far in the seated forward folds and overstretched my hamstrings. They are still not fully healed even after several weeks, and I have been forced to back off of or modify a lot of poses while they heal. I became aware of how often in my daily life I push myself too hard too fast. I'm often impatient with my body, wishing it could bend farther or move faster or lift heavier or look different, but the truth is that my body will change and grow at its own pace and in its own time. Force and will-power only slow down the process, and having realized that through a minor injury I have learned patience.
After asana practice we had about an hour and a half to eat, shower, study, and relax before we started our afternoon studies. The first two weeks were spent studying anatomy and how it applied to the postures from roughly 1pm-3:15pm with our teacher Arielle. From there we moved into asana study, where we broke down each pose and learned modifications and how to adjust the alignment. We were given the opportunity to teach and adjust each other, which is something I very much appreciated about this course. In my search for teacher training programs I found that many of them did not focus on teaching practice (crazy, right?). Within the first few days of attending this training I knew I had found what I was looking for, which in some ways was a blessing and a curse because the expectations were high, the days were long, and the practices were intense both physically and mentally. At the end of week two we took our anatomy exam and from there the last two weeks of afternoon classes were taught by our teacher and the founder of Centered of Yoga, Paul Dallaghan. The first half of the afternoon we had a short chanting class with our teacher Amy, followed by yoga history and philosophy class with Paul (which is another subject I could write a lot about). I loved the anatomy classes, but surprisingly I found myself really drawn to the philosophy portion. The lectures were mainly focused on the classical philosophical system of Sāṃkyha and the Yoga Sutras of Pantajali. It was an entirely new way of thinking for me, but I was so fascinated by it and find its teachings to be highly valuable. From there we continued with asana study with more emphasis on teaching practice.
We finished our afternoon classes around 6pm each day and then were excused for dinner and study time. Some nights we had movies we were encouraged to watch, and other nights we participated in an evening meditation/kriya called Trāṭaka (pronounced trah-tahk). Trāṭaka is a meditative practice in which you stare directly into a candle flame and try to keep your eyes open as long as possible without blinking. Once you close your eyes the image of the flame is still visible, and you aim to focus on it until it slowly fades away. This practice strengthens the eyes and improves single-pointed focus and concentration. It only takes a couple of minutes to do, and it is something I now practice every night before bed.
At the end of the first week we were introduced to the kriyas, cleansing practices that prepare the body and mind for pranayama, meditation, and eventually higher levels of consciousness. Some kriyas are simple exercises such as Trāṭaka, Lion's breath (Simha Mudra), and tongue lock (Jivha Bandha) which we did daily as part of our morning seated practice along with other breathing exercises that are classified as kriyas or preparations for pranayama. However, kriyas are where yoga can get weird (at least for someone like me who had never heard of these practices before). I had heard of Neti pots, but I didn't realize that that was only one type of Neti practice (Jala Neti) and that there was another practice called Sutra Neti that involves placing a catheter into your nostril and fishing it out through your mouth. Once you are able to reach back and pull the catheter through your mouth, you grab both ends and give your nasal cavity a good floss. You then repeat on the other side (sorry for anyone who is a little squeamish). It took me 4 days and several attempts before I was able to successfully and comfortably do this practice, and over the course of a month doing this daily I have noticed a definite improvement in my breathing. I can breathe easier and more deeply. Who knew?! But wait...it gets better :). We also learned about the Dhauti's, which are kriyas aimed at cleansing the esophagus, respiratory system, and the stomach. Specifically we were taught the practice of Vamana Dhauti, which I won't go into too much detail about, but it involves drinking a liter of warm salt water first thing upon waking on an empty stomach and then immediately vomiting it back out. Most of us in our group tried it at least once, but myself and a few others continued with the practice daily for the remainder of the course. The purpose of Vamana Dhauti (pronounced vah-man dow-tee) is to remove extra mucous from the stomach and lining of the esophagus, balance stomach acidity, remove undigested food particles, and relieve respiratory problems. This practice is done daily for the first few weeks in order to get the most benefit and cleansing and is then done weekly or monthly as needed for maintenance. Beginning with week two these kriyas became a part of my morning practice, done first thing upon rising and before our seated practice.
That is when things really started to change quickly for me because the kriyas cleanse on more than just a physical level. I started having vivid dreams of painful past experiences, and in some cases they were experiences that I hadn't realized affected me as much as they did. Some of them are quite personal, but one of the most vivid dreams I had was of being at my childhood home when my parents were packing the moving truck and heading to Southern California. A few months prior to their big move we had to say goodbye to our family dog who was almost 16 years old and who had been in my life since I was in third grade. My parents bought the house when my mom was pregnant with me, and we stayed there up until they moved earlier this year. It was my only home, and it represented everything about my childhood. When we went through the process of cleaning it out and spreading our dog's ashes in the backyard I was emotionally numb. I didn't cry, and I purposely kept myself from focusing on what was happening. I didn't realize that there were emotions that I had buried away until I had this dream where it all came pouring through. I was so deeply sad in this dream, telling Mike a bunch of stories and showing him where they happened and feeling like I was mourning the loss of my childhood. I was being forced to say goodbye to the house where pretty much everything important in my life had occurred. I also dreamed that the movers were breaking things and were overall just moving too quickly for me to process. I woke up crying...actually crying. Dreams like this happened quite frequently but with different experiences I have been through in my life. What they all had in common was that the emotions were so real and so raw, and I couldn't hide from them.
On top of that, two days after starting my morning kriyas, the Neti's and Vamana, I got sick. I don't know if the kriyas caused it, but my throat was sore, and I was congested. The first couple of days I managed to push myself through practice and class, but by the third day a headache came on that I just couldn't shake. By the afternoon I felt so sick that I had to leave class and go to the wellness center, and that's when I broke down. It hit me out of no where. Part frustration, part homesickness, and part emotional cleansing, the tears just came and wouldn't stop. I was so embarrassed to be sitting there waiting for the nurse and crying. She came and rubbed my back, and her affectionate touch made me cry even more. My suite-mate Bec then came over and helped me calm down, and by then I was as grateful as I was embarrassed. At that point I knew I needed rest so I slept the whole afternoon, woke up for a quick dinner, and went straight back to bed. I had to miss class the next morning as well and just kept on sleeping. By the next afternoon I felt so much better.
At this point in the training we were all becoming really good friends, and talking and laughing with such beautiful, like-minded people made our hectic schedule seem so much more manageable. Our schedule was quite tight, but we were lucky enough to be given Saturdays as rest days and Sundays as partial rest days. I spent a lot of my Saturdays relaxing in the sun or in the ocean. The first Saturday we took a trip to a waterfall and to Lamai beach , we found the most incredible ice cream shop. They had homemade fruit sorbets that were out of this world! On Fridays the retreat center had a free shuttle to take us to the local fisherman's market in Bophut. It was mainly a place to shop, but there were also a ton of restaurants on the beach, our favorite of which was Cocotam's, where you sat on big bean bags on the beach and listened to really chill music. That's also where we found the most amazing coconut ice cream ever (I can't decide which was better, the sorbet or coconut ice cream). The second Saturday I stayed at the retreat center to study for our anatomy exam the following day, but then ended up deciding to go on a adventure. My friend Stu and I swam out to open water to check out some reefs (which was a hell of a workout, especially the second time we went and realized we were swimming against a pretty strong current). We went with just goggles...no snorkel or flippers, and so the swims took around an hour each to complete. The water visibility was not great, but I still just absolutely loved being out in open water and diving down to see fish and plant life. The third Saturday my friends Kylie, Cristina and I walked a half hour down the beach to the big temple, and it is one of my favorite memories from this trip. We all have so much in common, and we talked about everything that we've been through in the last couple of years as we have gone through significant personal transformations. Being so far away from home was difficult at first, but by that third week I felt at home in Thailand with my classmates.
Our last week was one exam after the other. Monday was our philosophy exam, Tuesday was our oral exam (reciting all of the Sanskrit names for the asanas, kriyas, and pranayamas), and Wednesday was our teaching exam, which was the one I was most nervous for. It was over before I knew it though, and by Wednesday afternoon we had all of the stress of exams lifted from our shoulders. Funny enough, our teaching exam was on the day of Loy Krathong, a Thai festival that takes place on the full moon of the twelfth lunar month. Part of the festival is the tradition of making floats (krathongs) out of the bottom of the banana tree, banana leaves, flowers, and candles and offering them to the ocean. Families and friends spend the day making these floats, and they take part in the offering together in the evening under the full moon. We were so lucky enough to be able to help make krathongs after our exam. Sitting there in the shala by the ocean pinning leaves and flowers and talking with friends was so calming, and I could feel the loving energy all around us.
When we were done with our krathongs Stu, Kylie and I took the paddle boards out past the reefs. We were free. We were free from exams, we were away from home, away from responsibilities of daily life, and all that mattered was paddling on a board in the afternoon sun. Kylie kept saying how happy she was, how she could stay out there all day. I don't have the right words to describe how I felt at that time besides free and genuinely happy. None of us really wanted to paddle back to the beach because it was Wednesday, and that meant we only had a few days left together with the people we have grown so close to. That night the moon was the biggest and brightest I had ever seen it, and after we let our floats go into the ocean we couldn't help but hug each other. It still amazes me how sensitive we are to each others' energies and how when a group of people are so aligned their energies combine and everyone is elevated. That's really the only way I know how to describe it, but I know we all felt it. It's one of the things I miss the most now that I am back home, the energy and connected-ness of our group.
On our last Thursday we went to a resort called Nikki Beach, and although it was too up-scale for my taste we were able to see an amazing sunset. We ended up running right into the ocean because the colors were so bright and were reflecting off of the water. It was mesmerizing walking into the water and seeing such vivid pink, orange, and purples all around us. It only lasted a few minutes before the sun fully set, but that is yet another memory with a forever home in my mind. On our last night together we went back to Bophut and sat at Cocotam's drinking mock-tails (after a month of intense training we seemed to have no desire for alcohol). I wish I could have slowed down that entire night because it went by way too quickly. The fact that we were all going back to our homes in so many different countries around the world was starting to set in. We were twenty-something strangers brought together for the sole purpose of learning yoga, and through all our hard work and practice we became a family of yogis.
I have always found it difficult to make friends and connect with other women, mainly because I have trouble relating. I am for the most part an introvert and have always found balance in having only a few close friends. Making friends at Samahita just happened effortlessly, and I am so grateful to have met all of them. By the second week Kylie and I realized how much we actually had in common, too much in fact for me to believe that us meeting was purely coincidental. She lives in Cairns, Australia which is where the Great Barrier Reef is located (isn't she lucky?!), and her and I just hit it off right from the start. The more we talked the more we were shocked at how similar our lives the last two years have been. Our fiance's have nearly identical personalities and interests (they are both aerial photographers, Mike as a skydiver and Ben from his paramotor), and we have gone through almost the same experiences in regards to our relationships. We have the same views on life, and our personalities are pretty much the exact same, right down to our sensitivity and anxious tendencies. Unfortunately, Australia is about as far away as you can get from the U.S., so on the day that I left for the airport she came with on the shuttle to say goodbye. I honestly didn't think I was going to cry going home, but the second my bags were pulled out of the shuttle and Kylie got out I couldn't help it. I feel like I have known her for so much longer than a month, and I know that we did not just meet by chance.
On Thursday, November 26th we had our graduation ceremony and were presented with our certificates. It was at that time I realized how quickly a month had gone by. After the first week I felt like I still had ages left of practicing and living in Thailand, but by the time I had the certificate in my hands it all seemed like it happened so fast. I was nervous leaving home to travel all the way Southeast Asia, but even just after two weeks there I didn't want to leave. The climate was perfect, the people were lovely, and I am beyond grateful that I had the opportunity to spend a month living and breathing yoga and to be in such a healing and supportive environment for me sort through and let go of old emotions, fears, doubts, regrets, and painful experiences.
I came here to learn yoga and to become an instructor, but I learned far more than I had expected and left with much more than just a certificate. Although jet lag on arrival did not interfere with my sleeping, my digestive system never really got the memo that we had flip-flopped on time zones and were now in tropical paradise. Luckily the nurse there was amazing, and her knowledge combined with Paul's recommendations helped me to make the best of it. My trip home took 33 hours, but it felt so much shorter than that; at the point I was ready to be at home with Mike and my dogs.
I am still adjusting to being back at home and back to my normal every day routine and responsibilities. Trying to balance continued self-practice of meditation, pranayama, and asana with my usual routine is proving to be challenging. I spent a month practicing for nearly four hours every day, but that was with all other distractions and duties eliminated. I also have had to adjust to the climate change, which for me was much harder to adapt to than the 13-hour time difference. Luckily this winter has been generous so far in terms of temperature, but I miss not being near the ocean and being outside nearly all of the time. The combination of climate change and reduced time for self-practice has taken a bit of a toll on me emotionally, but at least now I am better able to manage my emotions and stress. I am very proud of my accomplishments, but I am most thankful for what I learned unrelated to teaching yoga. The mantra and practices I have learned have become such an important part of my life and have helped me to understand who I really am and how to best support my body and mind. I see and think more clearly, and even though I know I will still have "bad" days I know now that I have the tools I need to help me to stay centered through all of the chaos that is a part of life. I am eternally and humbly grateful to my teachers Paul, Arielle, and Amy and to all of my classmates who have shared this journey with me. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of this special time spent in such a wonderful place. So until next time...
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE MANY BENEFITS OF A REGULAR YOGA PRACTICE
Special thanks to Cristina Lopez McLauchlan from The Vibe Tribe and Bec McBride for giving me
permission to include some of their photos in this blog post!