Yes, I know. My mistakes and missteps have taught me a lot. But I’m not immune to regret.
So for anyone flirting with the idea of doing a yoga teacher training (or YTT) here are four things to consider first…
Let yourself be a student for a little longer
I had an epiphany during a walking meditation at a silent retreat in Tulbagh, South Africa. To my right, the roots of a fig splayed across a stone wall. To my left, I could hear bulbuls singing in the trees. Before me, a dusty driveway led to the rusty gates of a horse paddock. Beyond that lay a valley flanked by mountains.
I’d been walking up and down the driveway for 10 minutes or so when a thought came to me…
“I could live here.”
Not in Tulbagh, of course, but in the present.
It wasn’t too long after that retreat that I decided to train as a yoga teacher, because I wanted a life in which I could live in the present as much as possible. Postural practice, breath work and meditation helped me to do that, so surely a job where I got to teach those techniques would be the answer.
It’s not that I was wrong. Time truly feels immaterial when I’m teaching. But the transition from student to teacher comes with some loss.
Shortly before starting my YTT, I met a yoga teacher at my local Virgin Active who gave me a gift. Throughout her classes she’d come back to these words again and again: “Your practice.”
”Remember, this is your practice.”
”Your practice doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s.”
“If your mind wanders, simply come back to your practice.”
I went from feeling like an impostor to feeling like I had a legitimate place in that classroom. More importantly, I had something beautiful to nurture. And it was mine – for life.
The thing is, becoming a teacher shifts your relationship to your practice. The veil is lifted. You see the inner workings of a class. You see the tricks and shortcomings of your own teachers. You have to devise ways to market yourself. Your experience of yoga goes from being purely internal to becoming a commodity.
Essentially, your practice becomes content.
I didn’t know this would happen, but I could tell that I was pursuing a YTT with some urgency. And while I was lying on the floor of that Virgin Active yoga studio in Savasana, a question swam up to the surface: “What if I relished my private practice for a few more years before diving into teaching?”
I still wonder what that would have been like…
Start strength training long before you start your YTT (and never stop)
Several months into my YTT, I was lying on my back in Wind Relieving Pose – my right leg was stretched out on the floor, my left leg was bent with my hands wrapped around the shin.
My teacher instructed us to draw the knee in towards the chest.
”How deep you can go here?”
I drew my knee deeper and deeper into my chest until ZAP! I felt a lightening bolt of pain in my groin. I didn’t know it then, but I had just torn my left hip labrum. (That’s the sort of calamari ring that keeps your femur head snuggly suctioned into your hip socket.)
The first 18 months after my injury was a confusing time for me. I initially mistook the incident for a soft tissue problem. The injury got misdiagnosed by many physios. All the while I was managing chronic pain and limited range of motion, unsure of what helped and what hindered.
I blamed āsana for my injury for a long time. Or rather the progress-oriented, perfectionist, one-alignment-fits-all approach to āsana (but figuring that out was a learning journey all of its own).
I lost so much faith in my postural yoga practice and in my body that I began to fear movement altogether.
Since then, I have learnt just how complicated my injury really was. It turns out I have hip dysplasia. Basically my hip sockets are very shallow and don’t provide much coverage to my femur heads. This makes my hips fundamentally unstable. An orthopaedic surgeon told me that given my condition, an active life was bound to tear my hip labrum one day – with or without yoga. And to top it all off, I was in a car accident four years before my YTT. My doctor says we’ll never know for sure, but that could have played a part in destabilising the whole area.
Learning all of this helped to alleviate some of my negative bias towards āsana, but what really helped was strength training.
The more my hip hurt, the less I moved and the weaker I got. By the time I started strength training, I felt like a badly made marionnette puppet: My hip joints popped at the slightest movement. My right hip labrum tore in a non-yoga related event. I felt fragile.
But I’ve been training with Strength for Yoga since March 2022 and I’m stronger now. When you can’t rely on your joints to do the work – or even just stay in place – you need your muscles to step in to stabilise and protect them. So developing my muscles has boosted my confidence and has allowed me to trust my body more. Jenni Rawlings and Travis Pollen are the science-based and movement-positive creators of Strength for Yoga. By listening to their podcast and unpacking my questions and concerns with them and my latest physio, I’ve been able to fall back in love with my postural yoga practice.
Chronic pain is deeply connected to the mind. I’m sure that changing my outlook on my body – and movement in general – has been as important as finally getting Platelet-Rich Plasma injections into both my hip joints. These injections help ward off early onset arthritis, and boost the body’s natural healing processes using only your own blood and some hyaluronic acid.
Long story short: I couldn’t have known I had hip dysplasia without an MRI. But I could have gotten strong before my YTT to give myself a solid foundation from which to approach yoga āsana.
So start training before your YTT. Keep training during your YTT. Strength train for the rest of your life.
Investigate what is truly driving your practice
Getting strong is all very well, but even Jenni Rawlings recognises that “it isn’t a magical panacea that will transform every aspect of your yoga practice.” You can easily get yourself injured if you let your practice get tainted by perfectionism, urgency, valuing quantity over quality, either/or thinking and a whole host of other things that show up in white, capitalist culture.
So before you walk through the doors of your YTT, or log on to your Zoom classroom, you need to take a long, hard, unflinching look at what drives and motivates your practice, as well as the language used by your chosen teachers.
- Do your teachers talk about “wrong” and “right” alignment?
- Do they believe in a singular “full expression” of a pose?
- Are you concerned about whether you’re thin enough? Young enough? Flexible enough?
- Do your teachers encourage you to listen to your intuition, or do they encourage you to go deeper? (Beware the teachers who do both at the same time.)
- Do you feel guilt and shame if you don’t practice yoga āsana #EveryDamnDay?
- Are your teachers’ definitions of “beginner” and “advanced” based purely on a person’s ability to perform fancy poses?
- Do you feel that if you can’t achieve fancy poses, you’re not good enough to teach?
- Does a linear, measurable, progress-oriented approach appeal to you?
- Do your teachers praise physical performance?
- Do you crave or seek your teachers’ praise?
- Do you see your body as a project to work on, or something to fix?
- How much power do pretty āsana poses on Instagram have over your self-esteem?
- Do you or your teachers see something like Chair Yoga as lesser?
- Are you silently competing with the person on the mat next to you?
- Do you feel the need to perform when practicing in front of others?
- Do your teachers equate your physical abilities with your mental abilities (e.g. your inflexibility is a sign that you have a mental block)?
I’ve been guilty of many of these. And so have some of my favourite teachers.
Practicing at home, online, with your camera off can help you to dial down your own performativeness and truly tune in to your body. But unless you unpick the perfectionist, progress-oriented, more-is-better, urgency culture that dictates our 21st century behaviour, you still run the risk of pushing yourself too far.
To begin this work, I’d highly recommend reading Tema Okun’s piece on White Supremacy Culture. The document is designed to help pinpoint the ways in which white supremacy culture shows up in organisations, but it’s equally relevant to our yoga studios and our innermost selves. “These characteristics show up in the attitudes and behaviors of all of us – people of color and white people. Therefore, these attitudes and behaviors can show up in any group or organization, whether it is white-led or predominantly white or people of color-led or predominantly people of color.”
It’s hard work going up against your own culture. “Culture is powerful precisely because it is so present and at the same time so very difficult to name or identify.” But luckily, Tema Okun provides a list of common expressions of white supremacy culture for the reader to examine – and also provides a list of their antidotes. It makes for very tangible and easily-applicable reading (even if it can feel very uncomfortable at times and the work will require a mindful return to self-awareness again and again).
I bought into linear, measurable, progress-oriented thinking for a long time. And I’m still disentangling myself from it. It’s the kind of thinking that led me to believe that if I was really serious about yoga, I’d make it my job. My career. It wasn’t enough to just get accredited. Yes, it gave me some legitimacy. But if I really loved yoga, I would actually teach. I didn’t want my YTT to just be some cute idea I had. I wanted to show everyone that I had follow through. So I laid out the milestones for year one after my graduation. I wanted tangible steps to track on my journey towards my Dream Life.
I was going to achieve the hell out of yoga teaching.
The thing is, career building is not the same as living life in the present moment.
The Buddhist concept of ‘aimlessness’ has been very helpful in softening my approach. Thich Nhat Hanh explains in The Art of Living that, “Aimlessness does not mean doing nothing. It means not putting something in front of you to chase after.” Too often we spend our lives trying to ease our own restlessness and malaise by striving for or chasing after, “and yet we lose ourselves along the way.”
That has been my experience with chasing after my yoga teaching dream. The more I pursued content creation, designing and redesigning my website, posting Instagram class schedules, and feeling disappointed by my inability to run a consistent Youtube channel, the less at ease I felt.
Luckily, Thich Nhat Hanh offers a simple antidote: just stop.
Stopping can be as simple as sitting quietly. But it can also look like cancelling all my teaching slots and uninstalling Instagram from my phone. Which is exactly what I’ve done.
In the excitement of having a goal to pursue, I lost sight of this key piece of wisdom: “Everything we are looking for, everything we want to experience, has to happen right here in the present moment,” because “only the present moment is real.”
Find out how my decision to stop is going when I share my latest comic Not a Juice Cleanse…