In the opening days of yoga teacher training, our lead teachers instructed me to write a letter to myself. I would read it at the end of the training in three weeks. What did I hope to accomplish? Did I show up every day – why? What would I congratulate my future self for? An achievement? A feeling? A way of being? I thought, wrote quickly, folded the paper several times, and – hurried by their encouragement of me being last – tossed my wishes for myself in a bowl with the others.
We closed the last practice – as always – with savasana, corpse pose, the final resting posture of yoga. I lie on my back, arms at my sides, palms upward, legs resting wherever they fell. My neighbor sniffled, and I jealously imagined tears trickling from her eyes. My breath rose, held, fell, and slowed. I lay in complete relaxation, and my thoughts wandered until my mind settled in the dreamlike abyss.
Anton’s voice brought me to. I wiggled my fingers, toes, and lips. I rolled into a cross-legged seat and opened my eyes, surprised to see this letter resting at the top of my mat:
You never could have imagined this three or four months ago, but wow, you are free and opened yourself to honesty and exploration of yourself, the human body, the emotions and intellect, and these strangers that became close friends.
Remember when Anton asked who thought they would soar without faltering? You found those places where weakness felt like the only form of strength, and you let it be, exist, and happen. On the night of the altar, you spoke about the potential for everything that is simultaneous with nothing, the balance of calm and chaos in your life. You’ve seen those counterparts compete and come together, balancing yourself in new ways. Physical, emotional, spiritual.
You played big. You impressed yourself, without wondering about what others think. You dreamt this day would come, and you, yes you, made it happen. Congratulations on making this happen.
And maybe you learned to say a few more things in five words,
I sat awestruck. My past mindset brought my potential to fruition. I conceived the reality that I desired for myself. I put it the work. I trusted the process. I’m grateful.
I jumped. I leaped. I broke from (paused) my job, and I went in search – not of answers, but of questions. My head riddled with unanswered anxiety:
What do I want?
Where do I want to go?
What’s my vision for my life?
What am I searching for?
What am I afraid of?
What do I love to do? What brings me strength? Joy?
Who am I doing it for?
What’s my commitment?
All these, yet I wanted more. I wanted less, all the same. I wanted clear, concise questions. I wanted not to know what mattered to me, but to know that “what matters to me?” is worth asking. I wanted to ask whether how I spend my energy every day can align with who I am.
I got it all, and then some.
I spent twenty-five days with Anton Brandt and The Sacred Fig yoga school in coastal Alentejo, Portugal at his newly established farm-retreat center, Cocoon. The two-hundred-plus hour training curriculum afforded space for self-exploration, physical challenge, and emotional development. Anton assembles world-class faculty to teach yoga asana, philosophy, anatomy, and other related topics. Anton knows a lot, creates each moment with compassion and focus, and doesn’t claim to know what he doesn’t. His second-to-none authenticity transpired in my deeply meaningful experience, embraced by a cocoon of indelible support.
A large portion of the class convened on the sidewalk of a bustling commercial in central Lisbon to board a bus southward to Cocoon.
“Hi, I’m Kirandeep. I work in procurement, but I’m in between jobs right now.” “I’m Timna. I work as a trauma surgeon, but I’m tired of working 12-14 hour shifts and needed a break.” “I’m Miles. I freelance in web development, and I’m getting ready to spend a year working remotely.”
I hesitate to put names and labels on these people, because they’re so much more than their job title and the handful of words I use to describe them. What I mean to communicate is our simultaneous diversity and common ground; we traveled from far and wide with a shared desire for a deeper understanding of our place in the world.
The Sanskrit word “yoga” has many definitions. Most yoga students and teachers agree that yoga means unity and oneness. Etymologically related to “yoke,” yoga describes the binding of oneself within (ie connecting the conscious and non-conscious self) and the self with the social/external universe. Yoga’s existential contemplation carries philosophical implications. Rebecca Ketchum flowed seamlessly into the curriculum to introduce the ancient yogic texts (the Yoga Sutra and the Bhagivad Gita), Ayurvedic principles, and her own grafting of yoga’s spiritual elements in her Judeo-Christian roots. The dominant yoga of today’s western world isolates asana – the bodily practice of postures and shapes – and largely glazes over the other seven limbs of yoga. To understand more about yoga philosophy, consider some basic research on the eight limbs of yoga or the Yoga Sutra.
My own yoga practice partly roots in creating solace from trying times. The other moments cultivate a calm mind and physical relief before and after running, cycling, and swimming. When I felt the slightest overwhelmed, I grounded myself in breath and movement. I felt comforted by the fact that so many other students had similar states of their curricular selves: recently quit a job, in a transition back to school, untangling questions about challenging personal relationships, etc. I wanted more than a hundred warriors – I, II, or III – and needed more than an up dog to raise my spirits. In entering my yoga teacher training, I sought – and found – evolution through introspection.
I learned to hold space for myself, through noble silence, and for others, through being present for whatever emotions arose. Words matter, deeply. Alongside Matt Corker, we practiced speaking impeccably – without speaking against ourselves or others – and teaching with minimum relevant words. We also studied how to support one another without words. By physically existing in someone else’s presence, I can honor their needs, and if they consent, my being can support theirs with physical touch. To the courageous (meaning: of the heart) question “can I have a hug?,” an authentic affirmation speaks more than a thousand words. Likewise, when I, as a yoga teacher, support students with a physical adjustment, I give them a new, different, and perhaps better experience in their own body.
Anton and his team asked two things of us each day:
Show up on time.
Have a positive attitude.
These “rules” closely follow my own leadership philosophy:
Play and have fun.
Byproduct / default result: Win.
I found it easy to show up and say “yes” in most moments; I showed up on time for everything. My full self revealed itself and evolved in the moments where I resisted, when my mind spiraled and I saw the world around me as a foreign obstruction. There were several moments where I fought anger and feigned willingness. I chose to perceive something about other peoples’ way of being as personally offensive, and I suffered for it. As I observed myself in these moments, I stepped back to process the thoughts and let go of my attachment to my way of thinking. With this mindset, I returned to flourishing with a positive attitude.
I jumped. I leaped. I landed. On my own two feet. On my hands. My head balanced on my shoulders – or sometimes supporting them. I live in the supportive embrace of loving humans, and I am embracing our shared inevitable being. We breathe alone, together. I move with you, on my own.
Thanks for reading! Want to know more about my experience in yoga teacher training? I plan to write and share more. Leave a comment below to ask a question or suggest a topic.
I haven’t “quit” my job in the normal sense, but unofficially, I have. I agreed with my various bosses that I need time off. I thought about 8 or 12 weeks – a generous leave by US standards – and they said I should take more… From my “last” day of work tomorrow, I have four-and-a-half months of freedom. I keep saying, in a half-joking tone, that I haven’t had this much free time since before pre-school.
I couldn’t be more excited and scared. I guess both joy and fear are signs to keep going.
What’s going to happen?
I have about a week of down/prep time in Berlin. Next week I fly to Lisbon, Portugal and continue on to a 25-day yoga teacher training at a coastal farm called Cocoon.
Yoga teacher training? Are you gonna start teaching yoga, Stephen?
The intent is to ground myself in a practice that I know brings stability to my mind and body. I’ve practiced yoga for more than six years and consistently had a desire for a deeper yogic experience. I put yoga teacher training at the top of a psuedo-bucket list called “what are you waiting for?”… and after all, what am I waiting for? No time like the present!
Funny side story about my first experience with yoga, pictured below: March 2013 – I traveled to the beach with three friends. A guy was doing yoga on the sand, and I decided to follow along. He returned the next day. I repeated. I went to thank him after two hours of practice, and we talked. He was an architectural designer and split his time between New York and Russia, but was visiting his mom in Florida. He said something about the importance of following the rhythm of the breath. Suddenly, my insides felt empty, and I regretfully admitted that I didn’t pay attention to my breath at all in those first two “classes.”
I am following my instinct to know this is right for me in this moment. True story: I clicked an online business school advertisement (ha!) while browsing the web in my crazy state of what-am-I-doing-with-my-life, and I wrote a candid, borderline-distraught email to one of the business school alum: Matt Corker, a writer, yoga instructor, and people/leadership consultant. At Matt’s invitation, and sensing the too-good-to-be-true, serendipitous nature, I snagged a cancelled spot in The Sacred Fig’s yoga teacher training a few weeks ago. In the past few weeks, I’ve been enjoying the pre-assigned reading and mentally gearing up for this adventure. (I admit that I am also struggling with a brain that I have habitually conditioned against focusing on reading books! … working on that… and open to advice!)
And for the 3+ months after The Sacred Fig?
Mostly to be determined… depending on my state of mind after a few weeks away from work, I will make the decisions as they come. I’m trusting my consciousness. I’ll likely stay in Portugal and Spain for late May and June, then I have a return flight from Sevilla, Spain to Berlin after a friend’s wedding. I think that I might walk the northern route of the Camino de Santiago. I may also explore Portugal more, including scuba diving, or find something else that I feel called to do with my time. These moments are about being present, seeing and accepting new perspectives, and awakening my sleeping self. I have about 9 weeks that I haven’t committed to doing anything in June/July/August, and this empty calendar is the pinnacle of the fear! WOOHOO! As I heard from an interview with Meera Lee Patel this weekend, it’s refreshing to realize that I’ve survived 100% of the scariest moments in my past so far.
Leading up to the “start” of this sabbatical I am thoughtfully developing a sense of direction and intent. Right now, here’s what I know:
I want to practice awareness of my calm mind and be conscious in chaotic environments. I’m drawn to chaos but I also fight it. I’m going to ground myself in the present.
I don’t think that there is an “answer” to find in this process. Rather than answers, I’m focused on understanding what questions are important for me to explore now and in the future. Many family, friends, and especially strangers have gifted me with thought-provoking questions. I recognize some prompts as ones that I’ve avoided answering. Now, I’m allowing myself to receive the questions with curiosity about where they lead me… hopefully to more questions!
I know – especially from my unstructured weekends – that it will be challenging to not have a prescribed routine, a to-do list, a schedule, etc… those false constructions that create superficial validation for me. I accept this challenge and want to be mindful of balancing a hunger for productivity with the reality that being – and doing so consciously – is the most meaningful way I can spend my time. Work (doing) is a distraction from life (being). I am pursuing a different awareness of my preferred balance. I will practice shifting from a commitment to being serious to a commitment to play.
I have many, many, many books that I’d like to read. (And I want to write one… topic TBD…). Stay tuned for an eventual publication.
Some days we invest, and sometimes we cash out, reaping the benefits of our expenses. I invested in Thailand, in both financial and emotional meanings, and the rewards immediately flooded my lungs and my soul with freshness.
I arrived on Koh Tao via ferry on Monday morning, after a weekend traveling from Berlin and exploring the heart of Koh Samui (avoiding the heavily tourist-trafficked beaches). I strolled directly down the street to Ocean Sound Dive + Yoga after checking into my hotel. Yoga and dive were two of my three vacation objectives, and I immediately wanted to dedicate my energy to my intent.
In the course of five days, I spent about nine hours practicing yoga and more than thirteen hours in my SCUBA course, including almost four hours underwater. Both rituals emphasize specific breathing. SCUBA divers should breathe normally, but the sensation feels unnatural at first, with the body’s tendency to hold its breath underwater. Yoga practitioners emphasize an ujjayi breath, where we slightly constrict the throat while inhaling and exhaling. With proper, conscious attention, the ujjayi breath creates a deeper breath and a sound that coincidentally resembles ocean waves or the noise pattern of breathing through tanked air (or Darth Vader’s breath!). In both practices, it’s inhale, exhale, repeat. And in these special surroundings, the breath brings simultaneous relaxation and alertness. The investment of each inhale is rewarded immediately and sustained through the exhale.
In my observation of Thailand’s islands, stepping inside a shop, restaurant, or most businesses is more metaphor than reality. A dozen pair of Havaiana flip flops rest on the doorstep, gently removed as patrons enter, and otherwise there’s little distinction between indoors and outside. The ocean air is everywhere. Researchers have found that ocean air contains healthy negative ions associated with positive emotional feelings. These ions augment the body’s oxygen absorption and balance serotonin levels, and may be the explanation for the serenity and joy that some people find visiting the ocean, waterfalls, taking a shower, or rolling down a car window. Inhale, exhale, repeat. Invest, reap rewards, repeat.
In the right environment, breathing can stimulate an enlightened emotional state. For me this past week, I boosted my spirits underwater and on the mat at Ocean Sound Dive + Yoga.