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 left Berlin in a rush and arrived in Lisbon in a calm state of mind. That’s me in a nutshell: balancing chaos and calm.
After a delayed arrival – no worries! calm mind – I took the metro to my Airbnb and then meandered into the city, where I knew no Portuguese. I didn’t have any problem, but I like to know simple things like “ola” (hello), “fala ingles?” (do you speak English?), and “obrigado” (thank you). Almost everyone speaks English, so once I learned these quick phrases, all parties seemed comfortable in the rest of my interactions.
I wrote this much (above) on April 26, then abandoned the draft post while I began my yoga teacher training. Rather than try to recall thoughts from a month ago, I’ll close with some notes out of my notebook and photos of Lisboa.
Beautiful buildings. City blends well into the landscape.
Not much nature. Monsanto was beautiful.
Friendly people. Wonder if they’re hiding a struggle. My tour guide described post-Fascism fear of authority and recommended a book, Dancing Bear.
Tons of sunlight. Fast rainstorms.
Affordable, but not cheap. Suffering economically.
Wonder if they can preserve their culture while welcoming tourists:
— overemphasis of pasteis de nata
— farce of selling tinned fish
— tiles are functional (insulating) as much as decorative
Train from airport
Walked through Bairro Alto, Baija, and Chiado neighborhoods
Smoothie made by pedaling a bicycle
Rainbow and concert rehearsal almost made me cry
Walked along coast in the sunlight
Into Bairro Alto for dinner, bacalhao (salted cod)
Run in Parque du Eduardo to Monsanto
Breakfast at the mill
Walked to Santa Catarinha Miradouro and into Santos, another fast rainstorm
Read my yoga anatomy book on a park bench, annoyed by a senile homeless person
Walked to Praça de Camoes for Sandemann’s walking tour
Important dates: 1 Nov 1755, an earthquake killed 2/3 of the population (est. 90k people), mostly Arabs and Jews survived in the Alfama neighborhood; 25 April 1974, peaceful revolution ends dictatorship, my tour was the holiday they celebrated 45 years of freedom
My tour guide, Pascal, took me to a tiny restaurant where he knows the owners, Davíd and Bella. Great food, some from their farm. They struggle to stay open. She’s illiterate. It’s not a well-known place.
Walked to Alfama. Beautiful live music at the miraduoros, ice cream, poked into shops in Chiado and read my yoga book at a pastelaria
More live music in the streets by a university “fraternity”