wellbeing

School of Sacred Arts -the transformative power of a 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training

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How do you blog about an indescribable process? One where your basic molecular structure and all the ether in between is stirred and churned and transformed into something resembling you, but a you so vastly transformed. How to put into words with my thinking mind, an experience so felt and so profound that it awakened an entirely new discourse within myself?

It’s been a month since becoming a certified yoga instructor through the School of Sacred Arts YTT, in Bali and the lessons are still landing and the seeds, some of which I didn’t even realise had been planted, surfacing and blooming. Seeds nourished by the light of wisdom from the exquisite SOSA co-founder Simone MacKay and her beautiful teaching team. Seeds that were already planted in the soil of my soul that I had forgotten to nurture, that had been stifled by fears. Seeds that through deep enquiry and surrender I finally allowed to be nourished by my tears. Small seeds that are rooting down throughout my entire being, throughout every synapse, vein and cell and from such depths having the strength to sprout upwards and outwards, expanding the possibilities of my existence, far beyond what the mind can understand, the heart can feel or the eye can see.

Each morning at “0630” (time being an interpretative construct for some of us), 6 days a week, for a month, we gathered for meditation, pranayama and asana with teachers who clearly had been supping on some yogic elixir of youth and beauty, despite holding wisdom of eons, they still managed to arrive radiantly to morning practice. Yogis are weird people.

During our morning practice we took noble silence. There is so much to be learnt from quiet and as the days went by, I didn’t want to check my phone when I woke up, instead my eyes could take in the quietly smouldering reds and oranges of the morning sun, casting Ubud into silhouettes stretching into motion on the faint breeze. I found there was no need for music in my headphones as life provided it straight to my ears. The harmonious ballets of the geckos, frogs, barking dogs, mosquitos and the chicken’s morning chorus. The crackle and hum of distant motorbikes and soft chatter of the early rising workers accompanied my journey in to the yoga barn. Each morning I was embraced by the sticky heat that envelops your entire body, penetrating your lungs and trickling out your pores. The smell of sweating plants and spice and gutters infused with the sweet scent of frangipani and smoking incense from offerings to the deities drifting in and out of my awareness. I would reach our sacred space of the Lotus studio where I would leave everything behind me, except the mosquitos that seemed to find you no matter how much bug spray or layers of clothing you tried to deceive them with.

Our practices together were stunning, mind blowing, body shattering, muscle redefining, sage and Palo Santo blessed, posture aligning, modifying practices that become more and more sacred as time goes on. When I signed up for my teacher training I thought it would be like a month’s boot camp, yoga-bot themed learning off the cues and alignment of the asana practice but there are no straight lines in nature and apparently no straight answers from yogis just ‘maybes’ and ‘it depends’.

That said, by all accounts we got absolutely yoga’d off our tits (and testicles lads!)! We took all the vinyasas, there was inverted twerking, contortions of the body I thought I may never get out of or I would stare blankly at people who could get their bodies into (mainly Randall!). I stood on my hands, I dropped back into wheel pose.

We were strengthened, sequenced, conditioned and aligned to the highest standard for our individual bodies and along the way we started to learn to align to the truth in our hearts and then teach from that space.

In order to access my truth - to see, know and love, I had to face being seen, known and loved myself. I didn’t anticipate that I would cry most days of my immersion, especially during yin yoga (sometimes even at yin yoga merely being mentioned!) Tears of immense joy, tears holding the weight of the world, tears of sheer, blissful love, tears of the highest frustration. I didn’t realise how desperate my body was for me to just be kind to it. I didn’t realise how much shit from my past I still needed to sift and shift through in order to uncover the treasures I have to offer the world. I didn’t realise I would leave with a deep desire to teach and to serve others. I didn’t realise there was so much that I simply didn’t realise I didn't realise or that I had forgotten.

Taking Ishvara Pranidhana (to surrender to the divine) as my yogic ethical guideline to focus on for the month, surrender became a huge part of my journey. The less I struggled with my latest fallings apart and my lifetime of stories and the more I surrendered to the unknown, the more I meditated and rested in a seat of awareness, the more stillness and peace washed over me even in the face of my deepest, rawest pain. SOSA facilitated this deep self-enquiry with such tenderness. Stoking the fire, allowing the flames of the lessons to ignite in our minds and bodies. Burning off the soot from the lanterns of our souls. At times it was hot and uncomfortable but you knew the teachers like fire guards, were in it with you, holding space, holding you as the flames engulfed and burnt up the parts of you that no longer served you whilst transforming others.

While this internal inferno continued to rage and ember we literally became immersed in yoga and its many multifaceted discourses.  We practiced asana; vinyasa, hatha, swara, yin, aycro, pre-natal. We explored many meditative practices, a variety of pranayama techniques, we chanted ancient tongue in ceremony around sacred fire pit under the watchful gaze of the changing moon. We had lessons in anatomy, nutrition, philosophy, we sang our hearts out in kirtan whilst holding a sacred cacao ceremony. We were surprised and serenaded with live music in savasana, we learnt about energetics, the divine feminine, and the art of Balinese offering and a plethora of wisdom traditions were drawn from. We ate raw food, live food, vegan food, ayurvedic food, I’m surprised the yoga barn wasn’t eaten out of raw cacao with our almost worrying love of chocolate. I started to be able to talk about negative ions and crystals without rolling my eyes whilst in the same breath asking if anyone wanted a Bintang. Yogis are weird people.

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I made deep connections with people from all over the globe. We too learnt how to hold space for each other, to encourage the questions, the surfacing of fears, that said ‘good job’ when the tears were flowing, who accepted the weirdest, sweatiest, gruntings of each other flayling around ecstatic dance and could laugh hysterically together when everything got a little too much or a little too woo woo.

Sisterhood and friendship that will last a lifetime. I saw, I knew, I loved them and they helped me see know and love myself.

I started forming my own opinions and truths around what I believed. My breath has become central to my practice and maintaining my ujjayi breath throughout has been game changing. I realised how asana focused I had been, thinking that was the yoga, when really the postures are the invitation to bring in the yoga. They are a gateway for this deeper self-enquiry and my vinyasa practice has been transformed into meditation in motion. Vinyasa means to fix or to place with care. There is a responsibility that comes with this as you bring your yoga off the mat and into the contours of your life – to place yourself, your body, your breath, your thoughts, your words, your intentions with care and attention and this again starts with yourself.

Through compassionate action and acceptance of the self, light and dark, you are then in turn able to extend your compassion outwards to see, know and love all beings and all things. This union, this oneness is yoga. It’s the simplest and the most difficult journey you can take. To see through the construct of society and the loneliness, to see through your own bullshit and remember your wildest, inherent, deeply connected nature. That we are in fact nature and connected to all things. That we are the universe expressing itself through conscious motion. That the intelligence and wisdom of humanity is also the intelligence and wisdom that is present in all things; animals, critters, plants, mountains and tectonics, in the winds and the seas, the stars and planets.

Once you start to appreciate this and our inter-dependence, you start to appreciate how you also don’t need to search outside of yourself. You are already complete. You are already enough. You are already life in all its beauty and vibrancy. The universe is already supporting you, it is you. Listen to it, its wisdom and its intuition that runs through you and it’s astonishing the things you might start to notice and appreciate. Maybe you’d wake up as Bex encouraged us to, through the words of the Dali Lama and appreciate your miracle of existence each day as a blessing in itself, “This morning I am fortunate to have woken up. I am alive. I have a precious human life and I’m not going to waste it”.

Perhaps youd take a leaf out of Simone’s book and would start picking up on the wisdom that the Green Ones have always been whispering? Or what can be learnt from the moons gentle presence and her power over the cycles of the tides and menstruation? What can be gained from a single conscious breath? The magic, the wonder, the excitement, the possibilities. The greatest heartaches that can turn out to be the greatest of gifts. Maybe you wouldn’t take for granted the connections you make. Maybe you’d appreciate the universe bringing together two strangers whose souls flicker and ignite in an instant and ancient dance as perhaps not a chance meeting? These were my real lessons. Yes I've learnt which way my arms should rotate in downward dog and what angle to place my foot in a warrior pose but the vaster, deeper wisdom I gained from the SOSA teachers and also already inside myself are the real yoga for me and that is what I want to bring on and off the mat.

I am so grateful for the series of inter-connective dots that formed together in the universe, that have lead me on to this path. The teachers and life lessons that have nudged me on my way to Bali and to SOSA and for the teacher inside myself and all the teachers yet to come.

Words cannot begin to express my gratitude. You bunch of beautiful weirdos have changed my life. Simone spoke of how one of her teachers told her that we have to be able to hold the tragedy of the world and keep on going. She said it’s a paradox, and you can only hold a paradox with your heart and not your head. I think this is also true of great joy, wisdom, truth, beauty, these things too can only be held with your heart and so each day that I am fortunate to wake, I will hold this magical journey and these magnificent people in my heart. The school of Sacred Arts, absolutely summates what they teach and taught by the most sacred hearts.

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Knowing your elbow from your asana: the real life struggle of Chaturanga Dandasana

So i’ve been to a fair few yoga class now and i’ve been noticing my strength and flexibility increasing physically and mentally. Each class brings new poses (asanas) and new challenges depending on how my body might be feeling that day but none quite as challenging as chaturanga dandsana. The one asana I can actually pronounce (I think?) properly and yet can’t seem to work out whatsoever!

It is an asana in itself, you might hear it being called four limbed staff pose, or if you’re still not sure, it’s that damn awful push down from plank to cobra or up dog when you’re flowing in sun salutation a. If you’re like me you might be in the habit of going from plank and pretty much just flopping onto your mat and quickly up into cobra (or if i’m feeling particularly brave upward facing dog) and hoping no one would notice that I actually don’t know what chaturanga is.

Then the day came when my instructor came over and told me my hands were too narrow and my elbows were shooting out. Your arms should be at a 90 degree angle whilst maintaining the integrity of your spine, weight coming forward on your toes, shoulders and chest moving forward and through as you descend. MIND MELTDOWN BUT Integrity being the buzz word here, it was time to be honest about my ignorance towards chaturanga. So, the next time I tried to keep my elbows tucked in and my shoulder blades down my back but my big old ass started to shoot up. I tried to focus on keeping my pelvis in the right place for the top of my back to start to crumple up. WHAT THE ACTUAL IS THIS POSE?! All of a sudden i’d gotten myself into such a muddle that I had got the complete fear of trying to do it at all! “The pose begins when you want to leave it” Well, I was ready to indefinitely say goodbye to it. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much unavoidable in any vinyasa practice and it actually sets the foundations for a lot of those fancy arm balances that you see, more importantly doing it wrong could even cause a rotator cuff or equally grim shoulder injury etc. That’s why it’s important to know your asanas and keep on checking on the little things in your practice.

I am determined that chaturanga and I will be BFFs one day but for now I need to modify what i’m doing. As instructed, I’m unashamedly dropping my knees until I build the strength to do the full fecker! I’ve been checking myself out in the mirror trying to see where my spine integrity is at, i’ve watched an obscene amount of youtube videos; some of which have also suggested putting a block under your pelvis or to use a strap around your arms to pull your elbows in… I’m trying it all and with small steps and listening to my body i’ll get there!

Most importantly listen to your teacher (and yourself!!) – those guys love when you’re doing it right and doing what serves your body best so don’t be afraid to ask the questions. There’s no shame in being tweaked and given guidance. For me, it’s a challenge not an obstacle. A journey not a destination to master a pose but to find the strength within myself to keep returning to the things I find difficult as much as the things I enjoy. I now know what the asana demands and where I’m going wrong from my ass to my elbow and I will get those elbows in to my ribs, my ass down and get my spine in line and when I do i’m going to post a god damn after picture!

What does it mean to be a Yogi?

JANUARY 3, 2017

Bring a friend, let a friend take you, tell a friend, be a friend, make a friend, be your own friend. Be a yogi.

While there is nothing wrong with going to a yoga class by yourself, initially the prospect can be overwhelmingly daunting. Like going to anything new, the deep rooted insecurities kick in – what if I can’t do it? What if i humiliate myself? What if I’m the fattest, least flexible person in the room? Ultimately we fear not being accepted. Which is weird because for me – I was so closed minded I didn’t even think I wanted to be accepted by lycra wearing, bendy folk who spoke of their aligned chakras, healing crystals and negative ions. I had a preconceived idea of a whole community of people without giving it a chance. Yet, it hindsight it said more about myself than anything. I was so certain that I was going to exponentially grow in size and misery until I fell off the face of the earth that all discourse surrounding yoga and meditation was completely closed off to me, probably because I felt completely intimated by these toned up, zenned out women and dudes that seemed to have their shit together and so they reflected the parts of myself that I couldn’t stand with a x10 magnifier!

And so it goes; “The things that stand out the most to us are the things that remind us the most of ourselves[…] the people you surround yourself with are excellent mirrors for who you are and how much or how little you love yourself” (Author and Life Coach, Jen Sincero)

Pre yoga me – definitely didn’t love herself and yet once I started yoga and started to understand it’s deeper wisdom my heart and eyes opened up and not only did I see myself and all my flaws I started to appreciate my uniqueness and be thankful for my body and breath. I also started to realise how many yogi’s unknowingly were already in my life. One of my oldest friends is a ‘yogi’ and has used yoga for years to combat the same demons I battle with, she doesn’t annoy the bejesus out of me or make me feel threatened. An old school friend’s Granny was one of the kick-ass tribe of women that brought yoga to Northern Ireland. I adore the friend that made me go to my first yoga class and her friend that knew which studio to go to because she knew a shit hot yoga instructor is pretty damn awesome too. So you see, when I finally pulled my head out of my ass, I realised my preconceptions were not only nonsense but I had been shutting down a discourse surrounding me that actually I was very much connected to in so many ways.

Within a year yoga has changed my body, my mind, my perception on the world and my myself. I have yogi friends, and we even call ourselves yogis – without even the flutter of an eye roll, I kid you not! When the instructor addresses the class as yogis my heart does a little fist pump! I’ve made friends on the mat, some of the most brilliant humans I have ever come across (and some of them are the beautiful, skinny lycra wearers that can do the huge poses, instagram them and haven’t had any ribs removed!). I go for coffee with fellow yogis and we nerd out on each others yoga and meditation discoveries. I’ve become quite the yoga dork, I find myself talking to strangers about it! Friends have joined me on the journey. I’ve lost count of the number of friends that have either come to class with me or have found and gone to a class near them. I like to think I’m starting my very own little yoga revolution!

Like any journey, the initial steps might be that bit easier with a friend to hold your hand. So open up your mind and heart and bring a friend, let a friend take you, tell a friend or make a friend but most importantly be a friend to yourself. As it turns out I had nothing to lose and everything to gain because although I have found myself part of a beautiful community of yogis, ultimately being yoga and being a yogi is about finding the brilliant, kick ass, fundamental essence of your being!

“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self” (The Bhagavad Gita)

Beginning Yoga

When everything had fallen apart, I got over myself and onto a yoga mat and I have never looked back.

JANUARY 2ND, 2017

I came to the mat with a battered body and a shattered heart. I had crashed hard into the bottom of the rocks, the tide was in and the storm was so fierce, not only had I forgotten how to swim, I had lost the desire to even try.

Out of hope, a friend persuaded me to go to a yoga class. Being a full figured, beer drinking, ex rugby player I squirmed at the thought of it. I scoffed at the term yogi. My mind wailed that it was stretchy nonsense for beautiful lycra wearers to show off their impeccable figures and that I wouldn’t be able to do it, that I would be a disgusting laughing stock. I 100% believed that critical inner voice. I believed it as I walked into the Flow studio in Belfast. I believed it as I was shown where to get my mat. I believed it as the beautiful, feline like instructor began the class. I believed it as I watched the exquisite bodies in motion all around me. However, as I observed and feebly attempted to make shapes with my own body I realised no one was watching me, instead they were focused, they were soaking something in, they were vibrating on a difference frequency that seemed to radiate from the instructor (and for anyone that’s taken Elizabeth’s class you know what i’m talking about – dang girl, that lady has got some serious celestial sass) and so I too focused, I had no idea what I was doing or what it meant but I wanted in!

I forced myself to go back, class after class after class and through sweat (always in class) and tears (sometimes in class) I began to find that I actually really wanted to practice. I wanted to be a yogi. Elizabeth has absolutely been a beacon of light for me, the classes began to feel like my safe place and not just Liz’s; i’ve been to so many different instructors at Flowstudiobelfast.com and every one of them brings their own inspirational frequency. Oh my heart might burst with gratitude!  But don’t just take my word for it, check them out. It’s like a tiny slice of nirvana, albeit in Belfast, but hey, maybe that’s even more of a triumph! Going there is like receiving the warmest of hugs from the oldest of friends, and in a way it is because i’m making friends with myself again.

I bought a mat as a commitment to my practice and to my self (and because it was a super sticky one  and I was genuinely afraid of face planting). I began practicing by myself.  I made yogi friends – the most beautiful bunch of beings! I began reading and expanding my knowledge on yoga and meditation and without realising it, the fact I had initially come to the mat so broken had become my greatest virtue. I was cracked so very wide open that I was in a position to learn about and rework the very essence of myself. As Buddhist nun Pema Chodron has said “You must face annihilation over and over again to find what is indestructible in yourself”. That.

I am no expert and lycra will never be a great look for me, but I am in love with this journey that I am on. I am not paralysed by my anxiety. I can breathe again. I can laugh again. I stumble, I fall, sometimes I quite literally face plant my mat (note to self: must find an even stickier mat), but my inner warrior is becoming stronger than my inner demon and I pick myself up again and I want to share this unexpected and beautiful journey in the hope that some other chubby or lost soul might take the courage to invest in themselves. To see through the stereotypes, the self consciousness, the hopelessness and realise how expansive and beautiful their potential truly is. To realise that endings and beginnings can be one and the same. To see that if you service yourself, you can withstand any storm that comes your way. To quote Chodron (again!)

“you are the sky and everything else is just the weather”.