graduated!?

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Yesterday, I officially graduated from my 200-hour Essential Yoga Teacher Training at Open Sky Yoga Center here in Rochester, NY. I always imagined I’d do a teacher training, but I didn’t think it would happen for a couple years… I didn’t feel “ready”. However, for whatever reason, last November I was overcome with an urge to apply to Open Sky’s program beginning in January. I had never met the director of the program or experienced his teaching, but everythig about this idea resonated with what I perceieved to “feel right” in the world. I only knew that the moment I’d walked into my first class at Open Sky last April, I fell in love with their method for teaching and practicing yoga.

That is: attention to detail, feeling the body and being in the body deeply, understanding anatomy, understanding the deep connection between body and mind, between mind/body and breath. We did not just move through the asanas, we experienced each one, slowly–sometimes painfully, sometimes with joy, or confusion, or strength–whatever the experience, we stayed long enough to feel it. I knew that when I wanted to deepen my understanding and practice of yoga that the teacher training at Open Sky was the best way.

And it was!! It was amazing. It was easily one of the best decisions I’ve made as an adult. So, it’s a little ironic to me that upon ending this program, I’m experiencing some of the worst anxiety of my life, but I think it’s also quite fitting. I believe that any worthwhile study of yoga means a lot of uncomfortable looking-inward. And in that process, I’ve uncovered some ancient (and rather hideous) demons, and have also found myself in a position that often begs an anxious response. Those two elements combined with end-of-the-school-year stress means triple trouble. Which is unpleasant, but it’s also a test:

All those beautiful things that I learned in this training–about the wisdom and power of yoga as a vehicle for transformation, for cultivating inner-peace and trust in one’s self and the universe in which we float–can I put all that to use? Can I act upon my newly synthesized knowledge? Can I take it out of books and homework assignments and make it a part of my daily life? Can I choose to end the suffering I’ve put myself through, on and off, for twenty-two years? Can I also, at last, accept myself fully? I have realized that what I most dislike about myself is also deeply woven into what I like most about myself: I would not be able to write or put words together the way I do without a brain that is also capable of generating terrifying, intrusive throughts that spin endless webs of obsession. I say this because whenever I’ve taken any medicine to correct my brain chemistry, I also lose my ability to string thoughts together in a connected or beautiful way. So, perhaps for me, it means that a brain wired for generating and chaining together random ideas is also wired for obsession, worry, and anxiety; the chaining ability comes in really handy in the middle of a deluded series of worries. Perhaps I cannot have what I love without also owning what I’m most ashamed of. That does not mean I have to continue playing the victim in this game… I think I can figure out a way through, with the help of everything I’ve learned through my yoga training, and everything I’ve experienced recently with the people most important to me.

One of the most defining moments of my training was when a lecturer came to introduce us to basic Vedic philsophy. He was telling us about the Hindu god Hanuman and the various demons he encountered–managing to escape each one. But things changed, when, according to some versions of the tale, the last demon tried to eat his shadow. Having his shadow eaten would also mean he’d be eaten! Hanuman had no choice but to turn around and face his shadow, keeping his shadow in front of him, go through it, and turn around to face it again. Had he continued to run from the demon, and his shadow–he would have been running endlessly. The only way to win this particular battle was to put his shadow in front of him, again and again and again.

How willing are we to do this? How willing am I? Historically, I’ve never feared or shyed away from sadness, anger, jealousy, loneliness, or other scary emotions. But I have repeatedly, relentlessly, run from the parts of me I’m not proud of, or fail to understand. What I cannot understand scares me, and so I run. Running means that if I’m fast enough, there are periods of calm, times when I’m not saturated with worry or fear. But when I slow down, either by choice, or because I’m exhausted, they always catch up. The demons always catch up, and my shadows are forever behind me. I don’t know if understanding every element of my brain is the key to inner-peace here. I might just have to face it, accept it, and move through it. I might even have to be thankful for it–after all, having an ability to connect obscure thoughts is a very good things for someone who loves to write.

Perhaps it is at last time to turn around and face my shadow. And then go through it, and then turn around and face it again, holding it as something that belongs to me, rather than something I’m trying to forget I have. It has caused a lot of suffering: not only having a bizarre brain like mine that does what it does, but rejecting it, wishing it were different. Perhaps it sounds crazy to an outsider–someone who is not a practitioner of yoga–that something like yoga can help a person to better understand and accept his or her self. But it can, if we allow it. Learning how to find comfort (repose!) in a challenging asana, or how to breathe slowly when we feel like freaking out, really is no different than learning how to accept other circumstances in life that we are powerless to change.

So, here I stand at what feels like a rather dangerous precipice: I can either jump blindly, away from all that frightens me (death, loss, my obsessive nature), or I can turn around and face it, and learn how to move through it. Either way it is a risk–a battle on solid ground is no safer than a free-fall, and I’m tired of all the running and jumping. All of my life has pushed me here: my childhood, my teenaged years, my age-old series of worries and obsessions and fears, college, my relationships, my life abroad, the good years and the bad years, my job, my dreams, and this yoga teacher training. I’ve dedicated the next two weeks of my life to almost strictly-restorative practice, and while laying in a supported bridge pose today, listening to the rain, I felt that I could do this. I also felt that it’s absolutely essential to do it, to face all of this, and move through it,  especially if I ever really want to live and love well, or teach yoga with the aim that I do. For all of the fear I have of death and loss, of illness and airplanes, the worst fear of all is my fear of the fears themselves– I’ve long been afraid of going inside of my fears because I’m afraid of what I’ll find there: are the fears true? And if they’re not, what is? What is in there that I cannot bear to look at? I cannot teach people, either through yoga, or art, or any form, to move through their fears and live in a state of joyous awareness if I cannot do it. And being able to do it sometimes isn’t enough–being able to do it sometimes means that sometimes I am still  a slave to my fears. Which means I’m not as joyously awake and aware as I know I can be. Not yet.

This yoga training was such a gift: it gave me what I’d been missing for a long, long time–the last few (and hard to find) ingredients needed in order for me to find my way through what has plagued me since I was eight years old; these obsessive and recurrent fears and thoughts. So–I have what I need, now. It’s all a matter of time, and decision–when will I have the courage to put all these things to use, and see what happens? When will I surrender all of the little illusions of control I’ve created and accept the fact that so much is beyond my realm of personal power? I don’t expect to be changed, I will always be me; but I would like to be myself more fully, more peacefully, and I would like to learn how to use my brain’s “magical powers” to help me rather than torment me. I would like to live that acceptance I often talk about, and dream about. The impulse to sign up for this training last November was timely; I don’t want to spend a single extra second trapped by my fear, or running from my shadow.

So, I’ve graduated. I’m so happy. I had to teach a difficult and slightly risky pose for the final teaching test and I did it pretty well! I learned a lot. I met a lot of really beautiful, courageous people who have altered my perspective in unxpected ways. But does graduating mean I’m suddenly ready to be the kind of teacher I know I can be?

Hello no! But I’m close–I’ve learned a lot about asana (poses), pranayama (breathing), and philosophy, and I’m slowly understanding how to really experience it. The only way to become the teacher I know I can be is continued practice, dedication, teaching what I’m able to teach (which I hope will grow into more and more), and a willingness to be true to myself, those I love, and the world around me. It is a process, that is also yoga; process, not product.

And where am I now in this process? At a decidedly scary part. I want it to be over soon, but I know that’s not up to me. All I can do is do my best and ride the wave, knowing that the quickest way to drown is to panic. Which means! Which means being willing, again and again, to face my shadow, and move through it. Which means sitting down and finding calm in the middle of what causes me so much discomfort and terror that I’ve been on the run almost constantly for twenty-two years. Which means following the advice below, really living it and practicing it, every single day. If I can do that, it won’t be long before I’m able to both find myself again and be the kind of teacher I know I can be.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

“Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.”

–B.K.S. Iyengar

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