The ultimate aim of yoga is not sticking your knee behind your head and taking a selfie. It’s a journey to knowing who you really are and to connecting with universal consciousness. Tamara Pitelen writes about what she learnt on becoming a newly graduated yoga teacher.
It's August 2014 and I’m now officially qualified to teach yoga to others. I have a bit of paper that says I am. Despite the bit of paper though, I still feel like a beginner. According to the ancient yoga scriptures, there are about 8,400,000 yoga poses (asanas) but today we tend to focus on about 84 of them. Forget the eight million, I can’t even do all of the 84 basic poses. The Scorpion pose for example, I couldn’t do that to save my life just yet (it’s a forearm stand, in case you’re wondering) and maybe I never will do it but one of the epiphanies I had about yoga in my 200 hours of training was that not being able to do Scorpion ‘properly’ really doesn’t matter. In fact, not being able to do any of the postures properly really doesn’t matter. It’s more important to simply regularly practise to the best of your ability.
“Regularity is key; intensity is not,” said my teacher Roshan Singh, the founder of Rishikesh Yog Peeth, a yoga school in the foothills of the Himalayas in the Indian town of Rishikesh, a town that claims the title ‘world capital of yoga’.
“Yoga is accepting the body’s limitations; working up to the limitations because the limits are dynamic, if you work to your limit, the limit will shift,” Roshan said. “Don’t stress or strain. Injury is the result of working past the body’s limits. As long as you’re moving your body daily, it will improve. Be gentle and kind to yourself.”
YOGA FOR FAT OLDIES
Before I went to Rishikesh, I’d been worried that I wasn’t ready for yoga teacher training. At age 45, I was worried that I’d be too old, too fat, too inflexible. I thought yoga teachers had to be 20 or 30-something perfect-bodies who could put their knees behind their ears. Happily, I was wrong. It’s a common misconception in the appearance-obsessed west. On my training course there were people aged 18 to 60 of all sizes and experience.
“Yoga is not a performance art or competitive sport. Every body is unique, beautiful and special. Your triangle looks different to mine because our bodies are of different ratios and proportions,” said Roshan. “Understanding and accepting your anatomical possibilities and limitations is the start of yoga.”
So, yoga, it turns out, is not about having a perfect body or standing on your head for longer than the person beside you. It’s not a gymnastics feat about who’s bendier than who. It’s also not about taking photos of yourself doing poses in exotic locations and putting them on Instagram (although that looks like fun so if you do do that, all power to you). In fact, doing the poses is only one small part of a traditional yoga practice.
YOGA OR ASANA TEACHER
“Are you going to be a yoga teacher or an asana teacher?” This was the question Roshan put to my class towards the end of our training. What he meant was, when you go back to your own country and start teaching others, will you forget about the spiritual aspects of yoga and concentrate only on the physical part? Or will you remember that the poses are just one slice of the yoga pie? The other parts include breathing exercises, inward focus, concentration and meditation as well as personal disciplines such as non-violence and truthfulness towards yourself and others.
A LITTLE THING CALLED ENLIGHTENMENT
Before going to Rishikesh, I didn’t realise that the ultimate purpose of yoga was to achieve enlightenment, aka Samadhi. That’s it. That’s all it’s about. Spending hours cross-legged in meditation, chanting Om, bending backwards and forwards, twisting this way and that, doing strange breathing exercises, etc, it’s all in aid of this one goal, which is to activate the kundalini energy at the base of your spine so that it travels up to the crown chakra on top of your head causing the 1,000 petal lotus chakra to open up. When this happens, your individual consciousness merges with universal consciousness and you have achieved enlightenment. You become one with everything and nothing is ever the same again. Apparently.
So, how do you get this kundalini energy moving? The idea is that if your body, mind, emotions, brain chemistry, hormones and so on are all in perfect balance and harmony, the kundalini will awaken. Or so I’m told. For me it’s all theoretical knowledge at the stage. To date, the lotus flower in my crown chakra remains stubbornly closed and the kundalini energy would seem to be comatose at the base of my spine, not in a big hurry to be travelling upwards anytime soon. Do I have lazy kundalini?
BACK TO REALITY
As I write this (Dec 2014), it’s been four months since I graduated from yoga school. I’m now teaching four classes a week at Yoga Ashram, a yoga studio in JLT, Dubai. I’m enjoying the teaching more and more. At first I was too nervous but I’m relaxing a little now and it’s a real buzz when students tell you they really enjoyed the class. I still go to the yoga classes of other teachers because I have such a long way to go with my own practice. I also love seeing how other teachers structure a class, how they explain poses or include breathing and meditation exercises. I still can’t do Scorpion – not even close! And I’ve found that bringing a regular yoga practice back into ‘normal’ life after the teacher training can require some effort - I sometimes slip a bit. When you’re in an ashram up in the mountains, far away from your regular life and concerns and all you have to do every day is practice and study yoga. It’s easy to be all zen-like and ‘namaste’ about everything. You have the freedom to spend hours on breathing exercises, meditation and the chanting of Om and Sanskrit mantras. It’s a lot easier to feel love for humanity when you’re not dealing with rush hour traffic and spending eight hours a day chained to a computer. Ironically though, the time you need yoga and meditation the most is when you think you’re too busy to spare the time for it.
Fast forward seven years and it’s now 2021. Since certifying in 2014, I’ve clocked up countless hours of teaching in Dubai and the UK. I haven’t kept track but I’d say I've taught well in excess of 1000 hours. I’ve also been back to India twice, once to do my advanced RYT 500 training and a third time to repeat RYT 200 alongside my husband who was doing it for the first time. My brand of yoga incorporates some of the other healing modalities I’ve studies, including kinesiology and energy healing. I absolutely love this practise yet I feel like I’ve still got so much to learn about the science and art of yoga. I'm still working on Scorpion pose. Check back with me in another seven years...
SO YOU WANNA BE A YOGA TEACHER?
A brief guide to yoga teacher certification…
Although yoga as a practice took shape some 5000 or so years ago, a couple of organisations today have managed to position themselves as the regulatory authorities that decide who can and can’t teach yoga. Such bodies include Yoga Alliance and the British Wheel of Yoga.
In theory, all you really need to do is study Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a book written in AD400 or so by the grandfather of yoga, Patanjali. Although yoga had been around for thousands of years before that, Patanjali’s book is, as far as we know, one of the first attempts to give it a structure.
Today though, if you want to teach in a yoga studio or gym, you’ll need a certificate from a recognised regulatory body and Yoga Alliance certification has become the default global standard. The first level involves 200 hours of training and the official term is a 200 hour Yoga Alliance Registered Yoga Teacher – or RYT 200. Once you’ve got your RYT 200, there are no hard and fast rules for progressing but for some the next step is to get 100 hours of teaching experience and then do the 500 hour training, RYT 500.
For teachers who have clocked up 1000 hours of teaching experience, they can registered themselves as E-RYT 200. The E stands for ‘experienced’. So, what does 200 hours of yoga training involve? It varies between schools but at the school I went to, Rishikesh Yog Peeth in India, this was a typical day:
w 05:30 am - Wake Up
w 06:00 am - Cinnamon tea
w 06:15 am - Cleansing rituals like nasal cleansing with a neti pot
w 06:30 am - Pranayama (breathing) and chanting
w 07:30 am - Yoga therapy/Yoga Asana
w 09:00 am - Breakfast
w 10:30 am - Yoga Therapy
w 11:30 am - Yoga Philosophy
w 12:30 pm - Lunch
w 03:30 pm - Yoga Anatomy
w 04:30 pm - Yoga breathing and yoga nidra
w 05:00 pm - Hatha/Ashtanga asanas
w 06:45 pm - Pranayama and meditation
w 07:15 pm - Dinner
w 10.00 pm - Lights Out
Techniques and practice make the bulk of the training as 100 hours is allotted to that. Methodology takes up 25 hours while 20 hours go to learning anatomy and physiology. You need to devote 30 hours to philosophy and ethical conduct. For more information on studying yoga at Rishikesh Yog Peeth, go to www.rishikeshyogpeeth.com