I recently completed the RYT300 course at Amrutha Bindu Yoga to obtain my RYT500 yoga teacher certification. (i.e. The 200 hour course–which I completed a couple years ago–plus the 300 hour course are the primary requirements for the 500 hour certification.) The essay below is about one of the key lessons I learned in this phase of training.
I walked through the streets of Bengaluru barefoot and with not so much as a 5 rupee coin in my pocket. [If your response to that is “big whoop,” you probably live somewhere like Singapore, Helsinki, Kobe, or Calgary where the streets are immaculate and the rats aren’t so bold. If you’re familiar with what goes on in and near the streets in India, you may be wondering what the hell is wrong with me.] It was an unconventional teaching tactic to be sure, but it ranks among the most valuable lessons of the training—surpassing no small revelations about postural alignment, pranayama methods, bandha technique, physiology, and yogic philosophy. It was even up there with the experience of advanced shatkarma (cleansing practices) that were completely new to me.
What’s the lesson? If you’re going to teach yoga–particularly at the intermediate / advanced level that RYT500 is intended to prepare you for–you need to work on not being ruled by fear. That isn’t to say one must be fearless. We imagine fearlessness to equate to courageousness, but courage is action under fear. Neuroscience tells us what a fearless person is like. We know from individuals who’ve had the parts of their brains damaged that are responsible for the emotion—they are paralyzed by indecision. Our emotions provide a basis for choosing–at least as a tie-breaker when no clearly superior path exists. We need our fear, just like our other emotions, but if you can’t move forward because of it you may have a hard time keeping learning.
Not being ruled by fear isn’t just—or primarily—about being able to keep practicing advanced techniques until you can get a grasp on them. Yes, mastering a handstand requires a fair amount of falling down (hopefully, in a controlled fashion), and that’s a lot of potential for anxiety, but there’s more at stake. What precisely? One might start, as many do, with what Patanjali has to say on the subject, and one can start from square one. “Chitta Vrtta Nirodhah.” (Quieting the fluctuations of the mind.) Many of the fluctuations of the mind result from anxieties and our obsession with solving them. Our brains are wired to try to anticipate worst case scenarios so we can develop ready-made solutions for them. This can result in excessive pessimism, extended stress, and all the problems that go along with that stress.
There’s a popular saying that goes, “money is the root of all evil.” But, I think it’s wrong. Fear is at the heart of all evil—not to mention a fair amount of run-of-the-mill pettiness.
So what is the path to anxiety management? Start small, and dispassionately observe your discomfort. Don’t try to squelch the emotion, just watch it while trying to avoid putting good or bad labels on it. Of course, sources of anxiety are personal. As far as prescriptive yoga practices, that depends upon one’s personal anxieties. For some inversions might do the trick, for others extreme back bends, for some external breath retention, for others it may be balancing. Then, of course, there are the advanced shatkarma practices I mentioned earlier–such as vaman dhauti (cleansing by vomiting) or poorna shankhaprakshalana (i.e. clearing out one’s digestive tract via massive ingestion of salt water.)
I recently finished teaching a Kid’s Camp (a post about that to come.) At the beginning of the camp, I was telling someone that the kids were fearless, but what I came to discover was that kids just allow their enthusiasm to swamp their anxieties. I had seven-year-olds doing pinchamayurasana (forearm stand) and vrschikasana (scorpion) within the first few days. That would be a hard sell for adults. [I don’t think I’ve ever taught those postures to adults.] It’s not just that kids are bendy, they’re also ready to get up after they fall down. (And since they’re not stressed about the possibility of falling they don’t tense up and get badly injured.) Someone posted a great meme on Facebook recently. It said, “A child who falls down 50 times learning to walk, doesn’t go, ‘I don’t think this is for me.’”