Teacher training: The anatomy of a yogi

This week my teacher training has been all about bodies! I have certainly learnt a lot about my own.

Revelation of the week number 1:
First of all, at dinner the other evening I was sitting next to Laurie from Saint Louis, US. I was attempting to free a lychee from its red hairy casing by digging into it with my thumbs. “Oh my goodness! We have the same thumbs!” exclaimed Laurie.

Laurie and I with our thumbs
Laurie and I giving a thumbs up.

Now anyone who knows me will know about my ‘special’ thumbs. I’ve grown up with my loving father calling me ‘stumpy thumbs’. As a result, I’m on first name terms with most of the staff at Childline. But Laurie’s are even stumpier than mine. She tells me that our thumbs are technically called ‘toe thumbs’ and that there’s loads online about them. Even the Hollywood actress Megan Fox has them. Apparently one in every thousand people have them and girls are disproportionately affected.

Revelation of the week number 2:
This week we’ve had five days of Michelle Lam teaching us anatomy. She’s Hong Kong Chinese and must be about 4ft 10in. I feel like a giant next to her. When she gives you a private treatment session she turns into a ninja inflicting levels of pain that make you cry for your mum (according to Philip, an American grown man with too many injuries to name).

The learning experience has been very practical and we’ve all been demonstrating poses up in front of the class. Michelle then asks everyone what they see. The list has been endless: weak core strength, disengaged bandhas, wonky shoulders, pathetic muscles, flat feet, knock knees… total body assassination. And then the marker pens come out and you really are left black and blue.

Philip was observing the action of my sacrum by drawing dots on my lower back. He couldn’t work out what was going on. Michelle to the rescue… I have an unstable pelvis on both sides! Not a sacro-iliac problem as previously thought! This means I have very mobile hips and I have to engage my mula bandha and all my leg and buttock and abdominal muscles to stay stable. I also have incredibly tight hip flexors (psoas and iliacus). Lucky me.

Back bends – particularly sethu bandhasana (bridge) and urdva dhanurasana/chakrasana (wheel) – have been causing me pain this week and I’ve felt a bit fed up with my lower back, my sticky-out ballet dancer’s feet (I’ve never danced), and my externally rotated knees. But as big Michel says, who cares if you can’t do certain poses. We just have to deal with the body we’ve got at the moment. It’s not to say that we won’t be able to do those poses in the future. My damn ego’s getting in the way.

Revelation of the week number 3:
Doing my sun salutations in the morning, when I’m in down dog and then I jump through to bring my feet up to my hands, I’m managing to tear the skin on the bottom of my big toes. Some people make holes in their mats, I make holes in my feet. It’s due to a (current) lack of flexibility in my toe joints.

Natalie says to me, “Oh I used to do that! You need superglue!” For my mat?! “No, for your toes!” Cue a trip to 7 Eleven and it’s the best tip ever. Supergluing your skin is ingenious.

These are my bodily revelations from week two. As Michelle would say, the take-home messages are:
1) All the best people have stumpy thumbs
2) I have an unstable pelvis to rival Elvis
3) Ignore the packaging for superglue. It ain’t just for wood, metal and plastic.

Om shanti.

(Read about last week on my teacher training)

Teacher training: one week down, four more to go!

Well I’ve survived my first week of my 500 hour teacher training. It hasn’t been easy and I’ve certainly been challenged. Here are some of the highlights/key points:

Michel Besnard
Think Clint Eastwood as he is now. But French. Mischievous blue eyes that glint when he’s being cheeky. According to Ayumu (Japanese, this is her second course with him), he’s currently being gentle with us. That’s a scary thought.

He’s a sucker for British comedy and loves Ricky Gervais and The Think of It. He quotes Fawlty Towers over breakfast and Allo Allo during class: [adopt French accent] “Leeeesen very carefoooly… I will say zis only wunce…”

As I’ve mentioned already, he seems to like prodding and slapping bottoms and probably rightly says that he’d get sued if he taught in the States. He has taught all over the world and spent years with Iyengar and Sri Pattabhi Jois. I’ve never met anyone as knowledgeable about yoga poses and he’s so humble. I think this is my favourite line of his so far: “Eeef anyone ever tries to keees ma feet, I tell dem to fack off.”

Rosalyn, his Chinese girlfriend and glamorous teaching assistant, is the bendiest person I’ve ever met. They’re a great double act.

We’re being trained so that by the end of the course, we’ll go away with an Ashtanga self practice comprising the primary series with the odd bit of the second series thrown in to provide balance. We’re all at different levels. Some people, like me, have hardly done any Ashtanga whilst others would scare my Dad.

I’m learning that the practice is truly beautiful. It’s so graceful. I’m also now aware of the benefits of a Mysore style class. We all do the set poses in sequence at our own pace. Michel and Rosalyn walk around the room giving adjustments and reminding us of the next posture when we forget.

I’ve learnt so much already and much is contradictory to Sivananda and other styles of yoga. As Michel says, we’ll do what he says for the next five weeks and then take away what we want – a lot of it makes a lot of sense though. Some of his teachings:

  • Mula bandha (pelvic floor to you and me): “Are you engaging your mula bandha?” If I had a Baht for every time I’ve heard that this week I’d be able to… erm… buy a banana.
  • Breathing into your abdomen? Forget it! How can you engage your mula bandha if you do that?!
  • Move the flesh away from your buttocks? That’s how you stretch your hamstrings beyond their capacity. Instead, roll the flesh away from your thighs, moving it upwards.
  • You think you know how to do Warrior I and II/Camel/Utkatasana/Sarvangasana/[insert name of almost any other pose]? You’re doing it wrong!!

It’s been a steep but amazing learning curve and we’ve all been put on the spot.

Utthita hasta padangustasana
Utthita hasta padangustasana (image from Yoga Journal)

The S.I. sisters
Lucy and I are in the special needs corner. Lucy is from Atlanta and enjoys DJ-ing when not teaching. Michel and Rosalyn are so astute. On day one they noticed that we both had problems with upward dog as we have sacro-iliac joint problems. We were given a modified practice. For sun salutations and vinyasa sequences we replace the troublesome dog with sphinx -> childs pose -> downward dog. We miss out utthita hasta padangustasana as we work our way through the standing poses. It’s about doing the poses in a way that suits your body and accepting ourselves as we currently are.

The resort
We’re very comfortable here with our air-con and our laundry service. I would probably go as far as to say that it feels a bit sterile and you could forget that you’re in Thailand. I haven’t seen one milipede.

But the pool and steam room are going down a treat after dinner most days. Chris (6ft 3in blonde haired, blue eyed Swede) has had his underwater camera out and we’ve been larking about practicing asanas in the pool. Another learning: no-one looks attractive in underwater photos.

Laughter yoga
We did this on the last day of the module with Michel. He  had us all going “haaaa haaaaa heee hee” whilst clapping at each other in a slightly demented fashion. Pearl (Thai and very huggy) clamped the sides of her face with her hands to prevent laughter lines/crow’s feet. Pearl was funnier than the laughter yoga.

The schedule
We’re in our Mysore class for 7am until 9.30am then we get an hour and 30 minutes for breakfast and a break. This week we’ve been spending the rest of the day with Michel but for the remainder of the course we’ll have the 11am – 1.30pm and the 3pm – 7pm sessions with different tutors. For the next five days it’s anatomy then we’ll have a day off.

Well that’s it for week one. My fellow students are all fab and bring their own thing to the table. Mitch for example is quite the linguist. He can speak Orcish and Elvish. This is a joke. Mitch, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry I started it. We’ll soon get bored of it… maybe by the final week.

I hope you’re all enjoying the Olympics. I should be at the athletics today but instead I’m here!

Teacher training: absolute madness at Absolute Yoga, Koh Samui

We’re sitting crossed-legged on cushions listening to a tone deaf Frenchman and his bendy Chinese beauty chanting what I only know as Deva Premal’s Gate chant. 14 of us are listening intently trying to work out what tune we’re meant to be following. We all look at each other, a bit perplexed, stifling giggles.

Welcome to my 500 hour teacher training. Michel Besnard is 70 years of age and has studied with both Sri Pattabhi Jois and Iyengar. He tells tales of both masters whilst introducing us to the Ashtanga primary series. He’s already had me up in front of the class in Warrior I. I attempted to be grounded and steady whilst he bent down and slapped my inner thighs. “Tense! Tense these! They’re so floppy!”

Catherine my accomplice and buddy from the Sivananda Centre in London has had her buttocks made into a spectacle in front of us all. “What are you doing with this bottom?! Everyone look! What is she doing wrong?!”

I’ve never sweated so much in a class. It’s day two. We’ve got five weeks of this. By the end, I better have thighs of steel and let’s hope Catherine’s bottom behaves.

Yoga and money: an emotive subject

It’s been so wonderful to spend almost two weeks at The Sanctuary but all good things must come to an end. As I jumped into a boat to take me back to Had Rin, my new found friends waved me off from the shallows on the beach. What a farewell. I’m now writing this waiting for a 50-minute ferry to Koh Samui where I’ll start a five-week 500 hour yoga training course with Absolute Yoga.

When I mentioned this course to people at The Sanctuary, it was very devisive. Some were intrigued and had heard good things about their training, others hadn’t heard of them, and some were very opinionated indeed.

Just by looking at the Absolute website, it’s clear to see that they’re very commercial. They have studios all over Thailand. The fact that I’ll be doing a module on ‘The Business of Yoga’ makes it as clear as day. I mentioned this to one of the yoga teachers at The Sanctuary and she went off on one about how she learnt to teach from an Indian Swami who refused to take any money from her. She thinks it’s terrible that a company in Germany now calls itself a ‘yoga company’ because it offers staff a class at lunchtime (I saw where she was coming from). It is certainly an emotive subject in yoga circles.

Now I wouldn’t say that I’m very commercially-minded and I have written about this before. I know the basics having working in marketing but I completed my first teacher training at an ashram in the Himalayas. I know a bit about where it all comes from and the intention behind it – I love it all and I try to be a bit yogic in my approach to life.

I don’t know if I’ll teach full time on my return to the UK but what I do know is that I’d rather not be out of pocket having taught a class to eager, stressed Londoners. If I pick up a few tips from that particular module then that’s great.

I’m also really looking forward to Carlos Pomeda’s module on yoga philosophy, having taken a workshop with him in London a few years ago. He is a totally inspiring and engaging speaker.

Right, well the ferry’s leaving in an hour and I fancy a pad thai. I’ll keep you posted about the course.

What do you guys think about making money from yoga? Is it a possible job or would you rather not rely on it to pay your bills?