The charm of a yoga teacher training in India

Doing yoga in India is a dream of many yogis, and it’s obvious why: it’s where it all began. When I got back from my yoga teacher training in India, I was happy I survived. The heat, the lack of sleep, bad nutrition, dirt, the traffic… I didn’t think I would ever want to go back.

A few months later, I knew I would have to go back to India again eventually. While I think it’s not necessary to go there to become a good yogi or yoga teacher, it is definitely a life-changing experience for most of those who have done it. India is challenging, and the struggle you’re going to experience makes you evolve as a person a bit faster. It makes you think, appreciate, and eventually accept things as they are. You’ll see extreme poverty, cows in the streets, dirt and cow feces everywhere, children playing in it, people throwing garbage just outside their house, meet people with bad intentions as well as wonderful, helpful ones.

Seen retrospectively, I learned more about yoga from my mum, from books, life situations, travels, and in my teacher trainings in Germany and Australia. But India encouraged the deepest transformation of my core personality that I’ve had so far. It taught me to live in the moment, be grateful for and content with what is, and accept circumstances and emotions as they are with more distance. Here’s a list of things that were most surprising, challenging, or just different.

1. Teaching methodology and strict hierarchy of the Indian educational system: don’t question a guru!

Be prepared for Indian way of teaching. A teacher – “guruji” – is almost a God, traditionally very respected. At primary schools, at universities, and in yoga, too. In a yoga teacher training in India, the hierarchy in the class is very clear and you’ll be demanded to show respect. Some teachers may even perceive an innocent, curious question as an attack on their authority. Which is a huge contrast if you come from a Western country (especially English-speaking), where students are encouraged to ask questions.

Don’t question a guru…

That felt weird and annoyed me at the beginning, as the ashtanga teacher entered the class, gave those who were late a rocket, said we had to align our shoes properly in front of the hall, we couldn’t drink in the class, and then controlled if everyone had a towel – as if we were school kids! My ego felt uncomfortable being treated with such disrespect. 🙂 And given that he was 22 years old and some of the participants were in their 40’s, it was awkward. But certainly made me ask myself a question: “Why is it bothering me?” If I kept distance from my ego, I find out I didn’t care.

2. What’s written in the old scriptures is not to be doubted

Certainty about anything that “has been written in the holy scriptures” and self-confidence among (particularly young) teachers seem to be common in India. In general, also other Indians I talked to about Ayurveda were overly confident about how they understood the system. To me, the Indian way of thinking seemed somewhat rigid, lacking flexibility and the ability to let things evolve and integrate modern scientific achievements to traditional knowledge. (And don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of science and short-sightedness of Western medicine, but it does provide some undeniable facts…sometimes.) As an example, our Ayurveda teacher would insist that humans used to live 250 years and that the span of human life is getting shorter. I am not someone who accepts any information without questioning it, so I was not happy with the uncritical acceptance of “the old scriptures.”

After all, the teaching of yoga itself encourages to question and inquire what you’re taught before accepting it as Truth. (8 limbs of yoga)

3. Lack of personal space

People in the streets will be touching and pushing you – to the extent that would not be acceptable in the West. And not just strangers in the crowded streets. The mentality is different, people are not used to respect privacy and personal space of others in a way Westerners do. It was particularly striking when the Indian course participants or the teachers kept walking with their dirty feet over my yoga mat. Or when the teacher wanted to adjust me in downward-facing dog and stepped with his feet covered with black dust and dirt right on top of my hands. I had to laugh in my mind about how different to Europe the whole culture and mentality was. 🙂

4. Poor hygiene

This one is probably not surprising. Hygiene is a big issue in India, but if you go to the North like me, it’s way better than you might have heard. The reason is that the river Ganges is noticeably less polluted there than further down the stream, like in New Delhi. In Rishikesh, the water is surprisingly clear and blue. That being said, sewerage system is non-existent in India, and everything goes to the river. Keep that in mind when you see people bathing in the Ganges – or when the teachers tell you you should wash your face including your eyes with the water from the river.

Definitely choose a school or ashram that provides filtered water 24/7, or buy bottled water. While bottled water in India is full of chemicals that pollute the ground water due to extensive use of fertilizers in agriculture, I think it’s still better to drink such unhealthy chemicals rather than get sick from local bacteria your body is not used to.

Eat only cooked food – at least at the beginning of your stay – and eat probiotics and active charcoal. Probiotics are good gut bacteria that help digest food. If you eat them as a food supplement, they’ll take up space in the gut, and there will be not much space left for potential bad bacteria from contaminated food, such as E. coli.

Eat Indian food. The main reason being (apart from that it’s delicious) that Indian spices boost immunity, promote digestion, and help fight against pathogens. There’s a good reason why Indian food is spicy.

5. A lot of mantra chanting

I had never done that before. However, I had been studying Sanskrit for quite a while by the time I came to India, so chanting mantras and studying actual meaning of each word with a lovely (female) Indian teacher was really interesting. Nevertheless, it was a bit too much. In order to learn each mantra by heart, we would be chanting the same mantra for one hour, again and again. Quite psycho…Apart from the actual daily chanting classes in the first week, we were regularly chanting at the beginning and the end of each and every lesson and before meals during the whole course.

But chanting is one of the things you don’t get in the West very often, so retrospectively, I consider it a beneficial, very unique experience.

Moreover, many native English speaking yoga teachers have terrible pronunciation of Sanskrit names of asanas and Sanskrit in general, so studying it in India gives you the opportunity to actually learn it right.

6. Little or no use of music in classes – yay!

Finally. Back to what yoga really is. I’ll probably have to write a separate article about music in yoga classes. It seems to be a Western (American) trend to always put on music during yoga classes or meditation sessions. It is unbelievable that I struggle to find yoga classes without music in Sydney. And it’s so simple:

Music draws the attention of your mind outwards, instead of inwards (i.e. what we actually attempt in yoga). Or at least, it manipulates your mind from the outside.

Sure, it depends on the personality type – our minds work differently. After all, if we’re practising the fifth limb of yoga, pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), as we should, it should not matter if there are noises around us. But hey, we’re humans. We’re imperfect, and doing our best to do our best. Our surroundings do matter.

A couple of very experienced yogis and meditation teachers who I have a huge respect for have confirmed to me what I always felt intuitively: music has nothing to do in a real meditative yoga class. Well, to be more accepting, I definitely admit that it can help at the beginning.  If the mind should struggle to find peace, it’s better if the thoughts are directed to the music rather than to what a jerk your ex is or what you’ll cook for dinner. It’s a tool that may(!) be beneficial to some(!). I myself play music sometimes, as a nice change. But it’s a tool that is being way too much misused in the Western public yoga practice.

So the fact that they accept silence as it is – or natural sounds of daily life – and make you deal with it was really refreshing in India.

Don’t think the meditation on a rooftop on the picture below was accompanied by a fairytale sounds of the Himalayan nature. No. You’re hearing all the buzz of Indian streets, loud music, animals, children playing, revving up of motorbikes, and who knows what else.

India is a yogic challenge.

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