How the Joschi Yoga Teacher Training shaped me into the individual I am today
A Short Story by Lydia Shahi, Joschi Yoga Institute Graduate
I choose to attend the Joschi Yoga Teacher Training (YTT) in July. There is a special type of heat that fills Manhattan from the middle of May until the end of August. Fed by millions of people and confined by concrete, the heat takes on a life of its own. Along with its partner in crime, humidity, the city is transformed into a hazy fish bowl of smog, accented by an alarming scent of sewage. A short walk to the subway or corner cafe can easily turn even the most patient, poised individual into a an sweaty, irritable mess. Living in Manhattan for all of three summers, I learned that there is a unique type of insanity bred from that type of weather. Those who were able to escape for greener pastures leave Manhattan for as long as they possibly can. The rest of us were forced to sweat it out together and hold onto whatever shreds of sanity we had left.
"How do you feel today?"
This was the question that started our day, day after day, for the entire month of our teacher training. Oftentimes, the question would be met with the kind of familiar response one gives an acquaintance in passing, as they rush towards their next destination. Joschi, co-owner of the Joschi International Yoga Studio, did not consider a single syllable answer satisfactory.
"Ah, but how do you really feel. You must dig a little bit deeper," Joschi would prompt, the sparkle in his blue eyes mocking our amateur attempts at avoiding his question. After a moment or two, the truth would emerge. We were exhausted and overwhelmed. After the initial excitement of the first week wore off, all twenty-two of us trainees were constantly under the impression that we would never actually transform into capable, knowledgeable yoga instructors over the course of the next twenty-three days.
Each day started with at least twenty minutes of guided meditation. We used this time to practice the concept of pratyahara or, withdrawal of the senses. Given the studios location, this was a daily struggle for many of us, myself included. On the journey to and from the studio alone, I was often jostled, shoved, and sometimes even stepped on. Monday through Friday, I endured the thirty-minute commute to Chelsea during the morning rush hour. After a mixture of walking and public transportation, I usually arrived on time, albeit frazzled and sticky, clutching my extra large iced coffee from Dunkin Donuts as if it were the key to my very survival. I would rather show up a few minutes late and endure the stern look from Monika, also a co-owner of the studio, than forgo my cold, artificially flavored treat.
With so many external distractions, meditation was a foreign concept to many of us. Even if we managed to tune out the hubbub of the concrete jungle four stories below us, we still had to learn to find comfort and stillness in the chaos of our own minds. I have always had a talent for what I can only describe as hyper-analysis. Although I eventually found relaxation within that stillness, daily meditation was no easy feat in the beginning.
That mental journey into the internal proved simple in comparison to what I went through physically in the course of that month. First there were the yoga postures. We had to learn them in English and Sanskrit, an ancient language that very few of us could successfully pronounce, or remember for that matter. Everyday, we had to practice these postures, or, asanas. We had to memorize certain combinations of the asanas in order to successfully master the warm up sequence typical of most vinyasa classes. Vinyasa is a form of yoga focused on the flow from posture to posture, and dictated by the pace of ones breath. Vinyasa yoga can be gentle or vigorous, depending on the teacher's style. In accordance with Manhattan's fitness crazed inhabitants, the Joschi studio specialized in power vinyasa. As in sweat-your-brains-out, balance-on-one-hand/arm/foot, try-not-to collapse, power yoga.
In the month long journey to earn my teaching credentials at the Joschi Yoga Studio in Chelsea, we practiced multiple times a day, sometimes for multiple hours on end, from eight am until five pm, Monday through Friday. Along with mastering individual postures and sequences, we were required to take two hour-long classes, taught by Joschi or Monika. It's one thing to simply go through the movements, and another all together of moving with the breath. We had to retrain ourselves to breathe mindfully. I had rarely made the process of breathing a conscious one. Breathing happened naturally, it was something I took for granted. In the beginning of our training, I had no idea how to control my breath or how it could be mentally beneficial. I quickly learned that the breath had to be the primary focus. Monika and Joschi constantly explained that without a focus on the breath from one pose to another, we were simply moving around. Without the breath, we were not practicing yoga.
How did I feel?
Sore. That's how I felt. From balancing on the top of my head, to falling, repeatedly, on my bottom, I was sore from top to bottom, literally. Physically, I had never pushed myself so far. I had always considered myself an athletic, relatively fit individual. I went to the gym four to five days a week, ran across Manhattan (from the Upper East Side to stock up on groceries at the Trader Joes on the Upper West Side) at least once a week, and proudly considered myself a Bikram yoga devotee. However, each workout included no more than ninety minutes of sweating, and Bikram is considered a "beginners" series of postures.
At times, the soreness felt unbearable. During water breaks, my classmates and I would trade tips on how to ease the pain in our muscles. Cold compresses. Eating ginger and garlic, along with anything else with those amazing anti-inflammatory properties. Hot compresses. More yoga. Ice baths. Although I was never brave enough to lower myself into an actual tub of ice, I found cold showers to be incredibly effective. Although it sounds anything but soothing, hoping from numb foot to numb foot underneath painfully cold water became my favorite way to unwind after a long, grueling day. My ice-cold showers were just as pleasurable as a long soak in a hot tub.
The bane of my existence quickly became bakasana, commonly known as crow pose. Bakasana is an arm balance, similar to a handstand. Step by step, it doesn't sound all too complicated. Start low down to the mat in a compact squat. Place your hands shoulder width distance apart, palms firmly grounded into the mat. Stay low as you lift your hips and start to snuggle your knees into your armpits. Bend your elbows to create a shelf for your knees. Start to transfer your weight from your feet to your hands. One at a time, lift your feet off the mat and pull them up towards your belly. Simple enough, right? Make sure to keep looking forward though, otherwise you might land on your face and crack your lips open.
Aside from the postures, we spent a great deal of our time learning anatomy. We memorized muscles in the body that worked together in each pose, including those that were being strengthened as well as those being stretched. We learned the philosophy within the yoga sutras, otherwise known as ancient yogic text that dictates how to calm the fluctuations of one's consciousness and seek enlightenment. At the end of each day, we shared our ideas about the sutras, including their impact on our lives. At first, these sessions felt like a type of group therapy I had no interest in participating in. My classmates opened up to each other. They shared their struggles and vulnerabilities, along with experiences that had hardened them, or helped them grow. I learned from them, and although I didn't share as much about my own struggles, I found that I learned about myself through listening to their stories.
Monika and Joschi were our rocks through these conversations, which often times were very emotional and could have easily gone from zero to sixty in a matter of sentences. They were more than our rocks. In my mind they were quite literally, rock-stars. Over the past eight years, their studio had become world-renowned. They had built an impressive celebrity clientele from the ground up. More than that though, they truly believed in the healing and transformative power of yoga, and it showed in everything they had accomplished.
At the end of July, we crossed the finish line as a team, each one of us earning a certificate at the internationally recognized registered yoga school (RYS). We were sticky and practically incapacitated by soreness. Physically, most of us barely had anything left to give. None of that mattered. We had reached the final test of our training, which included teaching a forty-five minute class to our classmates, and each of us had passed with flying colors.
We celebrated with cake and ice cream as if it were someone's birthday. On that last day, the inevitable question came, right before we were awarded our certificates. As we sat in a circle, spooning up the last bites of semi-melted ice cream, the general sentiment was one of relief. We had worked damn hard to earn those certificates, pushing through physical discomfort and overwhelming onslaughts of emotion during our "group therapy" sessions.
I began to realize that our collective certification, which had seemed so unattainable, wasn't due to the robotic memorization of poses, or breathing exercises. It certainly wasn't due to the correct engagement of muscles necessary to hold the body in any given pose, although I can still hear Monika's voice in my head on the day we all had to try bakasana... Squeeze the inner thighs towards each other and pull the abdominals in towards the midline!
Like Joschi had tried to tell us at the very beginning, we had to dig deeper, we had to find a reason to stick it out through that thirtieth day. Some of my classmates had something to prove; whether it was to themselves or someone else I oftentimes didn't know. Some prided themselves on their endurance, their mental allergic reaction to that little four-letter word, quit. I had found a sense of purpose. More than that, I had found a sense of self, an awareness that I never would have come by if it weren't for my YTT.
How did I feel?
I felt empowered and strong. I felt confident in my abilities to teach and spread my joy of yoga to others. If I hadn't felt incredibly cheesy saying it, I would have admitted that I felt like a badass yoga warrior, if such a thing even exists. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I felt truly comfortable in my own skin. I was so proud of what my body could do, instead of just concentrating on how well I could rock a pair of spandex and a skimpy tank top.
Monika and Joschi had a motto. You have the power to change your life. Sitting there together, none of us knew what the future held. We only knew that in thirty days, our lives had changed. With a little bit of luck and a lot of effort, I planned to share my passion with other people. Through my teaching, I knew I could help others grow and realize their own potentials. I was certain that I would guide my future students towards the same sense of internal peace I had found on that muggy afternoon at the end of July, the chaos of New York City buzzing away on the congested streets below.