How Transformational Spaces Help Us Grow

Recently, a friend gifted me an incredible book, Yoga and the Quest for the True Self by Stephen Cope.

Part of my new approach to reading rich and complex books like this is to make notes; putting the ideas into my own words, as I understand them. I figure it’s worth keeping those notes here, where I can be accountable for actually going through this process and integrating what I learn.

Here’s the first of these notes, based on chapter 2.

What Are Transformational Spaces?

These are the spaces we intuitively seek out (or get thrust into) at periods of great change in our life. They come in many forms: from institutions to physical spaces to relationships with an individual. Schools, college, the army, a mentor, a psychotherapist or a spiritual community are some examples Cope gives.

When we find one and hook into it, growth most certainly occurs. However, there are also spaces that pretend to be transformational – and fail to provide the conditions we need.

Here are the qualities Cope lists:

1) They create a quality of refuge

Rather than being forced to don a certain role like we do in most of our lives, these spaces offer a break from all that. If there is a role we take, it’s the role of the child, or the Fool card in the tarot deck. We approach our time there with a ‘don’t know’ mind, free from assumptions and our typical posturing.

In these spaces, our innocence is held in safety; free from judgement, accepted as we are. This is also why initiation rituals are so common when entering them: it marks our exit from the chaotic theatre of the outside world, and our rebirth.

When I was at an ayahuasca retreat centre in Peru, ritual was a major part of creating the transformational space in the Maloka: a circular, traditional building we used for the ayahuasca ceremonies.

Palo santo smoke circled us, lights were dimmed, candles lit, Florida water was sprayed, and our facilitators outlined how the night would proceed. It was the same every time, and it never failed to help steady my nerves – and at the same time open my mind and heart for what was to come.

2) They create safety through constancy in relationship

The relationship between mentor and student is key here.This mentor could be a teacher, facilitator, or leader of any sort – but there must be someone who is in a position of authority for the student to go through any real change. Ideally, this person is a constant, and doesn’t change radically or leave throughout the student’s time in transformation.

If you’ve ever felt uneasy when you were expecting your regular yoga teacher and someone else is covering the class for them, you’ll likely have experienced a taste of how unsettling this change could be on a grander scale.

Of course this person does not abuse their power: they ensure the student is safe and they provide a dependable home base, like in a (healthy) parent and child relationship.

3) They encourage creativity and experimentation

There is no one way of making a breakthrough or creating change. It happens through experimentation, and these spaces provide the stage for that.

When in Peru, I was having a particularly difficult moment involving a lot of lemongrass flavoured tea (apparently a purgative that would do me some good) and I was reminded by a helpful facilitator: ‘This isn’t a pass or fail thing.’

This, not the lemongrass, was the purgative I needed; I instantly broke down and released a lot of years of self flagellation. It was my first taste of what a true experimental, creative and playful attitude could be like. And it was a major relief.

Maloka
4) They are organised around ‘traditional objects’ that are constant and reliable

To expect us to make our transformational journey without a boat to travel in, is unreasonable. Well, a metaphorical boat anyway. But these objects, that serve as our boats, can be very real.

A child might bring their favourite toy to school with them (though ideally they’ll have discarded it by the time they go to college.) It provides that little bit of home, a reminder of a safe haven and a means to internalise the comfort and stability home provides.

I’ve been returning to the book The Artists Way by Julia Cameron as a yearly ritual, as working through its 12-week process provides me with a reliable, consistent and therapeutic structure. At some point, I’ll stop, as I internalise the teachings and have received all I can from the exercises and words of wisdom inside.

5) They do not deify these transitional objects, or themselves

On that note, an object like a book or set of beads are recognised for what they are: tools to assist in our transformation, not deities to be regarded in their own right. The same goes for the teachers.

Even the most ‘enlightened’ of all are simply representations of our highest potential: they are not it. They are not perfect, all-knowing or infallible. They can (and should) be challenged, just as much as they are respected. Ultimately, they set us free and we are able to internalise the gift they give us.

When I attended my yoga teacher training program, I was reassured by the open-minded nature of the teachers we had. They encouraged us to challenge their ideas, and reminded us that they are still learning to: which in turn, instilled an open-mind and commitment to lifelong learning in all their students.

6) They provide us with a way of finding out who we are

As much as I love a personality test that tells you who you are and what you’re like; that is not the role of a good transformational space. Instead, these spaces provide us with techniques and practises to help us discover who we are directly.

This might happen in the most unsuspecting ways; being given a job we initially despise, being taught a new style of meditation or having lunch with someone new in the community cafeteria. We can’t know in advance what will show us what, but the ingredients are all there, provided for us.

7) They do not have to be perfect

There is even a danger, Cope suggests, in a space that believes itself to be ‘perfect’. When under this guise, there is no room left for criticism or growth of the space itself, let alone the student.

Expecting perfection from a space is also going to be a let down for the student, because of the unearthly demands this places on it: no person or place can live up to that.

Instead, we must make our peace with having ‘good enough’ teachers, mentors, schools and communities, and remember that it isn’t their job to be perfect, just to assist and encourage our own transitional period.

8) They are open to and support, other paths to development

The assumption is that any good spiritual seeker should commit to one path, one lineage, one guru, or one church and devote themselves to it. Even a standard therapist might recommend sticking to them alone.

The result of experimenting with other paths might even make us feel guilty at first, but it’s in this pick ’n’ mix approach that we can truly explore the path that is best for us.

What do you think? Do you have any experience with a true transformational space?

5 Surprises I Got From Yoga Teacher Training

When I told some friends that I was going to be taking a YTT 200 – or a yoga teacher training course that leaves me minimally qualified to teach yoga – well, it’s fair to say they were quite surprised.

They were polite about it, but I was met with comments like ‘wouldn’t that be like me, someone who can’t speak Japanese, deciding to spend a few weekends learning and then start teaching?’

Yoga Teacher Training

Which, is understandable. I’m not the kind of yogi you see on Instagram standing on their head, with the sun setting in the background…

But I have actually been practising for about 6 years.

Yeah. It’s been a fair old while, and even though I hadn’t considered the possibility of being able to teach until earlier this year, yoga has been a big part of my life.

In fact, it was the thing that I attribute to sparking my self development journey, and the thing that pulled me through the darkest times back when I worked in London at an office.

Anyway, I’ll save the full story of why I decided to take the training for another day, but let’s just say I was inspired by my trip to Peru to spend more time helping people face to face, then from behind my laptop screen.

I also believe strongly in cultivating group environments that are 100% introvert friendly – because I know how valuable this has been in my own life, and how I feel in a group that is NOT introvert friendly.

Surprises I Got From Yoga Teacher Training

Ok so let’s get to the training! A quick overview, this course is going to take up 3 full days each month till January, which isn’t a big time investment, but for those weekends: it’s pretty intense for this introvert!

I haven’t spent a full 9-5 with a group of strangers in a closed setting since… working in that office in London, which I left back in 2013.

So yeah, I was nervous about how I’d fare, energy-wise.

I was also nervous about my yoga ability. Yeah, I’ve been practising for a while, but mostly… from Youtube. Not exactly the most disciplined practise, though I do owe so much to Yoga with Adriene.

Anyway, I got my big girl yoga pants on, and went with an open mind.

And I was pleasantly surprised.

1.Everyone is lovely

First of all, everyone on the course is bloody lovely. Of course they are – they do yoga!

And the teachers, of which there are 3, are all amazing in their own way. One of them is like a big sister, one of them is like a mum, and one is like the cool aunty who was likely a hippy back in the day.

So yeah, good people, a good start.

2. There’s a LOT to learn

Then there’s the learning.

I roughly break this down to anatomy – of which there is a LOT – so I have a newfound respect for yoga teachers, at least ones trained in anatomy. Then there’s philosophy, which I was honestly VERY skeptical about. I mean, as soon as I hear the word ‘chakra’ in a yoga class, I cringe.

But I will say our teacher made the subject super interesting, regardless of what you choose to believe. Then there’s the practical stuff: how to teach each pose, and actually doing yoga, of course.

Which it’s fair to say I’m struggling with, but the more I do it, the more I love it and – I’m already seeing improvements now I understand the underlying mechanics of each pose.

3. It’s REALLY tiring

I was wiped out after the first day, and could do very little when I got home. But I’m not feeling cranky-drained, so that’s good. I’m making sure to get off on my own during the lunch break, which seems to restore my energy somewhat.

It doesn’t seem to be the yoga asanas we’re doing alone (so far we’ve practised no more than one full class a day) so I attribute the energy drain to sheer information overload.

This course is spread over a few weekends, which is tough enough – I can’t imagine the ‘intensive’ courses that squeeze everything in less than a month. Yikes.

4. You will make mistakes

There’s only been one faux-pas so far: that was our first trial of teaching a class. Actually, we only had to teach a sun salutation A, which is like 2-3 minutes long. but I of course had to have notes, and insisted on reading them, quite blatantly. Teacher told me off, kindly, but enough to make me feel a bit shit.

I know I need to get over my fear of ‘winging it’; I know I can teach without notes, I know I could do my podcast without notes but… still, my notes are a crutch and one I have promised myself I WILL work on.

We’re all work in progress, and if I’m honest, I don’t mind that. I like having something to work on, something to improve at, something to learn.

5. You will have a lot of fun

And that part about learning and improving is EXACTLY why I’m having so much fun on this course. In our adult lives, it’s so rare to get an opportunity to learn with such intensity, and reap the benefits of what you’re absorbing.

I already loved yoga before starting the Yoga Teacher Training, but even after the first weekend: I love it more.


To keep up to speed with my Yoga Teacher Training journey, come follow my antics at @yogiswhoshave on Instagram or sign up to my monthly memo below.

[mailpoet_form id=”1″]

Books For Yoga Teachers in Training

Recommended by my yoga training centre:

key muscles of yoga

The Key Muscles of Yoga by Ray Long

What I love about this book is that it covers the scientific aspect of yoga, describes the key muscles of hatha yoga and how they are used in asana practise.


Yoga Journal Book

The Yoga Journal by Linda Sparrow

This book is more of an art book; a celebration of yoga and it’s beauty. It might not be as packed full of the how-to like some of the others, but for inspiration it can’t be beat.


Anatomy of Breathing

Anatomy of Breathing by Blandine Calais-Germain

This book explains the concepts of breathwork in yoga in a way that is easy to follow and points out some myths related to breathing. Calais-Germain has many other books I look forward to getting my paws on too.


Scaravelli

Awakening the Spine by Vanda Scaravelli

The legend that is Vanda is worth reading about alone, but this book really helps when I need a bit of inspiration and motivation to get on the mat.


30 poses30 Essential Poses by Judith Lasater

This book has great, practical guidance for modifying poses for beginners and more advanced students, a huge help for my teaching.


Other books I’ve picked up:

Light on Yoga

Light on Yoga: The Bible of Modern Yoga by B. K. S. Iyengar


Kundalini

Kundalini by Ajit Mookerjee

This book is an in depth look at kundalini energy, where it comes from, and how to stimulate it.


Writing Yoga

Writing Yoga by Bruce Black

I really enjoyed this book and the way Bruce demonstrated how to unite yoga and journalling – one of my favourite activities – in such an enlightening way.


Patanjali

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Based on the words of Patanjali back in the 3rd century BC, and one of the oldest spiritual texts in the world, this is not light reading! But this is the source, and it’s well worth getting a copy if you’re on your yogic journey.


What books on yoga do you recommend I check out?

Why I’m starting Yoga Teacher Training At 30

This wasn’t a new idea for me. I’d contemplated learning to teach yoga a few years back, but stopped myself when I remembered the idea of teaching anyone anything scared the living shish kebab out of me.

So I shelved my yoga teacher dreams, and went back to my solo practise.

Fast forward to May 2018, when I was in the Amazon, on a quest to see what I was really made of and what the plant kingdom (in the form of ayahuasca) had to show me.

This is where I had all the stereotypical realisations. I realised that yes, we are all connected. And yes, we are all love. And yes, there is something deeply wrong with living our lives through LCD screens.

I love what I do, really. I love reading, writing, podcasting and helping my community of creative introverts.

But the business I’ve built, in it’s current form, is inherently dependent on communication through my laptop. I occasionally run workshops in person, give talks to any audience who’ll have me, and I love podcasting because it gives me that extra bit of connection, through speech.

But beyond that, it’s all typed words and on-brand imagery. Perfect for the creative introvert in me, but limited in its ability to fulfil the bigger part of me… whatever that is.

All I know is there is some part of me (and you) that can only be nourished through human connection. In actual real life. In a setting conducive to connection, healing and growth.

Along with my discovery that I have a need to fulfil that can’t be met solely through my current service, I had a few more lightbulb moments that led me to taking the YTT plunge:

 

Surprising discovery #1: I really like teaching people things.

This was not the case when I first considered adding yoga teacher training to my career bow. However, since slowly dipping my toe in the waters of teaching, through The Creative Introvert’s online courses, as well as collaborating with local training businesses in Brighton, I learned that actually… I do really like playing teacher.

I really like getting to share what I’ve learned with fellow eager learners. I like seeing lightbulb moments when someone ‘gets it.’ I like answering questions – the tougher the better.

Could this love for teaching about marketing and podcasting and such, translate to the yoga mat? Well, it makes me curious to find out.

 

Surprising discovery #2: I really like being with people.

The introverted elephant in the room. Yes, I’ve made a business from ‘being’ an introvert. But does that mean I don’t like being with people? Heck no! It just means I need to manage my energy efficiently and create the right amount of balance between alone time and people time.

I’ve actually gotten quite good at making time for being alone, but I’m finding it harder to get quality time in a group of people who aren’t just there because we all happen to be on a pub on a Friday night. What I learned from my trip to Dreamglade in the Amazon, was that I thrive on smallish, quiet groups of like minds. Fellow seekers, looking to illuminate their worlds and the lives of others. That doesn’t drain my energy, that fills my energy cup right up.

So you might be thinking: “Cat. Why would you need to teach yoga – surely you can just go to more yoga classes if you want that group vibe more?”

In theory… but not in practise. For one, I find it difficult to keep myself accountable when it comes to group classes. It might be that part of me that gets socially anxious tends to give me excuses as to why I should just stay home and practise.

If I’m the teacher… I kind of have to show up.

I’m also quite picky about the way a group is facilitated. Going to classes that aren’t facilitated… to my liking… has only given me more impetus to create my own little group, a space which is tailored to those who do feel a bit socially anxious and struggle in group environments. A space that’s supportive, inclusive and welcoming.

I’m sure there are teachers out there who do that, but it doesn’t stop me from wanting to bring more of that into the world.

 

Surprising discovery #3: I might actually be able to do this.

That was a shocker. I actually learned this from speaking to the on-site yoga teacher at Dreamglade, the absolutely lovely Jess. She was sweet, encouraging and tremendously grounded. I asked her some questions about YTT, and she gave me some sage advice.

In talking to her more, the possibilities of actually making this a reality started to take flight. I also started to fantasise about what I could do with the teacher training in terms of travelling and having a portable skill that allows me to be of use in a way that doesn’t involve a fast wifi connection.

Jess also reassured me that I didn’t need to be able to kick up into a handstand right this second in order to teach others. I knew this from my teaching as The Creative Introvert – all I had to be was one step ahead to help someone else – but for some reason, I hadn’t applied this to yoga.

Oooh, I thought. I might actually be able to do this.

 

Surprising discovery #4: It’s actually quite affordable.

When I broke down the cost of training (from about £2000-£3000 for most schools near me) and thought about the time I was getting with my teachers, as well as the options I have afterwards in terms of running classes, workshops, offering online classes, retreats… the numbers started to work out.

No, I don’t think yoga teaching will add significantly to my income, but it’s a bloody nice sounding option. Especially if it means I can spend a bit less time looking at the laptop screen.

And with that – I should probably wrap this one up and get on the mat.

 


 

I’ll be starting my YTT200 in September 2018, and it lasts around 5 months – which I love, because I’m skeptical about month-long intensives (I don’t trust myself to learn anything that quickly, but more power to you if you can.)

I’ll be updated this blog with my experience, what I’m learning, what I’m struggling with (which, no doubt there’ll be plenty of!) and I’m more than happy to take any questions you might have, if you’re considering starting yoga teacher training.

How Yoga Changed Me

There are countless other newly indoctrinated yogis who have written their ‘how yoga changed me’ stories; claiming yoga saved their lives, how they were lost, now they are found since finding enlightenment in a strong camel pose.

My aim isn’t to convince you that yoga is a cure-all or a silver bullet – and I’d run far away from anyone who tells you it cured their cancer.

But what I might be able to offer, is encouragement to anyone who is feeling like their yoga practise is sub-par. For anyone who hasn’t experienced any life changing magic on the yoga mat, and who might even be thinking that this yoga thing isn’t for them.

I’m hoping I can give those people hope because I was one of those people who, after FIVE years of regular traditional practise (I say traditional, which is very different from deliberate practise) still had not found any of this yogic transformation that so many others claim to have experienced.

 

Traditional vs. Deliberate Practise

I should explain this difference between this traditional practise (which for sure is better than no practise) and what I believe was my more recent stint at deliberate practise. Deliberate practise is a term that spouted from the mouth of K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist who studied top performers across many fields, from music to medical surgery, sports to software design.

You likely know what it is to learn, practise and master a skill, whether it was the piano, riding a bike, or using a piece of software.

You’ve probably also felt the frustration of not making much progress and the moment when you decide to power through… or simply stop practising altogether.

After a certain point, we don’t improve by just repeating a skill or task, even over a period of many years. That’s because once you reach a reasonable level of competence and are able to do what you need to do, the skill becomes automatic. At best, you’re maintaining your abilities, but not improving them.

That’s exactly what I had been doing with my yoga practise.

I figured I’d hit my wall, and that was it.

Until… I threw in the towel. I actually gave up all forms of exercise in a bout of frustration, early 2017. I decided I wasn’t making any progress in my fitness, strength or flexibility and my body would fluctuate from mildly injured to soft and bloated without any of the fun I used to experience of seeing new lines appear where there wasn’t before.

So I gave up. Classic Cat move. I’m not known for my persistence, but for my ‘try-anything-once’ (and usually, only once) attitude.

 

The wake-up call

In any good self-transformation story, we have our wake up call.

Mine came in the Amazon rainforest, no less. It was at a retreat centre, during a yoga class (I had not gone there to do yoga, but to drink ayahuasca, a mind-expanding plant medicine… another story for another day) and this one yoga class was enough to remind me: that thing, yoga? Which I used to love so much? It’s still here. It’s not going anywhere, and you can return to it if you choose.

In short, I missed it. It was like seeing an ex after a few years, and being delighted they’re still single.

When I got home, I committed to getting back on track with yoga, and every morning I would roll out the old mat and stick on some Adriene.

This time, it was different. Rather than go into autopilot, I had to start again, almost as a beginner.

I was weak as a kitten and as rigid as a creeky old chair. I had to be patient, and actually follow Adriene’s helpful alignment cues, rather than ignore her with a ‘get on with it!’ snap.

My practise was more deliberate now: I was genuinely consistent, doing my best to follow instruction and I was motivated by the dream of going back to that retreat centre one day and may be even… teaching a class myself.

 

How Yoga Changed Me

These are the changes, physical, mental and emotional, that I started to see within weeks of my renewed yoga practise:

 

1) I gained body consciousness

Note: this is very different from feeling self-conscious. I’ve always been someone who is very, very aware of my thoughts – distracting little buggers – but far less aware (sometimes bloody clueless) about my body.

It’s never really been something I inhabit. More like a distant machine that sometimes does what I want, sometimes doesn’t.

Through yoga, I started to become more able to feel aware of my physical being. I could lie in savasana and actually know what the teacher meant when she said ‘feel your hands from the inside out.’

It’s hard to describe the taste of ice cream to someone who’s never had it. Similarly, I’ll be that annoying person who drones on about embodiment like it’s something you can just experience if I tell you about my experience.

Sorry.

But what I will say is: stick with it.

Be open to the possibility that there are MORE sensations than you are currently experiencing (and I fully believe I’ve only started on my body-bonding journey, and have many more layers to peel back) and keep paying attention before, during and after yoga: what can I feel?

2) I chilled the f*ck out

Ooh this is a big one. I’ll admit this is something I’d experienced the first time I found yoga; it’s actually what led me to take up a more formal meditation practise, and ultimately dig myself out of a truly dark hole in my life in my early 20s.

But I was hardly zen, even after years of it. What I know now, is that if I’m feeling like a ball of stress and frustration and rage, I can change my mind by simply taking myself to the mat.

It isn’t instant, but if I stick with it, I can chill out, even just a bit, every single time. That’s a pretty awesome tool.

Plus, even if I’m not near a yoga mat, and find I’m about to fly off the handle, I’m much better at stopping myself, taking a good few deep breaths, and taking my rage down a peg or two.

It still happens of course, we lose our shit and say things we can only blame on our lesser selves (or hanger), but I can feel a noticeable difference when I have practise my yoga that morning vs. when I don’t.

 

3) I changed shape

Sure, the abdominal definition, slimmer arms and perkier butt are nice… but my favourite and most shocking change were… my toes.

Yes, my toes.

I’ve always had fairly good foot-confidence; while I’m not a fetishist, I’ve never been appalled by the sight of my own feet.

But in the past I’ve had some foot trouble: a tendency to over-supinate (I think) resulting in aches and pains from my feet up to my knees, to my hips and lower back. Not fun! I’ve been walking for nearly 30 years: you’d think I’d have nailed it by now…

It came as some relief to learn that walking correctly is actually challenge for most shoe-wearing humans, and that footwear that overly protects and cramps our feet aren’t doing us any favours.

If you’ve studied a little kid’s foot, you might have noticed there’s a notably different, more triangular shape to their feet. Their toes tend to be the widest point: splaying out at will, rather than bending into each other uncomfortably like so many of our tend to do.

Let’s get to the surprise.

One warm evening, I was curled up in bed watching a documentary, probably about yoga. I stuck my foot out from under the covers for a little airing and stretching and looking at it I was quite alarmed.

NONE of my toes were touching.

And I wasn’t flexing it; my foot was fully relaxed – feeling rather good actually.

Could it be that yoga was changing my foot shape?

Apparently this is a real side-effect of yoga, and one that can really improve balance and over all prevent foot pain.

Unsurprisingly, my foot pain hasn’t returned since my new spider-monkey-like toe changes.

 

4) I started moving differently

I’ve never been a particularly graceful type. I went to about three ballet classes as a little kid, before deciding that Saturday morning was better spent watching Rocko’s Modern Life. 

My posture has never been good, and sitting up straight with my shoulders back gave me an unnatural amount of pain, so… I stopped trying.

Until yoga cam and infiltrated my life.

Now I’m not saying I glide around like a supermodel – at 5’3″, I have a long way to go.

But it has helped me carry myself better: and by that I just mean I’m more aware of how I move and I find it easier (possibly due to more core strength and better balance) to simply walk down the street.

Whilst this doesn’t sound exactly life changing, and you probably wouldn’t notice if you saw me, but from inside: this is one of my biggest changes. How you move through life physically, I believe, reflects on how you move through life on an emotional and mental level too.

When I move smoothly and easily physically, I feel like I can handle what comes my way with more ease too.

Plus, I seem to be walking into stuff less too now.

 

5) I became more productive

This is one of the clear, measurable side effects I’ve found from practising more deliberately every day – often twice a day – and I imagine it could be extended to any positive habit you take up and stick to on the daily.

For me, yoga is something that marks the start of my day, and seems to really make a difference to how I approach the rest of my to-dos.

Taking that time for myself, time to check in on how I’m doing and not just jumping straight into other people’s agendas for me, seems to make me more able to show up a lot more enthusiastic and energised when it is time to start work.

I think the same would be the case if you started to meditate every morning or go for a run, but for me: yoga is the one thing that sticks, and which I can always look forward to, regardless of what I’ve got ahead of me.