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.

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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 to Breathe (Or My First Yoga Lesson)

My First Yoga Lesson

What I remember of my first yoga lesson wasn’t the first time I raised my arse in downward dog, or falling asleep in corpse pose… it was learning how to breathe.

The teacher patiently blew our minds with the possibility that there was another way to breathe. That we, for 17 years, had spent our breaths on an arguably inferior method of oxygenating.

At first, the idea of breathing into my belly (or diaphragm) seemed simply that: just an idea. I couldn’t actually do it. I figured teacher was just a little batty from all that head-standing.

After some time, some persistence from teacher, and some imagination from her students… I got the hang of it.

Of course I’d be lying if I said I’m always super aware of my breath and have a rich, full breath at any time of day or night. Of course it takes a lot of reminders to myself that while I’m breathing enough to keep alive, my breathing could be deeper, slower and benefitting not just my body but my mind.

But over the past 13+ years, I’ve come to see my breath for what it is: an automated process that I can use, for free, as my all natural Prozac or stimulant. It’s pretty neat. And I have yoga to thank for that.

Pranayama? The History and the Science

I should probably explain a bit more about the place of the breath within the big fluffy blanket of yoga. In case you didn’t know, yoga isn’t just the moving; the chaturangas and downward dogs. Those postures (yoga asanas) are just one of eight ‘limbs’ of yoga, covered in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras—a foundation of classical yoga philosophy…. which I’ll cover in more depth soon.

For now, just note that controlled breathing, of pranayama, is another one of those limbs.

Prana = breath or life energy

Ayama = to stretch or expand

Combined, I suppose pranayama = to expand the breath of life.

Athletes and martial arts practitioners access the breath’s primal force by timing moments of exertion with forced exhalation. Yogis refine this by coordinating the rhythm of the breath with movements in the asanas, generally coupling inhalation with expansion and exhalation with deepening. Pranayama perfects this process.

~ Ray Long

Naturally, the questioner in me wondered why this breath stuff was so important. Sure, it felt mildly pleasant and relaxing – but does it really make a difference to my performance or life in general? So I did some research…

Fun with your autonomic nervous system

The autonomic nervous system (or ANS) controls our digestion, respiration, heart rate, immune function and excretion – the things we (hopefully) don’t have to consciously think about. Within the ANS are two distinct systems, known as the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response) and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).

Whilst we can’t consciously control other jobs of the ANS, respiration is one we can definitely work with – and because of that, we can play with our ability to hype ourselves up (fight-or-flight) or calm ourselves down (rest and digest). Neat, eh?

Fun with blood pressure

Alternate nostril breathing is one type of breath practise (oh yes, there are lots) which has been shown to have a significant effect on reducing blood pressure, as well as improving performance in speed and agility. Not bad for five minutes of sticking your fingers up your nose. [1]

Fun with brain wave activity

Another type of breathwork, brahmari, was studied to determine its effect on brain wave activity.

Eight participants practised brahmari for five to 10 minutes twice a day for four months. The research found that brahmari increased theta brain wave activity, which is normally exhibited during deep meditation. It also induced feelings of blissful thoughts and lowered stress. [2]

Fun with diabetes

Diaphragmatic breathing was found to significantly lower oxidative stress in diabetic patients by reducing body mass index, waist-hip ratio, fasting and post prandial plasma glucose, glycated hemoglobin, and improving antioxidant levels. This is meaningful because oxidative stress associated with hyperglycemia, which can lead to diabetes mellitus as well as conditions like atherosclerosis and neuropathy. [3]

There have been other studies, also showing the positive effects of breath practise on a wide range of ailments from chronic pain to gastrointestinal disorders as well as athletic performance.

Personally, I don’t need much convincing in this particular area, because I’ve felt the difference just a few deep breaths can make when I’m getting lost in my reactive mind.

Types of Breath Practise

This is where things get weird. Well, as weird as you want to make them. Some breath practises take quite a bit of… getting used to… and used to feeling and looking rather silly, in order to feel the full effects.

Some, you might try and never take to, others you’ll try once and be hooked on your first round of breath.

My advice: experiment! Be open to the wackier ones (I’ve surprised myself) and note that you can always try them again another time. Many of my experiences have been dependent on the teacher as well as the environment and my own present state of mind.

There are several more I won’t delve into today (you can check more out here) – I’m just going to include my top 3:

Ujayi Pranyama (Conquerer Breath)

Pronounced oo-jy (rhymes with pie)-ee

If you’ve heard someone (or yourself) make a hissing sound, kind of like what you hear when you hold a seashell up to your ear, when performing yogic postures, you’ve heard ujayi breathing.

When we breathe, the air passes through the nasal sinuses, which create a kind of force or turbulence, warming the air before it passes into the lower parts of the body.

The glottis is a muscular aperture that sits in our throat, regulating the flow of air into the lower respiratory tract. Normally we control the opening and closing of the glottis unconsciously but yogic breathing techniques like ujayi involve consciously regulating airflow through the glottis.

Our very attractive glottis

When we consciously restrict the amount of air passing through the glottis, we can raise the temperature of the air above normal. Neat, eh? Plus we hear our breath as a vibration, that can sound a bit like the sea waves, in my opinion.

This process of increasing heat and creating a sound with the air is known as ujayi breathing.

Example:

Nadi Shodhana (Channel-Cleaning Breath)

Pronounced nah-dee show-DAH-nah

nadi = channel
shodhana = cleaning, purifying

This is one breath practise that took me a while to enjoy, mostly because it takes a bit of co-ordination to get into. The idea here is to use your ring and thumb finger (in Mrigi Mudra) to open and close your nostrils alternately, taking in breath through one nostril at a time.

I know.

So your ring finger/pinky pair will close the left nostril, the thumb will close the right (unless you’re using your left hand). When you close a nostril, apply just enough pressure to block the opening, not so much that you interfere with the flow of breath through the open nostril.

Start by keeping the right nostril open, inhale, then close it, (optional: retain your breath for a beat) then open and exhale slowly through the left. Then, inhale through the left, sealing the right, pausing… and exhaling through the right, sealing the left.This is one cycle. Repeat 3 to 5 times, then release the hand mudra and go back to normal breathing.

… and enjoy having full use of your nostrils.

Example:

Finally, my favourite and most ridiculous…

Simhasana (Lion Pose)

Pronounced sim-HAHS-anna

simha = lion

No description here, just a video (this must be seen – and tried! – to be believed)

Well that’s it for today’s 101 on How to Breath (in case you weren’t sure…) and I hope it’s inspired you to give some breath practise a try.

  1. Telles S, Yadav A, Kumar N, Sharma S, Visweshwaraiah NK, Balkrishna A. Blood pressure and Purdue pegboard scores in individuals with hypertension after alternate nostril breathing, breath awareness, and no intervention. Med Sci Monit. 2013 Jan 21;19:61-6
  2. Vialatte FB, Bakardjian H, Prasad R, Cichocki A. EEG paroxysmal gamma waves during Bhramari Pranayama: a yoga breathing technique. Conscious Cogn. 2009 Dec;18(4):977-88