I’ve had a lot of people asking me about my yoga teacher training trip to Koh Samui, Thailand, so I thought I’d put it into words for y’all.
Where do I start?! I haven’t written anything longer than my passport ID number since my English degree so I’m not going to try and make this all fancy – one huge thing I learnt out there was to be as close to your authentic self as possible, and not to try and be someone you’re not, because you’ll never end up where you want to be. In the words of Oscar Wild: ‘Be yourself, because everyone else is taken’. Ok too fancy. Sounds obvious, but so often we get wrapped up and wound up in trying to fit some kind of mould, more concerned about what others think than what feels right inside, and sometimes we’re not even aware that we’re doing it. This was me before I left. Daily plaguing questions inc: what shall I tell people I do when they ask me? When is everything going to become clear? What the hell am I actually doing with my life? Post-Thailand questions:
Ahh that’s better.
I’m not saying I have all the answers now; far from it! I’ve just learnt to be absolutely okay, even happy, with not having any. January 2016 has been a life-changing month, and its true effects only crept up on me in the days after I came home. I’m seeing so many things differently now, and it’s all thanks to following my gut, which, as it turns out, is a team player!
I booked the course on a whim, two days before Christmas, staying true to my impulsive nature. The thing that scared me most was the vision of face-planting in the midst of twenty-nine yoga ninja turtles, one of which I definitely was not (I haven’t been practicing very long), and worse than that, yoga ninja turtles who were all swimming strong in the current of life, knowing exactly where they were heading with speed and clarity. This yoga panda right here just seemed to be floating about somewhere with its head bobbing just above the water, staring out to an endless sea without any sense of direction. Or at least that’s how it’s felt for the last God-knows how long. Thankfully it turned out quite a few were in the same boat! A few had even quit their jobs, or were thinking about it, wanting to escape the rat race, with no real plans past the course’s horizon. One thing I’d made sure of before I left though was that I wasn’t going to Thailand to escape myself; I was going there to face myself.
So let’s start at the very beginning; a very good place to start. At 11am on New Years Day, most likely still a little gin-intoxicated from the night before (I don’t know what part of me decided it would be a good idea to go anywhere near the South Bank when I had to be up at 6am), I was on a flight to Thailand. I felt scared but empowered! It definitely felt right.
There’s nothing like the feeling of getting off the plane in a hot country and breathing in that holiday air. It just smells different. Transitioning from the airport to my basic but cockroach-free hotel was surprisingly smooth; I was half expecting people to come up to me and ask me where my mummy was… But I arrived in one piece, minus a suitcase that was lost in the air somewhere on another plane. I spent some time in Chaweng looking round the shops, walking bare foot in the sea and sitting down to a Pad Thai and a strawberry shake at a beach café. On paper, it sounds perfect! But I felt seriously lonely looking out at that massive fearless expanse of water. One of the struggles I’d been facing over the last few months is knowing that I have so much to be grateful for, and yet still feeling unhappy… It just leaves me with a massive sense of guilt. I’m constantly being told I’m too hard on myself, which I know is true. Those who are close to me know I’ve been having a tough time moving on from a difficult break up back in September, and nearly four months after, here I was, still beating myself up for not bouncing back quickly enough from it. Sadness, once a foreigner, had become a daily resident inside of me, which terrified me. I never considered that it might actually be a necessary stepping-stone in the right direction rather than a setback. I had no idea at this point how much I was about to learn.
The following day, after treating myself to the most epic lie-in (by this time pretty bored of my own company), I wondered across the road to the Vikasa resort; a little piece of paradise with breath-taking views of the blue-green sea and homemade raw cacao energy balls to die for! The first people I bumped into from the course were Kat, a colourful bubble of energy and Zoe, a gentle sweetheart, both from London. We decided to do a Yin yoga class in a beautiful white shala overlooking the ocean, which increased my happiness tenfold. The class was slow-paced, calming, and focused upon the idea of ‘allowing not making, surrendering not doing’ – of letting go. This is a concept that really spoke to me, in many ways. It’s funny how we hold on to things, beliefs, words, that don’t serve or help us, when in letting them go we release that resistance and just allow life to flow. We need to just get out of the way of ourselves! Easier said that done sometimes, but another thing I’m working on.
The daily schedule looked like this:
My alarm woke me up at 4:30am every day (why is this not illegal?), and each morning as I made my way across the road in the pitch black, I’d make a point of looking up at the stars that always seem so much brighter on the other side of the world, to say thank you for my life. Gratitude is something I’ve always practiced instinctively since I was young, but I’ve more recently learnt for a fact that being in a state of gratitude means you cannot be in fear, and that it’s most powerful during times when you feel the least grateful. (E.g. when you’re not in bed at 4:30 in the morning.) It opens you up to receiving the things you want. I’d have to use my phone torch to get me down the gazillion fights of stairs alive, but the view at the bottom of the moon reflecting down onto the infinity pool made it a worthwhile journey every time.
Meditation would begin in a shala by the sea bang on 5:30am, signaled by a chime. Sitting still for half an hour sounds relatively simple, but leg numbness, waves crashing against rocks, racing thoughts vs falling back into sleep all accompanied by the War of the Mosquitoes made meditation a challenge 99% of the time. We would crack up every time when Yo Yo from Hong Kong, one of the most adorable and entertaining people I’ve ever come across, would come in looking like Joseph and the Techni-colour dream coat wearing every item of her clothing including scarf and gloves to protect herself against being bitten. There were the odd wonderful occasions where I was able to shush my thoughts completely and would enter into a state of pure bliss, with energy buzzing up through my entire body. Holding onto that feeling when you are lucky enough to have it is tricky! But there are no shortcuts, just patience and practice. Apparently most people find meditation easier in the morning when their brains are less cluttered with information from the day, but I’m in the minority and prefer it just before I go to bed, which is when I feel most at peace. Either way, it’s good practice to try and do it at the same time each day. I’ve been practicing it for almost a year now and I can feel it changing my life in ways that are difficult to explain – all I can do is strongly suggest introducing it into your life. It might not feel like you’re doing much, but those 15 minutes a day of sitting still and quiet are more powerful than you think. It’s the path to realising you are more than just a body and a mind, and connecting with your true self which is often trampled on by the ego/your mind/those thoughts in your head that you believe are you. They’re not. An example I love is goosebumps. Goosebumps are the real you coming to the surface to say hi. When something gives you goosebumps, pay attention.
Meditation would then be followed by a two and a half hour intensive Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga session, covering the full primary series; a series of asanas (poses) designed to heal the body, release toxins, and unite mind, body and soul. As I still considered myself to be fairly new to yoga, I didn’t realise the importance of the breath throughout the practice – how it links to each movement, helps to create heat in the body, moves energy through you and brings you into a state of moving meditation. Powerful stuff. Physically, the practice was challenging – one day, a beautiful soul called Rachel whose face reminded me of the moon (she did actually happen to be a bit of a yoga ninja and a daily inspiration to watch) counted we’d done 400 Chaturganas in total (effectively lowering from a high to low plank)! Every morning we woke up in near-agony, which did become frustrating when you wanted to give it your all. But watching the sunrise over the sea when hanging upside down in a Prasarita made every ache and bruise worthwhile.
The most popular lectures were on the subject of the chakras (which I am now officially obsessed with): the seven energy points or wheels in your body that align your spine, starting from the root (located at the base) all the way up to the crown (top of the head). Each chakra corresponds to different nerves, major organs and emotional states of being. If one or some of our chakras are blocked, and energy cannot flow, this can manifest into physical illness, or even on an emotional level, into something like feeling stuck in life. We want our chakras to be open. I’m going to talk a little bit here about the third chakra because this one affected me the most. Otherwise known as the Manipura, this chakra (located in your upper abdomen just below your ribs) is linked to ego identity, personal power and assertiveness. You’re familiar with the expressions ‘fire in my belly’, ‘butterflies in my stomach’, ‘gut feeling’, etc? This is the chakra that is responsible for these feelings. After a group meditation that focused on opening the Manipura, I experienced a flashback to when I was younger and was obsessed with learning how to wolf whistle. I would practice and practice it, relentlessly, until I nailed it; this was how I was, with everything. I was hit with a sudden awareness that that determination had been lost somewhere growing up, which led me to speculate that my Manipura chakra must’ve become blocked somewhere along the line, whether that be through social conditioning or a toxic relationship or something else. Where had my self-belief gone? It wasn’t until I was practicing handstands over and over again in my spare time later that afternoon, sweat dripping into my eyes and heart near-exploding out of my chest, that I stopped and realized I’d been reunited with that old fire in my belly. The meditation had awakened something powerful. Enter the chakra obsession.
I can’t speak highly enough of our teachers, Jamie and Dulce, who met each other through yoga in San Francisco a few years ago, and have shared their wisdom with thousands of students all over the world. It was honestly a pleasure to be around them, to learn so much from them and to absorb their infectious passion for yoga. What was so amazing was that they created an environment where it was acceptable and actually completely normal to have days where you wanted to scream or cry or throw blockies across the room at someone’s head. (No one did this fortunately). There were times when I had to go back to my room to cry into my pillow and return with red eyes, but like I said, I came here to face myself, my internal struggles and past emotions I’d never properly dealt with, and although it hurt, I learnt that it was okay. This was such a big turning point for me – someone who has always needed to be happy and has always rejected any feelings of sadness or anger, labeling them as ‘negative’. Someone very special once told me not to judge anything as positive or negative, and I never really understood what that meant until recently… Now I’ve learned to stare all of my emotions in the face, sit with them, acknowledge them, and embrace them as equals – I’m trying to let go of thinking that one is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than another. I believe they’re all necessary for something. Then when you’re ready, it’s easier to release the ones that don’t serve you anymore, and they don’t stay stored inside you waiting to surface unexpectedly. Hello breakthrough!
The course was hard work, it was intense, and there were as many down days as there were up. But it was exactly what I’d needed, and experiencing it alongside such an amazing bunch of like-minded, lovely people was a massive bonus. I could go on forever about all the things I learnt, but that would take roughly about twenty-five days..! Although I know I’m just at the start of a very special journey, I can already feel the power of yoga and the effects its had on me, and it is my intention to help spread the word with the ethos that there’s no race or competition – we’re all in this together, aiming for Enlightenment whether we know it or not, and Yoga is a vehicle which takes us inside ourselves to connect with the knowing that everything we’re seeking out there is already within us. But there are no shortcuts to anything worthwhile. You can’t become a yoga master overnight; face-plants are a very essential part of the journey. It shouldn’t be about how well you can transition from Eka Pada Koundinyasana into a chin stand, just as life shouldn’t be about the destination – it’s always about the journey. Enjoy every step, embrace every emotion and get up after every fall. If teacher training is something you’ve been thinking of doing, or even just going to your first ever yoga class, I hope you now feel inspired to take that leap of faith on yourself and do it! There will never be the ‘perfect time’ – you just have to follow your instincts. And if you’re scared about the yoga ninja turtles, I discovered that these are a rare breed, because everyone has fears, resistance and doubt… But there’s more to life than sitting in your harbour being a floating ship. A wise fish once said, ‘just keep swimming’, and see where it takes you.
I think my family are relieved that I’m no longer the worrying anxious mess that I have been the last few months. My Mum has noticed the new sense of calm in me, and a few days ago asked ‘do you feel ready to face the world now?’. The answer is still no! But this time it’s because I don’t think there’s any ‘facing’ to do. I reckon the Universe is on my side, and always has been.