This is an extraordinarily creative, insightful, and inspiring piece by a recent graduate about her experience in the training. We thought it was too good not to share!
by Erin Shachory
11 September 2017

One of my greatest fears is being “found out.” As in, exposed as a fake, a phony, someone who doesn’t know what she’s talking about. This fear is common, and it seems like a textbook concern for a recovering perfectionist. But when I made the commitment to AHEM’s yoga teacher training, this closet concern became a large hairy monster sitting on my shoulders and whispering in my ear.

“It’s a matter of time,” Big Hairy Monster said, in a voice eerily like my own. Staring at the email receipt for my AHEM registration, she said, “Wow, you even PAID for this? But you’re not going to be a yoga teacher… Whoa ho ho! Wait a minute… ARE you planning to be a yoga teacher?”

I shrugged. “Maybe,” I whispered. “Maybe not. I just kind of want to see what it’s about.”

“Whew! Thank god!” BHM wiped her brow dramatically. “Thought you might be serious.”

I felt hurt, a little, even if BHM exists only in my mind. “What’s that s’posed to mean?”

“Aw, c’mon, E. No one’s gonna take you seriously,” BHM said. “You’re a mom, a housewife. Definitely not a yoga teacher. You haven’t worked in 20 years!”

“But–” I started, meaning to remind BHM about my freelance public relations and social media projects, the volunteer positions I’ve held at my kids’ schools, the joy of raising my kids, of being a good friend and positive influence in my community. But then I looked in the mirror and saw a middle aged woman with a puffy middle and slight muffin top cresting over her yoga pants, hardly a vision of physical fitness and vegan purity, which are (as any SoCal native can tell you) hallmarks of a good yoga teacher.

“You’re right,” I said. “But I’m just gonna go and see what it’s all about. That okay with you?”

BHM wasn’t listening anymore. She’d gone back to Snapchat, gathering evidence of “true yogis” for me. Before long, I talked myself out of believing I could teach yoga, but I’d already paid for AHEM.

Dammit.

I’d just have to go through with it. Hell.

 

In modern society, yoga seems like a “get Zen quick” plan, a shortcut to finding your true, authentic self. Which, if you do yoga, is lithe, happy, graceful, peaceful… in short, as enlightened as the Buddha himself. A cursory Google search supports this idea with images of serene young women and strong young men flexing their lean muscles, smiling calmly while holding difficult postures (most of which make me, a 20-year yoga enthusiast, want to scream four-letter words when I do them). The ad campaigns of purveyors of yoga gear are rife with affirmations and encouragement of the “just do it” variety, but even when I buy their products, sometimes I struggle with doing anything, much less anything awesome. And when I turn to Instagram and Facebook, there are a plethora of beautifully framed quotes by enlightened writers/artists/gurus urging me to let go of who I think I am in order to be who I “really” am.

I want to believe this idea, I really do. I want to be as real as I can be. I want to be so real — so authentic — that my students will have no choice but to follow in my footsteps and be as real as I am.

And yet this kind of “authenticity” and “realness” has always felt false to me.

It’s not that I’m a cynic. I love magical thinking and doling out positive vibes. And I understand the inherent nature of internet posturing: (s)he who shines brightest gets the most attention, makes the biggest impact, makes the most money, laughs last.

But when it comes to yoga — and by “yoga” I mean a sincere practice of curious investigation into the emotional states embedded in our unique individual physical bodies using tools such as poses, breathing and meditation — the simple act of showing up and answering the call to “come as you are” seems infinitely more challenging than designing an empire of tummy-tucking/booty-lifting spandex bloomers. When I decide to take a class or do a home practice, I go to the mat with all the pieces of myself that are broken. I also invite the lying, cheating, heart-pummeling words that I’ve said, heard and believed throughout my life. I attach the weight of my ancestors, culture, language, gender, nationality, occupation, tax bracket and skin color to my limbs, as though such things might keep me grounded in “who I am.” There’s usually a swarm of to-do items and running lists of failures and successes hovering around my head, depending on how many I can swat away by the time I sit down. For kicks, I toss a couple of positive mantras into my bag, with the sincere hope that I’ll use them at some point.

And then the “real” work begins. I don’t mean my “authentic” work or the work of seeking “truth,” although I could be mincing words. No, in this case, “real” signifies the work I’m here to do. Not just on the yoga mat or in a specific posture or in the broader yoga community, but in my lifetime, as a human, as a mixed media assemblage of cells and thoughts that lumber around the world as the person writing this essay.

 

So, I love yoga — MY yoga — but even after a few intense weekends of AHEM training, I hardly felt ready to teach when practicum day arrived. Our lessons on anatomy seemed to go in one of my ears and stay there, consumed by Big Hairy Monster before I could digest them. The elaborate cueing notes were like skittish birds I was trying to cage. Our discussions on teacher responsibilities and trauma-informed language were like intricate dreams I could no longer remember.

The day before our first practicum, I felt the heaviness of BHM’s negative thoughts bearing down on me. Each one resonated in my body as deeply as if BHM was pointing her megaphone at my heart and screaming:

 

You don’t know enough to teach.

You can’t remember the names of the muscles in that pose? HA! Some teacher you’ll be.

Hey look, everyone! It’s yet ANOTHER privileged white woman getting certified!

People want a teacher who’s an expert. You ready to handle that?

You have (too much/not enough) trauma to relate to your students.

You’ll never be perfect.

You’re not enough.

You may never be enough.

 

During one part of the day, I locked myself in the back bathroom and cried ugly tears until I could breathe again. The drive home that night felt longer than the usual hour, my thoughts spiraling out of control, my self-loathing approaching a terrible zenith. When I got home, my husband met me at the car and I fell into his arms, sobbing. “I can’t do it,” I repeated, over and over, until I started to believe it. Until BHM was satisfied.

The juicy parts of AHEM went out the window. All the talk of self-regulation, resourcing, grounding, centering… It’s like I forgot all of them. I was scared shitless.

But of what? Of teaching a room of similarly scared yoga trainees? It couldn’t be; the layers of shame ran too deep for the answer to be so simple.

When I got quiet that night, BHM sat beside me. “You know, I have a real name,” she said. “It’s Fear. Sometimes I seem like a whole lotta different people, but I’m pretty much just one entity. I’m complicated.”

“Huh.” I didn’t feel like talking and grabbed the remote.

“You can’t ignore me.” She clicked off the TV. “When you ignore me, I get worse. I get mean. I hide deeper under your skin and prod at you from within your body.”

“Like cancer,” I muttered.

“Yeah! Like cancer!” She clapped her hands and pulled her legs under her body, excited. “But I can be other things, too… Muscle strains, migraines, that literal pain in your neck, the weird feeling in your stomach when you’re uncomfortable with a new challenge…” BHM/Fear ticked these off on her fingertips.

“Crying uncontrollably in yoga teacher training?”

She nodded. “Yeah, that was a good one, huh? Came out of ‘nowhere,’ am I right?” With furrowed brows, she added, “I’ll admit, I didn’t think you’d take it so hard. I mean, you’re normally so… normal.” Her face lit up again. “But I got you!”

I turned the TV back on. “Piss off.”

 

On the first page of my notes from AHEM, there is a conversation about resilience.

Yoga is a tool for self-regulation, my notes read. As yoga teachers, we hold space for people to be where they are and who they are without running away. Yoga is a way to tolerate being in our bodies. It gives us the tools to walk through the fire. AHEM yoga teachers are trained to give students the tools to look at shadow and be with it without retreating.

There is nothing about yoga pants or thinness or expertise.

In fact, on page three of my notes, I find this gem: The ‘secret’ of teaching yoga is that it’s okay to feel like a fraud.

 

The first practicum was a blur, but I now see that the only way for scared trainees to actually get up there and teach is to make them get up there and teach, in the gentlest, kindest manner. It was short, we were prepared, we were supported. Even so, it was rough. But we survived. In fact, many thrived and inspired the rest of us.

BHM/Fear jumped up when it was my turn to teach, but I told her she couldn’t sit on the mat with me. Instead, she thrust my detailed cueing notecards into my fist and stalked around the room. I started off shaky but found a bit of a stride, telling myself, You know this, you got this. But I could feel Fear judging me from the back of the room, from behind my shoulders, wagging her mean head and pulling faces. At these points, I lost my place, looked down at her notes, began to read with my head down, forgot about the students in front of me.

Later, a fellow trainee mentioned that she knew when I looked at my notes, even when her eyes were closed. “I could feel you leaving your body,” she said. “You weren’t with us anymore.”

“But I need my notes,” I told her. “Without my cues–”

She stopped me, rejected my lame excuse. “Nope. How long have you been doing yoga?”

I shook my head. “I dunno. Twenty years?”

“Then teach what you know. Jesus, just be in the room with us.”

 

Just be in the room with us.

That directive sounds an awful lot like Be in your body, which also sounds a great deal like embodied awareness and mindfulness. In the first few pages of our AHEM manual, we’re told, “By staying present we find threads of connection between the sensations, emotions, thoughts, and memories that shape how we feel about, and respond to experience.”[2] The key to an embodied awareness (that is, a conscious understanding of ourselves within our bodies and, therefore, within our world) is this present-moment relationship to what shows up in the room. It’s a constant, mindful exploration of where we are, physically and emotionally. It’s also an open-ended invitation to show up and be truthful about what’s going on. If your shoulder aches, name it, then see if you can bring healing to it from the inside with breath, awareness, gentle changes in your alignment through yoga postures, insight meditation, manual manipulation of the muscles with your hands, etc. It is not, however, ignoring the pain until it magically goes away.

Just be in the room with us.

 

“Well, I don’t get it,” BHM/Fear said on the drive home that night. “‘Just be in the room with us’? Who the hell died and made her Queen of All Yoga?” She lit up my car stereo with some hip hop and tapped her fingernails on the dash.

I pursed my lips. BHM wasn’t getting it. Maybe she couldn’t get it. If I stopped listening to her, where would she go? Would she shrivel and die? I gave her the side eye, took in her formidable size.

Not likely.

Returning my eyes to the road, I wondered if there was a way to just shrink her size, or maybe fit her with a muzzle. You know, shush that sassy mouth of hers.

“I know what you’re thinking, girl,” BHM said. “I live in your mind. You think I can’t hear you think?” When I didn’t answer, she let out a long, slow exhale. “I can’t believe you called me fat.”

“What?”

Formidable size. Those exact words, that’s what you thought.” She shook her head, looked out the window. “How’s that supposed to make me feel?”

I sighed. “I’m sorry. I just… Look, I’m tired of fighting. When will you accept that I’m doing this training and that’s all there is?”

BHM/Fear fixed her gaze on me and raised her voice. “When will you accept that I’m a part of you?”

I shrank into my seat, my fingers gripping the steering wheel to steady myself.

“If you want cooperation,” she said, “give me a seat at the table of your life. Love me, and I will love you back. I’m not all bad. I only want what’s best for you. If you can convince me that you can do this in spite of my fear of your failure and rejection and disappointment, I will smile and keep my mouth shut.”

“A seat at the table?” I asked. “When you’ve been a paranoid, hateful, dream-crushing machine? When you’ve kept me up at night, worrying that I’m doing ‘it’ all wrong, whatever ‘it’ is? When you’ve stopped me from taking jobs, getting on planes, pursuing passions?”

BHM nodded and the answer was revealed in the glimmer of a quote I’d heard years before. Invite your fears to tea.

“All right,” I said. “What do you want for dinner?”

 

When I set out on my yoga journey nearly two decades ago, I would have bet my right arm that (a) I’d be doing daily handstands by now, and (b) I’d be living fear-free. But my AHEM training has helped me understand why, as I mentioned on the second page of this essay, this vision of “true” yoga no longer rings true for me. I learned about the concept of spiritual bypassing, which Robert Augustus Masters describes as “the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs.” Masters calls out such modern trends as The Secret fad, “advanced” yoga and meditation practices, and faux-positive sayings (“it’s all an illusion,” for example) as “fast-food spirituality.”[3]

The trouble with Masters’ assertion is this: if you can’t see or touch your own spirituality, or that of others, how can you show yourself or the world that you are really transcending the mixed bag shit-hole of humanity?

And this is the point of AHEM: you can’t.

Within my notes, I wrote, “As teachers, we don’t want to perpetuate trauma. Instead, let’s learn how to hold space for both hardships and extraordinary destiny.” But how to create such a space for our students? AHEM offers a very simple, basic plan: the Foundational Trinity.[4]

The Foundational Trinity consists of three parts: Grounding, Orienting and Resourcing. Grounding reminds students (and teachers) that they are embodied; that is, we each have an actual flesh-and-bone body with which we experience the world. Orienting enables us to place ourselves in a time and place, replacing a feeling of disorientation or uncertainty about our environment with a sense of calm. Lastly, Resourcing helps us access the things that can offer support or encouragement when we feel overwhelmed or stressed. Resources can include “sensations, emotions, colors, places, people, sounds, animals,” or anything that brings a sense of well-being and safety.[5]

In AHEM, as we marched toward our last weekend and final practicum, the message became clearer and clearer that learning poses, sequencing and anatomy were great, but they weren’t enough to ensure a safe, healthy environment for students (or teachers). In order to truly embody the training, I would need to embrace the Foundational Trinity. Like an oxygen mask on an airplane, I would need to offer myself the compassion of getting grounded, feeling safe in my environment and remembering my internal resources before I could ever feel like an authentic yoga teacher.

But how could I do that and remember all the cues for each pose?

 

Before the final practicum, I reread this gem from Jack Kornfield: “The basic principle of spiritual life is that our problems become the very place to discover wisdom and love.”[6]

BHM/Fear sat beside me, looking over my shoulder, whispering the words to herself. “Our problems become the very place to discover wisdom and love.” She rested her head on my shoulder. “That’s nice.”

I kept reading, flipping through A Path with Heart for any clues to help me prepare for my last weekend. My shoulder grew heavy and BHM snored lightly, eyes closed, a smile on her lips. A lifetime of fighting with Fear, and this is the line that softened her.

 

In my final practicum, I didn’t bring notes to the mat. Yes, I’ve been doing sun salutes for years and I could probably muddle my way through the cues fairly competently. But the exercise was more about getting comfortable in my own skin than reading perfect cues like a script. It was about taking a moment before my class began to breathe and feel my sit bones on the ground, to move my head side-to-side and take in the room and my students’ faces, to call upon the memory of loved ones and past victories. I invoked my own Foundational Trinity and then I began.

I wish I could remember what happened next, but it is a happy blur of limbs moving and words being said. Whatever my “zone” is, I was in it. I was immersed in the present moment and I wouldn’t have had time to sneak glances at my notes anyway. I could feel myself in the room. And it felt as real to me as any “real” yoga class ever had.

When it was over, my students smiled and my teachers offered love and chocolate. And from the back of the room, BHM/Fear cheered like everyone else could hear her. Tears streamed down her face and she rushed toward me. “You were right.”

“Aaaaaand you were wrong,” I said.

For a change, she didn’t argue. “We still have work to do,” she said, wiping her eyes, “but we’ll get there.”

“You said we.” I nudged her. “Not just me?”

BHM made a strange noise, a cross between a sob and laugh. “No way. We’re a team now.”

“Like peanut butter and jelly?” I asked.

“More like Shadow and Light,” she nodded. “But better. We’re Humanity and Fear. The new power couple.”

 

Contrary to the myths promised by practices which promote spiritual bypassing, there is no transcending our own existence while we’re existing. The point of existence (if indeed there is one) may be to live with everything that our very existence brings with it: the good, the bad, the ugly, the frenzied, the stressed, the traumatized, the ecstatic, the blissful. When this volatile mixture of humanity comes to the mat, in the form of a corporeal being, teachers have the opportunity to meet it with tools for self-regulation. We can create and hold a safe space for our students to meet their shadows and accept all the parts of themselves. We can meet each student where they are on their journey, with an awakened heart and an embodied mind. We can encourage the emotions of childhood, trauma, fear and shame to creep out of their hiding places within the body and shake, tremble, cry and release.

As a teacher trained by AHEM, my long journey is just beginning. With practice, I’m feeling better about showing up on my mat for my students, not only as a teacher but also as a partner in this exploration of the human body and mind. Being a teacher no longer means concealing my fear of being called a phony or pretending that I know more than the students in front of me or sidestepping the labels our society may place on me. Instead, the act of teaching something I love to other humans feels like a way to reach my hands out to the people who show up for me and say, “Whatever happens over the next hour, we’re in it together.”

[1] Grease. Dir. John Randal Kleiser. Paramount Pictures, 1978. Film. This quote represents one of my greatest fears: to hear students mutter these words as they leave my class.

[2] Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind Teacher Training Manual (Santa Monica, CA: AHEM, 2017), 4.

[3] Robert Augustus Masters, “Spiritual Bypassing,” excerpted from Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters, as printed in Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind Teacher Training Manual (Santa Monica, CA: AHEM, 2017), 4.

[4] Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind Teacher Training Manual (Santa Monica, CA: AHEM, 2017), 6.

[5] Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind Teacher Training Manual (Santa Monica, CA: AHEM, 2017), 9.

[6] Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1993), 71.