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Missed part 1 or 2? read them here:
Yoga teacher training with Surinder Singh – Part 1: Rishikesh
Yoga teacher training with Surinder Singh – Part 2: Opening ceremony
We began each day at 6am. Sleepily entering the yoga hall, unrolling our mats and slowly stretching awake – or stealing a few more moments sleep under a blanket in a pretend shavasana.
Surinder would enter, prepare and pray as we came to sit, ready to begin the class. The morning class was for our own practice. It was one of my favourite times of day, knowing you wouldn’t be called upon to demonstrate a pose or to have the magic of the silence broken with a lengthy discussion on the finer points of a pose. It was a time to go deeper into the practice and learn alignment from the inside out.
It was 2 hours of yoga and pranayama, challenging but not exhausting. We’d work through a few rounds of sun salutations, going quite slowly, holding poses long enough for Surinder to check our alignment and give individual adjustments. He’d achieve this task at miracle speed, his experience and sharp eye meaning he could quickly hone in on what we most needed.
We’d repeat key poses again and again, spending what seemed like an inordinate amount of time perfecting downward dog. I didn’t like that pose so much before the course started (and I didn’t like it at all when I first started to practise yoga…I’m not sure that anyone does) but by the end of the course I loved the feeling of strength and energy there. It had become a resting pose, spine straight, lungs open, legs solid and strong. It has that perfectly balanced interplay of strength and flexibility, extension and stability that results in full body bliss. Of course such bliss takes time, practice and focus on alignment to get there.
I was amazed by how the smallest adjustment would have a big effect elsewhere. Whenever Surinder glided over to me, he had something for me to focus on, some way to work from where I was, to come into a deeper, truer pose. He didn’t overload us with alignment cues. They were offered personally, sequentially. When we were in the best alignment for our own practice, our individual bodies, he would let us know with a thumbs up, a pat on the back. He sensed when we were working hard, he sensed when we needed encouragement and he offered praise and corrections in a quiet, humble way.
Although he loves to talk, Surinder didn’t say much during the classes and his adjustments were normally done silently and with the lightest of touch. He doesn’t adjust you, he communicates using his touch to get you to adjust yourself. For me it’s the best way to learn. You begin to connect to your body in deeper and subtler ways.
By the end of the morning class I was ready for breakfast. Surinder on the other hand had a drop in class to teach. We were allowed to stay and observe the morning class, learning more about how to adjust and the common areas that people need to work on. I stayed a couple of mornings but more often than not I was ready to have a rest and to eat. I was aware of the need to take it easy, to pace myself for a full day and a full month.
After breakfast we were back for an anatomy class with our knowledgeable and patient anatomy teacher, Vivek. It seemed he knew the answer to any question we could throw at him, no doubt having one of those sponge-like brains that just absorbs everything you read and hear.
During the four weeks we learnt about respiration, the spine, the key joints and muscles and common anatomical problems. The human body is pretty mindblowing when you stop to marvel at it and I realised that I wanted to learn far more than this course would be able to cover.
It was a good overview but the complexity of the body and the range of challenges that people can experience is well beyond what can be covered in a 200 hour course. I had perhaps been a little bit unrealistic as to the kind of knowledge I would come out with but at least I know my psoas from my scapula and got a good overview from which to go deeper.
After anatomy class we broke for lunch. Because we were staying outside the school we didn’t have our meals included so we were free to roam the streets of Rishikesh. We would often find ourselves at the delicious Health Café, having millet with steamed veggies and a spiralini lime juice, or at the equally delicious Ayurveda café with its amazing ayurvedic thalis. After lunch we’d have a siesta, or do some study, or hang out down by the Ganges, sometimes getting our homework eaten by holy cows.
Next up was the afternoon teaching methodology class. This was a two hour class that involved a fairly substantial yoga practice but the focus was more on learning the key points of poses and learning how to correct alignment. On the first day we broke into two groups. The first group was to run through a few rounds of sun salutations whilst everyone else watched and made a mental note of alignment issues, then we swapped round.
I felt a bit self-conscious, not used to my practice being a public thing but it was time to get over that. Whilst watching the other group I realised that they were a very strong group of yoga practitioners and I couldn’t see many obvious alignment problems.
It made me realise one of the reasons that most yoga teacher training programmes accept beginners. In learning to be a teacher it is helpful to see the issues that a beginner comes up against and to understand how best to help them. We had one complete beginner and thankfully she was strong enough and sharing enough to not mind being singled out for extra attention. Rather than being downhearted by the number of corrections, she was enthused by the opportunity to learn properly from the beginning.
Of course even the more advanced practitioners had plenty of alignment issues to work on, but my eyes couldn’t see it yet. Fortunately we had a physical therapist in our group who had an eagle eye for hyperextension, something that becomes more important to watch out for with a lot of flexible yogis in the room.
As the course progressed we worked in small groups to practise correcting each other and to share our experience of how to work with a pose. We started to develop the eyes of teachers, realising how different a single pose can be for different bodies. We started to focus on what people were doing with their spines, their pelvises, and their chests and the effects on their vertebrae, their joints and their inner organs. We were looking at the deeper form and function rather than the surface appearance and aesthetic, striving to see and think deeper and more clearly, with the question ‘what’s most important here?’ being the driver.
After the afternoon class we had a break and then philosophy. I had already begun studying yogic philosophy in a one-month course with Agama (Trikka) school in Rishikesh in 2012. I’d started my journey into the sutras, gaining inspiration from the yamas and niyamas and beginning the journey of making them a deeper part of my practice and life.
I was looking forward to this class and eager to learn first hand from our teacher, an Indian man who had been studying in the ashram system and who was studying a phd in yoga philosophy. He was young but enthusiastic and clearly passionately interested in what he was teaching. Unfortunately he wasn’t really able to connect the sutras to daily life or to teaching. He was doubtless a great scholar but this didn’t translate to teaching skills, resulting in frustration on both sides.
Although disappointing, it was an interesting experience to come up against. Here we were, wanting to become better people through yoga, wanting to become teachers of yoga, and there was an air of rebellion against the teacher. My heart went out to him. I realised he was nervous and that this probably wasn’t helping him access his vast knowledge and present it to relative beginners.
People stopped attending his class, using the time to do their own study. I ploughed on for a while. I wanted to be respectful and make sure I wasn’t being lazy and simply expecting information to be spoon fed to me in eloquent and entertaining morsels. That would be quite a lot to ask when it comes to the complexities of yogic philosophy. But I did also skip class and go with the book option some of the time – eager to make sure I ended the course with more clarity than confusion.
Meditation and chanting class
After philosophy came meditation and chanting with Swami Ji. Swami was always beaming out the smiles, full power. He was boy like (although I suspect he was a lot older than he seemed) and joyful, sitting in his orange robes and chanting in a proud, strong voice. He loved chanting and struck a nice balance between the joy of singing, focusing on the meaning behind the words and the importance of proper intonation. People loved his class and after a day of filling our minds with new information it was a welcome release to move into relaxation through yoga nidra. I think he was realistic in not expecting us to sit and meditate for an hour at the end of a long day and made the practice manageable and fun.
After that we were free to go for the day. Heading off for a quick dinner before getting to bed at a reasonable hour for a 5.20 start to rise and repeat it all again.
Teaching a class
Our month of practising, studying and learning culminated in us teaching a 45 minute class each. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. It’s a big role to step into for the first time and it felt like there was a lot to think about. Thankfully it was a lovely, supportive group and Surinder kept reminding us that we were ‘a family’ and even shared the story of how he first came to teach and just how nervous he was.
I’d planned an afternoon class for beginners. I wanted to share something I knew and loved – a slow, deep, meditative practice, focusing on restorative practices. It’s how I first came into yoga.
The class went better than I could have hoped. It felt very weird to be ‘in charge’ and to hear my voice projecting across the room, but after the initial nerves I started to feel incredibly calm, my mind still and clear. I felt much the same way I do during a meditative yoga practice. It never occurred to me that teaching would feel this way.
The feedback after the class was overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic. My class was one of the last ones and it was wonderful to feel that I was giving something back to my fellow students – teaching them as they had taught me.
We finished the course with a short and simple closing ceremony. Gaining my certificate was a sweet moment, not so much for gaining a certification, not even for the journey in getting there, but to exchange a simple and heartfelt namaste with Surinder. It was a wonderful, connected and genuine moment. Everyone in the room was beaming and not wanting the moment to end.
And this was the best part of the course for me, and the reason that I would do the whole thing again in a heartbeat. Surinder is truly a man living his yoga – an inspiration and a teacher in every way.
Thank you to Surinder and all my fellow yogis. Namaste.