By Elonne Stockton
This month marks the beginning of my tenth year teaching. I took my first teacher training course in January 2003. Fittingly, I commemorate my anniversary by helping teach our Centered Yoga Foundation Course, which starts on the 18th of this month.
The morning after I completed the training course in ’03 I started teaching, and I have been teaching full-time ever since then. When I started the course, I had no intention of teaching; I just wanted to “go deeper” into my sadhana, my practice. I had been in journalism, and I also believed that a deeper understanding of yoga would inform my writing.
In May I will be teaching a retreat titled Basics and Beyond;. It is for those of you who want to “go deeper.” Maybe you have been practicing for a while but have never had the opportunity to go deeper. Or maybe you feel there are gaps in your knowledge and want a richer understanding of the practice in its entirety.
Usually, as our practice advances, we feel more and more like a beginner, and this is an essential part of the learning process. In order to be able to take in new information, we need to be open to it, keeping a beginner’s mind. If we feel we know already, we are already full and there is no room for new information. But if we have a beginner’s mind, life presents us with endless opportunities for learning and growth.
For those of you wanting something more, now is the chance. Many people are happy taking a class or two a week. The peace that those few hours brings them is enough. There is nothing wrong with that. But for those who have an interest in going deeper, there is no time like the present.
I will share some of my story to show how the practice starts to reveal itself as we age and as our practice matures. Over the years, my connection to the practice has steadily grown, and to this day it continues to unfold. If we keep up a practice, it will always be steady for us, like a close relationship with a reliable old friend. As with any relationship, there will be ups and downs, but it will always be a constant in our life, ever reminding us how far there is to go on this journey. I am ever amazed.
It was while on retreat in the Bahamas, in October ’02, that I started to realize that practice is a rabbit hole. It was a real epiphany, and I clearly saw that I had just skimmed the surface on both the theoretical and practical aspects of Yoga. At this time, things were ripening in my mental development; ideas and concepts that I once understood mostly intellectually started to make sense to me on a more practical level. Life and its lessons (past and present) also started to shine light on the teachings, and years of constant motion made me ready to sit. I was ready to go in.
As my understanding grew, my reasons for practicing also became more complex, and my appetite for more knowledge and experience intensified. By the time I decided to take my first teacher training at the start of ’03 it had already been ten years since I started my exploration of yoga.
For me it began at age 14. I secluded myself in my basement trying to make sense of some ancient library books and a little later some video tapes. I never told anyone other than my family and running coach that I was practicing – nowadays yoga (especially the asana) is mainstream, but at that time yoga’s popularity was mainly growing in major cities, and most people who had even heard of it thought it was weird. Although for years I kept it a secret, I never doubted the benefits of practicing.
I immediately found 2 or 3 times a week really helped me cope with the stresses of academics, athletics and adolescence. It was what I needed at the time. I often think that more guidance at that time could have helped me tremendously, but who knows at that stage of development how much I really could have absorbed on a deep level. Anyway, the seed was planted.
At the very end of the 90’s I started taking classes in New York City, practicing more often, making more sense of the practice, beginning a seated practice. But with school, work and everything else, there was a limit to the amount time and energy I could devote to a practice. For sure all of this was setting a foundation for me, for sure I benefitted infinitely from the time spent, and I could not possibly have done any more.
After I graduated, I had more free time, and my mental energy could be devoted to things beyond school. I remember it was during my brother’s first wedding, in October of ’01 (five months after I graduated from college and right after 9/11), that I started to sit every morning. Something clicked/shifted in me. By that time I had been doing some pranayama at the beginning of the Sivananda classes I was taking as well as meditating and chanting in their satsang. I started to understand the need and benefit of sitting, working with the breath and with mantra. So it was while away at that wedding weekend in Pennsylvania that I began a routine of sitting every morning, doing the little bit of pranayama that I learned and practicing japa (mantra repetition).
That year was a rough one for me, in terms of work and life decisions, and I looked to my practice for guidance. Every morning I would sit and ask for help.
Exactly one year later — after asking for a lot of guidance — I decided to take a break from my pursuit of the career of journalism and go on retreat in the Bahamas. I remember going on a silent walk one of the first evenings I was there. Walking back, I felt as if I could see through the ocean, like it was a movie set. That unreality felt more real to me than anything else had before then. I had just turned 24, and I felt as though I could never go back. Not that I could never go back to outside life, but I could never go back to buying into the things I once did, about what I should be doing with my life, what I needed to make me happy, etc.
Looking back, I have never had a time when I was completely “off” from Yoga. I immediately found solace in the practice, and since I started practicing I have always made time for it. It has seen me through countless growing pains and continues to shape the adult I have become. It was the practice that gave me the strength and the conviction to veer from the path that was set for me, in search of something that was meant for me.
Obviously everyone’s path is different. And our relationship to the practice is also different, because we are all individuals, with our own karma and life experiences. Some people are able to find yoga early and have a practice throughout life, even though the shape and intensity of the practice changes and shifts. Others might not find yoga until a little later but are able to immediately get into it and see relatively quick change and growth. And still others must go through many years of practicing “on and off” before something sticks and real growth begins.
And what does growth mean? This is a complicated subject, but I will touch on it. Certainly getting through whatever series in Ashtanga, or moving through whatever pranayama ratio is not necessarily a sign of growth, although it is not to be belittled either. Tiwari explains that yoga is the integration of our personality on all levels.
On a real level, the movement of prana is something that can be seen in the pulse and checked by an experienced teacher. On an experiential level, growth can be felt and seen, in how we treat ourselves, how we treat others, how we see the world, how things affect us on a daily basis. Things that were once problems are no longer issues, or they attenuate. I realize this might sounds simplified, but if you join me in May, we will explore it further.
Again, for some maybe there is neither desire nor need to go deeper. But if you require something more, a retreat is the perfect opportunity to get started, and there’s no better time than now.