Martha Carter Talks About Her Healing Journey - Part 12

A 200-hour Yoga teacher training adventure of discovery on Salt Spring Island, BC.
 

This is Part 12 of a serial blog post. In Part 11, I talk about my experiences and discoveries studying with renowned Yoga for Scoliosis teacher, Elise Browning Miller. In Part 10, I share how waking up one morning with the idea for a performance piece, and no idea how to realize that vision, lead me to Yoga. Missed the earlier posts? Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8, and Part 9.

Through attending Yoga For Scoliosis with Elise Browning Miller, I came to clearly understand that Yoga could really help me, but it also opened me up to the realization that I didn't know anything about Yoga — in the wider sense. When I first started studying Yoga, I was completely distracted by my own body fears and discomforts. As I became more comfortable with the exercises, I realized that Yoga was also having a profound effect on my whole life — and it occurred to me that it was time for me to learn more about it in general. So I enrolled in a 200-hour Yoga teacher training at the Salt Spring Centre for Yoga on Salt Spring Island, on the west coast of Canada.

At the time, I mostly did it because I wanted to learn how to best help myself. But I also wanted to be able to share the knowledge by teaching it to others, especially people with scoliosis. I knew that the teacher training would not only help me understand the underlying principles of Yoga, but it would also oblige me to go deeper into my own experience. I was still worried about the whether or not my fused spine could handle the required physicality, but Elise had taught me how to be careful. Armed with her teachings, and the confidence they gave me to do Yoga in a safe way for my body, I headed off to Salt Spring Island.

The experience did not disappoint!   

*****

I felt nervous on the ferry from Crofton to Vesuvius, on my way to Salt Spring Island for the first two weeks of a four week 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training Program.

It was early July, and the warm air and blue sky felt hopeful.

I had no idea what to expect, but I was giving up precious days of outdoor summer fun to go inside — literally and figuratively.

For the next 14 days, I would be up at sunrise with 26 other students to try a range of new experiences — from tongue brushing, and singing in Sanskrit, to sitting in long meditation, and dissecting every Yoga pose for hours.

I affectionately called it ‘Yoga boot camp’. It was rigorous, but it was fantastic.

It was also very detailed, and very challenging, and the main take-away for me was that Yoga is a potentially life-long study. But I am getting ahead of myself...

When I arrived for the first day of classes, my stomach was filled with butterflies. I turned into the driveway of the Centre’s 69-acre cedar forest and wild meadow property to see a sprawling organic garden on one side and a wildflower garden on the other. I parked at the converted, turn-of-the-century farmhouse, where most of the classes and meals would take place, and where most of the participants - myself included - would be staying. I also learned that several students chose to stay at the less expensive, onsite campground where tent platforms, showers and washrooms are set up to make it feel like home.

As I walked into the farmhouse, I could smell something delicious baking in the kitchen. After checking in, I found my room, and then wandered around reading posters, looking at schedules, reading signs, and shyly eyeing the other incoming students.

One sign was central:

"Work Honestly, Meditate everyday, Meet people without fear, And play.”

These are the words of Baba Hari Dass (Babaji), the Yoga Master and silent Monk who inspired the creation of the Centre. He was born in 1923 in India, and is currently 95 years old, and ailing, but he sure accomplished a lot in his lifetime — he is also author of many books, a playwright, martial arts teacher, sculptor, and a builder of Yoga Centres in North America, as well as an orphanage and school in India.

I read his words over several times and suddenly thought it was the most sensible advice I had ever heard! Simple and joyous. A mantra for life. I immediately decided to adopt it as my own mantra, letting go of my fears and butterflies. I started to approach others and say hello. The journey had begun: meet people without fear, and play!

I knew that the Centre’s teachings were based on Babaji’s approach, which came from HIS teacher Patanjali’s traditional eight-limbed system of Ashtanga Yoga. But, I didn’t know what any of that really meant… yet!

Pantanjali who?
Eight limbs?
Ashtanga?

There was a lot to learn, and it was all starting at 7am the next day!

When the alarm clocks went off in the morning, 26 students ranging from 18 to 65 in age ran for the homemade chai in the kitchen. The energy and excitement was palpable. Everyone was raring to go. Too bad that the first class was meditation, and we were supposed to sit quietly still for two hours. TWO HOURS? This was going to be harder than I thought!

After all, the main reason I wanted to do teacher training was to learn more about the postures - the ‘asanas’ - not meditation. I wanted to find more mobility in my body, not stillness!

Then things became even more challenging. For the next few mornings, we got up even earlier to practice ancient ayurvedic health practices, including sinus cleansing and tongue brushing - all part of the Yoga training. What?

Over the course of the four week training, I learned that Patanjali was an ancient Indian sage from around 400 AD who wrote 196 Yoga ‘sutras’ or aphorisms that are widely regarded as the authoritative text on Yoga. These “threads" (as sutra translates in Sanskrit) of wisdom outline the eight limbs of Yoga, offering guidelines for living a meaningful and purposeful life. They serve as a prescription for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline; directing attention towards one's health and helping us to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature.

Ashtanga literally means eight limbs. The eight limbs are:

  • YAMA - Restraints, moral disciplines or moral vows.

  • NIYAMA - Positive duties or observances.

  • ASANA - Posture.

  • PRANAYAMA - Breathing techniques.

  • PRATYAHARA - Sense withdrawal.

  • DHARANA - Focused concentration.

  • DHYANA - Meditative absorption.

  • SAMADHI - Bliss or enlightenment.

In other words, there is much, much more to Yoga than just the poses... In fact, the asanas are only a small part of the practice, and evolved as a way to help people achieve better concentration during meditation.

It took me several days, but eventually, I started to slow down for meditation. And I found that the whole world slowed down with me — as did my breathing, walking, talking, eating and thinking. From that quiet place, I could start to absorb all the other lessons.

The program was incredibly thorough, taught by an extensive faculty of senior teachers who all volunteer their time for the teacher training. In fact, that is part of the SSYC philosophy: to encourage the cultivation of ‘Karma Yoga’ — the path of selfless service.

Along the way we learned many asanas (postures) as well as breathing techniques (pranayama), philosophy (sutras), kirtan (chanting), the basics of ayurvedic medicine (traditional indian medicine), anatomy for Yoga, the physiology of Yoga, the history of Yoga - and the principles of teaching in general.

As the days went by, my confidence grew. I was the only person with scoliosis, or a fused spine for that matter, and there was one older woman with a slight disability from childhood polio, and one younger man with autism. Although my body was not as cooperative or flexible as many of the (mostly) younger students, I had much more teaching - and life - experience! I was pleased and surprised that I was able to do almost all of the poses. In fact, as one of the older people there, I realized that my years of previous study and exploration in both dance and Yoga were a huge asset.

After completing the 200 hours of training, I was thrilled to finally have a sense of what Yoga was all about. I also understood - for the first time - the expression of being a ‘lifelong student’. Yoga is over 5,000 years old, and I had learned it for a mere 200 hours.

Another ah-ha moment.

The aim of life is to live in peace. Don't think that you are carrying the whole world; make it easy; make it a play; make it a prayer.
—Babaji
 

In my next few posts, I will share how I became certified to teach in Yoga for Scoliosis, and how I subsequently become aware of other useful techniques to help people with scoliosis, including Pilates for Scoliosis (Scoli-Pilates), the Schroth Method, and ScoliSmart. I will discuss how each technique offers different perspectives for working with the compression, asymmetry and pain that often accompanies scoliosis.