In the spring of 2003 I got a postcard in the mail that was about to change my life forever. It was from the Jivamukti Yoga School in NYC. I was 31 and had been practicing yoga for 7 years and was obsessed. I had played around with teaching classes in my apartment and it became clear I needed more. There were 2 month long trainings that year, one in upstate NY and one in Austria. I loved to travel and had set up a garden design business so I could work for myself and jump on a plane and explore whenever I felt the need. So I signed up. I chose Austria, it was mysterious and far away. I had never been there before and it just wasn’t a place I could see myself going with out a specific reason.
I tell my business partner I’m leaving for 5 weeks. As she’s like “what”? But agrees I should go. I get a loan off my credit card at 2%, because this was before the market crashed and you could basically get money for free to spend $8,000 on a yoga training in some far off exotic place you’ve never been. So now I’ve cleared the way. I’m in. I’m going. I’m psyched. New adventure. A new place I’ve never been. I’m going to some tiny mountain village in Austria called Oberndorf.
And then I get the required reading list. We have to do 5 book reports on books such as The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a ancient text that covers the history of yoga and I feel my first tinge of panic. I didn’t read a book until college. I know nothing. What have I signed up for? I have no idea how the history and philosophy ties in with the physical practice. I have no idea who else is going to be there and a pretty good idea that I will be the only one from the mid west. But I don’t cave in..I wanted to know what I didn’t know even if it made me feel vulnerable.
So I labor through the book reports, which is brutal, get on a plane and go.
I fly from Mpls, connect in Amsterdam and then in Salzburg. I jump on a train from there. In preparation for the trip it became clear that there were no less than 5 mountain villages called Oberndorf so I’m not completely sure I’m headed off to the right place. The mystery begins, it’s thrilling and a little scary and I’m hoping I’ve headed off in the right direction. I take an incredibly beautiful train ride through the mountains. When I arrive at what I hope is the right destination I see men in lederhosen, cows and yoga mats. I am far, far away from home.
I arrive at the dorm and I step into this totally new world. It’s akward and immediately clear I am indeed the only other person there from the Midwest. I meet or I should say, behold from across the room the founders of Jivamukti Yoga, Sharon Gannon and David Life. They do not disappoint. They are every bit as interesting and theatrical as their pictures and performance art backgrounds promise.
Our studies begin and I’m horrified to find myself among yoga afficianados. These people know what I don’t know inside and out and I’m hoping my dedication to the physical practice carries me through. We get grilled. We start at 7 am and meditate, study scripture, practice yoga, sing, chant watch many, many videos on ethical vegetarianism until midnight each day. This turns out to be what I later understand as a typically classical school of yoga. We sit on the floor for many hours at a time and are not allowed to lean up against anything or show the soles of our feet to our gurus.
At the end of the first day after dinner we attend the last event of the day, which a gathering called satsang. We are required to wear white clothing and chant and review what we covered that day. This is apparently also the time when Sharon will be picking questions from the day and calling on us randomly. I am lucky enough to be the first one picked out 75 people to answer a question about a list of 6 esoteric cleansing practices called Shat Karma Kriyas and expected to recite and explain them on the spot. I will never forget the uncomfortable stillness in the air and everyone staring at me for what felt like minutes but was probably only seconds and the sound of us all furiously paging through our notebooks to find the answer. We attend satsang in fear but I am determined to be prepared next time. I am she asks me another question a couple weeks later and I nail it. My confidence grows.
I realize in my quest for more information I am in the company of celebrity. Sharon and David have taught yoga to Madonna and Russell Simmons, Sting has written the foreword to their book. Things are getting competitive, people are clawing each others eyes out to get their attention. So I start to rebel a little bit. I start wearing jeans to class in an effort to level the playing field. I’m feeling a little more comfortable as time passes, I can see patterns emerge and I make a few friends.
We are also required to perform. The first night, they ask for a volunteer to do a chant. They come up with Guitars and Harmoniums, sing a very George Harrison inspired version of Hare Krishna and knock it out of the park. These people are professionals. It is explained to us we will be required to pick a chant, sing it, translate it and explain it’s relevance from a classical point of view in front of the entire group at some point during our training. I’m mortified. I sit through every satsang for the remainder of the training absolutely dreading my turn. We get to the last night of the training and it’s my turn. My Guru’s, Sharon and David wait for a volunteer and all 74 people turn and look at me. I’m the only one who hasn’t gone, everyone knows and they can read the terror in my eyes. I pick a 3 word chant, sing it flatly, mumble something about being steady and joyful and make my way back to my seat. I head immediately up to the only bar in town after class with my new friends, we celebrate our last night of training and fly back the next day.
Even though for most of the training I felt completely overwhelmed I knew I wasn't going to get this experience again. I knew I was getting an amazing amount of information and stories on personal experiences from these two people who had immersed themselves in yoga for decades and trained with BKS Iyengar and Pattabi Jois. So I tried to stay present. I had luckily made lists of everything. Once I was home I realized this experience would take me years to unpack. It enriched my practice and informed my teaching in ways I could have never imagined. I feel so lucky to have had the courage to step into this unfamiliar, uncomfortable space. It's that place of ambiguity that is what allows us to grow and learn.