Yoga teacher training FAIL.

Via Michelle Margaret Fajkus
on Jul 1, 2011
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“Serve. Love. Give. Purify. Meditate. Realize.” ~Swami Sivananda

Ten years ago, I was a devoted yogini, a confused college student and a privileged American consumer. Yoga had been my salvation (on and off) since middle school.

My parents had given me the book, Power Yoga, by Beryl Bender Birch the Christmas before. Sun salutations really threw me for a loop at first. Coordinating my breath with my body movement and jumping through vinyasa flows was complicated and awkward.

I was working part-time at an ad agency in Austin. A couple of coworkers invited me to attend a yoga class with them at the gym. It had never before crossed my mind to attend an actual class, I was so used to practicing on my own with the aid of a book. Immediately, I befriended and interrogated the instructor. Her name was Brenda, and she told me all about how much she’d loved her month-long teacher training at an ashram. I looked into organization online, got the brochure and applied. I didn’t think much about it. I certainly didn’t investigate any other teacher training options.

Throughout the spring and summer, I was slipping slowly into what I didn’t yet know was my first bout with clinical depression. I was nearing the end of my college career, feeling queasy about having chosen of advertising as my major and career, experiencing joyfear about how deepening my spiritual practice and beginning to teach yoga would affect me, wondering what my true life’s purpose was… all that quarterlife crisis nonsense. I became listless and lethargic. I figured a month of yoga and meditation in the woods would cure me of this funk.

I followed in Brenda’s footsteps. On July 1, 2001, Canada Day, I flew to Montreal and took a bus into the mountains outside Quebec. The great Indian yogi, Swami Sivananda, had built an ashram there with the vision of spreading yoga to the West, generations prior. The trip involved two planes, two buses and a whole lot of waiting. I was only 21. But I kept positive. Thanks be to Shiva, I met two people headed to the ashram at the Montreal bus station. One of them had been before, and when the bus dropped us off on the side of the road at midnight in the middle of nowhere in the rain, she surreally knew just enough French and just what we needed to do.

After sleeping in the lobby for a few hours, I woke up the next morning, enchanted by the beautiful mountains surrounding me. I pitched my tent, a slightly moldy, ocean blue teepee my parents had owned since the seventies.

I was impatient for enlightenment.

I expected to be instantly relaxed, for my drowsy, bored despair to disappear magically. Guess what? Didn’t happen. Those pesky problems have the ability to follow us wherever we may go.

After my first cold night of camping, I woke up on the soggy ground with a rock jutting into my sacrum, my air mattress having deflated overnight.

The ashram had a strict daily timetable. A gong announced the mandatory 5:30 a.m. meditation session.There was no instruction, no technique given. Just sit, spine erect, eyes closed, silent. Sustaining a solemn, unguided, sitting meditation with no experience and no guidance is borderline impossible.

We did half an hour of silent meditation, then half an hour of chanting. At that time, I’d never heard any Sanskrit chanting. (It might’ve been the chanting that did me in in the end.) Everyone else seemed to chant the incoherent strings of syllables, happily and chorally. In silent rebellion, I mouthed. I didn’t know what any of it meant, and it made me increasingly uncomfortable. The chanting happened twice a day, plus before meals and at frequent other random times throughout the day. Everybody else would repeat the swami’s chant. It seemed to go on forever.

Then the swami told some story related to yoga philosophy. He was verbose and elderly with a thick Indian accent. He bloviated about esoteric concepts like reincarnation and karma without explaining them. I was thinking, WHAT THE HELL HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO? For a month? I was constantly teeter tottering between, “I can’t handle this,” and, “Yes I can.”

One good thing — my karma yoga assignment was clerical work. No cleaning toilets! That was a relief.

After we got our uniforms (yellow t-shirt, white pants), we each had to go up to the front of the yoga hall and say our name and where we’re from and why we came. I said, “Hi. I’m Michelle. I’m from Austin, Texas. I love yoga but I’m really scared and I want to go home. But I’m not going to.” I nearly broke down in tears right then. I was expecting the ashram to be calming, relaxing and enjoyable. Being there and finding out how rigid and rigorous it was was a slap in the face.

After a lengthy, tumultuous inner battle, I gave up. I submitted my resignation on day three.

I went to the office with a letter explaining the reasons for my early departure. I was told to go talk to the swami after satsang. He all but forbid me to leave. He said I was weak, that everyone wants to leave, that I should push through. But I was sure I needed to leave. I was sinking further and further into depression. I stuck to my decision. No means no. (Please note: I have nothing against the Sivananda organization or its teacher training programs. I just wasn’t in the right mental place at the time. I’m sure if I went back now, the experience would be utterly different and remarkably better.)

Soul searching was so tiresome. I came home feeling sadder and more hopeless than ever. I told myself I was the epitome of a pathetic loser; I couldn’t even do my favorite thing right. I went to therapy, started on antidepressants and spent a lot of time in Child’s Pose.


About Michelle Margaret Fajkus

Michelle Margaret is a Gemini yogini, writer, teacher and retreat leader who founded Yoga Freedom in 2002 in Austin, Texas. Her home base since 2012 has been Lake Atitlán, Guatemala where she lives in an eco cabin with her Colombian partner, daughter, dog and two gatos. Michelle has been writing this column for elephant journal since 2010 and has written several inspiring books, with more on the way. Michelle's lineage is the very esoteric Yoga Schmoga, which incorporates hatha yoga asana, dharma teachings, pranayama, yin, mindfulness, mantra and meditation. Join Michelle on retreat!


20 Responses to “Yoga teacher training FAIL.”

  1. Ben_Ralston says:

    Ha ha. Had to laugh. Very few people have done the Sivananda TTC without going through a similar mental process. "Get me out of here!!!" I can imagine though that if you were feeling depressed before getting there, that it would make it very hard to keep at it. Maybe give it another go now? One of the best things I've ever done…
    By the way, Sivananda didn't set up the Sivananda organisation – his disciple Swami Vishnu Devananda did. It's an amazing story actually…
    For anyone interested, here's the (my) alternative version – yoga teacher training success:

  2. tanya lee markul says:

    Michelle, thank you for sharing this! I am sure so many of us can relate to what you were feeling on many different levels. I did my 200-hour yoga teacher training a few years ago and I can't tell you how many times I found myself in a similar place. I stuck with it, but once I got home I wasn't prepared for all the 'changes' that were taking place and were going to take place. For many habitual reasons, I put a TON of pressure on myself and just a few months later I enrolled in yet another teacher training program – I lasted one session. I quit and afterward felt AWFUL about it. I realise now that the timing wasn't right (or perhaps it wasn't necessary), but most importantly I realised that I shouldn't beat myself up about it, but instead the absolute contrary. I think sometimes when we experience great sadness and confusion, that a fork in our path is coming more evident where we just have to follow the light and follow our instincts to change. This does take courage and it takes a lot of love and patience. What are you feeling now? Would you do it again?

    Much love to you.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Assoc. Yoga Editor
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  3. yoga freedom says:

    Thanks, Ben. I'm sure you are laughing with me and not at me. 😉
    Loved your "alternative version" of the TTC story. Hilarious about your roommate and the neti pot. Kudos to you for keeping at it! I will for sure go again one of these years to a Sivananda ashram, ideally the same one in Val Morin. I'm sure it would be an incredible full circle moment.

  4. yoga freedom says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Tanya. I hope readers can relate as you have. The epilogue to this story is that I was diagnosed with depression, spent a few weeks wallowing in self-pity before the antidepressants kicked in, and then began to practice yoga again. In the fall of 2001, I started a different 200-hour teacher training at a local studio. It was a much better fit for me, as the classes were on the weekends and the schedule was relatively flexible. I completed that training the same month I graduated from college, May 2002, and have been joyously teaching yoga ever since! I have thought about taking the Sivananda TTC again and I think it would be wonderful (as soon as time and money allows).

  5. Ben_Ralston says:

    Certainly not at you Michelle!

  6. Candice says:

    I felt that way too Tanya, after my first training, despair for probably a few years on how to integrate these ideas with my life: my kids, my husband, etc. It has taken time, but I've figured it out, it's not about trying to look like someone else, or to escape, but rather to live and be in my life more fully. I loved this article, so much.

  7. Laura says:

    Thanks for this. I definitely relate. I have had many experiences where I know I need to leave and have had leaders try to stop me…and once succeed. I think leaving is part of the journey, and the stopping…is part of a collection of violences the "spiritual" do…thinking they know best, or whatever. thats all to say, "good job"

  8. Angelica L says:

    I was at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Farm in Grass Valley, CA last May for a week-long beginner's program. They had a TTC running while I was there, and I was thinking along the same lines as you were-it was hard enough being there for a week even though it was beautiful and overall a good environment. I learned a lot and am grateful for the experience. I decided to do a teacher training locally with a wonderful and knowledgeable woman who owns a studio near me and one in maui ( Today was my first day and I couldn't be happier! Thanks for sharing your story.

  9. yoga freedom says:

    Thanks, Candice! What beautiful sentiments.

  10. yoga freedom says:

    Thank you! You're right, I didn't fail.

    "You always pass failure on the way to success." ~Mickey Rooney

    I appreciate your feedback!

  11. yoga freedom says:

    Sometimes leaving is the most compassionate thing to do. Thanks for your kind comment!

  12. yoga freedom says:

    I'm glad you could relate. Thanks for your comment!

  13. Thank you! Yes…good point. I am grateful for this having happened so early in my adulthood. It really was a blessing, as it taught me so much about myself. You're welcome to share it on your website; thanks for asking. Namaste.

  14. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Bob W. Yoga Editor
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  15. akismet-e8d7c971ae4b6e7d6aeeaf26d33b98c8 says:

    At my blog, I offer a critical look at "mindfulness:"

  16. […] a few months after my failed attempt at yoga teacher training in the summer of 2001, I was blessed to find a local 200-hour hatha yoga teacher training program […]

  17. This is a very uplifiting story that makes me want to connect to my inner Yoga better. I should have tried to get my brother into meditation so he could have a story like this instead of being part of the tale of an inmate at West Valley Detention Center jail.

  18. Elyse says:

    Exactly where I’m at now except I’m not at an ashram. Exactly. How relatable! Thank you for making me feel less alone.