From New York to California, sweaty studios to Zoom rooms – here’s a summary of my 300-hour yoga teacher training.
My first visit to New York was not meant to include yoga. I was invited to interview for medical school, but my heart had already decided becoming a doctor wasn’t the career path for me.
I felt out of place as I stood before the professors who would determine the trajectory of my professional life. They stared at my flowered headband and the slit in my grey dress, and I sheepishly glanced back at their crisp black blazers. My bare arms felt cold under the fluorescent office lighting. The enthusiasm I tried to plaster on my face was eclipsed by my writhing internal discomfort.
I needed to blow off steam afterward and found myself in a room in East Village lined wall-to-wall with mats. Sweat mixed with incense and blaring music, and I felt radically freed.
Four years later, I returned to New York. My contract as a PhD student outside of Vienna had just been terminated after I called my advisor’s authority into question over email. Meanwhile, my classmate who had harassed every woman on the floor never got so much as a slap on the wrist.
My advisor’s parting words, laced with sarcasm, were, “Good luck as a yoga teacher.” I intended to take them seriously.
I had a friend who had a friend who knew the guy who organized the volunteer list at Yoga Journal LIVE, and I went to rub elbows with the celebrity teachers.
But the lights were again fluorescent, the teachers were lukewarm to cold, and everybody seemed to be selling something. I left my shift early, angry at the $7 I had spent on a “latte” made from beets and questioning my purpose in life.
I found myself in all the wrong places again. Another studio jam-packed with bodies glistening in equal parts glitter and sweat. The teacher, too, had an imperfect body, and he cursed and laughed and shouted as he danced us through misshapen shapes that seemed to defy Yoga Journal’s standards of anatomy. Between the dizzying glow of postures, he talked about rainbow warriors and feeling alone. I didn’t know what I was becoming but for once I didn’t want to fight it. This was my introduction to Laughing Lotus.
A “real yoga teacher” is what I became, and I had a (limited) Sanskrit vocabulary, a wardrobe of Lululemon, and a collection of essential oils to prove it. I had “hustled”, nailed the “auditions”, and built a sufficient “following” to secure all the right classes. I was thriving, or so it seemed. But something felt out of place.
I couldn’t quite place my finger on what made me so uncomfortable. Maybe it was the sinking feeling that studio classes were a popularity contest. Or that a $20 entry fee was required to access a single class. Or that I was a white person making a living on a multi-billion-dollar industry rooted in colonialism and cultural appropriation. But all jobs had their flaws, didn’t they?
I was once told to call security on a Black man who showed up for class after being blacklisted from our studio. I dug through his log but could find no apparent reason for his removal aside from one time making a student feel uncomfortable. It was clear things weren’t black and white as a yoga teacher – just varying degrees of murky as we try to wade through the morality of keeping our jobs while fulfilling what was supposed to be a passion-driven calling.
Or maybe my teaching rut stemmed from my need to express myself authentically. But the bottom line seemed to be: often, studios are struggling businesses, and thus there’s a need to censor teachers according to our clients’ tastes. I was once removed from my classes because the students “didn’t like my personality”. On another occasion, I was warned by a manager my musical tastes for yoga were out of line with the studio vibe. At times, I felt I had to both perform and dilute my true self to be who clients wanted.
And what was that, anyway? Feminine, benevolent, compassionate, nurturing, pure, and yet pretty, bendy, and sexualized by some – like the student who sent an anonymous request to purchase my panties. Or the one who (again, anonymously) requested private lessons to further explore his foot fetish. Or the one who did book private lessons with me but stopped showing up after I made it clear I wasn’t going to be spending the full hour giving him hands-on assists. What a weird, murky world it was.
What kept drawing me back to teach? I needed to once and for all learn my true dharma, and yoga trainings seemed to promise us this. I craved learning from the source, so I set out a plan to return to India for training. Luck would have it that part of Laughing Lotus’s self-paced 300-hour certification included modules in Rishikesh. This was it. I dove in headfirst and booked a bus ticket to New York for the first installment of my training.
Each time my bus inched into Harlem, the city’s skyscrapers had suddenly morphed from dots on the horizon to glimmering mountains. Nausea from the 4-hour bus ride would be forgotten as shivers of anticipation danced through my body. My ears would buzz with car horns, sirens, accents, and a million footsteps on the street. I would clutch to the warm paper cup of my trip’s first latte as I climbed the stairs to Laughing Lotus, reminding myself to breathe as I opened the door to shimmering pink, unapologetic joy.
“I chose this training because I’m terrified of pregnancy,” I heard myself say when the sharing stick came to me, and my eyes widened at the veracity of my words.
What if I was truly selfish underneath the yoga persona? What if I wasn’t really nurturing? What if I wanted to keep my job – or have the flexibility to even choose a different one if the opportunity presented? I wanted a child but didn’t know if being a self-sacrificing mother was for me.
Laughing Lotus’s prenatal module was my introduction to the wild world of birth, and it was a wake-up call, to say the least. In addition to bringing me head-to-head with my mixed feelings about motherhood, it opened my eyes to something much bigger.
Never before did I realize how little I knew about my own body. Why had pregnancy been reduced to a disease state in premedical physiology textbooks when birth could be orgasmic? Why were women’s birthing bodies subject to the control of patriarchal medical manipulation? Why were women still dying in childbirth, especially those who are Black or Brown or whose voices are spoken over in medical settings? How could I even begin to articulate these thoughts without sounding radical or *gasp* too feminist?
One month after the prenatal module, I booked my plane ticket for India. Six months later, I would be on a plane to Rishikesh. But then, something unexpected happened.
My greatest fear of dying met my deepest desire of bearing a child when I saw the two little lines on the pregnancy test. In some ways, pregnancy felt liberating and in others like a death sentence. I still didn’t trust my own body and told myself I would inevitably have to let go of training in India.
My judgement was flawed to believe I had to lock myself at home for being pregnant. But my decision was a blessing in disguise for two reasons: 1) the pandemic hit during the trip; and 2) it afforded me the opportunity to dive deeper into what was quickly beginning to feel like my true calling – prenatal yoga.
On the first day of my second trimester, I canceled my reservation for India and signed up for an 85-hour prenatal yoga teacher training program. My initial disappointment to be in walking distance of my next training was quickly replaced with joy when I learned how little I still knew about this big, wild world of birth.
Lockdown hit ¾ of the way through my prenatal training, and everything quickly went virtual. The perfect teaching schedule I had hustled so hard to secure went out the window, as did the detailed plan of the classes I would keep post-maternity leave. Fewer and fewer people were willing to pay studio prices for Zoom-based yoga classes. Well-intentioned friends forwarded me articles on Yoga with Adrienne, and maybe I should try this? Each day, I felt defeated trying to compete with a yoga celebrity with 100K followers and a decade of experience in producing yoga online.
Meanwhile, some studios went dormant, others permanently closed, and still others were ripped apart at the seams in the name of revolution. Every studio seemed to be selling Black Lives Matter workshops now, and the irony of this made some teachers irate. Following the trend of racial justice, Laughing Lotus seemed to fracture into 3 separately owned brands, although I don’t know the details of the arguments. What I do know is fighting folks on the same side seemed to miss the point entirely, causing all parties involved continuous struggle.
In any case, Laughing Lotus was now “LL Studio”, and the teachers on board were fresh, talented faces. My deposit for India transferred over to their new virtual trainings, and I happily accepted. Between being locked indoors and having dwindling job opportunities and rising anxiety as my due date approached, the opportunity to learn virtually came at just the right moment.
Post-maternity leave, my 300-hour trainings became the only connection I had to the yoga world. Paid opportunities to teach online continued to wane and seemed altogether unfeasible with a newborn in the house. So instead, I returned to public health work. Was public health my calling after all? Or was I claiming defeat too easily for my true dharma of teaching? I didn’t know, but I didn’t have time to overthink it.
I used paid time off with my public health work to complete several more virtual trainings, including another prenatal one for my 300-hour and a doula training for my own enjoyment. Never had I had a job with so many benefits before, but never before did I have to numb my mind so much to work.
I guess you could say I had birth fever after becoming a mother. In my “downtime”, I re-applied to global health PhD programs, writing my statements on women’s empowerment, birth justice, and the merits of prenatal yoga, doulas, and radical birth workers. But I was completely leveled my interviewer informed me I seemed to only be doing public health work for prestige and a pay raise. Was he right? I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror for days until it dawned on me how very twisted his commentary was.
“Chair pose. Now swing your ass to the right. And SPANK IT!”
I couldn’t be sure, but the person teaching class on the final day of my 300-hour certification appeared to be the same person who instructed my very first class at Laughing Lotus. But instead of a jam-packed studio spritzed with sweat and glitter, he was teaching in open air to a small audience at the Hudson River pier on an early fall morning. Instead of arriving to class frazzled, anxious, and uncertain, I felt grounded and calm as I watched in the California woods through my computer screen. And instead of talking about rainbow warriors and being alone, he talked about Madonna, anal sex, ice cream, and how at one point during the pandemic he no longer wanted to live.
I looked around me at everything I had gained since that first class: two kittens, a giggling toddler, a blue-eyed husky, a marriage, and a happy home in the California sunlight that flickered through the windows onto my yoga mat. The class came to a close with everyone dancing on a wall, and Eira twirled in my arms around our wood floor.
Despite all the times I had been made to feel misfit, censored, spoken over, or judged for my quirks and rough edges, I felt at home each time I stepped (or Zoomed) into Laughing Lotus. 500 hours into yoga teacher training now, I still don’t know if I’ll ever know who I’ll be when I grow up. But I do know now how it feels to dance in radical acceptance and unapologetic joy.