One thing I love about traveling is the uncertainty in every step. The change of scenery that keeps you alert and attuned. That stroll down an unknown road transfixed and fascinated as you take in all the new sensations you see, the flavor or flowers and foods you smell, the sounds in my case on the cluttered streets of Bali buzzing scooters and shout outs “Taksi, Madam, taksi!”
As a yoga teacher, there is uncertainty in the parting from your pack, that treasured cadre of the like-minded you have worked so many years to cultivate, the ones that form that circle around you both as community kula and stalwart supporter and protector of ego, to take it in a radical new direction. Fraternizing with strangers, all of whom at least know the teacher that you do not study under, if not one another from their home studio, students of an unfamiliar yoga system can be a daunting task.
A few years back when I was spending my just shy of thirty days in Bali, I opted to attend a yoga retreat from a teacher that I wanted to study with because we had a teacher in common, Edward Clark, founder of the artistic and wickedly challenging Tripsichore. So few know the practice well enough to teach it, let alone do it. I had just completed a one month intensive with Edward and Nikki in Willesden Green with my best friend and felt like this would be a good re-enforcement of the techniques I had just learned. Plus travel is fun, I love visiting Bali and was happy to return.
This retreat hosted by the now deceased, beloved teacher and friend, Vincent Tam of Malaysia, was being held overlooking the rice paddies of Ubud at the Ananda Cottages. Tripsichore yoga? Check. Bali? Check. Ubud? Check. I felt like I had enough control of my environment, and confidence in my skills to make a leisurely go of it.
Then reality hit with a behemoth black cloud and its accompanying bellowing thunder.
Evening check in was enlivened by a blistering deluge, as so many of the best tropical rainstorms in SE Asia tend to be. To say that I floated into the registration is almost an understatement. Registration took a long time. The floors were slippery, the staff overwhelmed by the deluge of luggage and twenty plus people standing around under the small covered porch. Then came the steady drone of mosquitos and their nipping frenzies.
The hardest part of opening night? No one regarded me.
Twenty of my new yoga companions didn’t even look up, smile or address me. I felt so out of place; it was heartbreaking. No one wants to feel shut out, but then it hit me. I was with a child in my arms and the only non-Asian in the lobby plus nobody was speaking English. Of course, I could have taken the initiative and introduced myself but the ego makes that hard to do when you feel so outnumbered. I am really shy so these group dynamics are always a challenge for me.
The next morning as the group convened on rice paddies platform, people clearly recognized me from the night before but with that look on their face like “who is this random person?” Even Vincent seemed flummoxed, asking “why would you come all the way to Bali to study with a bunch of strangers from Malaysia?” Of course we had Edward Clark in common plus Vincent had taken a strong interest in studying yoga with my other teacher, Andrey Lappa whom I had just spent time with in Singapore.
Vincent and I, as teachers with mutual teachers, made our connections and I treasure the time that we spent together and subsequent emails and Skype calls until his sudden hospitalization and stunning untimely death.
I remember connecting with Pinky, Belinda and others the opening dinner we shared the following evening. We connected over discussions of yoga, travel, the Asian financial market and high tech. By the end of the trip, we were having tea together, shopping, etc. Mathilde, a universal icebreaker kind of kid, was being held, photographed, and don’t even get me started on the genius technique, teaching and four hour practices daily that Vincent provided. This kula loved and embraced their teacher. It was a grounding and humbling experience that I will never forget.
To this day, I still love Vincent Tam as teacher and friend.
This week, I did something similar. I returned to Bali for retreat hosted by an out of state teacher and in the Forrest tradition. Again I knew no one and although I was back in Bali, back in Ubud, there is still that same feeling of uncertainty, a stranger in a foreign land.
From the first awkward hello, first hugs and opening circle, it can be challenging to settle in when you are the outsider to the kula. I think this is a really important step for any yoga teacher to take.
There is something really enriching about being anonymous allowing yourself to immerse in your practice. No one was there to watch me; I could do my thing which was extra important to me as I tackled rehabilitating my abdominal region and reintegrate deeper backbends into my practice. I appreciated not being under any scrutiny, especially my own.
It is even more beneficial to study under someone’s system and try it on their way, especially if it is not your own.
Of course Pete and I joked about dying undeveloped (a favorite Lappaism) but we also talked about rigidity in approaches to yoga and wanting to steer clear of attachment or dogma.
I loved the abdominal work; it was exactly what I was looking for. I also liked hearing a different “voice” when being led in a practice. Donning a new lens on the practice I think helps teachers expand and grow. Plus, I had the additional bonus of seeing how someone else hosts retreats, being open to learning new ways of doing things. I loved Pete’s emphasis on connecting to the heart and of calling in the four directions.
Lastly, how cool was it once the ice ‘broke’ to practice and friend new people again. It was so nice to connect amongst the group as another student on the retreat and not as a teacher. I thoroughly enjoyed all the conversations that were started and cherish those that have continued since the retreat adjourned.
This quote I sent to Pete as part of my thank you for the five days that the group shared. I think it is a sweet encapsulating of how the experience felt to me, similar to my time with Vincent and his Malaysian consortium:
“A mosaic exists of thousands of little stones….
That is what our life in community is about. Each of us is like a little stone, but together we reveal the face of God to the world. Nobody can say: “I make God visible.” But others who see us together can say: “They make God visible.” Community is where humility and glory touch.”
As a teacher and teacher/mentor to other teachers, I cannot say enough about picking a place you want to go, find a good teacher leading a retreat and go for it. Not a workshop in your home town, but somewhere immersive and rich in new context. Feel the awkwardness, step out of the role of teacher, find your bearings in a new kula, go explore a great new place as a student. Thanks to Jenine, Angela, Vania, Melissa, Lynton, Heather, Beberly, Katherine, Colin, Pete, Yuan, Caitlin, Glenn, Kristin, and others for making me feel welcome.
It’s all worth the journey out into the world, and deep into the heart.