When I was thinking about choosing a yoga teacher training, I debated between the traditional home of yoga (India) and modern Western teaching in Bali. The stars aligned perfectly for my sister and I to do our ytt together in Ubud, Bali with American yogini, Emily Kuser, and her chosen gurus from the west. We learned a great deal about yoga and ourselves. We sometimes joked that it was more of a group therapy session than yoga.
This Summer, some of my friends and I signed up for a yoga retreat in Rishikesh, India. We thought it was going to be a nice relaxing week of yoga- learning more about the roots of yoga, practicing ashtanga in the morning and gentle flows in the evening. The website said our experience would be sprinkled with excursions and a free massage would be included. Instead, we retreat-goers were tossed in with a new batch of yoga teacher training students. For me it was an fascinating glimpse into what my experience might have otherwise been.
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Room and board
In India, housing and food were included in the price of the training. We were each given our own room with a bed, a dresser and a small bathroom. The paint on the walls was peeling and the fan only minimally cut the heat. Delicious Indian food was passed through a little hole in the wall (literally) between the kitchen and the cafeteria-style dining hall. The chef, Shiva, and I conferred regularly about what I could and couldn’t eat and the events of the day. He asked questions like, “you gluten free, you don’t vegan, right?”
In Bali, we were on our own for housing, which meant we each chose a place that we felt very comfortable in. However, this was in addition to the price of the training (which was already nearly double the training in India). Breakfast was included at the hotel and lunch was included at the yoga studio’s cafe. We were on our own for dinner, which meant we could try the food at any of the healthy cafes in town but at additional expense.
In India, our training began with a puja or Indian blessing ceremony. A guru sat at the front of the room by a statue of Krishna, chanting and ringing a bell and offering flower petals and lighting candles. We sat on bolsters and watched and listened until the end, when a vessel full of candles was handed to each of us in turn to circle near Krishna. I asked a man behind me what we needed to do, but most girls went in blind. They gave us threaded bracelets and Indian sweets to eat as part of the event. It was a beautiful peaceful ceremony but we didn’t know what it was all about.
In Bali, we had a water ceremony and a fire ceremony. Before each one, our teacher told us about the meaning and protocols. She explained what we would need to do– At the fire ceremony say “swaha” as we tossed things into the fire, listen to the repetitive chanting and join in if we wanted to, prepare a note to release some sadness or anger to throw into the fire to cleanse ourselves if we so wished. At the water ceremony, stand with hands in prayer as the guru chanted and sprinkled water on our heads, at one point, accept the holy water in your hands, drink it and wipe the rest over your head. This ceremony was to cleanse and purify. We talked about everything from what it all meant down to what to wear.
In India our yoga course was run with a tight discipline. The phrase, “I didn’t say… (for example) turn your knee in” was used to remind us of the exact way that we should do the poses. We focuses on warrior 2, triangle, and half moon for the entire week. Poses were held for a very long time to build strength. Counts to hold sometimes started at 5, but were drawn out to more like 100- the pauses between numbers almost left us uncertain of whether or not the counting had been forgotten. “I love you” would be thrown in instead of a number sometimes. In anatomy, philosophy etc. precise alignment was lectured and demonstrated. It was a traditional teaching style with some tough love.
In Bali, we were encouraged to listen to our bodies and were sometimes offered two different poses to choose from based on our level and energy. The practices flowed smoothly The teacher encouraged us to pause during the practice any time we wanted to take notes on alignment cues and transition ideas. Each day one student was an assistant who helped arrange the classroom and watched the teacher and how she related to the students. We could sign up for office hours to discuss anything with the teachers. Our teachers encouraged questions and discussions. There were lots of hugs and there was lots of time to process everything together.
In India, the yoga shala was on top of the housing. Its windows faced the mountains. Monkeys swung by as the sun set. The bolsters had seen better days and sometimes there was a shortage on blocks or room for the mats. Everyone was issued a mat with the school’s name on it. There was air conditioning, but it was never used during asana because “it would make us sick.” It felt like we could be another era learning like the masters.
In Bali, we were in an open-air shala at the back of a field of rice paddies. Breezes, frogs’ croaks and children’s voices floated through. Mosquitoes buzzed through too but a natural remedy was available for use. Shiva danced in the corner. Each morning, a flower mandala was created by his feet. Music was crafted to perfectly compliment the energy of the movements. Mats were provided but most yogis brought their own. There were more than enough props and cabinets to stow them in. Care was taken to perfect the atmosphere.
In India, there was daily library time and there were academic assignments to be completed. In some of the strict classes, a concept would be concluded with the phrase “any doubts?”
In Bali, we read our books in the 6 weeks before the course and completed several short assignments about our progress leading up to the class. Questions were encouraged at any time.
Teacher training is a difficult, emotion undertaking. Intensive yoga brings up feelings you didn’t even know you had and tests your limits, physical and beyond. In both settings, I regularly saw tear-stained cheeks.
In India, we had one full hour and a half long session with our eyes closed. This is a deeply moving, personal experience. You connect with your space and your mat as well as the feeling of yoga in your body and your being. Afterward we were dismissed as always. Some girls seemed to be emotionally drained. Living together under the shala meant it was easy to find a friend to talk to if needed.
In Bali, after any of our many emotional meditations we journaled on the experience and then discussed in small groups and then sometimes came back to the whole group to talk about it all. We examined the intricacies of how we felt and how it could change us.
So the question comes to mind: which one is better? I don’t think it’s possible to give a definitive answer. It depends on your style and your needs. It depends what you like and what would challenge your weaknesses. Whatever you feel deeply drawn toward is probably right for you. The hardest decision is one with lots of good options.
Everyone in both groups came out of the month-long experience feeling empowered and transformed. Both groups tremendously improved their yoga skills as well as their dedication to the practice. Everyone had lots of time to think and evolve. Yoga teacher training any where, any time, any way is a magical experience and a beautiful gift to yourself.