How Yoga Teacher Training Can Teach You to Love Yourself

Before I started my yoga practice last winter, I had long viewed exercise merely as a way to burn calories. During the first semester of my Freshman year of college, I was obsessed with long-distance running; the burning of my calves, the rush of hitting a new mile goal, the satisfaction of checking how many calories I had burned while hunched over bent knees. Eventually, my imbalance of vigorous exercise and lack of rest and nutrition caught up to me, and I injured my hip. I was devastated and terrified of the prospect of not being able to fulfill my exercise compulsions and compensations for eating “cheat meals.” With my injury, all I could manage was days on the elliptical with two “rest days” a week of yoga.

I had done yoga a couple times with my Dad in high school. He was an Iron-man competitor, long distance runner and biker, and all-around titan of exercise, so I trusted his advice to do hot yoga as a form of strengthening and flexibility training. The few times I went in high school, I didn’t think it was enough of a “workout,” and attributed my lack of ease in many poses to my naturally tight hamstrings.

However, in light of my injury, I started to notice a difference in my mentality and type of self talk when comparing how I treated myself on the elliptical versus during a yoga class. On the elliptical, exercise felt like a punishment, as I evaluated my workout numerically and, thus, my body numerically. I would put myself down if the calories burned weren’t high enough. Yoga, on the other hand, challenged me in a way I had never felt before. Instead of measuring calories to validate how hard I’d worked during a workout, I had to focus on my alignment, my strength, and how I felt in my body. Yoga, for me, became a form of exercise that taught me to work harder to see what my body could potentially do, praise it for what it achieved, and thank myself for taking an hour to move and breathe and be kind to my body. It wasn’t a punishment like running was: it was a way to be in awe of myself and monitor progress not by counting calories, but by getting deeper into poses as I got stronger. “Strengthening,” it seemed, then meant a glorification of the body instead of working it to the point of injury.

In the Fall of this year, my Sophomore year, I decided to sign up for the 200 hour Yoga Teacher Certification Training to push my practice to the next level. I will admit that the stigmas surrounding aspects of spirituality in yoga made me shy away from seeing it as more than a workout. Being a skeptical Agnostic, I thought that the “ohm”ing and the Buddhist background music had to be BS. However, though I initially wanted to challenge my physical practice in a new way, I had no idea what I would discover about myself through my own spiritual practice. I finally found what it means for yoga not to be a “work-out”, but a “work-in.”

For three and a half months, I spent 12 hours a week practicing different styles of yoga and discussing yogis like B.K.S. Iyengar and Deborah Adele. Through these discussions, I learned that yogic spirituality is overall rooted in ending suffering through positivity and a healing, self-loving routine. The malleability of incorporating the spiritual aspects of yoga into my practice taught me to re-love my body and spread that positivity to my relationship with myself and others. Despite not necessarily identifying with my own Jewish upbringing because of my uncertainties about God and a higher being, I found there were many aspects of yogic philosophy and Buddhism that helped me feel more grounded in my life and in my practice.

One thing I had to get used to was journaling. I had never been one to exercise and think about how it made me feel outside of the amount of calories burned. The newest part of this routine, though, was that this reflection did not involve any judgements or opinions on my feelings. It was not a matter of “I was tired going into today’s class and skipped an extra side plank and I suck because of that.” Instead, it was merely a conscious recognition of the fact that I went into class on that given day and felt tired, and it affected my practice. I wouldn’t label this discomfort in a self-deprecating way, and this new approach taught me that being self aware isn’t about realizing that you’re not “working hard enough;” it involves the ability to identify feelings of discomfort and sit with them. It wasn’t until I gave myself time to check-in that I realized a lot of my exercise compulsivity from before was rooted in the negativity I never learned to acknowledge instead of internalizing it.

This philosophy helped me re-evaluate other aspects of my life that were not serving me in a positive way. One of our teacher trainers, Risa, would always say during class that “the way you do yoga is the way you do most things in life.” During class, if we were holding a particularly hard pose Risa would say, “What is the worst thing that will happen if you stay in this pose? You’re not going to explode. Find your edge and sit with it.” She would also point this out during the meditation at the beginning and end of class: for some people (myself included) not fidgeting was actually the most challenging part. It seemed like a simple concept - the idea that I wouldn’t explode if I stayed in an ‘edgy’ pose - yet I realized that this was another place in my mentality that usually led to negative thoughts and suffering.

Subsequently, I found that the way I approached hard yoga poses was similar to how I navigated my relationships outside of the yoga studio. For example, I have long struggled with the fear of missing out, or ‘fomo.’ Freshman year I would force myself to go out five days a week- regardless of my school workload or exhaustion, just because I was convinced that I would lose my friends or miss out on a fun night if I skipped a party. However, I realize now that I was mostly terrified of confronting the feeling of insecurity I would have staying in; it would mean sitting with these insecurities surrounding my relationships, as if I would explode if I had to watch the Snapchat stories of my friends having the best time regardless if I was there or not. During teacher training, I learned to confront these insecurities and, while validating and accepting my feelings about my relationships, I had to accept that staying in would force me to sit with these emotions instead of going out to avoid them.

A specific mantra of yogic Buddhism that I gravitate towards is one of the Four Noble Truths, Samudaya. This Truth dictates that all humans suffer and that the origin of that suffering comes from yourself. Further, freedom from this suffering is possible but requires inner reflection and inquisition. One aspect of relieving suffering that we focused on in YTT was that most suffering stems from the human habit of attachment. We naturally attach ourselves to things - emotions, people, relationships - and therefore become stubborn in refusing self growth and detachment from things even when they’re not serving us.

I began to think of all of the possible attachments in my life and realized that most of my daily anxieties or suffering could be linked to an “attachment” of some sort. For example, in my parent’s divorce I always joke that, between my brother and I, I was the “defiant child.” When it came to us meeting my parents’ new partners, I was completely closed off to the idea of having a ‘new family.’ I met them with insolence and disinterest, and was convinced that I didn’t need them in my life. I thought that fighting these strangers and their introduction into my life would end my suffering and make me feel better about the divorce. However, after learning about yogic philosophies like Samudaya, I realized that creating that suffering is actually harder, and requires a lot more energy than simply leaving behind my attachment to this defiance and accepting my Stepparents and Step Siblings as extra people to support and love me. This year, I decided to make peace with myself, end my suffering, and go to Thanksgiving with my Stepfather’s family with an open mind and heart.

We call yoga a “work-in” because of the mindful, internal, and emotional work that you must do during your practice and even when you leave your mat. All of the poses that you fall out of in a huff and, in response, self-deprecate yourself reflect the moments in your life off the mat that you face adversity and turn on yourself to cope with. Similarly, attachments to achieving difficult yoga modifications and “cool” upside-down poses parallel your attachments to goals, people, and ideas in your life that keep you from being proud of what you can already do and what you already have. Progress in practice is important, but so often we let our egos get in the way and then punish our bodies for not living up to what our egos dictate of us.

I went into YTT expecting to get physically stronger and more flexible, but hadn’t even imagined reevaluating things in my life with which I was convinced I was content. The practice of yoga isn’t about doing the most chaturangas or doing impressive handstands: it is centered around being proud of whatever your body can accomplish on a given day, and honoring this pride by practicing healing and kindness towards yourself and others in your daily life. I’m still not very religious or the most flexible of my training peers, but YTT gave me the tools to create my own happiness and actively improve my relationships.