Sitting with Struggle

Written by Guest Blogger Safa Shahkhalili

“sthira-sukham asanam”

The posture should be steady and stable, but also comfortable and at ease.

-Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

The last eleven months of my life have been filled with yoga—yoga practice, yoga training, yoga research and yoga-themed work.  Each day of my immersion in this practice has simultaneously been an overwhelming privilege and an overwhelming struggle. I chose this practice, but have rarely felt like this practice has chosen me back.

Over the past two years I was introduced to Anusara, Hatha, and Vinyasa-inspired yoga classes. Once I found the teachers whose style and energy I connected with, I developed a deep craving for the practice. 

Yoga granted me access to parts of myself I’d never before acknowledged. Sometimes I left class feeling like a floating balloon; at other times I felt like my skin was scrubbed raw. On more than a few occasions I would step off my mat tearfully unhinged. But this deep sense of connection to my innermost self was always fleeting. 

Once I rolled up my mat, the gentle hug provided by the practice, the space and the community would slowly dissipate as my mind and body merged back into the reality outside of the yoga studio. Despite wanting to learn more and sustain my yoga experience outside of class, I struggled to make that happen.

When I started graduate school studies in Anthropology of Education and Globalization, I discovered a means to explore yoga on a different level.  I proposed to analyze the content and methodologies employed in yoga teacher training (YTT) programs and before long was diving headfirst into preliminary research and planning a three-month stay at a Hatha yoga ashram located near Mysore, India. I secured funding, access and logistical support to participate in three intensive 200hr YTTs and make my research project a reality. Everything was ready to go except, very suddenly, for me.

As soon as the semester ended and the time came to begin fieldwork abroad, I suddenly felt immensely anxious and eventually panicked. Yoga teacher training! What was I thinking? I wasn’t good enough. I was too big. I was too weak. I was scared of inversions.  I was not enough!  I wouldn’t be able to do it.  I would fail. 

Somehow all that I had learned about the eight limbs of the practice—all that my philosophically-versed favourite teachers had told me about yoga as a life practice— vanished. I was consumed by a deep fear of my own body, a body that I felt was not the right shape to participate in a YTT.

Despite the heavy storm of self-criticism that raged inside me, I somehow made it to the airport. I somehow got on a plane and arrived in Karnataka. I somehow waited hours for a fellow YTT student to arrive so that together we could share the six-hour car ride to the ashram. 

We arrived at around 2am and even in the darkness I could make out the rows of huts, tall trees and the river that ran through the ashram. I had arrived and all that I had imagined about that moment was suddenly real, right in front of me. So why did I feel so strongly that I wasn’t supposed to be there? 

I spent that first sleepless night staring at the ceiling fan, looking at the partially curtained window and monitoring the relentless row of ants crawling up and down the bamboo wall next to my bed. Just before dawn I suddenly remembered something a friend of mine had said to me in an email earlier that week: yoga teacher training is an opportunity to listen to your body.  Listen to your body, Safa. 

In that moment, something in me released and I suddenly felt like I could breathe. My body knew it didn’t want to be there so I wasn’t going to force it to stay. I didn’t know how I was going to leave or where I was going to go. Nor did I know what I was going to do for my thesis research project.  But my instincts told me to go—so I did.   

I wish I could I tell you this solved all my problems, but that was really just the beginning of an ongoing struggle. After leaving India, I was fortunately accepted into a 5-month teacher training program in Toronto.  Again, I entered into territory that made me incredibly anxious. I kept thinking that this was not the place for me, that I was not good enough to train to be a teacher. My exhausting self-doubt plagued me throughout the program as I’d often stare at the clock to see how many hours were left in the training day. 

After three months of enduring those seemingly endless days, I started to think back to a month-long yoga challenge hosted at the studio where I first started practicing. During those four weeks, the group who had signed up for the challenge would meet each Sunday to discuss how our practice was going. At one of those meetings, my teacher Christi-an explained that this challenge was merely a framework with which to observe our reactions. It wasn’t about how many classes we attended; it was about the opportunity to notice our innate response to commitment, as well as how we reacted when an initial ambitious plan went asunder. Her explanation liberated me from my own self-doubt. I suddenly stopped focusing on the micro-level of the practice—how many classes I attended, what I could and couldn’t do in those classes, how tired I was and how intimidated—and started noticing the macro-reality of my thought patterns and attitude towards myself. 

I applied Christi-an’s words to my teacher training experience. I decided to embrace my research and my decision to immerse myself in yoga, regardless of whether it felt 100% right. Instead of continually questioning my decisions, agonizing over failing or being judged as ‘not good enough’, I focused on what I came there to do: learn.  My mind relaxed, my energy level and attention soared and everything about the research process became clearer. 

In the months since those early days of training, I passed my exam and received my teaching diploma. I started leading weekly classes, which have only deepened my desire to learn more. This summer, I will participate in the Yoga Detour Teacher Training program to continue building on my already solid foundation. 

My thesis is nearly complete. In it I discuss how students learn about attention, detachment and the concept of the Self within a yoga teacher training program. 

I am still in the same body that I was 11 months ago.  I’m stronger, but I’m no smaller.  I still struggle with feeling like my body and this practice don’t fit as I want them to. Even as a teacher, my self-worth is fleeting. Whenever I tell people that I teach yoga, I watch to see how they will react and judge my body. 

But there are moments—moments of deep awareness where I am so completely immersed in cuing and demonstrating an asana or observing the movement of my students, holding space for our collective exploration and play, that I stop fearing how much space my body takes up in the yoga community.

I show up more days than I don’t.  I practice. And sometimes the struggle loosens its hold on me so that I experience that unmistakable balance between steadiness and ease. In those moments, I have more space to just be. 

About Safa

Safa is a 25-year-old eternal student. Originally from Iran, she has relocated several times and is now based in Toronto. Yoga allows Safa to feel at home no matter where she is in the world. She first started practicing in 2013 under the guidance of Christi-an Slomka and her team at Kula Annex in Toronto. Safa has also practiced with Soham Johansen and the teachers at Hamsa Yoga in Copenhagen and recently completed her 200hr YTT at Downward Dog Yoga Studio in Toronto. Safa is an anthropology graduate student at Aarhus University in Denmark, a new yoga teacher, long time spoken word poet and enthusiastic city walker. She is continually learning, forgetting and remembering to stay connected to herself and others. http://www.suddenlysafa.com/