by Kara-Leah Grant
Facilitating retreat is always a powerful experience, not just for the retreatees, but also for myself and the other facilitators. I know that I’m going to get triggered, that my ideas and beliefs will be challenged, and my unconsciousness revealed.
This is the process of retreat, and it is immensely rewarding. In the middle of the fire though, it’s damned hard work.
Case in point:
The Heart of Joy, Bali. I’m co-facilitating with Ben Ralston. It’s only the second retreat we’ve done together. On the first, Heart of Freedom in New Zealand, our approach was very separate. I took care of the yoga experiences in the morning while Ben did his own practice back in his room. In the afternoons, he led the personal development and healing sessions which I supported and participated in.
The Heart of Joy was different. This time, we were beginning to explore creating more synergy in our approach, plus I was no longer participating in the afternoon sessions, but co-facilitating with Ben.
Our retreat began with an opening circle Monday afternoon, and after dinner, I was to lead a yoga experience.
Unconsciously, I had a desire to impress and create an awesome experience for the group. I wanted to blow their socks off.
This desire meant that I had already decided exactly what I was going to do – I was operating from a pre-conceived idea rather than operating from the spontaneous and intuitive presence that we normally facilitate from. I was operating out of an ego defense – desire to impress, which springs from a subtle fear of not being good enough.
I had decided to lead a low-key Yoga Trance Dance. I figured everyone had been travelling and their nervous systems were likely on over-drive with low-level anxiety about the week to come. Yoga Trance Dance is a super-fun process that gets excess energy out of the body and creates group synergy.
Ben stayed for the experience – the first time he had actually seen me teach Yoga! Although we’ve talked about my teaching style before, and we’ve spoken extensively about what it means to teach yoga. Ben is Sivananda trained and very traditional in his approach. I am trained mostly by Shiva Rea and use a lot of movement and energy work in my classes, plus I always teach with music.
This combination – me teaching out of my head instead of from presence + my non-traditional approach to yoga created a perfect storm that threatened to engulf me before we were even 12 hours into the retreat.
First, by the time we’d done a circle check-in and hit the mats, it was after 8pm. Ben and I wanted to be done by just after 9pm because people were tired but I had a 90 minute playlist lined up. Instead of modifying the playlist or skipping some songs, I stuck to ‘what I wanted to do’.
Second, Ben’s presence in the room made me nervous because I had a sense he looked down on my use of music and my general approach to yoga. Right at the beginning, I had a wave of uncertainty wash over me and I found myself thrust out of presence and up into my head.
“What the fuck am I doing?”
That doubt separated me out from the usual effortless flow I teach from. What the fuck was I doing? I was completely out of my flow and totally in my head, and I had to work hard to find my way back to centre and keep teaching. That teaching was adequate but I knew I was off-centre.
The music played.
I continued teaching,
And I managed to eventually almost find my way back to centre.
But then the playlist was too long.
At 9pm, when I’d just lead the last dance peak track and was preparing to start the integration of energy process, Ben whisper commanded me;
‘We need to wrap this up now!’
I was acutely aware of the time, and how things had flowed, and afraid of what he was thinking, and agreed immediately.
I skipped the usual energy integration process and took the class straight into a long and deep savasana, rationalising that this would be enough to integrate the energy and calm the nervous system.
Class finished. Everyone left, and Ben and I went back to our room to debrief.
‘What the fuck was that?’
Nope, debrief did not go well. Ben was hard on me and questioned every aspect of what I had done – the music, the flow, the movements, the intention – all of it.
The incident and Ben’s emphatic feedback plunged me into a deep ego-dissolution process. On the one hand, I was aware that I needed to be discerning with Ben’s feedback. Yes, he’s a very experienced teacher that I respect and admire. And, his approach is very different from mine. That doesn’t mean my approach is wrong, plus his adherence to tradition could blind him to the gifts in my approach.
I had to be sure I wasn’t giving away my power to him – his seniority, his traditional training, his superior experience running retreats, and even the fact he’s slightly older than I am. I had to be sure that I wasn’t assuming he knew best.
There was also danger that I might dismiss out of hand what he was saying. If I allowed my triggered ego to defend, rationalise and justify my actions I might miss an opportunity to learn and grow – both as a teacher and as a human being. I might miss an opportunity to dismantle another ego defense. A delicate balancing act was required.
Ben and I have discussed the use of music in yoga class and we discussed it again that night. He’s mostly against using it – nothing more than distraction and a way to avoid what’s happening internally. I can see how sometimes this is true.
I’ve been in many yoga classes where the music functions in exactly this way – it’s separate from the practice and pulls the mind away from the internal experience.
However, I learned this approach with Shiva Rea, who skilfully uses music to help students into their bodies and out of their heads. This technique was particularly useful for someone like me who is naturally rigid and controlling, but finds music a handy tool for relaxing and letting go and becoming more embodied.
I listened to Ben. He listened to me. We both felt into the truth of what was being shared. And then he pointed out:
‘It’s not whether the music is good or bad, it’s why you’re choosing to use it. If you’re afraid to teach without it – it’s a crutch. Why don’t you just experiment? Teach without and see what happens.’
I could feel the truth in that.
I could feel my own fear at walking that path, which is a good sign it’s exactly what is needed.
The next morning, still immensely triggered, still unsure, still doubting, I challenged myself to do my morning prep practice without music.
It was ok.
I was nervous and unsure though. I could feel how much I was relying on the music to bolster my confidence as a teacher.
I’ve spent years dancing and moving to music and it instantly puts me into my strength. Without music there to support me, I felt naked.
For various timing reasons, the morning’s yoga practice was brief. Ben was still in the room, which was freaking me out. I knew the approach I wanted to take with the yoga but the brief time slot and Ben’s presence again blew me out. I made it through, but I still hadn’t found my way into teaching from presence again.
Two days into retreat.
I’m in the depths of the darkness now. Am I going to be able to teach? Am I even a teacher anymore?
Sitting in my early morning practice, which is mostly pranayama, chanting and meditation, I could feel emotion barely below the surface. I felt into the emotion. I felt into what the thoughts and fears and beliefs were in and around the emotion.
‘What am I doing?
How am I teaching?
How do I know what to do?’
When I teach retreat, I have certain rituals I do in the room before teaching.
Part of that includes calling in three teachers from my lineage to hold the space and guide me. I call in Shiva Rea, Krishnamacharya and a teacher I call the Unknown Teacher who is representative of all those who came before in this particular lineage.
As I sat in meditation, feeling like absolute crap, not knowing who I was as a teacher or where to go, I felt Shiva Rea behind me, on the left side.
I felt her hug me, and hold me. And as I felt that I began to sob and sob and sob. I felt so humbled, so small, so insignificant, and yet so supported, seen and loved.
I wasn’t doing this on my own. I had the support of an entire lineage behind me.
I skipped breakfast that morning and stayed down in the yoga room, rolling straight from my personal practice into the prep practice for the morning’s session.
The tears were still flowing, and I allowed them to continue, feeling strongly Shiva’s presence and the presence of the Mother. It was as if Shiva was both mothering me, and calling forth my own maternal energy.
I found myself effortlessly moving through a salutation that revolved around opening to the energy of the Mother.
It was a simple sequence, and I knew exactly how to unfold it in the group session that morning. By the end, after a long time in Child sobbing my heart out, I felt clear and ready to proceed.
We started with pranayama, led by Ben, then he left, handing the reins completely over to me.
I led a circle check-in, where everyone shares how they’re feeling physically, emotional and mentally. This gives me the opportunity to drop into deep listening and to feel what is required for the group energy.
From there, it was into an hour or so of asana practice. No music. A simple sequence. Deep, deep presence. And so I taught and the circle of people moved.
The first time through the sequence, we took time in each posture to find the breath and allow the breath to open and lead the body. My instruction was based more on the feeling sense and mental attitude than physical alignment cues. Left to it’s own devices, with clear intent and presence, the body can find it’s own way into alignment. Especially when the sequence is simple.
After moving through the sequence once, deeply, we moved through again. And again, and again. Every time, taking less time in the postures until everyone knew the sequence and was able to move breath by breath through each pose, fully surrendering to the intent of the practice – opening to receive the love of the Mother.
Ben slipped back into the room just as I was bringing the group down in final Savasana. Perfect timing. He then lead everyone through a 30 minute Yoga Nidra.
Morning session was over. And it had been extraordinary, as evidenced by the experience the participants had and shared later.
I had taught my first music-free class effortlessly and with clarity and purpose. I felt the energy of Shiva with me, and of the Mother. Mostly though, I felt humbled.
I am not here to be a teacher. I am not here to give people a mind-blowing experience. I am not here to impress people. I am here to allow the teaching to move through me according to the needs of the group in this moment. I am here to serve the teachings.
I am not a naturally humble person and I’m not sure if I have ever felt humbleness as strongly as I did on that day.
None of this is about me. I am not important.
On this particular morning, I found the next step forward in my teaching. Yes, I learned from Shiva. Yes, she teaches in a particular way with wave sequencing and music. I know she is one of my teachers. And I have also known since the first class I taught after my training with her that the specific way she teaches is not my way.
I knew that I was not here to be a carbon copy of Shiva, to teach as she teaches. Yet I am here to learn from her and be guided by her – in physical presence, in dreams, in a felt sense like that morning’s meditation.
This is the unfolding of lineage. Each teacher in the lineage is drawing from the same well, yet the way that energy moves through each generation will be slightly different.
And it is humbleness that allows me to open to this. It is humbleness that allows me to let go of being anything or doing anything. Of wanting to – or needing to – impress.
Humbleness is something I am still practicing. The moment I think I’ve got it – woo hoo, I’m humble! – is the moment I lose it again.
On the last day of retreat, I put music on for my morning prep practice. I wanted to experiment with perhaps introducing music back into class for that morning. After barely three minutes, I found the music annoying and distracting so turned it off again.
Another crutch has been thrown away.
Now, I can teach with music when it’s called for, and without when it’s not. I no longer need the music to bolster my confidence, or give me something to hide behind.
For this, I can thank Ben and his feedback and the transparent and honest way in which we communicate.
And I can also thank my own courage to constantly examine – again and again – what is true and what is not?
What is true, and what is not?
What is true, and what is not?