May 18, 2014 marks 2 years from the day I graduated from Jivamukti Yoga Teacher Training. My heart is filled with gratitude that I found this path, or that this path found its way to me, depending on how one sees it. The 1100 classes that I taught from then until now are truly a gift.
Prior to my life as a Jivamukti Yoga Teacher, a job felt like a job. And though I was good at many of the things I tried career-wise, something always felt lacking. I couldn't accept that making other people rich is what I was meant to do. Surely, there has got to be another way. When I became vegan and started to do advocacy work on my own- distributing Vegan Starter Kits, copying animal rights DVDs and distributing them, writing about veganism, giving talks etc, I discovered a part of me that I did not know existed. I pushed my shyness and insecurities aside to talk to people- mostly strangers- about what it means to make nonviolent choices. I was never good at small talk and I still am not, but speaking about animal rights feels natural to me. I also used veganism as a starting point to consider my other choices in life. Slowly, I transitioned to a simpler way of living. I gave up my car and either walked or used public transportation. I bought less things. My previous hobby- shopping- lost its luster. I decided I am going to be ethically child-free. I started to consider my carbon footprint.
When I got laid off from my high-paying corporate job, I knew it was an opportunity to pursue a more authentic way of living. I decided I was going to be a yoga teacher. I almost took another yoga teacher training course because I did not think I could afford the Jivamukti Teacher Training, nor did I think that I was qualified at that point to take the training that appeared to be quite advanced and demanding. When Jules Febre, an Advanced Certified Jivamukti Yoga Teacher, held a workshop in Manila a year before my job redundancy, I told him how much I loved Jivamukti Yoga, and he told me I should take the teacher training. Aloud, I gave him the excuse of not having enough years of practice. Unspoken, I thought I loved taking Jivamukti classes but I was not sure I wanted to teach it. It seemed like a lot of work. But things worked out the way that they did. Cat Alip-Douglas, another Advanced Jivamukti Yoga Teacher and also the teacher who taught the first Jivamukti class I ever attended, gave me materials for the teacher training in London that was to happen later in 2012. Shortly after, Tomo Okabe, also an Advanced Jivamukti Yoga Teacher, and who is mentoring the April 2012 training at Omega, sat me down, broke down my perceived barriers and offered solutions. I remember during dinner that he told me I was a good fit for Jivamukti. I joked about my worry, that when I start talking about animals, I might break down in tears. He did not tell me that it will change with time or that I have to learn to control my emotions. Instead he shared this story about having attended a talk given by activist Julia Butterfly Hill, and when she cried at some point during the talk, it touched people with her sincerity. I went home and I realized it was true, that I was a good fit with things I already believed in. My doubts vanished.
Once I decided I was going to take the Jivamukti Teacher Training, everything was smooth sailing. I got a partial scholarship, I crowd-funded and got the rest of the money I needed, I even got a free business class upgrade for part of my flight from Manila to New York. It was without question the path of least resistance. I knew one of the things I needed to get past is my fear of public speaking. I did not want to feel anxious about it that it would take the focus away from more important things I could learn from the training, so about a month before the Jivamukti Teacher Training, I taught yoga classes by the beach for two weeks. I did not teach anything fancy. I just repeated what I remembered from yoga classes I have taken at this point. It helped a lot that I just jumped in and did it.
At Jivamukti Teacher Training, I met like-minded people who made me feel immediately at home. I was not a lone advocate there. Many of us were vegans who wanted to change the world in some way. It made me smile to know that in a room full of people, I am not the only one wearing an animal rights message shirt. My teacher David Life, co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga, wore a hoodie that says Vegan. Like teacher, like student, I thought. I loved that the training was integrated and wholistic. It was really more than just asana. In fact, asana seemed like such a small part of it. Sharon Gannon, also co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga, was and continues to be such an inspiration. She really did revolutionize the modern practice of yoga by teaching nonviolence unequivocally and unapologetically. I often think of her when I am put in a challenging situation. I think, what would Sharon-ji do? I must have won some kind of spiritual teacher lottery because not only do I have Sharon-ji and David-ji as teachers, I also got Ruth Lauer-Manenti, lovingly known as Lady Ruth, as my mentor. Every time she spoke to us, she spoke with such sweetness. Her words were weaved with sincerity and kindness.
One of the most memorable moments in Jivamukti Teacher Training was when we all had to go up the stage and give a 5-minute dharma talk. The thought made me nervous because at this point, I have not yet completely gotten over my fear of public speaking. I prepared a talk that was basically a summary of what my teachers have said in materials I watched or read. I thought it was safe, and I wanted to get up on the first night (of four if I remember correctly) to get it over with. The queue was long so I did not make it then. I decided to change my talk completely. I chose a different sutra and a different interpretation. When it was finally my turn the following night, I was extremely nervous. I stuttered giving instructions on which page of the chant book to turn to. I was even more nervous chanting. Will I be out of tune? Do I remember all the Sanskrit words? After the chanting, I looked down from the stage. I saw all my teachers, all the mentors, and all my classmates. They looked intently at me. No one was bored and wanted to be somewhere else. In that brief moment, I realized they all wanted me to do well. And that was how my fear vanished. So I spoke the words that I rehearsed while taking a shower. I had an outline of points I wanted to cover and I was able to say most if not all of them. For the first time in my life, speaking in front of a crowd felt easy. The talk was well-received, and I am grateful for that moment. I consider it the moment where I "came out" as a Jivamukti Yoga Teacher. My heart was filled with joy that I got to talk to my teacher Sharon-ji for a few minutes and received feedback about it. My memory is blurred so I am not sure if it was then or during graduation day that she told me, in emphasis to what was in the formal lectures, that my most important job as a yoga teacher is to speak to the highest in each person. Those days during Jivamukti Teacher Training two years years ago were special. I think of those days with fondness. I think of my teachers with so much love. The power of that satsang uplifted me. I have no doubt in my mind I became a better person because of it.
Coming back to Manila, I was excited to share Jivamukti and I wasted no time. I practiced teaching to a few friends before I did my demo class, and in my demo class I deliberately inserted concepts of nonviolent and interconnected choices, because I felt that if a studio were to accept me, then they have to accept the whole package of Jivamukti. I was not and still am not willing to teach anything less. The demo went generally well with only a few hiccups, and within one week of my arrival back in Manila, I taught my first class at a studio. I made a lot of beginner yoga teacher mistakes with cues, and I was really hard on myself. The first weeks and months of my teaching, when I made mistakes even with things like breath count, saying inhale but forgetting to say exhale, I would feel bad. We were told during Jivamukti Teacher Training to let it go when it happens that we teach a bad class, and just to do better next time. Slowly and eventually, I eased up on myself.
My first challenge came at the end of my first month of teaching. Because I wanted to illustrate the power of the mantra Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu, I used as my dharma talk the experience of my teacher training classmate Katherine. She had shared with us that she chanted the mantra silently while watching Earthlings, connecting to the love in her heart to feel love not only for the animals who suffer but also for the perpetrators of the suffering. It was a heavy talk that spoke about a heavy topic. I also distributed animal rights flyers in this class. That day, I was told a student complained. I had mixed feelings about it. But mostly, I felt that I did my job as a Jivamukti Yoga Teacher ruffling some feathers. I remember David-ji saying that we teach what must be taught, not what students want. I agree completely. Yoga is not like a spa where we massage the egos of students. To teach yoga is to teach about oneness, even if it means confronting norms. And so it also made sense what we were taught in Jivamukti Teacher Training, that we ourselves have to let go of our egos and the desire to please students or be popular. We were taught that we are not exercise instructors. We are yoga teachers. My challenge is not changing the message or even softening it. My challenge is in how I can be more effective in speaking to the highest in each person.
I had made a pledge to teach free classes as part of my crowd-funding efforts, specifically to teach 300 hours worth of free classes as a way of giving back the 300 hours of education I received. In the first few months, I did some research on how to do it and where to do it and how to promote it and all that. I did not get a lot of positive feedback, or any feedback at all, from possible venues and organizations I could work with, so I decided I will just go ahead and do it on my own, with no support from any organization or venue or yoga studio. The first class I taught at the park was on September 22, 2012 and only my friends came. I was not sure how I could sustain it and my doubts were completely valid. For the first six months, the attendance was erratic. There were some classes where nobody showed up, or others where only one student showed up. Maybe a large part of it was also because I had no budget to promote a free class. I just posted the schedules on Facebook. Admittedly, there were times when nobody showed up and I considered just stopping it. It felt like a waste of time. I was frustrated. I thought, I was giving up a time slot that I could use to actually teach a paid class. But a promise is a promise. I made that pledge boldly because I wanted to make myself follow through even when I did not feel like it. I decided I will just show up week after week no matter what. If no students come, then I will practice. If at least one student comes, then I teach.
I decided to put up my own website which you are reading now, and I think it made the difference in attendance. In retrospect, it worked out really well that I am doing this independently without any support from other organizations, because I do not have to promote any other agenda than the teachings of Jivamukti. In these free classes, I ask students to eat a vegan meal after the class, as payment for the class that they just took with me. Students came, some who knew me from classes that I teach from studios, but most of whom I have never met. These days, there is never a scheduled Sunday class where no one shows up. I am happy that some students are regulars who show up week after week, and they tell their friends, and their friends tell their other friends. It was in one of the these free classes that I decided to give my first satsang. Just as I had feared, I did cry speaking of the violence that happens to animals. It was not my best moment as a teacher, but I did the best that I could at that time. And guess what? Whether that particular satsang had anything to do with it or not, there are now a few transitioning vegans from the regular students.
Meanwhile, I basically accepted all the classes that I was offered by all the studios that gave me the opportunity. I was teaching in Makati and The Fort and Greenhills and Ortigas and Katipunan. I was physically tired by the commute. I taught many classes, some really inspired, some bad ones, and mostly in between. After Jules Febre took my class in Manila in November 2012, he gave me valuable feedback that I incorporated into my classes. I rearranged my teaching schedule so that I have varied time slots per studio. That way, I only plan one class to teach and teach that same class for a week more or less. This worked better since I noticed that I got more consistent. I knew my talk and my sequence and my playlist. The first classes tend to be a gamble. They turned out either inspired because of the newness of it or awkward because I have not organized my thoughts that well yet. In any case, it was a system that worked better than the previous no-system one. Recently though, I decided to give up the classes that are too inconvenient for me to get to for practical reasons. It was a difficult decision to give up classes where students are so dedicated, but I realize a few things as well. I need to conserve my own energy. I need to be able to let go of my attachment to students who made me feel good about myself. And maybe my absence will prompt dedicated students to go deeper into their spiritual practice the same way that the absence of Jivamukti in Manila prompted me to make it happen myself.
Students will test you, my teachers said. They are right. Students have tested my knowledge and my skills, my ego and my patience, my practice and my compassion. I am fortunate that most students who come to my class are open, enthusiastic, respectful and sincerely willing to learn. When students like the class, it is a test of my ego not to be attached and remain humble, recognizing that what they like are the teachings of yoga and they only happen to be coursed through me. When students do not like the class, it is also a test of my ego not to be attached, to remind myself that what we teach in Jivamukti will not resonate with everyone, that people are interested in other things and I am not offering those other things. I had to give up classes here and there, sometimes for practical reasons, sometimes for schedule conflicts, and one time because I acknowledge I am not the teacher for the group. I feel that there are very few requirements in yoga. We do not require students to be flexible or strong. We do not even require students to chant or do all the poses. The only requirement is to be present, not just with the physical body but with the intention. It dawned on me that just as not every teacher is right for every student, not every student is right for every teacher.
Teaching Jivamukti Yoga full-time is such a privilege. To me, there is no separation between what I do and who I am. I teach and practice yoga not as a hobby, not only as a source of income, but as my life. The path of yoga is the search for enlightenment and freedom, and I thank my karma for leading me to this path. Teaching Jivamukti challenges me to study and become more eloquent in expressing the teachings of yoga. It pushes me to look into topics I am not comfortable speaking about in public, like devotion to God, or to do research into topics I was completely unfamiliar with like sacred geometry or Gopal. In an unexpected way and in a different format, I ended up doing what I have always wanted to do but was too afraid to actually try- which is to write for a living. Except now, I write mostly for spoken word in the form of the dharma talks. And even though in the beginning, my agenda as a Jivamukti Yoga Teacher was mostly about making the world a little bit more vegan- at least in Manila- I am now grateful for the other ways that yoga touches the lives of people. When I witness students overcome their fear of inversions and experience coming upside down for the first time, I know that this experience will give the student more confidence in confronting future changes. When students who are seemingly restless finally relax in savasana, I think that they may be a little bit more prepared to let go of control. When students cry in class or share a personal struggle, I feel that yoga has in some way provided the relief that they need and deserve. So even though I talk about animal rights often in class, I no longer feel the need to talk about it in each and every class. If I cannot make students who come to class save animals, then maybe at least I can make them see that everything that they search for is already within themselves. After all, yoga is about finding wholeness, whether it takes 1100 classes or 1100 lifetimes. And when we come closer and closer to touching that wholeness in ourselves, it becomes second nature too, to see the wholeness in other beings.
I am grateful to my Jivamukti Yoga Teachers Sharon Gannon and David Life, to all of the Jivamukti community, to all the studios who have given me the opportunity to serve, to teachers of yoga whose classes I attended, to all students of yoga who have attended my classes, to all who are searching for that connection. I hope to be able to teach many more Jivamukti Yoga classes in many more years and in many more opportunities and places. May we all be liberated.
Sat-sangatve nissangatvam nissangatve nirmohatvam
nirmohatve nishchala-tattvam nishchala-tattve jivanmuktih
bhaja govindam bhaja govindam mudha-mate
- Shri Adi Shankaracharya from Carpata-Panjarika
Good and virtuous company gives rise to non-attachment. From non-attachment comes freedom from delusion. With freedom from delusion, one feels the changeless reality. Experiencing that changeless reality, one obtains liberation in this life. I-AM is the ocean of awareness. Realizing this, one feels, "I am not the body and mind, although I have a body and mind." Realize Govinda, realize Govinda, realize Govinda in your heart, O wise one! - Interpretation by Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati