There's no attitude more dangerous and beautiful than a fearless, open heart. Open hearts make us courageous, but they also make fresh pineapple taste juicier, rain smell sweeter and hugs feel like heaven. Laughter comes more easily, and so do tears. With that protective guard peeled away, our most raw selves are laid bare, and the vulnerability is absolutely terrifying. Perhaps in no place does this exposure happen faster than during a 24-day, 200-hour yoga teacher training.
When I was researching 200-hour YTTs, India came into focus as the spot for me. Not only are prices more affordable than Western places of study, but I simply loved the idea of training in the homeland of yoga. I thought, I'll glean nuggets of wisdom from true gurus with weathered brows and will forever be able to say things like "my teacher in India" - all while soaking in surf and sun on the palm-fringed beaches of Goa.
At least, that's how I expected it to unfold this last November. I booked a Neo Yoga Center 200-hour YTT intensive with one of my best girlfriends, Anna. There were a few yellow flags leading up to the course, like the location didn't show up on Google Maps. But I figured that was how it worked in India, and I didn't want to spoil the adventure with too much skepticism, so I chose trust.
There were zero qualms about leaving a brown, winter-less Colorado for a month, and I was particularly excited that all I needed to pack was a bathing suit. You can buy anything in India, so I could've even opted out of the suit, but it's weird to board a plane without a bag (don't be weird; pack something, but keep space in your bag for all of the funky jewelry, oils, textiles, candlestick holders and flowy jumpsuits just begging to be bought).
When the plane landed in Goa, the heat and humidity swallowed me whole. My mountain-air skin rejoiced. There was a skinny guy holding a handwritten sign with my name on it. He didn't speak English, but I stuck with my trust plan and settled into the taxi for a wild ride watching life in India buzz outside the window.
We arrived at The Whispering Lake, a most-peaceful name for the place we were to spend the next month studying yoga with Akhilesh Bodhi, the head instructor with Neo Yoga Center. But, instead of peace, we were casually informed that Akhilesh wasn't there and would arrive "later." Rather, we were introduced to Mahi, a short, funny man (think Ben Stiller in the critically-acclaimed film, Heavyweights) and told our program was now part of two other programs, Mahi Yoga and Mystica Yoga.
The other students were just as puzzled by this, but we bonded quickly over the unknown and rolled with the punches. Thankfully, our group of 18 was full of bright, fabulous souls ranging from a doctor to a dancer, engineer to a psychologist and the spectrum you'd expect to find from ages 20 to 60. There were 10 languages spoken between all of us and only two dudes, their beards and deep voices providing balance to our warrioress tribe.
We spent the first two weeks adapting to Mahi's scattered curriculum that seemed mostly to showcase his personal finesse with special emphasis on advanced therapeutic yoga. The other teachers didn't miss an opportunity to highlight our dimwitted Western-style "gymnastics" that we'd eventually be teaching back at home. We were introduced to Samkhya, the philosophy of the yoga, the path to enlightenment and finding our true natures. We trusted the teaching but also reminded ourselves that we're adults and could therefore take or leave whatever we wanted from this training.
While we rolled with the advanced teachings and unrolled the deep philosophical fibers of yoga, we found solace in the surrounding beauty of pink skies at dawn, the treat of garlic-cheese naan and oodles of time devoted to self-care. For us mountain girls, finding some heart-thumping time was critical, so we kicked off each morning with a three-mile run on the beach. I carried a stick to keep nipping pups at bay, and, depending on the tide, we either splashed through shallow surf or raced ahead of crashing waves.
In between two two-hour asana practices, theory and anatomy classes every day, we relished the afternoon reprieve of the ocean, resting our eyes on the endless horizon and breathing in the peace found in wide open spaces. We swam and snacked on coconuts and melons sliced up by a lovely old lady named Zara. We also embraced the unexpected joy of shopping till we dropped - something I'd never dream of doing in The Real World. But everything is so bohemian and cheap in Goa, we'd be crazy to pass up deals like those.
Before dinner each evening, we gathered in the shala for an hour of guided meditation, getting introduced to techniques I didn't know existed, like shaking, dancing, laughing, crying, singing, hugging, silence, lying down - replete with the background sounds of musicians warming up at outdoor nightclubs or monkeys on the roof.
With three classes left, and only four hours of our time dedicated to actual teaching so far, our class approached Mahi with a simple, respectful request: while we were appreciative of the advanced therapeutic trainings he'd shown us, we'd appreciate it if a bit of the remaining time could be dedicated to learning how to cue poses, provide instruction for proper alignment and practice teaching in front of the class. Seems reasonable, right?
But, upon hearing our words, a dark cloud fell over this little man. The other teachers recoiled, defensive of their leader and appalled that we could be so ungrateful, so "un-yogic." The next day, Mahi didn't show up for class, or any class after that, and we were instructed to apologize to him. Some students did try to reach out, unsure of what they were apologizing for, but Mahi refused to forgive anyone, calling some of us "nasty, like toilet paper" (a really good insult, if you're eight-years-old...).
Our group was baffled and hurt by the unforeseen backlash, and an ensuing tidal wave of stress enveloped The Whispering Lake - something that was most definitely amplified by nearly a month of heart openers. We never expected that a yogi guru could be capable of causing so much pain and oozing so much spite.
We learned from locals that Mahi had some skeletons he didn't air out in the yoga shala. They call him "a yogi by day and a bogey by night," no thanks to his notorious reputation as a womanizer, gambler and drunk. The scales fell from our eyes, and the reality struck that our yoga training was his mafia business, and he was the godfather. It seemed the whole thing was a money-making scam and perhaps his chance to find a new girlfriend - and here we'd gone and thrown off his mojo.
On multiple occasions, we tried to discuss the situation with our teachers, but they turned their backs on us, all but ignoring us in those final classes. Despite their attitudes, we passed our written exams, taught flows for our practicals and were instructed on next steps. They even held a ceremony to give us our certifications of completion with all of the hypocritical pomp and circumstance, colorful flowers and pungent incense you'd expect from a YTT gone wrong.
We said goodbye to the melodrama of proud teachers and all of the beauty of pink skies, salty breezes, sandy toes and our newfound family of fellow students, who came together for this secret, intimate chapter that's left us forever changed and a little scarred. We flew back to a still-winter-less Colorado, thinking what a bizarre, wonderful journey. Moving on.
But that wasn't in the cards just yet. When we applied for our Yoga Alliance-certified RYT status, Mahi's school denied that we finished the course due to "bad conduct" with the teachers. My friend, Anna, posted warnings on their social media pages to stay away from Mahi and Neo yoga centers. This only stoked the fire, and Mahi threatened to file a lawsuit against her. Was his plan to send a lawyer with an attaché case to Durango?
We'll never know. After filing a 4,000-word grievance with Yoga Alliance and submitting "evidence" (including spam we received from Mahi's online gambling game), Yoga Alliance granted us RYT status and said they would hold Neo, Mahi and Mystica yoga centers accountable for their breaches of the YA code of conduct.
Frankly, I don't care about the outcome for these schools (I think that's what karma's for, right?). This cautionary tale is instead a reminder to not only open your heart but to also guard it - because yogis are human, too. Choose your teachers and trainings wisely. Don't be afraid to speak your mind, if you ever find that a school or teacher is not lining up with the yogic principles. Your teachers might try to bully you, but keep your chin up. Trust your truth.
And, finally, stay humble, for ugliness lurks in the shadows of each of us, and, no matter how much peace we cultivate in paradise, Customs Border Patrol will be right there when we land home to knock us back to reality. Keep seeking those wide open spaces both in and out, practice Abhaya Rhidhya and hug like there's no tomorrow. Your heart will thank you.