11 Aug Yoga Training As Rites of Passage
What is my purpose in life? Who am I? Can I transform myself? Can I change? Can I alleviate this pain I am suffering from? Can I find greater peace and happiness? Can I gain more knowledge about myself, and the world?
I was asking myself those questions when I signed up for my first yoga teacher training. I signed up because I wanted to learn more about yoga – or at least that’s what I told myself. Underlying that reason was a deep desire to learn about who I was, and to make sense of the craziness and painful aspects of life. The training was physically, psychologically and emotionally demanding. And it became clear, upon completion, that the training became somewhat of a ceremony that helped me acknowledge and grow from an intense transitional period in my life.
Looking back on my life so far, every transitional period in my life: going through puberty, marriage, divorce, dropping out of university (twice), death of a loved one, and leaving behind a passionate yet toxic career have all been followed by a yoga teacher training of some sort.
Classically, rites of passage are ceremonies that use ritual activities and teachings designed to strip an individual of their former ‘role’ and prepare them for a new ‘role’. And yoga teacher trainings oddly (or maybe not so oddly) follow the three phases of a rites of passage. Ethnographer, Arnold Van Gennep, describes these three phases as: separation, liminality and incorporation.
I remember after my divorce, all I craved was to be separated from everything (and everyone) that had acknowledged me as a married man: I wanted new surroundings, new friends, and new experiences. Van Gennep says that in order for a rite of passage to occur, an individual must detach or cut themselves away from their fixed point in a group or social structure. So it may not come as a surprise that soon after my divorce I signed up for a teacher training in a different country: a place where I could go to give myself space to process and transform.
Secondly, the process of a rite of passage must include a liminality phase where an individual leaves behind their old self and embraces a transitional phase where they begin to construct or create a new self. I am going to be blunt; the liminality phase can be incredibly inspiring but also terribly challenging. It’s not uncommon to feel uplifted, ecstatic and peaceful at one moment, and then challenged, exhausted, irritable, emotional, overwhelmed (or underwhelmed) at another. Let’s face it, leaving behind your old self and embracing a transitional phase as you create a new self is not always going to be sunshine and rainbows. What makes this phase so potent is not only its emphasis on embracing challenge but also on education and self-awareness. In teacher training you learn meditation, self-inquiry, breathing exercises, philosophy and experience strong physical yoga classes that invite you to rise above the challenge, to grow, transform and ultimately gain greater clarity on yourself and life.
I remember when I returned from my first yoga teacher training, my friends (who didn’t do yoga) joked, “Oh you must be so at peace now, so flexible and spiritually advanced haha…” And I think this is exactly why yoga teacher trainings can be acknowledged as a rites of passage: because even the people who don’t do yoga still associate it with spiritual knowledge and/or physical transformation. This is powerful because it fulfills the final phase of a rites of passage: incorporation, where society recognises an individual’s completion or graduation from a passage.
I am currently completing my ninth teacher training in Thailand. And one of my friends (after reading this article) asked me, “So, why are you here? What is this rite of passage for?”
I responded, “I am here to remember that is ok to feel joy, it is ok to have fun, and I am here to celebrate being in love. This rite of passage is for love.”
By Duncan Parviainen