Yoga Alliance Professionals Interview with Heather Elton
In pursuit of a ‘real’ yoga
Heather Elton is a yogini, yoga teacher, photographer and part-time writer living in London. Her yogic path has led her to India and Nepal in pursuit of a ‘real’ yoga – an authentic, traditional yoga that merges Hindu and Buddhist Tantra. It’s a journey that has taken her to sacred sites and into the hearts of spiritual masters and awakened beings. Heather Elton began her practice of Modern Postural Yoga 1986. She has taught Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and Hatha Vinyasa Flow, as well as traditional forms of Hatha yoga, restorative yoga, pranayama and meditation in London for the past 15 years. She has led over 25 international yoga retreats and has taught Yoga Teacher Trainings in Goa, Nepal and London. Her innovative Himalayan Yoga Adventures integrates yoga philosophy, tools of tantra and asana practice, and takes people to sacred sites in Nepal and Bhutan.
Many yogis seem to prefer going to India when they decide to embark on a teacher training overseas course. Why Nepal?
Nepal is even more ancient than India. It’s much less commercial than India so many of the traditional practices are still intact. It’s the land of ‘living tantra.’ Also, the Newari culture merges Hinduism and Buddhism into its own unique blend of spirituality and is the oldest religion in Nepal. Tibetan Buddhists also came to Nepal in the 60s seeking refuge from the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Some of the greatest Rinpoches lived here and their monasteries and lineages are still intact. Despite damage from earthquakes, Nepal is home to some of the world’s most exquisite medieval architecture, sacred sites and holy places. It’s the perfect place for students studying yoga to situate contemporary practice into this tangible history. And it’s very beautiful and the people friendly.
You define your teacher training course a life-changing experience, why is that and what makes it unique?
Most Yoga Teacher Trainings if they’re doing the job properly are life changing. People who come are usually ready to experience transformation in their lives. For sure, after a month of living in a monastery in Nepal your view/perception of the world shifts. This is supported by ancient technologies of the yoga path. It’s an opportunity to really slow down, to go inward in a pratyaharic shift and discover who you really are and what’s important in your life. You learn skills to observe your behaviour and analyse your mind and see how you perpetuate suffering in your own life. So, we’re trying to act in the world in a different way, through fearlessness and compassion.
You mention “Philosophy on the Road”, what is this exactly?
The Philosophy on the Road module takes students to sacred sites in Nepal and introduces them to the concept of Darshan, of seeing and being seen. It teaches them the etiquette of entering a sacred place, whether it’s a large site like the cremation grounds at Pashupatinath, a temple, stupa, or being blessed by a priest. All of these are metaphors for the inward journey to discover your own Buddha nature, Atman or true Self. I take them to places where great saints like Goraknath or Padmasambhava attained enlightenment and we sit in those places and meditate, or just feel the energy. They learn basic Tools of Tantra like Japa Mala and use prayer beads as a container for the mind. This is the oldest form of yoga practice and might be the inspiration for Patanjali’s teaching of Citta Vritti Nirodha, that the purpose of yoga is to cease the fluctuations in conscious. So, we engage in ancient technologies to see if they are helpful. We spin prayer wheels, walk the kora around the giant Stupa in Boudhanath, sit in the cremation grounds and have meetings with traditional yogis. Nepal is renowned as having the best metal workers in the world so we go to the Patan Museum to see various deities, and learn to recognize them through their mudras and stances. All these practices cultivate presence and fearlessness.
Pilgrimages are designed take you to the spiritual heart of yoga and to truly embody your own practices.
The Philosophy on the Road module grew out of my own pilgrimages to sacred places in India, Nepal and the Himalayan regions. I really love yoga history and philosophy, but early on I discovered that no matter how many books I read I still had a hard time absorbing the philosophy and sorting out the pantheon of deities. It’s really important to contextualise contemporary yoga practice or you really short change yourself from the big picture of what yoga has to offer. I have unshakeable faith in my spiritual path and that, for me, the end result of yoga is enlightenment – freedom and moksha. I want this in this lifetime. Even before Instagram, I realised that asana alone wouldn’t get me there. Hence, going on pilgrimage in search of a spiritual master.
On one trip to Hampi in Southern India, I climbed to the top of a small mountain to visit the Hanuman temple. It required a bit of effort to get up there and then I had this astounding panoramic view of the ancient Vijayanagara Empire. On the way down, I took a small round boat up the river to the old ghats and ancient temples. I realised that through the act of ‘walking’ and being ‘in situ’ in the place where the Ramayana happened that I would never forget Hanuman and that legend. This realisation inspired a 10-year sadhana through India and into Nepal that led to the creation of my Himalayan Yoga Adventures where I teach yoga philosophy in sacred places.
As means of cultivating bhakti (devotion) on the path and towards Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) in particular, who travelled through Nepal to take Buddhism into Tibet, I followed his footsteps through the Upper Mustang Valley to Lo Manthang near the Tibetan border. I wandered through the mystical landscape where he killed the demon throwing its lungs against the Drakmar cliffs and turning them red. And along the mani wall that is the demon’s intestines. I sat in the oldest Tibetan monastery, Lo Gekar, where he buried the heart. One doesn’t get far on the path without devotion.
Being in sacred places and having darshan with landscapes, deities and enlightened masters changes a person. I feel purified through the experience, as if I’ve dissolved some sticky karma and deep samskaras. I feel tremendous connection through these yatras, and consequently developed a sense of devotion that has healed my existential wounds. I feel totally supported on my spiritual path. Through this process, I found a Tibetan guru and was initiated into the Vajrayana path. Later, I was found by a Hindu guru in the cremation grounds at Pashupatinath in Nepal who initiated me into the Nath sampradaya and teaches me ancient hatha yoga practices. This meeting was an important acknowledgment of my own existence as a yogini. So, for me, these pilgrimages are designed take you to the spiritual heart of yoga and to truly embody your own practice.
What is the main emphasis on your training course?
The main emphasis is to teach yoga in a way that will diminish suffering in the lives of my students and then in the lives of the people they teach. I want them to develop compassion for themselves and others and to make yoga accessible to everyone.
What style of asana do you cover during the course?
I teach in the lineage of Sri T Krishnamacharya which means I blend my understanding of the techniques of his two main students, Sri K Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar. I’ve studied Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and BKS Iyengar methodology for decades. I began studying BKS Iyengar technique in Canada in 1986. I’ve been to Mysore and studied with the guru – Sri K Pattabhi Jois. (See my bio on my website if you’re interested.) I’m inspired by these two great masters and their teachings influence my own unique style.
I’ve practiced yoga for over 35 years and have taught for 14 years and, of course, my practice and teaching style has changed over the years, but on the Nepal TTC, I teach a slow mindful, alignment-based Hatha Vinyasa Yoga. I’m not interested in flailing about mindlessly in space. This is an embodied practice, a deep physical and psychological one that moves beyond the mere physical experience to make the yogic inquiry authentic and relevant to real life. This approach is applied both to restorative yoga and doing handstands.
Mindfulness. A moving meditation. Moving towards stillness. Moving from the gross to the subtle. We study all families of asanas – forward bends, backbends, external hip rotation, neutral hips and parivrttas, and inversions to find the commonality between these in a kind of Matrix of movement. Students need to understand what is really happening in each asana before they can sequence a class.
What’s a typical day during the course?
I have now taught over 25 Yoga Teacher Training courses in London, Goa and Nepal, so the current program is a synthesis of all those experiences. It’s a big deal to take people to foreign countries like India and Nepal and make sure they will be safe and supported in their practice. I really feel that the trainings get better every year.
Our day begins before dawn. We sit in mediation in the monastery as the sun rises behind the Himalayas and the monks do puja. We feel the vibration of their chanting as we practice a selection of Pranayama techniques that ideally lead towards Dharana and the inner limbs of yoga. Each day begins in silence and students practice the ancient yoga technique of Mouna that has been around since the time of the Vedas. After Pranayama and Mediation class, there is a short break where we take sip tea on to the roof of the monastery and stare at the sky, the Himalayan landscape, and reflect on the practice.
After tea break, we’re back for a 2.5-hour asana technique class. Often this is a Hatha Vinyasa Flow class that puts together the various elements that we study in the afternoon Asana Clinics. For example, if we’re studying Backbends, then I’ll teach a Hatha Vinyasa Backbend Flow so they can see how I warm up the body by sequencing prone backbends leading up to a peak pose and then integrate the effects of the journey with a few counterposes and cooling down.
Then there is a 2-hour brunch break with fabulous buffet of Nepali and Tibetan food and rest.
Then we’re back for a 4-hour afternoon class (and 30 minute tea break) of either Anatomy for Asana with Andrew McGonigle, or Actions in the Poses / Matrix of Yoga Asana Clinics, or Adjustments, Assists & Prop use, or Sequencing Asana & Practicum with me.
Yoga philosophy is taught both in class and with excursions to sacred sites. Some are close by and are integrated into the daily program, like spinning prayer wheels after practice and enroute to breakfast. Or morning meditation and darshan with the priest at a Goddess temple. We also go On the Road for four days to visit sacred sites in Nepal.
So while there is flexibility in the daily schedule, the structure of the training is that students first learn basic Anatomy, then another layer of alignment and precision in Actions in the Poses, and finally how to adjust people safely. Throughout all this they also learn how to sequence asana and teach a class. They have many opportunities to practice teaching.
What should a student expect from this course? (Will they be given the possibility to practice teaching one or more classes, how many students are usually in the course, will there be free time during the week/day, is the location situated in a remote area…)
The students have one free day each week. We stay at a small hotel that belongs to the monastery (and the fees support the monks at the monastery.) It’s located about one hour from Kathmandu in the low Himalayan region of Pharping. It’s a peaceful, rural spot with excellent food and modern comforts. Students practice teaching classes almost daily. There is no final exam on this TTC. Instead, I ask students to do Demos where they demonstrate their understanding of yoga asana technique, adjustments, and breath-based vinyasa flow. I build extra practicum modules into the training because many people leave a TTC without the confidence to teach. I teach people how to teach yoga. And I have a high percentage of graduates who are actually teaching full time.
The student should expect to emerge from the program with confidence to teach yoga. They should be able to sequence a 60-minute class and teach it with the proper breath, instructions and a layer of yoga philosophy to contextualise why their students are doing this. They should be able to teach ‘workshop style’ and break down a peak pose to its component parts, to modify their classes for all body types and make it accessible through the use of props. They should be able to structure a yoga class properly, cue it, and lead the vinyasa breath count. I teach various asana series and sequences that they can use as building blocks and integrate into their own class. They learn prop use and how to teach a basic restorative class. They develop the confidence to teach, develop their own voice and own style.
The job of a teacher is to take the student out of their comfort zone and this isn’t always comfortable.
We also discuss the Business of Yoga where they dream about what kind of yoga teacher they want to be and how to put that into action. I ask them to write various components for a future website.
These are all standard things that any ‘high quality’ Yoga Teacher Training should provide, but what is unique about mine is that it takes place in a monastery in Nepal and students get to study Yoga Philosophy on the Road and witness the yoga traditions still being practiced in a ‘non-commercial way.’ I always hire the very best people to teach this module. Over the years, Jim Mallinson, Mark Singleton, Matthew Clark, Emil Wendel, Matthew Pistono, and Daniela Bevilacqua have all taught philosophy on my trainings. This year, Ruth Westoby teaches on the London and Nepal TTC. (She is writing her PhD thesis at SOAS under the tutelage of Jim Mallinson.)
As a result of this yogic inquiry, my students can really dig deep and transform their lives. They get to ask the big Upanishadic questions: Who am I? Is there a god? What is the meaning of life? What happens after death? And I hold the space for them to do this safely through my shamanic and tantric training. I am truly there for my students in a genuine and authentic way. I’m not there to be their friend or to be popular. The job of a teacher is to take the student out of their comfort zone and this isn’t always comfortable.
As new teachers, how would you expect your students to integrate your course teachings (particularly the philosophical aspect) into their own classes and when they teach beginners?
Yes, I expect them to integrate all of these things in their own teachings and in fact, they are assessed based on that idea when they teach their final class. I want to see them use my movement sequences, and cues using similar language I use to take students deeper into the practice, with a sprinkling of Sanskrit terms and anatomical verbiage. I want them to add a layer of yoga philosophy and contextualise the practice. This is all part of the final assignment but we really do a lot of work to get there.
In terms of integrating yoga philosophy, students learn to explain basic yogic concepts like ‘Yoga is a science to control the mind’. They learn to understand Prana and Citta as being similar; a reflection of each other, but because the mind is too slippery that we access it through the breath. Whatever manifests on the breath is also happening in the mind, like two sides of the same coin. They learn to discuss breathing in a way that stablises the mind so they can find ease and equanimity in their life when challenging situations arise. This ancient technology is used to feel embodied in the asana and to diminish suffering, to make people feel better, grounded and more stable, and to have some degree of sanity in their lives. They teach people to become mindful and responsible for their lives.
They also teach Patanjali’s concepts of Sthira and Sukha, of steadiness and ease, and how to manifest that in the body, mind and in the practice. Most will have a basic understanding of Patanjali’s 8-limbed path and are able to integrate these concepts on to the mat. Others might use the Buddha’s 8-fold Path instead. Some will sing or chant mantras.
We present a full spectrum of ideas and encourage the student to decide what resonates with them. No dogma.
Students should be able to absorb my teachings so they can teach a multi-level class and use props to modify asanas so they are accessible to beginners and less able people of different body types. And most of my graduates can actually do this! Bless them. Often they do such good work that in the final presentation I’m in tears of humility and joy. I’m so proud of them. It’s really beautiful and deeply profound.
You ask for your students to have a 5-day a week yoga practice before being accepted into your course. Would you require students to also have a spiritual practice?
No. They don’t need to have a spiritual practice. But most students who come on the Nepal TTC believe yoga is a spiritual practice and they are curious to know how to develop it and progress on the path. I’m absolutely NOT into dogma. I’m not preaching one path. Many trainings in India involve some young Indian patronising you and shoving Vedanta down your throat as the ONLY ‘real’ yoga path. We teach both Vedanta and Tantra, as well as Buddhist and Hindu paths. I encourage people to use discernment and make up their own mind about their practice.
Even with the Anatomy teachings, Andrew is always debunking yoga clichés and Fake Yoga News about the body. So, we present a full spectrum of ideas and encourage the student to decide what resonates with them. No dogma. But without the experience how will you ever know?
Students need to have a regular practice over a few years for endurance purposes. This is an intense, immersion-style training. We practice for 10 hours a day. It’s not always physical asana, but it requires concentration and that is difficult for most people.
Also, a yoga teacher training is NOT the place to both ‘learn’ how to do yoga and teach yoga!!! Impossible in 200 hours. I want people to know the basic shape of asanas so that it becomes a process of ‘refinement’ for them. If they come with no experience it holds back other people in the class and they could potentially injure themselves. I don’t want that to happen. It’s more complicated when people are so far from home. Think about it. The students will be in a foreign country, eating different food and living with a stranger for a month. Most will be out of their comfort zone at times. They need to be grounded in their practice to maintain equanimity.
They need to be prepared. I also give them a Reading List and expect them to do about 40 hours of reading to give them a deeper understanding of yoga before they come on the course. Some people have lied in the past and said they’ve had years of yoga practice when they’ve only done a few months of Bikram. Even with Skype interviews people can present themselves very well. I’m now considering asking for video auditions so I can see how embodied they are in the practice.
But, of course, I want to encourage everyone to come. This is still only a Level 1 200-hour TTC, not at level 2.
The Nepal TTC runs July 6 – August 4, 2019. Click here for more details and to apply.