Writer Harriet Jones talks openly about her experience on the 2018 yogahaven teacher training course, and what yoga means to her

If you had told me five years ago that I would be embarking on this journey, I don’t think I would have believed you. But then that’s the beauty of yoga, everybody comes to it, takes solace in it, for very different reasons. And the best part? It magically seems to arrive in your life when you most need it.

For me, my very first experience of it was the Hot Bikram variety – I adored the physicality of it, the heart-pumping, sweat-inducing rawness of it all; it reminded me of my dancing background that I had left behind at the beginning of my 20’s. Plus, I found that escaping into this world of heat and rigid sequencing was exactly what I needed to complement my chaotic early life and career in London. However, my love affair with this type of yoga ended nearly as soon as it started just two years later. I often used to wonder if I left it behind too quickly, but I know now that at the time, I just wasn’t quite ready for it.

It was only after moving to Richmond with my boyfriend (now husband) five years ago that I found my practice again, this time at the YogaHaven studio. Instantly I knew there was something different about this studio. The entire ethos and vibe felt ‘right’; super-friendly and down-to-earth but also rooted in a deep understanding of what yoga really is and what it means to people. The heated classes were my favourite (a hangover from my Bikram days) but what I loved the most were the different types of yoga and classes offered. There was nothing rigid or structured about the sequences or timetabling; from a lovely, fast-paced dynamic Vinyasa flow class, to slow and gentle Yin, or chanting in Jivamukti, it was easy to incrementally educate myself about the different styles and immerse myself in more of the philosophical and spiritual side of the practice. That is, after all, what yoga is – a philosophy, a way of life. Ideally, it shouldn’t just be viewed as simply part of your weekly exercise routine (although that’s fine too, of course, if that’s what you want to take from it).

Tragically though for me, yoga very suddenly became way more than just a form of exercise or a respite from the stresses of work and more of a much-needed healing therapy for immense shock and grief. Heartbreakingly, my little brother William took his own life in January 2014 after a seven-year battle with depression, psychosis and bi-polar. Will was a Buddhist, he was also heavily into Hinduism and just about anything spiritual. He was always trying to clear our Chakras or introduce us to the latest healing crystal in his collection, and of course, he loved yoga. We were so close; he was the only person (and still is to this day) who could make me laugh until there were tears rolling down my face, so of course, when he died, I threw myself into yoga and wanted to learn as much as I could. I hear his vast knowledge (and finally understand it!) when I read any classical Hindu texts or yoga books, I feel his voice whenever I chant (he was an incredible musician) and when I practice asana I use his yoga mat – all round it brings me a deep connection to him that comforts me more than anything else I have found.

In 2016, this new, profound, drive and passion for yoga lead me to start looking into teacher training, not even particularly because I wanted to be a teacher (plenty of people embark on the training not necessarily wanting to be a teacher at the end of it, it’s totally normal), but because I wanted to deepen my practice and knowledge, especially from a religious, philosophical, and spiritual perspective. For me, I did some other research, but the YogaHaven TT stood out miles beyond the rest. Yes, of course, being a student at their studio made me instantly biased, but I loved the way it was structured – with two intensive weeks abroad (perfect for those with full-time jobs like mine) followed up by weekend modules in London. I particularly liked the sound of the course breakdown. There’s plenty of teaching practice which often courses abroad in Asia really lack, and from my experience so far, actually standing up and practicing teaching is absolutely key to developing both confidence and your own personal style. I also felt it was a really fair price point. It didn’t feel like it was totally out of my reach, but that didn’t mean that it didn’t take me nearly two years to save up for it. I actually ended up selling my wedding dress to pay for a big chunk of it! Some people thought I was slightly mad, but I couldn’t think of a better way to help fund my training. I will never wear the dress again (the photos are the most important thing right?!) and my training and everything I am learning will stay with me for life, plus it honours the rest of my brother’s life too. For me, it felt like a no-brainer.   

My biggest fear once I had been offered a place on the 2018 Morocco course though? That I wasn’t ‘ready’, I wasn’t ‘good enough’ at yoga – and by ‘yoga’ at the time I purely meant the asana. I even found myself Googling “I’ve booked a teacher training course but I’m not very good at yoga, help!”. I couldn’t find anything to reassure me – so to anyone reading this now, let me tell you, those fears were (and are) totally unfounded. One of the key things I have learnt so far on my course is that asana is merely the tip of the iceberg, with the bulk of ‘real yoga’ the hefty, dense block of ice underneath. Of course, you need to have a solid asana practice of at least three times a week (and YogaHaven recommend you have at least 3 years of consistent practice) but you absolutely don’t need to be able to fly instantly into crow or titibasana, or whip yourself into a solid headstand. After all, being incredible at asana doesn’t automatically make you a good teacher. I’m slowly learning that being a good teacher is about having passion, compassion, kindness, confidence and dedication. 

Rewinding back to January 2017, and after completing the pre-course reading and homework (admittedly just before we left for our two-week intensive training abroad), I felt so ready to start. Everything is carefully laid out to give you the very best possible chance at learning and absorbing. Reading the required books (such as The Bhagavad Gita, one of the greatest classical Hindu spiritual texts of all time), really gives you a good idea of what’s to come and sets a nice foundation to your yogic education. But the real adventure begins in Morocco…

Villa Mandala – an unassuming white-washed villa with a cheery turquoise painted wooden door – is your yoga home for the two weeks, located on a wild stretch of beach near the surfing town of Taghazout. Design-wise, it’s a gorgeous blend of modern Moroccan style and surf-shack chic. Think brightly-coloured rugs on polished stone floors, terracotta pots bursting with pretty pink flowers and berber-style cushions scattered over cream sofas. The touching attention to detail alone will soothe your psyche: a chalkboard hung up by the (free-flowing) tea that has daily changing inspirational quotes, local rose water in the bathroom to cleanse tired faces and the most inspired menu of food you could ever imagine (vegan and gluten-free? No problem). 

Days begin at 8am with the 90 minute YogaHaven sequence in the rooftop shala followed by breakfast in the dappled morning sunlight by the pool (the cashew nut, avocado and banana smoothies are to-die-for). Then it’s straight into a packed schedule of history lectures and posture clinics, before an hour for lunch (take a stroll into Banana village or brave a dip in the freezing Atlantic just a pebble’s throw away from the villa), and a long afternoon of teaching practice. All topped off with either a dynamic or yin yoga class in the evening.

Be prepared, you will feel like a truck has hit your body (and brain) for the first few days, but you’ll slowly get into the rhythm of things. One of the most impressive parts about the whole two weeks is that, due to the teaching style being so non-dogmatic, the ‘vibe dial’ constantly feels set to ‘relaxed’. It’s all very cleverly thought through, you will learn so much without even realising that you’re taking it all in. That’s also due to the amazing teachers and their experience. Allie Hill, the Course Director and founder of YogaHaven, is particularly inspirational, with a fun, open and honest approach. We also had the pleasure of working with two of her teachers; Tess and Joe. Their (immense!) knowledge and encouragement, coupled with their own personal stories of how they got where they are now, was so motivating. 

The other wonderful thing? We had an age range of 23 – 60 in our group of 22 students so anybody worried about their age or experience, don’t be. A varied bunch of people makes for such a rich experience – everybody was from vastly different backgrounds, and of course, each person came to yoga (and teacher training) for their own personal and inspiring reasons. It was this diversity and everyone’s sheer capacity for kindness that made it such a safe space to be in; a brilliant cocoon of supportive, understanding and empathetic souls.

You’ll find it such a safe environment, in fact, that should the final savasana, in the final class, underneath the final burnt orange Moroccan sunset on the last night become just a little too much for you-you can run to the beach in tears and it won’t feel awkward or embarrassing. It will feel like the most natural, cathartic thing in the world. And in turn, all 21 of your fellow yogis will slowly come out onto the wind-whipped sand and give you a hug and some words of encouragement, before going back inside to complete the journey you started on, altogether. Surely once-in-a-lifetime experiences don’t get more magical than that?

Harriet is currently completing her YogaHaven modules in London before her final exams at the beginning of April. Look out for her follow-up article on the rest of her YTT training experience.  

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