This past June, I had the great honor of participating in Suan Sati’s first ever teacher training. There were many challenges during the weeks I spent there both individually and as a member of the cadre of 16 new teachers who I have the privilege to call friends. I know the world is a better place for their being teachers.
I have spent the past few months since I left traveling and reflecting on the obstacles I overcame there’s as well as contemplating the best way to approach the ones that now stand in front of me. In my experience, the overcoming of one obstacle often leads us to another that is even more daunting. As I sit down to write this piece, the task of adequately describing what I–what we–experienced during the course seems almost impossible. How do I describe or label the education we were gifted? Though it is certainly a challenge to try and describe such a profound experience I am grateful for the gift of participating in it as well as for the chance to reflect on its meaning to me.
I can be a bit of a word nerd so I often start with definitions when I search for deeper meaning. Suan Sati 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training. To me, 200-hour Teacher Training is a useful phrase only in so far suggests something of the efforts of the students; the time they spent on mats, on cushions, in classes. It completely ignores the Herculean efforts of the instructor cadre and staff at Suan Sati, it omits the many hours outside of the structured lesson plan where friendships were built and knowledge was passed on with a frequency that would have been exhausting if it wasn’t so interesting. It can’t communicate what was shared through music when we gathered together in song or dance. It doesn’t communicate that beautiful lump in my throat or the burning in my eyes when I think of the people and the place. As I write this in a cafe in Slovakia with tears of love and joy on my cheeks, I realize that even the fact that I am okay sitting here despite the voice in my head asking me what others must think, is due to work I did at Suan Sati.
Looking at the words makes it so obvious to me that the source of meaning for me doesn’t come from this phrase. It comes from the two simple sounding words which preface it; Suan Sati, which can be translated as “Garden of Mindfulness.” It sounds simple enough but I can honestly say when I arrived I had no inkling as to what those words meant. All I knew was that someone I love and trust spoke about it as a hidden paradise and had the courage to invite me to join. I’m grateful to her for the faith she showed in me with the invitation, and for the faith I showed in following. That said, I’ve stood on that sharp edge of resistance and transformation a few times before and understand that a little knowledge can go a long way towards relieving the fear of the unknown that keeps us stuck. Because of all the things a place like Suan Sati can be said to be it, can be easier to start with what a thing is not.
Suan Sati is not a militaristic asana camp that ignores 7/8ths of the yogi’s path in pursuit of the appearance of perfection; a temptation that is easy to succumb to in a world so riddled with visual input. As a westerner, my practice began in a place that said yoga and meant asana. My conversations with other yogis has lead me to believe that this is a fairly common mistake. A studio or retreat will say “yoga”, and then emphasize posture almost to the exclusion of everything else. That is not the case at Suan Sati. Though many hours were spent on the mat in physically challenging practice, it never seemed as if the instructor was working to break you down, not even during Will’s trademark 6-minute down dog and 2-minute plank on day one. Nor was each instructor committed to a personal vision that ignored the realities of the brilliantly different individuals who made up the class. The abilities of the students varied greatly and it was a pleasure to see how each instructor was able to offer different challenges to each and every student. While one should expect to confront challenges and to achieve things that once seemed impossible, Suan Sati is a community tangibly based on compassion, mindfulness and love. No one was ever asked to do anything they couldn’t do. That is of course different from being asked to do things we didn’t think we could do which occurred almost every day. I am so grateful for having been able to work as hard as I have ever worked in my life in an environment that somehow maintained a sense of ease throughout, despite a demanding schedule and instructors who were not afraid to ask their students to achieve more. That sense of fluidity was also due in no small part to the Thai staff who I know handled more things than I could hope to think of and list here. An attempt to list them would probably serve only to illustrate my ignorance of how hard they actually worked; suffice it to say that Suan Sati ran seamlessly for the students.
I could focus exclusively on Suan Sati as the simple joy of living in such an inclusive and non-violent community where everyone spends the morning in a mindful silence and is probably not even aware of their increased precision and thoughtfulness with words until they are thrust back into the world where gossip and small talk are considered social skills. That is an aspect of my experience, and one that illustrates something essential about Suan Sati. However, it feels a bit like trying to describe the universe by only talking about the sun. Mindfulness is an important and animating principle of Suan Sati but there is no doubt that such a reductive characterization of the place would be a disservice.
I feel a little like the boy I once was; standing before that enormous container filled to the brim with candies who was told the closest guess would win the prize. It seemed filled with unfathomable and innumerable joys. Similarly, even as I try to express it, I have no way of calculating the quantity of love, growth and mutual support experienced during our precious month at Suan Sati or even guessing at the sheer number of embraces exchanged, of hands held, knees patted, backs supported, and arms touched. If I cannot hope to guess at the overt displays of affection I must concede that the tally of the covert ones is beyond my power. How do you measure love or describe the shattering sensation that comes with the acceptance that you are worthy of love? I only know that often times I am left with the sense that love entails obligation. At Suan Sati I had the distinct impression it was experienced as an opportunity. Supposedly, there was a rule where we were supposed to wash our dishes after meals. The reality of my experience of this “rule” was that there was a competition to do each other’s dishes after most meals.
For me this seemed obviously linked to Suan Sati’s emphasis on ritual and ceremony. In an age where old notions of gods and religions have mostly collapsed in on themselves, it can be hard to make space for community and ritual. Not here. Ceremony was such a crucial part of the journey. Whether in chanting, ecstatic dancing, maintaining silence or simply offering thanks for our food there were so many opportunities for meaning creation and mindfulness checks throughout my day. I am grateful for the inspiration and happy to say I have incorporated a few of these rites into my daily practice. I’m not yet sure where my road will take me next and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to adequately explain the impact of an experience like the one I had at Suan Sati. I do know that it’s one of those magical places that will always pull me back. The world is a big and beautiful venue and I’m so grateful to have experienced so much of it but the spectacle and the bigness of it all would be overwhelming without those special settings that call us back. One of the most amazing contradictions of Suan Sati was how much room there was in a relatively small geographic area.
I know for certain that there was room for everything there. Room for love, room for mistakes and disagreements and discomfort, room for sorry, room for any and every emotion. There was room for music, dance, song, magic, mosquitoes, mindfulness, and sweat (especially for Martin and I). There was so much space for personal expression and I am privileged to have heard and to have come to know so many distinct voices and for the magic we created when we combined them in song. In a world where I have often felt like an outsider, I am so grateful there was so much room for me, that there was so much space for personal expression generally. When I made a mistake and reacted in anger against two of my dear friends, I felt like I needed to apologize and take action to do some healing to integrate some unresolved issues, as well as to earn the forgiveness they gave me. With consultation from other students I decided it would be helpful to read a confession out loud at some point. When I went to Will and Lisa’s door late one night and hesitantly asked for permission to do so, I was expecting resistance or refusal, or at the very least a screening for content. I was stunned by the uncomplicated answer; “Yes.” I was also unprepared for the follow up question. “When do you want to do it?” When I stumbled and stuttered, it was because in all honesty this was something I needed to do much more than I wanted to do it. Lisa offered to make space for me at the beginning of her class. I was stunned. Their schedule, which was so obviously the subject of painstaking scrutiny for months before the training started, and which had been put into practice with masterful sensitivity, changed with little notice to cater to my specific needs. As a bonus, they put their personal trust in me and reassured me with hugs.
When we gathered for a “passion show” towards the end of the course, I was a little surprised by the variety and quality of talents displayed by everyone – by the skill with which others sang, rapped, danced, played instruments or entertained with well crafted jokes and games. I was stunned by the depth and breadth of talents possessed by every individual, but I shouldn’t have been. That night revealed something special about the essence of Suan Sati. It draws beautiful and talented individuals there from all over the world. It could be easy to write this off with a truthism; to shrug and say like attracts like and regard the gift as some sort of spontaneous arising but the truth is it was built beautifully and preserved with dedication by people I am proud to call friends and my teachers.
I am waiting on the Suan Sati cookbook which is rumored to be in the works. Hopefully this is more than the effects of wishful stomachs on hopeful imaginations. All the meals were vegan. Although I am usually a vegetarian it was impossible to sense any absence in my diet. To say that anything was missing from the cuisine served family style in plentiful portions at Suan Sati would be a dubious proposition. It was delicious and ethical at the same time. Much of what we shoveled onto our plates was sourced from the permaculture farm scattered about the Suan Sati compound. I found that eating ethically and only after a moment of shared gratitude and presence added to my practice and allowed me to feel more aligned with my values as I strove to push my boundaries and move closer to the best version of myself. The kilo or two of belly fat which also disappeared was a small bonus. My good friend Jenny might have said it best when she told me that even if the cost of the training only entitled us to a month’s worth of Suan Sati’s meals it would be worth it. Luckily for us, it included so much more. We went for deep, deep dives into anatomy, asana, teaching methodology, philosophy, ethics. We investigated different meditation guidance and learned the fundamentals of Hinduism and Buddhism. As we studied we also played at being teachers.
The way this practice teaching was incorporated was hugely important too. I say play for a reason. It was fun and safe…at least at first. We were teaching in bite sized portions from the first week on with the support of our classmates and encouragement of our teacher’s. We taught two 15 minute portions of classes to small groups and finally culminated with a one hour solo class. Even students who had previously completed other teacher trainings found this to be a huge challenge and a life changing accomplishment.
It is such a great honor to have been a part of this community’s inaugural class and it gives me great joy and an increased hope in the future that it will not be their last. Everyone I shared time there with will always have my love and gratitude but there is a special place for those wonderful people who so masterfully crafted the experience. I can’t say enough about the time I spent there. I can say it wouldn’t have been the same without Will’s wisdom, Lisa’s voice, Nu’s music, or Tessa’s love. I have so much love and gratitude for what they gave me during my time with them and for what I know they each give to the world every day.
One of my favorite books of all time is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. One of the central ideas the book communicates is that if you follow your personal legend all the universe will conspire to help you. I have always resonated with this idea but not until I attended teacher training at Suan Sati did I have such a direct experience of this. You will be challenged like never before but there will be an entire ecosystem conspiring to support you as if by magic.
Perhaps it is appropriate to say a few words about myself in closing in order to communicate how special of a place Suan Sati really is. The long and short of it is that I was not always a person who spoke about love, light, energy, magic or divinity. In order to discourage anyone from dismissing my endorsement of Suan Sati as some hippy B.S. I would like to say that I spent most of my life as the antithesis of this. As soon as I graduated high school I joined the Marine Corps. Two deployments and the aftermath led me to yoga and meditation after I exhausted all other possibilities. It has been a long journey that led me to a place where I was able to experience the complexity of the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual fullness of a place like Suan Sati. I am so grateful for the way that led me to such a place. All I can say to those of you like me, who are struggling with resistance to happiness over words and labels is as soon as you are ready, come and join the Suan Sati family. So many spiritual centers and yoga studios pay lip service to ideas of inclusion and then set about making people outside of the mold feel uncomfortable in their space. Perhaps the highest praise I can give Suan Sati is the extent to which they hold space for those who might not be a natural fit anywhere else. I know that wherever my journey takes me there is a garden of mindfulness out there full of beautiful people in blossom that feels like home. So many people will see you as the best version of yourself and you will gain so much experience tending to the seed of that self while you are there that you are sure to take growth with you when you leave. What are you waiting for? Go join the Suan Sati family and give everyone a hug for me when you do. I hope to see you there someday soon!
Love and Light,