Fresh pineapple, warm waves and a month of focusing solely on yoga in India: what could possibly go wrong with those ingredients? When you throw in the human factor, it turns out even paradise isn’t off-limits for reality. Here’s a cautionary tale about a 200-hour yoga teacher training in Goa gone wrong.
When I was researching 200-hour YTTs, India came into focus as the locale for me. Not only are prices more affordable than Western places of study, but I loved the idea of training in the homeland of yoga. I thought I’d glean nuggets of wisdom from true gurus with weathered brows, forever able to say things like “my teacher in India” — all while soaking in the sun on the 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.
I had zero qualms about leaving a brown, winter-less Colorado for a month and was particularly excited that all I needed to pack was a bathing suit. You can buy anything in India – even cheap monokinis — so I could’ve opted out of the suit, but it’s weird to travel without luggage (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 you’ll purchase in India, the true Land of Plenty).
When the plane doors opened 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, watching life in India buzz by outside the window.
Our destination was 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 of Neo Yoga Center. Upon arrival, we were casually informed that Akhilesh wasn’t there but 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 who started trickling in were just as puzzled by this, but we modified our expectations, bonding quickly over the unknown. Our group of 18 was full of bright, fabulous souls ranging from a doctor to a dancer, an 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 warrior-less 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, carving out 30 minutes to run each day was critical, so we kicked off the mornings with a three-mile jog on the beach. I carried a stick to keep nipping pups at bay, and, depending on the tide, we either splashed through low tide or raced ahead of crashing waves.
In between two two-hour asana practices, theory and anatomy classes, we relished the afternoon reprieve of ocean time, resting our eyes on the endless horizon and breathing in the peace found in wide open spaces. We swam in the mellow surf 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 we’d never dream of doing at home. 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, 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 group approached Mahi with a simple, respectful request: while we were grateful for 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 classes 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 — emotions that were most definitely amplified by nearly a month of hip and heart openers. The trauma hit deep, with some students falling ill and others getting injured.
We never expected that a yogi guru could be capable of causing so much pain.
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 certificates of completion with all of the hypocritical pomp and circumstance, colorful flowers and pungent incense you’d expect from a YTT.
We said goodbye to the melodrama of proud teachers and all of the beauty of the Indian Ocean, 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 bit scarred. We flew back to a still-winter-less Colorado, thinking what a bizarre, wonderful journey. Moving on.
But moving on 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 verbally-abusive texts and 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 tale is instead a reminder to choose your teachers and trainings wisely. And, if you do find yourself stuck in a pickle and a school or teacher is not lining up with the yogic principles, don’t be afraid to speak your mind. Trust your truth. As the mudra, Abhaya Rhidhya, evokes, open hearts make us courageous, 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 can be absolutely terrifying.
Perhaps in no place does this exposure happen faster than during a 24-day, 200-hour yoga teacher training. As you seek those wide open spaces both inside and out, guard your heart, always aware that yogis are human, too, for ugliness lurks in the shadows of each of us.
That’s right: no matter how much Zen and Om we cultivate in paradise, the harsh fluorescent lights and frustrations of Customs Border Patrol or a dentist visit will be right there to knock us back to reality when we land home. Is it worth it? Hell yes. Stay humble, friends.
Photos courtesy of Joy Martin