Amorgos is a powerful place. The rock and sea of this Cycladic island, with its winding mountainous roads that hug the emerald Aegean, whisper truths in a way that inspire self-reflection over passive relaxation.
It’s not that we expected relaxation. Although our base was on Aegalis beach at Lakki Village, our yoga-teachers-to-be were aware of the strict adjustments demanded by the following month of training. Our daily schedule included: a wake-up call at 5:30 a.m.; morning pranayama (exercises for breath control and expansion); meditation and yoga (asana) practice; philosophy, teaching methodology and anatomy courses; and a diet prohibiting alcohol, cigarettes, eggs and meat. We adjusted our routines accordingly over that late summer month, surrendering to our trainers from the Swaha Yoga Center and emulating the structure of an ashram where teachers and students live together following a yogic lifestyle.
Swaha is a dynamic yoga center based in central Athens. The studio offers a number of certificate programs, including Aerial Yoga and Yoga Therapy, and is one of the few Greek centers that offers a one-month intensive yoga teacher training program (RYT 200). “Many people are unable to go to India and live in an ashram,” says Swaha partner Jonni-Lyn Friel. “Besides learning how to be a teacher, our students are able to live the ashram experience right here in Greece. I am so proud of this training because it works. Students leave the program so bright—they experience what yoga can do.”
Yoga is certainly a physical practice— studies have indicated that yoga (including its components of pranayama and meditation) increases bodily awareness, improves posture and breath control, regulates the activity of internal organs, and increases strength, flexibility and concentration. But yoga is also a philosophy. It calls for a balance of body, breath and life; of thoughtfulness in action instead of reaction; and for an understanding of the interconnectivity of all life. In Sanskrit, yoga means “union,” which is the ultimate goal of practice.
It may seem counterintuitive that an inward and individual practice like yoga or meditation could promote peace, higher understanding or “union” on such an incomprehensibly grand level. For me, it came together when Evangelos Apostolopoulos, co-founder of Swaha, told us to “watch” our nervous systems during meditation.
In yoga philosophy (Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Raja Yoga), there is a distinction between meditation (dhyana) and trying to meditate or concentrate (dharana). When we say we practice meditation, for the most of us novices, this means a laborious attempt at dharana (just the concentration part).
During meditation practice, sneaky thoughts might have you think you are getting closer to concentrating, and that is when a random thought or a mosquito aggressively demands your attention. And that can cause a distracting spiral of thoughts. After the mosquito, perhaps you feel a spider making its way up your neck. You consider the sensation could merely be the wind blowing one of your own hairs against your skin. But then again, IT COULD BE A SPIDER.
This practice helps us observe how our nervous systems respond to thoughts and external stimuli. It helps us practice discrimination between the real and the unreal and to detach from the unreal— this applies to the distinction between the spider and the hair but also to things of greater consequence. What if we could watch and control the thoughts and reactions that make us suffer or panic? What if we could refrain from reacting so strongly to news reporting, to threats or to fear? On a larger scale, how would life be affected if we were all more aware and acted more thoughtfully?
“What if we could watch and control the thoughts and reactions that make us suffer or panic? What if we could refrain from reacting so strongly to news reporting, to threats or to fear? On a larger scale, how would life be affected if we were all more aware and acted more thoughtfully?”
“We are diverse but we are interconnected. We created the Swaha Yoga Studio under this motto of Unity in Diversity, a concept that was strongly promoted by Swami Sivananda,” said Tanya Popovich, co-founder and teacher training director of Swaha. “People come to the trainings from all different places and there is something common that drives them here. This is what I find so beautiful.”
Tanya was initiated into meditation by her parents’ teacher when she was 14. This was two years after the family left war-stricken Sarajevo during the 1990s conflict in former Yugoslavia. For Tanya, meditation was a point of reference during this chaotic period that no one could take from her. Yoga philosophy and practice continues to exist in her life in this way — as an ideal of peace, unconditional love and acceptance of all people regardless of difference, especially religion.
Since then, Tanya has trained around the world. At first she was drawn to study at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta centers in India, where she was eventually accredited the title of Yoga Acharya— Master of Yoga. Swami Sivananda’s disciple, Swami Vishnudevananda, popularized this tradition of yoga in his efforts to spread wisdom and peace worldwide. He made headlines toward the end of the twentieth century by “bombing” flowers and leaflets over trouble spots around the world from his “peace” plane. In 1971, he flew over the war-ridden Suez canal, and then over India and Pakistan. In 1983 he flew over divided Germany and the Berlin Wall.
In 2011, Tanya and Evangelos pulled together their trainings and knowledge to open the Swaha Yoga Center in Athens. Jonni Lyn Friel walked into their lives shortly after with her usual smiling face and quickly became a third partner…”not just because of the flowers and baked goods she brings to the studio,” they all joke.
Both Tanya and Jonni Lyn are certified Jivamukti Yoga teachers and Swaha is the first Jivamukti Yoga affiliated school. The goal of Jivamukti is “…enlightenment through compassion for all beings,” and this is approached through action and involvement in the world. “If we stand by one principle at Swaha, it is that we want to empower our students to be responsible, present, and to take intended action! It is not about the practice of yoga, or pranayama for the sake of practice. These are mediums we chose to use for us and offer to others to attain a level of freedom,” says Evangelos.
The intensive training in Amorgos was not about balancing in a handstand before breakfast or waking up before the sun came out. It was about the cumulative lived experience of yoga practice and theory— an experience that can teach us how to be more focused and more mindful. It reminds us that there are outcomes to all of our actions, including our thoughts. The way we eat, exercise, breathe, relax and think can change our experiences of life— and perhaps even change the state of the world. “After one month, a strong foundation has developed. Even if students drop all of the practices after the training, they have lived an experience and the tools are now somewhere inside that they can pull on in hard times. And just breathe, because sometimes life is hard,” says Jonni-Lyn.
The word “swaha” means “so be it.” It symbolizes an offering, and is used during rituals when making sacrifices into a fire. It implies accepting the paradox of life, where all we can do is try our very best and then surrender to the results. Because things will come and things will go, and practicing the understanding of this idea is a level of freedom.
Because it could be a spider.
But it might just be your own hair.
In addition to the RYT 200, Swaha offers an Aerial Yoga training program, and the first Yoga Therapy Education Program in Greece. “I have been looking for a training like this for the past three years and could not find anything worth attending,” says Evangelos. “This one is special because of its focus on the five points of an individual—the exercise, nutrition, relaxation/meditation, social activity and most importantly, the life’s path, or Dharma.”
Visit the site for more information or stop by for a lesson at Swaha. Tanya Popovich has been teaching yoga throughout Europe and Asia since October, but come by the studio and ask for Evangelos or Jonni-Lyn!