Holding Space for the Teacher Within / 15 Questions with Chantal Cohen
by SARAH MATHEWS
Reading Time: 12mins
THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MY YOGA STUDIO IN CAPE TOWN. the YOGALIFE INSTRUCTORS HEAR it OFTEN: "I DON'T KNOW WHAT IT IS ABOUT THIS PLACE BUT YOU GUYS ARE JUST DIFFERENT, it's SPECIAL." WHILE I CAN VOUCH FOR THE INCREDIBLE TEACHERS, VARIETY OF WORKOUTS, INDIVIDUAL ATTENTION, OVERALL ENERGY OF THE COMMUNITY AND UNMATCHED music; I STILL WANTED TO GET TO THE BOTTOM OF WHAT INSPIRES ME AND SO MANY OTHERS TO MAKE our way to OUR MATS and the studio every day. I SAT DOWN WITH CHANTAL COHEN, WHO HEADS UP YOGALIFE'S TEACHER TRAINING PROGRAM (WITH lauren and dave porter), TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT HER PERSONAL JOURNEY. if you've ever been to one of chantal's classes you'll understand why she inspires those around her to lean in.
THE DAY OF THE INTERVIEW
It's just gone 2 pm and I'm sitting inside Ground Art Cafe a stone's throw away from the YogaLife studio. It's pouring with rain outside which is a welcome relief since Cape Town is in the midst of experiencing the worst drought we've had in 100 years. I've just finished Chantal's lunch time vinyasa class and while I wait for her to wrap things up at the studio, I start to wonder about where it all changed for me. You see, I wasn't always this committed to a movement that attracts over 13 million #yogaeverydamnday posts on Instagram but somewhere along the line things changed for me. It became so much more than a workout; it became a refuge, almost like this rain. I no longer felt age-old ballet injuries that had plagued me since I was 17; I could push myself to physical limits and yet my curiosity was more connected with where my mind and breath were in moments of difficulty; I experienced a sense of calm that I now crave both on and off my mat and getting to flow to the likes of all kinds of new music, mashed up with old classics like Prince's Kiss and Blackstreet and Dr Dre's No Diggity... well that just kept it interesting. Chantal trained intensely with a ballet company for most of her life so I'm curious to know how she relates...
E: chantal, thank you for taking the time to do this! Let's start at the beginning, I'm guessing from your American accent that you aren't originally from here?
C: Actually, I was born in South Africa. My dad lives in Jo'burg and I have 4 brothers and a sister here too. From the age of 7, I moved to Vancouver with my mom and spent most of my adolescent years going to school there, travelling back to SA over the holidays.
E: oh wow, What was that like for you?
C: It was busy. I joined a ballet company at a very young age (dancing on pointe shoes from the age of 8), so it was really demanding on me and my body, but I loved it. Weirdly, I was also really good at maths in school and I ended up pursuing a degree in economics but it just wasn't in tune with where I thought I wanted to be and I made the call to drop out of university at 21. At the time, I hadn't been home in 2 years so I decided to fly to see my family in Jo'burg and give myself some time to figure things out. While I was home a friend of mine begged me to come to Cape Town to visit. She said there was someone she wanted me to meet and while I didn't think anything of it, she is the reason I met Dylan that first night and the rest is history. My two-week visit turned into four months and we didn't leave each other's side! While he worked, I would take classes at YogaLife to keep busy and I waitressed to earn some money on the side. Eventually, I had to go back to Joburg for a month and Vancouver after that for another 3 and it was during this time that I randomly saw an advert for yoga teacher training while I was taking care of admin on my computer. To this day, I don't know what made me click on it.
E: was this the first time you ever considered wanting more from your yoga practice?
C: I don't know what made me click on that ad. To be honest, an opportunity presented itself and I just went with it. I did the month intensive teacher training in East London and it wasn't great. When I see what we offer our students in our teacher training program I so wish I could have had that! In fact, most yoga teachers in Cape Town come through our program and Lauren and I are constantly evolving it. It's my baby!
E: WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS THE MOST NOTABLE DIFFERENCE?
C: We are passionate about making this training accessible to everybody, whether you want to be a yoga teacher or just someone who is curious to deepen their practice. Over 8 weeks, we introduce the chakras on a neuroscience level focusing on the limbic system (your emotional brain), and giving our students the tools to help re-parent their 1-5-year-old self that our brains default to when left on auto-pilot. We're essentially a bunch of 1-5-year-olds running around with unconscious, habitual reactions and all of these reactions are responses to things that happened in our early formative years. It's fascinating stuff! We don't get into the deities or the gods, this is all real and practical stuff that people can take and use in their everyday lives. We start with the 3rd Chakra which deals with your identity and intuition: who am I; what am I; where did I come from ... we almost joke that we should get students to sign an emotional waiver because 90% of them experience profound personal shifts. It's an unbelievable experience and let's be honest, more than ever the world is in a state that requires us to lean in and awaken our inner wisdom and capacity to heal. We want to encourage everybody to do this work.
E: wow. not only does that make me want to sign up for the training but i'm noticing the synergy with enliven's guides. the science behind Enliven's products is also based on soothing and calming the emotional fight, flight or freeze stress centre (the limbic system) in your brain. By doing this, you calm your stress response to fears and free yourself to truly examine the psychology of your deep seated values and desires. we focus on three core areas too: 'who you are', 'how you want to live' and 'how you want to work'. "everything you need is already inside of you", that's very much our philosophy too. while I've always been someone who's leant in, especially into discomfort, I'm also learning that some people really struggle with that and find it easier to prioritise everything else but themselves.
C: Yeah, it's hard! As yoga facilitators, we hold space for transformation and the encouragement is to move towards your existence and towards what is uncomfortable for you. That is where change happens, it's where you learn humility ... it's where you learn! We give you the tools and create the space for you to do the work, but we can't do it for you... you have to take action. When you close your eyes only you can see your internal environment, only you can see and feel the things that are calling out to you. To be able to bring your awareness to it every day and catch yourself when you fall out (without bringing evaluations or judgement) is really important. We see it all the time when you're put in a moment of discomfort, vulnerability and emotional dysregulation you learn how to self-regulate on the spot! Energy is real, it's not 'hippy'... it's not up in the air. Everything that is alive, everything on earth is energy and when you activate and do something with your body (whether it's boxing or whatever) there is a chemical reaction that is happening inside of you, causing some sort of energy to shift. The word 'yoga' means to 'unite' and we promote the integration of body and breath. That's why I think it's such an amazing form of exercise and area of study because yes, you're getting a workout but you're also consciously twisting and detoxifying your internal organs (like your digestive system) and all stale energy that gets trapped in random corners of our body through stress. The limbic system not only houses our emotions, behaviour, motivation and long-term memory but it is also the primary area of the brain that responds to stress with our fight or flight instincts.
E: so, you were a newly qualified teacher, where did you go from there?
C: When I arrived back in Cape Town, Hot Dog Yoga Studio had just opened up in Sea Point. I walked in, met Hylton the founder and started teaching Bikram classes shortly after. Sadly, he passed away but I maintain there was no other teacher like him in this world. He was so out the box and so special. This was also back in the day when there wasn't a big yoga community but word soon spread about my classes and Yoga Zone offered me a post. I wasn't making the best money but I was loving it and I was getting good feedback. I approached YogaLife back in the beginning too, before I had a relationship with Dave and everybody here. He said he could give me a Monday morning 6am class ... and that was that, I taught that class for 3 years before I taught any others here.
E: that's incredible! i get a sense that you're the type of person to take action with opportunities and you bring a quiet sense of confidence too because admittedly, you were still fairly new to all of this...
C: You have to be able to take action. I feel like I've never really had to push for anything, things have just fallen into place. People often ask me how I started out and I'm like, I have no idea?! I feel like this was actually given to me; I didn't go out and make it happen. Around this time Dylan and I also broke up and I suddenly thought 'omg, he's the only one I know here; he's why I moved here; what am I going to do; am I going to have to move back to Vancouver?' And then it really hit me that I was brought here to teach yoga. He was the vehicle that got me here but I was here to teach yoga. Every day someone is stepping into that room and is having their life changed in some way. I'm so happy doing what I'm doing every day and if I can bring one person the opportunity to learn or feel something they've never felt before... this is what it's truly about for me.
E: the wisdom, preparation and energy you bring to each class is really felt...
C: I consider it part of my job to educate myself, I spend most days reading and learning because if I'm going to ask people to do their work, I need to do my work as well. I don’t really see myself as a teacher... I’m somebody that holds space for people to come in and find the teacher inside of themselves. Being in that room is my biggest teacher, that's where I learn the most, teaching. If you aim to be in a constant state of beginner's mind (Zen Buddhist practice), you're always in awareness, curious with intention and feeling. I've learned so much from Lauren who brings a wealth of knowledge on this and we're constantly evolving our teacher training. There is absolute intention behind everything we say in class and our intention is to communicate consciously with compassion and nonviolent communication practices.
E: what does that mean exactly?
C: Your words have a profound affect on somebody. You will never hear me say should or don't in a class... you could say that to someone and it will instantly bring them shame. Everybody is different, your body is your biography... so if someone comes in having never practised yoga and they're all bunched up, simply opening up their shoulders could release something that they've been holding in their bodies for years. We want to create a safe space and while it's so so subtle, we use compassionate language to do this. It's really humbling being exposed to the disconnect and shame you feel when you're told 'that foot' instead of 'your foot, your body, your practice'. We're really lucky. The rest of the yoga teaching world doesn't communicate in that way and you're never going to feel like you're individually spoken to in those environments.
E: i think you've just solved, in my opinion, what you guys do really well. it's so subtle but you really do notice that connection, especially when it isn't there. I've noticed all the instructors at yogalife give us so much in the way of communicating key micro-adjustments, that it is less about an hour of zen but rather an hour of intense exploration. that and the music! it was so cool of you to share some of your playlists with us (below); how important is music to you?
C: It's my favourite! I have so many favourites when it comes to yoga but music really anchors you in the present moment. When you're listening to it I'm there, I can feel it. I like to start with a chant of 'OM' at the beginning of classes because it creates vibrational frequency. Everything in nature has a frequency and when you create that vibrational frequency with your voice or your body, you create a ripple effect internally. Music moves through my skin into me, if that makes sense? It vibrates me in that moment and creates a present moment of energy. And obviously, if I think back, it has to do with growing up always choreographing dances to songs. My playlists are also dependent on the day... if the weather is rainy and melancholy my playlist will be mellow, deep and vibrational and on a Saturday morning, it's going to be lighter and a higher energy. These are things that I meticulously consider as it helps inform the movement and intuitive sequencing. I actually have to limit myself to only spending an hour on curating them otherwise I could sit there for 3 hours!
E: WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS NEXT FOR YOU?
C: More than ever people have been telling me I need to do more, that I have this gift and I should be sharing it but truthfully, I feel really happy right now. I don't know if that's me being complacent or if that's just me really being present? I guess there is a fine line. I actually feel like things are constantly being handed to me and that's when I cease the opportunity. I've never felt like I'm stuck, as it arises that's when I act.
I would like to do more training next year. I just finished my Budokon Teacher Training recently and held two workshops at the studio. It's a fairly new movement where yoga is mixed with martial arts, the movement is unbelievable! It teaches you to articulate your spine and it works on a belt system so it's extremely precise and technical and you are tested in order to up-level. Doing this training really reminded me that I'm on the right path and I felt validated in my approach to what I'm doing. It was humbling to experience what it felt like to be taught differently. That's the thing, I always learn something it doesn't matter whether you're being taught by someone who's been doing this for years or whether it's someone brand new.
E: THE BUDOKON WORKSHOP WAS SO GREAT, SO DIFFERENT! are there any WORKSHOPs you'd travel to or aspire to do?
C: I'd really like to do one with Shiva Rea or Janet Stone both in the States; or Ana Forest if she comes into my path again. She focuses on yoga for healing and it's amazing. But right now we have such a unique way of doing things that a lot of people aren't really catering for in the same way, I'm really just in a process of self-educating and it is just as inspiring. I read and watch online videos (all those teachers I look up to have content online) and the best part is that you can take the stuff that resonates with you and leave the rest behind.
E: DO YOU MEDITATE?
C: I take a pause. Whether it's 2mins or 20mins, I sit every day.
E: WOULD YOU SAY YOU FOLLOW YOUR HEART - FROM MEETING DYLAN AND CHANGING YOUR ENTIRE PATH TO LISTENING TO THAT INTUITIVE INSTINCT THAT MADE YOU RESPOND TO THE ONLINE AD FOR 'TEACHER TRAINING'?
C: I guess you could say I listened to a combination of my heart and 3rd chakra (your sense of self and your gut). There was something that told me to do it, it's crazy! Even before Dylan and I got back together after being broken up for nearly 2 years ... I had tried to move on but there was something in the back of my mind every single day that kept asking me what if... what if I don't give him another chance? Our relationships are our environment and these are also our biggest teachers. We're all actually in constant relationships (you and I are having one right now) and I learn so much from my friendships especially with Dylan, Tizzy and Lauren. A book called 'The Dance of The Lion and The Unicorn' really helped put things into perspective for me because it demonstrates how a lot of our battles are really a mirror of what's going on in our 1-5-year-old selves that we haven't even confronted yet. How interesting? I made that my focus the last year or so. I understand that everybody's going to have an emotional response and largely all of us can rewire these but sometimes it's just hard. Still, there is always that little voice (your gut instinct and your heart) and ultimately you decide, either you're ok with it or you aren't.
E: finally, i have to ask! How do you advance to get into the advance yoga postures like handstands?
C: You have to feel every part of your body that's working to keep you up in the air. I can give you the hand placement, hip placement, leg placement... I can give you the exercises, drills and the tools but I can't teach you how to do it. I'm holding the space for you to do it. The reason those advance postures are advanced is because you need a heightened quality of attention and awareness to get into them. That's what it is, it's the feeling. Our fear and ego can get in the way so start by visualizing the handstand and see it, but don't see yourself just focus on the tools and micro-adjustments that will eventually get you there.